Video: Issue Attention Cycle beginner’s guide

So, a very crude (but not rude) video about the Issue Attention Cycle.  Done more for my own benefit – to nail a couple of things and get back into the video-making habit.  I’ve gotten rusty…  Comments welcome, of course…


This guy is Ibn Khaldun. He was an historian in the 14th century. He suggested that one generation of nomadic warriors might conquer a complacent city, their children might be able to defend it, but their grandchildren, soft from luxury, would be unable to defend it from a generation of nomadic warriors, whose children… you get the idea. The big wheel keeps on turning. Fast forward to 1972…

And American political scientist Anthony Downs puns on his name to produce Up and Down with Ecology: The issue attention cycle

He suggested a five stage model for, well, attention to an issue.

Stage one – he labelled the “pre-problem phase” – nobody but a few scientists or activists are much bothered

In stage two “alarmed discovery and euphoric enthusiasm” something happens – a scandal, disaster, a book gets published – some kind of what is now called “focusing event”. And the issue does get into the newspaper, or onto the TV news,

Stage three is called “realizing the cost of significant progress” – there’s a gradual grokking of the cost of “solving” the problem

Stage four sees a “gradual decline of intense public interest” as people realise the actual costs, others get discouraged, others still feel threatened, others still bored. And anyway, other issues are newer, shinier

The final “post-problem” stage sees the issue in limbo, with occasional “spasmodic recurrences” of interest. But the level is higher than it was at the pre-problem stage, because not everyone has

It’s a beautiful, simple, intuitive heuristic. And of course, therefore, quite problematic.

Why do some issues take off and others don’t? Do issues get stuck at a particular stage, or reverse? Why? How? Are there other possible outcomes?

Mahon and Waddock (1992) produced a graph that offered different possible (non)-resolutions of an issue, with a return to apathy (the solution has ‘worked’, at least in the view of those who want it off the policy agenda), ‘confidence in solution’ and ‘failure- intensified concern).>

Bigelow et al (1993:24 ) note that “ issues may progress recursively, cycling back and forth through the stages” and warn that such issues may in fact not be resolved.

Combining issue attention cycle literature with the “greening of industry” literature, Frank Geels and Caetano Penna developed the Dialectic Issue LifeCycle Model, the DILC

It delves into what different actors – those trying to push the issue up the political agenda and those trying to push it down – do within the five phases. Also – and this is crucial – what sorts of research and development might a company – or an industry – take to try to come up with a neat and de-politicising ‘techno-fix’?

So, issues – in the sense of a socially constructed worry – can come and go – while the underlying problem just builds and builds…

Does the rise of social media and Web2.0 actually change the issue attention cycle? If so, how, when, why? All good questions. Watch this space, perhaps…

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