Assessing Policy Process Knowledge: A Systematic Review of Three Theoretical Approaches that are Applied to Cases of Policy Change

Jeroen van der Heijden, Johanna Kuhlmann

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This article seeks to understand how knowledge of the policy process, and especially of policy change, is generated. For three dominant approaches—punctuated equilibrium theory, incremental change theorizing, and institutional isomorphism theorizing—we ask where, by whom, and especially how these theoretical approaches have been applied in empirical studies. Answering these questions is relevant for synthesizing knowledge on policy change across such studies. For a stratified sample of 153 empirical articles, we find that the theories have mainly been applied for single-n or small-n studies at the national level, in western countries, and by scholars affiliated with western universities. We also find that the theoretical approaches are, generally, only partially and loosely operationalized. This limits the generic lessons we can draw from this body of empirical work.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)72-93
Number of pages22
JournalEuropean Policy Analysis
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 17 May 2018



  • incremental policy change
  • institutional change
  • institutional isomorphism
  • policy change
  • policy transformation
  • PRISMA analysis
  • punctuated equilibrium

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