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Administrative Theory & Praxis Vol. 29, No. 2, 2007: 328–332 R



Jan Rommel Johan Christiaens Ghent University

If the original essays were indeed a rather “incoherent set” (Mark R. Rutgers) of approaches, then the replies by the more established schol- ars certainly were very similar. After reading the replies, two general arguments seem to emerge from their discussion.

First, a critical glance is cast at the extent to which the essays presented new perspectives. The essays do not seem to differ all that much from those of the “older” generation, in that many of our argu- ments have already been put forth in the past. There are much more deviations from the mainstream literature than the new authors have acknowledged. Put strongly, we “do not know our history” (Ralph Hummel) and therefore present a “simplified” picture of the old gener- ation (Mark R. Rutgers). The senior authors had seemingly expected a more revolutionary approach in which the new generation would give short shrift to the enormous amount of work that has been undertaken by past generations. However, if the new generation would rise and claim that the old have done it all wrong, and that they are the ones who have seen the light, then the generations would be talking past each other and there would not be a true dialogue. We do not believe that any of the new authors really intended to wipe out the past. The issues that were raised were indeed not so new. However, even though our voices may sound familiar, they do not sound loud. The fact that we bring up issues that had already been raised indicates that they have not yet been sufficiently addressed by the mainstream of the current litera- ture and it was probably the desire of the authors that the themes achieve a mainstream status.

The second argument is directly related to the first point. The senior authors suggest that we consider more our own ideas, thoughts and feelings. We do not differ much from the mainstream because we seem preoccupied with wanting “to fit in” (O. C. McSwite). We might be able to distance ourselves more from the old generation through close intro-

2007, Public Administration Theory Network

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spection: how do we want to be seen? What are our basic assumptions? What do we read outside the field? The easiest way to “discover” the identity of the young generation would probably start with defining the old generation. However, defining the mainstream turns out to be a tough exercise, both in the original essays and in the replies. The new authors may not have been sufficiently clear about whom they are criticising, but the senior authors have not indicated what they see as mainstream either. Notwithstanding, it is a very helpful suggestion to try to discover our identity and we will try to put forth some of our own assumptions in our reply to the remarks on our essay.

The comments on our essay are similar to the general remarks. The reviewers agree that the paradigm concept has become progressively devalued, so much that a once powerful notion is now employed at all levels of analysis and appears not only in scientific literature but also in popular practitioner-oriented literature. But we can not seem to over- come this problem, since we “stick too much to the vocabulary of the old generation” (Mark R. Rutgers). We want to make clear that we are not against paradigms as such. We do believe that we are guided by past experiences, values and assumptions which result in a specific language and standards. We are only against the abuse of the concept (as also indicated by Robert Cunningham), as we do not believe that paradigms change very frequently. We also believe that approaches are more com- mensurable than is sometimes claimed and that alleged paradigms are actually general theories. Our original essay was targeted on the debate between administration and management. Even though certain authors claim that they interpret Kuhn correctly (see, e.g., Hughes, 2003, p. 259), their judgment is based on only a partial reading of his work. Rutgers is correct to say that speaking of a “disciplinary matrix” would be a better idea, indicating the shared commitments of any disciplinary community, which include symbolic generalizations, values and beliefs. In fact, Kuhn would probably argue that he favors an even more re- stricted term of “exemplars,” which are the concrete instruments and puzzle solutions (Masterman, 1970). It is the exemplar that guides the research, not the disciplinary matrix (Kuhn, 1970, p. 175; 1974, p. 463). Paradigm wars are usually fought on the metaphysical level, over the question whether there is a new way of seeing, but only rarely are they fought on the most restrictive level of exemplars (Eckberg & Hill, 1979). Paradigm warriors have read the early Kuhn, who was not only radical but also ambiguous and therefore easy to exploit. His later work, in which he narrowed his concept substantially, seems to be overlooked.

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The same goes for the idea of incommensurability, which holds that knowledge can only be examined within a paradigm. We do believe there are incommensurable positions, but it is claimed all too often, and in a meaning that the later Kuhn would not agree with. The concept entails three semantic relations: meaning variance, which refers to the radical differences between approaches: translation failure and, as a re- sult, content incomparability (Sankey, 1994). Since concepts cannot be translated from one stance into another, the two approaches cannot be compared with respect to these concepts. We agree with O. C. McSwite that a purely rationalist perspective would likely result in the hegemony of one approach. But incommensurability is also the driver of the raging paradigm wars. The concept of incommensurability can easily be ex- ploited as an excuse for isolationism and relativism. Since two incom- mensurable positions see alternative worlds, there is no overlap between them. Both sides are locked within their elaborated but rigid framework of beliefs. Since mutual communication and debate are im- possible, incommensurability can be applied to deny the very existence of the “other side.” The latter is then seen as being filled with incom- mensurable values, experiences, assumptions, communities and meth- ods. Since they are “looking with different glasses,” they do not see the true reality. This ironically creates a new form of hegemony and anyone who declares a new paradigm can say that they are not understood by their “blinkered” predecessors. Incomparability may become an easy excuse to build up new walls, but walls “never mean growth” (Lanham, 2006, p. 603).

For us, such partitioning becomes very salient when looking at the paradigm war that was discussed in the original essay. Not only do we “carry out embassies” from Belgium (Ralph Hummel), we are also lo- cated in an accounting department, as part of a faculty of economics. Paradigm warriors would probably place us on the management (eco- nomics) side, away from the administration (politics) side. But even in our department, we are a (very small) embassy in an environment full of private sector researchers. We come to the public administration literature because of substantial gaps in other streams. The (public sec- tor) accounting literature seems very much concerned with efficiency and markets but it often fails to grasp the differences between contexts. It tends to forget the politicians and does not find answers regarding democracy or the role of politicians in decision processes (see Bror- ström, 1998). Paradigm speak and incommensurability legitimize and even encourage such confinement and blind spots. Articles from man- agement journals hardly ever refer to administration journals (and per-

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haps vice versa). We acknowledge Rutgers’ critical remark that we do not fully grasp the field yet but what is the field? Is it about administra- tion? Should we define it in a broader sense, such as to speak of public- ness (Lan & Anders, 2000)? It seems that many scientific communities are addressing the same topics (e.g., efficiency) and are asking the same questions. Sometimes they are even giving the same answers, for exam- ple on the viability of economic rationalism in the public sector (Laps- ley, 1999). Just as there is much divergence from mainstream in the old administration literature, so is there divergence within other streams. Yet there are almost no bridges between those communities. We be- lieve that both would benefit from each other.

This is not to say that no radical differences exist. We do not favour the integration of theories or a quest for interdisciplinarity if that would mean synthesizing contributions from different approaches in an at- tempt to achieve a more general model or theory. We agree with Rutgers (1998) that this would underestimate the implication of blend- ing concepts that are grounded in different approaches while ignoring the incompatible assumptions upon which they are based. However, we argued for a bridging that “recognizes and confronts multiple para- digms, rather than ignoring them as in the integrationist position, or refusing them as in the incommensurability position” (Schultz & Hatch, 1996, p. 533). The problem lies not in the differences between perspec- tives, but in the denial of the existence of others. We believe that a blow to theories can be sustained without making recourse to incommensurability.

An alternative to do this is to speak of language games and, more specifically, of the difference between the “everyday language game” and other, technical language games. The former is the first language we learn to speak and forms the basis of what we can possibly think (Disco, 1976). This language is the basis of our knowledge and needs no justification (Philips, 1977). Such everyday language interpenetrates all other technical languages. Although technical languages (e.g., account- ing and administration) may be discrete and bounded, they are both influenced by other games such as theorizing or testing. These are not discipline-specific, so they overlap with other technical languages (Has- sard, 1988). Thus, differences between technical languages would be ac- knowledged but it would also allow for some “crossing” between them. Management and administration would still be different, but both have recourse into the same meta-language. Since some parts of the language are not purely discipline-specific, research may be recontextualized in

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other frameworks. Management could then no longer deny discussion with and the existence of administration, and perhaps vice versa.


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