This work has an ambitious goal: to free the social sciences in general, and policy analysis in particular, from the influence of the “binary view” of facts and values. In its purest form, this view holds that:

There is a gulf between two entirely different types of phenomena. On the one hand, we have: facts, “positive” or “empirical” statements, and so on. In an entirely different realm are: “values” or “norms,” “value judgments” or “normative statements,” and so on. These different types of phenomena are “absolutely heterogeneous in character,” as Max Weber put it (1949, 12).
The validity of fact claims can, in principle, be objectively tested. This is not always easy, but is generally possible. Value claims, on the other hand, can be neither verified nor falsified. Being untestable, they are inherently subjective, enjoying “no objective validity whatsoever” (Ayer 1946, 108). We may thus liken them to mere “tastes” or “preferences.”
It is vital to recognize the distinction between these types of phenomena, as it constitutes a logical gulf that all rigorous thought must respect: one cannot deduce an “ought” from an “is,” values from facts, nor vice versa.
All disciplined thought must strive for objectivity, to be as free of values as possible.

Variants of the pure binary view link the first three elements to different views on (d), the place of values in thought. Rather than saying that we should aspire to freedom from values, some argue instead say that we must be “up front” about our values.

The binary view has been subject to decades of critique. Philosophers have persuasively argued against the claim that norms have no cognitive content and are not amenable to rational discussion. Within the social sciences, critical analyses have shown how the injunctions of the binary view are routinely ignored in practice. Within the sphere of policy studies, even “mainstream” policy theorists have rejected the simple dichotomies of the binary view (e.g. Lindblom and Cohen 1979; Wildavksy 1979).

And yet the binary view lives on, within the social sciences, in the world of policy analysis and practice, and in society as a whole. Textbooks continue to offer stern warnings grounded in the binary view: “Research questions should not ask about what ought to be, but rather seek to understand what is” (Barakso et al 2014); “theories are positive—about how the world really is—and not normative—about how we want the world to be” (Remler and Van Ryzin 2015). [1] In the policy world, the binary view continues to sustain a widespread understanding of the role of analysis: “there is always a deep interaction between politics and analysis. Each facilitates the other, with politics helping to supply the values underpinning analysis and analysis helping to supply the information and clarity necessary to a well-functioning political process” (Robert and Zeckhauser 2011, 616).

The binary view, moreover, exerts a “gravitational pull” even upon many who aspire to escape its orbit. This project will show, for example, that one of the most influential attempts to apply the insights of social constructionism to policy analysis (Schneider and Ingram 1993, 1997) faithfully reproduces key dogma of the binary view.

Goals of the research

A first goal of the project, then, is to explore the resilience of the binary view. I will pursue a few non-exclusive lines of argument here. One, previously explored by various theorists, is that the binary view survives because it is a very convenient one for many social actors. A second factor is that many social scientists embrace the binary view because they believe, somewhat paradoxically, that important normative goods are protected by it. This view is clearly presented in Max Weber’s influential text, “The meaning of ‘ethical neutrality’ in sociology and economics” (1949). This factor has been neglected by many critics of the binary view, thus weakening their critiques.

A final factor, I will argue, has been the lack of a compelling alternative to the binary view. It is a commonplace of the philosophy of science that theories are never defeated by critical attacks alone: they can only be replaced by more satisfying theories.[2] Within the social sciences in general, and policy theory in particular, the most influential critiques of the fact/value dichotomy have opted for a skeptical alternative, which travels under different labels (eg. post-positivism, constructionism). This alternative will never overcome the binary view, for two broad reasons. First, it suffers from its own significant weaknesses.[3] Secondly, it runs up against a predictable desire to maintain intellectual capital, which constrains the openness of social scientists to a skeptical critique.

This diagnosis of the resilience of the binary view points to a second major goal of this project: to present a comprehensive and usable alternative to the binary view. Among other qualities, this alternative will address the normative concerns that have traditionally supported the binary view. Further, the “post-binary” alternative will not negate the intellectual capital of social scientists.

The foregoing elements of the project will be of interest to social scientists in a variety of fields. A further major element explores the ways in which the binary view shapes the policy world in particular, and sketches out some central features of a post-binary approach to policy analysis. I will seek to show, among other things, how a post-binary approach reshapes not just policy analysis, but our understanding of the social role of the policy analyst.


1. It may be objected that introductory textbooks are simplistic, that they hardly represent what is taught to students as they advance in their studies. Perhaps, but they are instruments of cultural initiation, providing an introduction to a “way of life,” a way of intellectual or professional life. This would not be the case if later studies returned to the basic question of facts and values and modified (or tossed out entirely) the simplistic claims advanced in the intro texts. But most economists, at any rate, know that this does not happen. That is why a recent essay on the question by economic theorist D. Wade Hands (2012) must go over the topic at a very basic level, because it must confront a “common sense” that permeates the discipline. Policy students exposed to those same textbooks are to some extent initiated into the same common sense.

2. Thus, for example: “[O]nce it has achieved the status of paradigm, a scientific theory is declared invalid only if an alternate candidate is available to take its place” (Kuhn 1970, 77). See also Lakatos (1970, 119).

3. I have explored the weaknesses of one particular variant of the skeptical alternative, post-positivist policy discourse, in “Positivism: Paradigm or culture?,” Policy Studies 36, no.4 (2015): 417-33. (“Accepted Manuscript,” my final submitted version).


Ayer, A.J. 1946. Language, truth and logic. 2nd ed. London: Victor Gollancz.

Barakso, Maryann, Daniel M. Sabet and Brian Schaffner. 2014. Understanding political science research methods. New York: Routledge.

Hands, D. Wade. 2012. The positive-normative dichotomy and economics. In Philosophy of economics, ed. Uskali Mäki. Amsterdam: North Holland.

Kuhn, Thomas. 1970. The structure of scientific revolutions. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lakatos, Imre. 1970. Falsification and the methodology of scientific research programmes. In Criticism and the growth of knowledge, ed. Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lindblom, Charles, and David Cohen. 1979. Usable Knowledge. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Remler, Dahlia K., and Gregg G. Van Ryzin. 2015. Research methods in practice: Strategies for description and causation. n.p.: Sage.

Robert, Christopher, and Richard Zeckhauser. 2011. The methodology of normative policy analysis. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 30, no. 3: 613–643.

Schneider, Anne, and Helen Ingram. 1993. Social constructions and target populations. American Political Science Review 87: 334-347.

Schneider, Anne, and Helen Ingram. 1997. Policy design for democracy. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

Weber, Max. 1949. The methodology of the social sciences. Ed. Edward A. Shils and Henry A. Finch. New York: Glencoe.

Wildavsky, Aaron. 1979. Speaking truth to power. Boston: Little Press.