Intellectual Paradigms in Public Administration

Administrative Theory & Praxis / June 2013, Vol. 35, No. 2, pp. 308–313. © 2013 Public Administration Theory Network. All rights reserved. Permissions:

ISSN 1084–1806 (print)/1949–0461 (online) DOI: 10.2753/ATP1084-1806350208

Intellectual Paradigms in Public Administration

Why So Many and How to Bridge Them?

Jiahuan Lu University of Maryland

Administrative ideas, like the practices themselves, . . . seem to be in a perpetual whirl without much continuity, history, or consistency.

—Stillman, 1991, p. 71

The notion of paradigm has become ubiquitous since its inception by Thomas Kuhn as a way to understand the history of science. Paradigms, Kuhn writes, are “universally recognized scientific achievements that for a time provide model problems and solutions to a community of practitioners” (1970b, p. viii). Within a specific paradigm, Gutting further explains, there is “an acceptance that is so strong it eliminates the need for further discussion of foundational questions about the subject-matter and methodology of the disciplined and enables the discipline to devote most of its energy to puzzle-solving” (1980, p. 13). The history of scientific development, according to Kuhn, is thus largely characterized by a succession of different paradigms, or paradigm shifts.

Actually, Kuhn used the concept of paradigm mostly within the domain of natural sciences and was hesitant to expand it to the social sciences, which he believed were characterized by a “tradition of claims, counterclaims, and debates over fundamentals” (1970a, p. 6). Indeed, in most social sciences, paradigm shift is rare. Rather more frequent is “paradigm parallel,” the coexistence of several competing paradigms. Public administration is no exception.1 After the collapse of the orthodoxy, a consensus on big questions in public administration has never been achieved (e.g., Box, 1992; Waldo, 1968; White, 1986), such as what public administration is, how to acquire knowledge, what type of knowledge (scientific or interpretative) to pursue, and the relationships between public administration and other disciplines, such as political science and business management. As a result, competing paradigms have emerged to provide their own answers about the nature and assumptions of public administration, with no one of them ever able to dominate. Henry (2010) argues that public administration theory has, since its inception, gone through a succession of six paradigms: the politics/administration dichotomy (1900–1926), principles of public administration (1927–1937), public adminis- tration as political science (1950–1970), public administration as management (1950–1970), public administration as public administration (1970–present),


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and governance (1990–present). Frederickson and Smith also delineate the pluralism in public administration theory, which might include theories of political control of bureaucracy, theories of bureaucratic politics, theories of public management, rational choice theory, theories of governance, and so on. They admit that “no theory standing alone is capable of accounting for the complexity of the field” (2003, p. 4).

Why does the public administration field already have so many paradigms in spite of the short history since its self-consciousness? This is actually an intellectual product of the political heritage (Durant, 2010). In Federalist No. 51, James Madison argued that the fundamental way to ensure the appropri- ate use of public power was a separation of power into different government branches that would allow checks and balances between them. This antistatism tradition later became the prologue of what Edward Corwin (1940) called “an invitation to struggle” among the three branches of government. Through “tides of reform” (Light, 1998), there has been an enduring struggle over how to divide power within the government system. This unending conflict is also reflected within the administration system. As Kettl argues, “the public administration system reflects broad constellations of power, and as power has become more diffuse, so, too, have the administrative interconnections” (1996, p. 16).

As early as the 1950s, Kaufman (1956) found that the rapid growth of public administration since its self-consciousness had exhibited the pursuit of three competing values: representativeness, neutral competence, and executive leadership. “The story [of public administration],” wrote Kaufman, “is thus one of a changing balance among the values, not of total displacement” (p. 1067). Kettl (2002) further suggests that the study and the practice of public administration have to be differentiated in order to respond to four conflict- ing American political traditions, Hamiltonian, Jeffersonian, Wilsonian, and Madisonian. Each political philosophy prescribes its own distinct adminis- trative ideas, values, and rationales, together making the gaps between them hard to bridge.

Stillman (1991), holding a historical institutionalism perspective, describes how the “stateless” origin of the American public administration system gave rise to the fragmentation in public administration theory. At the founding of the United States, a systematic design of public administration was absent. Because of this, American public administration building was actually an in- cremental “chinking-in” process, pragmatically bringing in various temporary administrative solutions to solve challenges, but none in a systematic way. Taken together, these temporary and sometimes competing administrative components constituted the American public administration system. This temporary and inconsistent nature, on the one hand, enabled the administra- tive system to adapt to external demands, but on the other hand, “created an administrative state and a bureaucratic administrative model without a single

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overarching model or well-structured paradigm” (p. 56). Reflected in theory development, this paradox “added a high degree of ambiguity to public admin- istration theory and opened the topic to enormous opportunities for continual interpretations and reinterpretations” (p. 37).

In combining these arguments, it is reasonable to admit that the differen- tiation in public administration theory and the rise of multiparadigms were inevitable. But how would the multiparadigm nature of contemporary public administration literature affect the advancement of public administration knowledge? Ostrom (1973) argues that the multiparadigm characteristic of the public administration field, the proliferation of competing theories, perspec- tives, and research methods, blurs its identity as a unified discipline and finally leads to an intellectual crisis. “The loss of theoretical hegemony,” Frederickson and Smith note, “gave public administration an identity crisis and made it vulnerable to colonization from other disciplines” (2003, p. 246).

Given the perils, how are we to promote the future development of our knowledge of public administration? Three paths have been proposed. The first one emphasizes the necessarity of forming a dominant paradigm in scientific advancement. According to Cole, “accumulation of knowledge can occur … only when scientists are committed to a paradigm and take it as the starting point for additional research that progress can be made. Without agreement on fundamentals, scientists will not be able to build on the work of others and will spend all their time debating assumptions and first principles” (1983, p. 135). Pfeffer (1993) emphasizes the formation of a dominant paradigm as a critical prerequisite to scientific advancement. He argues that competing paradigms in a field obstruct the scientific development of the field, as demonstrated by longer time to publication, higher journal rejection rates, fewer cross-citations among fields, fewer collaborations among scholars, and so on. Building on these observations, Pfeffer further calls on the scholars who control the field to develop a set of standards and then maintain theoretical and methodological conformity. In this way, an agreement about the fundamental problems in a specific field and the way to solve them could be achieved.

Quite different from Pfeffer’s claim for developing one dominant para- digm, Qiu, Donaldson, and Luo (2012) argue that in social science research, a more feasible way might be to start advancing theory by working within one established paradigm, “paradigm persistence.” They also develop a route of paradigm persistence, from paradigm continuity, paradigm elaboration, to paradigm extension, each implying a different level of theory develop- ment under one paradigm. At the beginning, paradigm continuity refines and synthesizes existing theories. Paradigm elaboration then digs deeper into the core of those theories, develops variants, and makes them more complex. At the highest paradigm-extension stage, researchers extend the paradigm to different contexts and develop new theories.

A third approach goes beyond the discussion of the necessarity and pos-

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sibility of having one dominant paradigm. It holds a pluralistic, metaparadigm perspective that simultaneously considers sets of theoretical lenses under different paradigms. This metaparadigm view, according to Gioia and Pitre, “is not a demand for integration of theories or resolution of disagreements or paradoxes that inevitably emerge from theoretical comparison,” but “an attempt to account for many representations related to an area of study by linking theories through their common transition zones” and “constitute a multidimen- sional representation of the topic area” (1990, p. 596). Therefore, it actually follows a replication logic: If a certain knowledge on public administration is supported by a number of theories and paradigms, we have more confidence in the robustness of such understanding. Putting together, by “triangulating” across theories and paradigms, a comprehensive understanding of public administration activities could be embraced with more confidence. Indeed, in view of the multiparadigm nature of contemporary public administration literature, I argue this approach might be more preferred.

More than 50 years ago, Frederick Mosher examined the status of public administration research and expressed his anxiety that “the field has not channeled its research efforts; its scope of interest seems unlimited; it has not developed a rigorous methodology; it has been pretty blasé about definitions; it has not agreed on any paradigms or theorems or theoretical systems” (1956, p. 176). If Mosher were alive today, he would find that his observation still troubles contemporary public administration research. Nowadays, few fields in the social sciences could be messier than public administration. However, at the same time, few fields could be more exciting than public administration in serving the public interest and democratic governance. It is the mission of public administration students of the present generation to develop a unified and beautiful understanding of public administration.


1. In my judgment, there are two kinds of paradigms in public administration, theoretical paradigms and research (methodological) paradigms. Theoretical para- digms, which I refer to as “intellectual paradigms,” are the focus of this article.


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Jiahuan Lu ( is a Ph.D. candidate in public administration and policy at the School of Public Policy of the University of Maryland in College Park. His research focuses on public and nonprofit management, government contracting, and performance management.

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