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The many meanings of policy instruments: exploring individual and structural determinants in obesity policy

Ralston, R., Godziewski, C. ORCID: 0000-0002-7036-2387 & Carters-White, L. (2023). The many meanings of policy instruments: exploring individual and structural determinants in obesity policy. Policy and Politics, 51(2), pp. 295-313. doi: 10.1332/030557321x16762984942169


Health inequalities researchers have long advocated for governments to adopt policy instruments that address structural determinants of health rather than targeting individual behaviours. The assumption behind this position is that such instruments might challenge a core neoliberal principle of individualism embedded in the prevailing health policy paradigm. We critique this assumption by highlighting the discursive construction of policy instruments, and their discursive effects. Using the UK’s Tackling Obesity policy as a case study, we demonstrate how instruments designed to target structural determinants of health (such as food advertisement regulation) can actively sustain – rather than challenge, the dominant policy paradigm. We call this phenomenon ‘upstream individualism’, exploring how it relates to tensions in the research-policy relationship, and its relevance beyond health policy. We argue that instruments can shape policy change and continuity, including at a paradigm level, and that ‘upstream individualism’ provides a useful basis for theorising these power dynamics. This article contributes to the constructivist public policy literature by noting how policy instruments meant to challenge the discursive construction of individualism within public health can ultimately reinforce it.

Publication Type: Article
Additional Information: This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license (
Publisher Keywords: policy instruments; obesity policy; discourse analysis; policy paradigms
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HM Sociology
H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
J Political Science > JN Political institutions (Europe) > JN101 Great Britain
R Medicine > RA Public aspects of medicine > RA0421 Public health. Hygiene. Preventive Medicine
Departments: School of Policy & Global Affairs > International Politics
SWORD Depositor:
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