Pitzer Professor’s New Book Parses the Language of Legislation

The Devil is in the DetailsClaremont, Calif. (March 6, 2014)—Pitzer College alumna  and Associate Professor of Political Studies Rachel VanSickle-Ward ’99 examines why some laws are vague while others are written in unequivocal language in her new book The Devil Is in the Details: Understanding the Causes of Policy Specificity and Ambiguity (SUNY Press).

“All laws have a policy story and a political story,” explains VanSickle-Ward. “The Devil Is in the Details is about how those stories intertwine.”

VanSickle-Ward argues that a law’s language matters because the level of detail in a law can have dramatic consequences for how that law is interpreted and applied. She explains how and why some policies end up ambiguous and open ended while others are detailed and precise. In her research, she found that ambiguity is frequently the product of disagreement, particularly with high-profile bills. If key actors or groups don’t agree on the details, but feel the need to get something through, they leave the language vague.

“This book helps readers better understand how the give-and-take of the legislative process shows up not just in what gets passed, but how it’s written,” VanSickle-Ward says. “The level of detail in a law is much more than a technical matter; it designates winners and losers and signifies power and agency, or lack thereof.”

VanSickle-Ward’s multi-method investigation takes a novel approach to the measurement of statute specificity. She combines comprehensive content analysis of more than 250 health and welfare bills passed in 44 states in the 1990s and 2000s with in-depth interviews of policy-making elites.

A 1999 graduate of Pitzer College, Rachel VanSickle-Ward co-founded the Southern California Law and Social Science Forum. She has written extensively about public policy, women in politics and legislation.  The Devil Is in the Details is VanSickle-Ward’s first book.

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