Policy Sciences

, Volume 49, Issue 2, pp 125–154 | Cite as

Toward a cognitive theory of shifting coalitions and policy change: linking the advocacy coalition framework and cultural theory

Research Article


The advocacy coalition framework (ACF) has developed into a comprehensive theoretical approach to the policymaking process. Empirical findings have however posed challenges in understanding important questions about the identification of advocacy coalitions, explanations for possibilities and sources of shifting coalitions, and the role of exploitive coalitions in policy change. We argue that the integration of relevant aspects of cultural theory (CT) into the ACF provides answers to these open questions. First, the theoretical synthesis of both perspectives suggests an exhaustive typology of four distinct sets of policy actors’ cultural biases. In environmental and natural resource policy, they are mainly expressed by myths about physical nature that can be understood as deep core beliefs that entail, guide, and constrain policy core beliefs in the policy subsystem. Second, linking ACF and CT allows for the conceptualization of cognitive mechanisms for strategic cross-cultural alliances between different advocacy coalitions, which are enabled through specific shared or complementary core beliefs. Third, the synthesis provides an explanation for exploitive coalitions who take advantage of issues triggered by external and internal disruptive events through strategic issue (re-)framing and shifting coalitions that, together with ideological congruence related to veto and institutional players, make major policy change possible. To illustrate our theoretical arguments, we present a long-term analysis of policy change through forest sector reforms and forest certification in Germany and Bulgaria. We conclude by underlining the promising explanatory power of combining ACF and CT as a basis for developing a more comprehensive cognitive theory of policymaking in the context of environmental and natural resource management.


Actors Beliefs Coalition building Cultural bias Forest policy Myths of nature Natural resources Policy change 



We thank our colleagues Michael Memmler and Yvonne Hengst-Ehrhart for providing empirical data on Germany for this paper, and Karl-Reinhard Volz for his support and advice on our research in both countries. We thank Emily Kilham and Brian Shaw for doing the proof reading. We are very grateful to all interviewees for sharing their knowledge on forest policy in Bulgaria and Germany. Finally, we are grateful to our funders, the European Union’s 7th Framework Program for Research (FP-7) under Grant Agreement No FP7-282887 (INTEGRAL Project), the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), and the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (Bundesamt für Naturschutz, BfN).


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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Chair of Forest and Environmental PolicyUniversity of FreiburgFreiburgGermany

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