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«The Methodological Challenge of Cross-National Research: comparing cultural policy in Britain and Italy Eleonora Belfiore Research Fellow Centre for ...»

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Accordingly, today there still is no established analytical framework that deals specifically with the variation of meanings of similar words across languages as well as changes in the meaning of those words over time. This means that quite often both ‘policy’ and ‘politics’ are translated as ‘politics’ without much awareness, on the part of professional translators, of the need to make explicit the actual difference in meaning conveyed by the two English words. It is very telling that Regonini, writing in Italian in 2001, in order to represent faithfully the thought of foreign theorists whose work she refers to in her book, has felt the need of going back to the original texts and offer her own translation of crucial passages, in view of the shortcomings of the available published translations of those same classic texts (Regonini 2001, chapter 1).

Unfortunately, limitations of space do not allow me to discuss here in great detail the historical reconstruction of the evolution of the words policy and politics offered by Heidenheimer. Suffice it to say that he establishes a correlation between the decline of feudalism and the rise of an urban merchant class in England and the diffusion of the term policy (with its already mentioned more positive connotation with respects to

politics). His main argument is that:

The English policy became generalised in a socially downward direction in ways that the Continental term Policey could not.

That is, terms that were initially attributed to royalty and higher strata came to be applied also to the actions of ordinary citizens. […] In the Continental systems with higher stateness, the terms Policey and Politik became, over roughly the same period, semantically further removed from the private word of the burgher and citizen. Both concepts were becoming associated with actions at higher levels of the evolving nationstates (Heidenheimer 1986, 14).

In summary, Heidenheimer believes that the shifts in meaning among the various terms belonging to the “polis-family of words” in different European languages is ascribable to the different political circumstances of the various countries, and are the reflection of their political traditions (e.g. higher or lower degree of ‘stateness’) and of different priorities in governmental concerns within the arenas of both domestic and foreign policy (Heidenheimer 1986, 7-15).

Heidenheimer (1986, 9) maintains that nations can be distinguished on the basis of their different levels of ‘stateness’. Quoting Ernest Baker, he writes: “State societies” like France and Germany developed historical and intellectual traditions of the state embodying the “public power”. “Stateless societies” fall short of perceiving “the state as an institution which acts”. Englishmen tended rather to see in the executive, “just a bundle of officials, united only by a mysterious Crown which serves chiefly as a bracket to unite an infinite series of integers”.

Far from being a dispute of purely linguistic relevance, Heidenheimer’s arguments have very important repercussions on the ways in which speakers of different languages think and write of politics and policy. Heidenheimer himself proffers very telling examples. He recounts his attempt to prove wrong, with a simple empirical test, the belief beheld by many Continental political scientists that – despite the limitations of their native languages – when reading foreign texts in translation, they are able to gather from the context whether the English writer refers to ‘policy’ or ‘politics’ in his or her arguments. However, when asked to translate the heading of a press release that read “Industrial Policy = Industrial Politics” the press staff of European embassies in Washington offered very different translations. More significantly, even countries sharing the same language came up with rather different renderings of the heading. So, if the French embassy translated the given sentence as “Le politique industrielle = le politiques de l’industrie”, the Belgian Embassy’s version was the substantially different “Politique industrielle = politique policienne de l’industrie”. While the Spanish Embassy’s interpretation is the yet different: “Una politica industrial = Political industrial Global”, the Germans had to render the obviously troublesome second part of the heading with an incredibly long circumlocution: “Industriepolitik = parteipolitische Auffassung von der Foederungswuerdigkeit bestimmter Industriezweige” (Heidenheimer 1986, 20-21).

What are the consequences of the linguist impasse the preceding examples so sharply point out? According to the Italian social scientist Giovanni Sartori (1984 and 1973) - who has conducted extensive research into the theory of political and social concepts, their historical development and their links to language - such consequences are, as a matter of fact, extremely significant. He insists (1984, 15) that whatever we know is mediated by language and that since “language is the sine qua non instrument of knowing, the knowledge-seeker had better be in control of the instrument”. At the centre of Sartori’s argument is the claim that rather than simply expressing thought, language is in fact a ‘thought-moulding instrument’: words ‘interpret’ things. Sartori therefore holds that the language user thinks through a vocabulary that embodies and reflects a general way of perceiving and conceiving things (Ibid., 18). To make this concept clearer, he refers to the notions of semantic

projection and semantic import (Ibid., 16-17). This is how he explains their meaning:

the semantic import of words entails that (1) what is not named largely remains unnoticed or, in any event, impervious to cognitive development; and that, (2) the naming choice (selecting a given word within a given semantic field) involves a far-reaching interpretive projection. All told, then, projective semantics brings to the fore both the constraints and the pathways that any given natural language imposes upon and affords to our perceiving, thinking and knowing.

Sartori clearly shares Heidenheimer’s scepticism of the researcher’s capacity to go beyond the conceptual limits of his or her natural language in order to grasp notions and concepts (as well as the full meaning of the words that express them) elaborated in other languages. Drawing on a biblical paraphrase, Sartori (Ibid., 17) explains that “in the beginning is the word, that is, naming”. When we express what we have in mind, we select, among the number of possible choices offered by our natural language, those words that can best represent our thoughts. Conversely, we would struggle to express effectively what we mean unless we are able to find the words for it, and, by the same token, we cannot form a sentence unless we already know the meaning of the words contained in it. Sartori therefore agrees with Taylor, who wrote that “language is constitutive of the reality, is essential to its being the kind of reality it is” (quoted in Sartori 1984, 17).

It should be clear at this stage that these arguments have very serious implications for the question of the consequences of the lack of the word ‘policy’ in many Continental languages (including Italian) that has been discussed so far. These, have

been spelt out very powerfully by Whorf (quoted in Sartori 1984, 17-18), who writes:

“We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages … we cut nature up, organise it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to … our speech community”. It follows thus, that “facts are unlike to speakers whose language background provides for unlike formulation of them”. In conclusion, Whorf argues that thinking “is in a language – in English, in Sanskrit, in Chinese. And every language is a vast pattern-system … by which the personality not only communicates, but also analyses nature, notices or neglects types of relationship and phenomena, channels his reasoning”9.

Sartori warns of the possible extreme interpretation of Whorf’s relativism as a principle of ‘untranslatability’, which he thinks would be an exaggerated reaction.

However, he reinforces the point that whenever people think about something at any point in time, they do so in relation to a particular linguistic system which is taken to be a ‘given’. This is the meaning of Sartori’s insistence upon the role of language in moulding thought which was referred to above. He exemplifies this point with a number of convincing examples (Sartori 1984 19-22). He begins with the preference displayed by the English language for the word ‘government’ over the word ‘state’, which has resulted in the systematic translation of the French état, the German Staat and the Italian stato as ‘government’. Conversely, other European languages consider ‘government’ merely as one of the partitions of the state, which they still consider as a broader, general entity. The practical consequence of this different According to Sartori, the fact that translators have somehow managed, for millennia, to translate written works from one language into another does not question the validity of the point made, since the polyglot in fact ‘rethinks’ in each of the languages he or she is proficient in, rather than actually translating as such (Sartori 1984, 65).

linguistic reference is that whoever decides to write on the topic of the state in English is handicapped, according to Sartori, in two different respects. First of all, the writer is exposed to the ambiguity of the relationship between the words and concepts of state and government. On the other hand, he or she would also tend to limit the scope of the research, in so far as the more pragmatic approach (implicit in the reduction of the concept of state to that of government) misses out on what has been written in other languages and within cultures attached to the more theoretical notion of state. These are indeed more likely to have elaborated a more abstract, juridical as well as philosophical theory of the state.

Sartori (1984, 21) further suggests that even the different ways in which different peoples see themselves as part of a national community might be affected by linguistic differences. To stick with the Italian and English languages, ‘people’ is, in English, a plural noun, whereas its Italian equivalent popolo (as well as the German Volk and the French peuple) is singular. This linguistic difference is paralleled by the difficulty on the part of English-speaking political writers to see the people as “an oversoul, or as an organic indivisible entity”, while such notion is at the very basis of the Italian, French and German speech communities. Sartori thinks that this might not be a simple coincidence, rather, his hypothesis is that “when we say ‘people are’ we are semantically prompted to perceive and conceive a multiplicity, a sum total of ‘each body’, while those who say ‘people is’ are predisposed and encouraged to conceive an ‘allbody’, a whole that subsumes its parts” (Sartori 1984, 21).

What implications do the considerations presented so far have on the specific case in point for this research?


If one were to accept Sartori’s theory of language as a thought-moulding instrument, then it would consequentially follow that the fact that the Italian language does not possess a distinctive word to express the meaning conveyed, in English, by the word policy should be a prime reason behind the slower development of public policy studies in Italy. This seems confirmed by the observation made by the renowned social scientist Alessandro Pizzorno that the Italian public sphere is dominated by what he calls ‘absolute politics’ (la politica assoluta). Implicit in the notion of absolute politics is the belief that political action is the only form of activity that can significantly transform society. According to this view, political action is the only means by which the life of the nation, and in fact, the life of humanity as a whole can be improved according to an ideal of perfection (Pizzorno quoted in Regonini 2001, 18). In Pizzorno’s view, then, at the heart of absolute politics is the conviction that collective quality of life can only be enhanced through forms of political action that aim to radically change the structure and distribution of political power within society: party activism, political mobilization, voting at political elections and even the choice to fight the current political system (Regonini 2001, 18). In this perspective, ‘relative politics’ (le politiche relative) - that is specific policies targeted at the solution of a number of issues arising form the life of the community (transport, education, health and so on and so forth) - are clearly seen as subaltern, amounting to merely dependent variables. Policies are indeed conceived, at best, as either obstacles to be removed or as useful tools to gain consensus, and therefore advantage, in the rather more significant game of politics.

Regonini (2001, 18) further elucidates Pizzorno’s theory by explaining that deeprooted in Italian political perceptions is the idea that politica intended as ‘politics’ (that is, the ensemble of the intricate relationships between government, party leaders and voters that are founded on the striving for ever stronger consensus and power) and politica as ‘policy’ (intended as the strategies put in place to tackle a collective problem or issue), rather than being two distinct concepts expressed by a single word are, in fact, just two aspects of the same phenomenon. In this case then, the first idea of the word politica expresses its most crucial and essential traits, while politica as policy depicts what are clearly only derivative or secondary aspects10.

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