Agenda formation: How symbols shape public policy

Date of Completion

January 1997


Political Science, General|Sociology, Public and Social Welfare|Mass Communications




One goal of this research project is to determine if there is a relationship between the symbols utilized in defining a public issue and the policy proposals offered to deal with this issue. The thrust of the research is not to ask where symbols come from; instead, it deals with how the symbolic representation of a phenomenon determines the parameters of policy proposals. Symbolic representation, the essence of problem definition, is a crucial part of agenda setting. Different policy implications follow from different hypothesized relationships between the area identified as the major source of the problem, usually articulated through the manipulation of symbols, and the major groups affected (real or perceived) by the issue. Consequently, to fully analyze political action, it is imperative to consider the symbols associated with the action.^ Public welfare acts as a case study to test the hypothesis. To determine the impact of symbols on the policy making process, the analysis compares symbols utilized by President Clinton for two periods: January 1993 to June 1994, and November 1994 to July 1996, and by Congress in the period November 1994 to July 1996. The methodology employed blends a theory-driven, qualitative case-study approach and quantitative methods (content analysis). Speeches concerning welfare were gathered from the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents and the Congressional Record. Texts were coded and categorized using a qualitative analysis software package called HyperRESEARCH. Absolute frequencies are compared to first determine if there was any change between the two periods for President Clinton and between President Clinton and Congress. Then the prominent symbols are analyzed to determine how they influenced the welfare proposals of the periods, The Work and Responsibility Act of 1994, and the Personal Responsibility Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996.^ According to the findings, symbols do shape public policies. The contribution of this study of agenda setting and the role of symbols on the policy making process is to provide another method for studying political change. An understanding of agenda setting is crucial to political science, and specifically to public policy analysis since it is a crucial first step in the policy making process. ^