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New study sheds light on patterns in government policymaking

The Policy Studies Journal, a top-ranking peer-reviewed periodical in the field of public policy and administration, has published a research paper by a student-professor team at Duke Kunshan University.

Produced by Annemieke van den Dool, assistant professor of environmental policy and public policy major Jialin Li, the research examines Chinese studies that apply punctuated equilibrium theory (PET), a conceptual framework for understanding the process of change in complex social systems, to understand policy change. In doing so, the DKU team deepened understanding of how policy changes over time in China and how PET has been applied by Chinese academics. They also shed light on potential improvements to Chinese PET studies.

“The punctuated equilibrium theory was originally developed to explain government policymaking in the USA. In recent years, researchers have started to use this theory to study countries with other political systems. To better understand the drivers of policy change in China, we wanted to know what researchers have learned from applying this theory to China,” said van den Dool.

Student researcher Jialin Li (left) with Professor Annemieke van den Dool (right)

Punctuated equilibrium theory emerged in public policy in the 1980s as a framework to explain why governments do or do not respond to problems in society. It posits that government policy tends to change in small steps, but under certain circumstances there can be major shifts. This pattern is the result of how governments and legislatures are designed and because policymakers and lawmakers can only pay attention to so many societal problems at any given time, according to PET.

The DKU team sought to understand how the theory is used in existing studies focused on China. They did so through a systematic review of 88 Chinese language PET journal articles.

Li said, “The consensus of the articles in our study is that policymaking in China is generally stable but occasionally interrupted by major policy changes. However, due to a lack of evidence, it is unclear how frequent these changes occur and how big these changes are. There is thus a need for more research on this topic.

“In the article, we describe several priority areas that need attention in future research. Especially important are quantitative analysis and studies that look at whether major societal events such as earthquakes and flooding trigger policy change or not,” she added.

Most of the articles analyzed by the team were qualitative in nature, and were based on policy documents, unlike studies conducted in other countries, which are usually based on government budget data. The research team also found that most of the existing research focuses on issues related to environment, education and health, while other important issues are largely ignored.

“Overall, while there is more and more research using this particular theory, our research shows that it remains largely disconnected from its English language counterparts,” said van den Dool. “To bridge this gap, we call for more international communication and research exchange between scholars. By reviewing the Chinese language literature, we make existing Chinese research accessible to scholars in other parts of the world. This makes it easier for scholars to collaborate and to deepen their understanding of each other’s countries,” she added.

At Duke Kunshan University, students have many opportunities to engage in faculty research projects. The team first met through the Summer Research Scholar program in 2021, during which students worked with a professor full time for eight weeks. After completion of the program, Van den Dool and Li decided to start a new research project together. This time, the team was funded by the Student Research Grant from the Center for the Study of Contemporary China, which provides funding opportunities to both students and professors to help advance world-class research and learning on China’s society, politics, economy, and many other areas.

“Working together with professors on research projects allows us students to gain valuable hands-on research experience and apply classroom concepts in real-world settings,” said Li. “The collaboration leads to a more comprehensive and yielding learning experience.”

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