Geography Policy Mobilities
Nik Theodore
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0205


How do “ideas from elsewhere” shape local policy debates? Over the last decade or two, the policy mobilities approach from the emerging field of critical policy studies has taken up this question by problematizing conventional understandings of policymaking. Whereas traditional approaches to studying policy transfer tended to describe the prudent selection of proven models and policy protocols by worldly decision makers, policy mobilities research has troubled common depictions of the smooth diffusion and adoption of best practices and other “ideas that work” that have been selected from a global marketplace of policy solutions. By focusing on the global, or translocal, circulation of ideas and expertise, as well as policies, programs, plans, and problem statements and related discourses, this research has advanced a geographically sensitive approach to studying policymaking that is attentive both to the constitutive role sociospatial context plays in the development and authorization of “successful” policy solutions (as well as those policies that are deemed to have failed) and to the relationality of policymaking sites (whether as sites of emulation, implementation, or contestation). With its focus on the sociospatial embeddedness of policymaking processes, policy mobilities research is especially concerned with models (how policies, programs, and plans come to have extra-local salience), connections (how places and policy domains become interlinked through networks and epistemic communities), movement (how policies are transformed and adapted through the circulation of expertise, ideas, and models, as well as the reasons some policies fail to generate a wider audience of learners and emulators), institutions and actors (including local and national governments; diverse institutional arrangements in sites of policy implementation; international organizations, such as the World Bank and OECD; various cross-border networks, such as those involved in global health policymaking; and consultancies and other policy entrepreneurs); and techniques for learning (such as study tours, conferences, best practices reports, and evaluation science). But the policy mobilities approach offers far more than just a set of categories for describing aspects of the policymaking process; through the study of these aspects of policymaking, the policy mobilities approach seeks to be attentive to the ways in which decision-making is laden with power relations. In this sense, the policy mobilities approach offers a critical lens through which the translocal dynamics of policymaking can be investigated.

General Overviews

Although the policy mobilities subfield is relatively young, several excellent edited collections and monographs have been published, with many offering significant theoretical and methodological interventions along with examples of sustained empirical fieldwork. Strong edited collections by Roy and Ong 2011 and Shore, et al. 2011, while not fitting squarely within the policy mobilities rubric, have become staples among researchers and students of policy mobilities. Likewise, Clarke, et al. 2015 emerges from a parallel project that, like the policy mobilities approach, seeks to problematize conceptions of policy development that are largely linear, spatially bounded by the nation-state, and based on the prudent adoption of best practices. Within the policy mobilities subfield itself, McCann and Ward 2011 contains several chapters on the circulation of urban policies. Peck and Theodore 2015 presents a social-constructivist approach to studying policy mobilities and contains an extended discussion of theoretical concerns and methodological reflections, while McFarlane 2011 examines processes of policy learning at the urban scale. Temenos and McCann 2013 provides a highly readable introduction to policy mobilities research.

  • Clarke, John, David Bainton, Noemi Lendvai, and Paul Stubbs. Making Policy Move: Towards a Politics of Translation and Assemblage. Bristol, UK: Policy Press, 2015.

    With a focus on policy circulation as active processes of translation and assemblage, this monograph is a theoretical and methodological intervention in the field that charts the movement of policies in several domains (social welfare, the governance project of Europeanization, higher education, and secondary education) across borders, including those of nation states and of organizations.

  • McCann, Eugene, and Kevin Ward, eds. Mobile Urbanism: Cities and Policymaking in the Global Age. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

    This edited collection explores the territorial and relational geographies of urban policymaking and calls attention to some of the key actors engaged in the construction and dissemination of mobile policies. Chapters by Jennifer Robinson, Jamie Peck, and the two editors will likely be of interest to students of policy mobilities.

  • McFarlane, Colin. Learning the City: Knowledge and Translocal Assemblage. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444343434

    Places learning at the forefront of urban politics and explores how policy learning helps shape urban imaginaries, political agendas, and the contestation of power at the urban scale.

  • Peck, Jamie. “Geographies of Policy: From Transfer-Diffusion to Mobility-Mutation.” Progress in Human Geography 35.6 (2011): 773–797.

    DOI: 10.1177/0309132510394010

    Critiques rational-choice approaches that focus on policy transfer occurring within global “markets” for policies that work and proposes a post-positivist, social-constructivist orientation that problematizes the politics of policy knowledge, globalizing expertise, and the mobility of best practices models.

  • Peck, Jamie, and Nik Theodore. Fast Policy: Experimental Statecraft at the Thresholds of Neoliberalism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.5749/minnesota/9780816677306.001.0001

    Explores the social worlds of policy development, highlighting a key dimension of globalization: the increasingly interconnected nature of policy development. Critically analyzes the increasing connectivity between policymaking arenas and modes of policy development and assesses the implications of these developments for contemporary policymaking.

  • Roy, Ananya, and Aihwa Ong, eds. Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

    The authors in this edited collection chart the emergence of Asian cities as key sites of policy experimentation, metropolitan imaginaries, and models of urbanization. Through postcolonial critique, this volume theorizes and documents the circulation of ideas, visions, and models of possible urban futures.

  • Shore, Cris, Susan Wright, and Davide Però, eds. Policy Worlds: Anthropology and the Analysis of Contemporary Power. New York: Berghahn Books, 2011.

    This edited collection presents chapters from across a range of policy fields exploring the varied spaces of policymaking (policy worlds). The chapters suggest methodological approaches to studying decision-making processes and offer important insights into the ways policies are constructed and contested.

  • Temenos, Cristina, and Eugene McCann. “Geographies of Policy Mobilities.” Geography Compass 7.5 (2013): 344–357.

    DOI: 10.1111/gec3.12063

    Reviews key strands of policy mobilities research as well as their conceptual underpinnings and makes the case for policy mobilities researchers to constructively engage with literatures on post-politics.

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