The Nexus of Epigenetics

I invite you to follow my epigenetics blog The Nexus of Epignetics. Epigenetics is a recently emerging field in genetics and the life sciences that fundamentally challenges many of the assumptions of conventional genetics. Some of you are already somewhat familiar with epigenetics, and some of you are not.  There is already an extensive scientific debate going on about epigenetics and information about the science is available from many different sources, but what is not talked about as much are the history and the policy implications and the philosophy of epigenetics. To fill this gap this new blog will discuss the science of epigenetics, but in the context of these other factors.

If this sounds interesting to you, click on the link above or here and follow me on this new blog as well. You can also follow my epigenetics and policy themed Twitter feed @EpigeneticsGuy to stay current on developments in this fast-moving field.




The legitimacy of listening

by Shea Robison

Idaho State University

A public bureaucracy is the means through which a government carries out or oversees its policy objectives.  Legitimacy – or the belief by the governed that political decisions are or are not justified – is held to be a critical aspect of governance,[i] as without this support governments can and do topple.[ii]  Thus, the administration of this public bureaucracy plays a critical role in the legitimacy, and therefore the continuation, of government.

In a democracy in particular the legitimacy of public administration derives – theoretically, at least – from its reflection of the will of the people as communicated through elected officials to the bureaucracy.[iii]  In America, arguably more so than in other countries, the legitimacy of the administrative component of government is continuously at issue.  Charles Wise, Michael Spicer, and Larry Terry locate the impetus for this enhanced scrutiny in the privileged place of the Constitution in the United States.[iv]  The general perception of the role of the Constitution in the legitimacy of public administration, as detailed by Wise and Spicer and Terry, emanates from an idealized vision of the Framers as possessing a unique knowledge of human nature and politics which they infused into the Constitution; therefore legitimate administrative processes are those that follow the Constitution as the basic law of the land as much as they reflect the values set forth in the Constitution.

This idealized view is similar to the point of view championed by John Rohr and his regime values-based public service ethics.  According to Rohr, the regime values in America are those expressed in the Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court.[v]  However, this grounding of administrative legitimacy in the Constitution and the Court introduces as many issues as it resolves.  First, while it is obviously wise for administrators to be familiar with the gist of relevant Court rulings, the level of familiarity with the history and the logic of the Court that is required by Rohr is unrealistic for many already overburdened administrators.  Second, at times there are significant temporal lags between changes in socially acceptable values and Court decisions – for example, the fifty eight year span between Plessy v. Ferguson[vi] and Brown v. Board of Education[vii] – which would bind a Rohrian administrator to outdated regime values that do not reflect the emerging values of contemporary society.  Finally, there are also any number of conflicting values in the Constitution and the opinions of the Court that must be otherwise reconciled, such as the Court’s recent ruling in the Citizens United[viii]case granting First Amendment protections to the political speech of corporations which contrasts starkly with the historic emphasis on the protection of individual human rights.  For all these reasons, as Rohr himself admits,[ix] any administrative guidance provided by the Constitution and the Court must still be supplemented by the judgment of administrators, which judgment ideally would be directed towards producing outcomes that enhance the legitimacy of both administration and government.  Thus, if appeal to the Constitution alone is insufficient as a method to ensure legitimacy, then legitimacy must be realized through other means.

To this end, the major focus of administrative thought – dating back at least to Woodrow Wilson and his calls for a technically competent public administration to rescue government from the confusion of politics[x] – locates legitimacy in the rationalizing of the processes of bureaucracy.  When paired with elected officials chosen through free and fair elections, this rationalizing of administrative processes is theorized to inevitably produce rational outcomes, thereby legitimating the government (i.e., the rationalizing of administrative processes connects inputs with outputs and ends with means, so that if the electoral inputs are rational so will be the administrative outputs[xi]).  The history of public administration is for the most part wave after wave of successive theories as to how administrative processes can be made more rational.  Most of these theories are premised upon making the study of government a science through the discovery of universal administrative principles,[xii] tackling the problem from a variety of angles.  However, for all the little successes of these different approaches, none of these theoretical orientations has yet been able to deliver the objective or universal principles of administration around which the field could be consolidated.

For example, the latest iteration of this quest for legitimacy via the rationalizing of administrative processes is the New Public Management (NPM) movement.  NPM emphasizes the increasingly efficient delivery of services through the application of market-based managerial practices, in particular the quantification of administrative inputs and outputs.[xiii]  The underlying belief of NPM is that just as the Invisible Hand mechanisms of free markets allocate economic resources to their most efficient use despite – or actually because of – the selfish interests of individuals, these same principles applied to public administration will likewise allocate political resources to their most efficient use.[xiv]  However, after decades of widespread implementation the results of NPM have been ambiguous at best,[xv] and have not in general been associated with increases in perceptions of legitimacy; in fact, if anything the application of NPM methods has been correlated with significant declines in the perceived legitimacy of government.[xvi]

The results from NPM are just the latest demonstration of why a Weberian emphasis on formal bureaucratic efficiency[xvii] is not a sufficient standard for legitimacy.  As exemplified by the defense offered by the Nazi bureaucrat Adolph Eichmann that he was only making the trains run on time,[xviii] undesirable and even monstrous outcomes can result from the uncritical implementation of bureaucratic rationality.[xix]  Even when the ends are ethically justifiable and the means are as rationalized as possible, perverse outcomes of administrative actions are not only possible but common[xx] which also contributes to declines in perceptions of legitimacy.  Thus, if the legitimacy of government is the goal of public administration, the rationalizing and quantifying of administrative processes does not appear sufficient for this goal.  Therefore, some other means than those already attempted are needed to produce this legitimacy.

Given these difficulties in accounting for the legitimacy of public administration, some question the utility of the discussions ad nauseam of legitimacy at all, offering instead a Hegelian justification that ultimately the administrative state is both rational and legitimate simply because it is,[xxi] and therefore the field should just move on to more worthwhile debates.[xxii]  While the history of public administration suggests there is some merit to this position, this disappointing history does not mean that legitimacy is not a valid concern or that there are not administrative processes that can not only produce but actually enhance legitimacy.  This is where the recent “narrative turn” in public administration comes into play[xxiii] as an antidote to the increasing – and increasingly futile – positivist and quantitative emphases in public administration research.[xxiv]

This turn towards narrative in public administration is part of the relatively recent post-modern turn in the social sciences in general.[xxv]  This post-modern turn in public administration manifests as the recognition of the historicity and contingency of administrative phenomena, and therefore as a deep skepticism about foundational claims and the quest for universal administrative principles.[xxvi]

As reflected in the increasingly positivist thrust of mainstream public administration,[xxvii] so much of the contemporary study and practice of public administration is premised upon the assumption of the generalizability of administrative processes.  This orthodox view of administration is related to the belief that legitimate government operates from the top down[xxviii] in what Miller and Fox call a “loop model” of democratic decisonmaking.[xxix]  The top-down hierarchy and step-by-step looping process are thus assumed to provide the structure and regularity which allow for the generalizability and therefore the quantification of administrative phenomena.  As detailed above, this quantification in turn is believed to enhance the performance of administration, which in turn enhances the legitimacy of government.

Instead, this focus on narrative in public administration locates the legitimacy of the field in its responsiveness to the actual people and groups with which administrators come into contact, in particular through paying attention to the narratives – or the stories – these individuals and groups employ in expressing their different viewpoints.[xxx]  Narrative-focused administrators are still legally and ethically bound to carry out the directives given them by elected officials within the constraints established by the Constitution and the Courts in a feedback loop of decision making, but the important difference in this case is that the focus on narratives and listening promote a bottom-up impetus for administrative actions.[xxxi]  The bottom-up listening of this focus on narrative is the key to the increased responsiveness of administration to the public, thereby enhancing the legitimacy of government in the process.

[i] Beetham, D. (1991) The Legitimation of Power. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

[ii] Sharp. G. (1973) The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Part One: Power and Struggle. Boston, MA: Porter Sargent Publishers, Inc.

[iii] Scharpf, F. W. (1999) Governing in Europe: Effective and Democratic. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Gilley, B. (2006) The Meaning and Measure of State Legitimacy: Results for 72 Countries. European Journal of Political Research 45:499-525; Gilley, B. (2009) The Right to Rule: How States Win and Lose Legitimacy. New York: Columbia University Press; Rothstein, B. (2009) Creating political legitimacy: Electoral democracy versus quality of government. American Behavioral Scientist 53:311-30.

[iv] Wise, C. (1993) Public Administration Is Constitutional and Legitimate. Public Administration Review 53(3): 257-261; Spicer, M. and L. Terry (1993) Legitimacy, history, and logic: Public administration and the Constitution. Public Administration Review 53(3): 239-246.

[v] Rohr, J. (1986) To Run a Constitution: The Legitimacy of the Administrative State. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press; Rohr, J. (1998) Public Service, Ethics and Constitutional Practice. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas.

[vi] 163 U.S. 537(1896).

[vii] 347 U.S. 483 (1954)

[viii] 558 U.S. 310 (2010)

[ix] Rohr, J. (1998) Public Service, Ethics and Constitutional Practice. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas, p. 28.

[x] Wilson, W. (1887) The Study of Administration. Political Science Quarterly 2(2): 197-222.

[xi] Easton, D. (1965) A Systems Analysis of Political Life. New York: John Wiley & Sons. Inc.

[xii]Bendor, J., & Moe, T. M. (1985). An adaptive model of bureaucratic politics. American Political Science Review, 79, 755-774; Bendor, J. (1988). Formal models of bureaucracy. British Journal of Political Science, 18, 353-395; Bendor, J., Moe, T. M., & Shotts, K. W. (2001). Recycling the garbage can: An assessment of the research program. American Political Science Review, 95, 169-190; Moe, T. (1980). The organization of interests. Chicago: Chicago University Press; Moe, T. (1990). The politics of structural choice: Toward a theory of public bureaucracy. In O. E. Williamson (Ed.). Organization theory: From Chester Barnard to the present and beyond (pp. 116-153). New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press; Simon, H. A. (1948). Review of: The administrative state. Journal of Politics, 10, 843-845; Simon, H. A. (1957/1947). Administrative behavior: A study of decision-making processes in administrative organization. New York: The Free Press; Simon, H. (1966/1947). A comment on “the science of public administration”: Comment on an article by Robert Dahl. In C. E. Hawley & R. G. Weintraub (Eds.). Administrative questions & political answers (pp. 34-37). New York: D. van Nostrand Co., Inc.; Simon, H. A. (1952).  Development of theory of democratic administration: Replies and comments. American Political Science Review, 46, 494-496.

[xiii] Hood, C. (1989) Public administration and public policy: Intellectual challenges for the 1990s. Australian Journal of Public Administration 48: 346–58; Osborne, D. and Gaebler T. (1992) Reinventing Government: How the entrepreneurial spirit is transforming the public sector. Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA.

[xiv] Le Grand, J. (2007) The Other Invisible Hand: Delivering Public Services through Choice and Competition. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[xv] Radin, B. (2006) Challenging the Performance Movement: Accountability, complexity and democratic values. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press; Gregory, R. and Lonti, Z. (2008) Chasing Shadows? Performance Measurement Of Policy Advice In New Zealand Government Departments. Public Administration 86(3): 837–856; Moynihan, D., Fernandez, S., Soonhee, K., LeRoux, K., Piotrowski, S., Wright, B., Yang, K. (2011) Performance Regimes Amidst Governance Complexity. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 21: i141-i155.

[xvi] Bok, D. (1997) Measuring the performance of government. In J. Nye, P. Zeikow and D. King eds. Why people don’t trust government. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. pp. 55-76; Bekke, H. and Van der Meer, F. (2000) West European civil service systems: variations and similarities. In H. Bekke and F. Van der Meer eds. Civil service systems in Western Europe. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar. pp. 275-290; Bok, D. (2001) The trouble with government. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[xvii] Weber, M. (1978) Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. Berkeley, CA : University of California Press.

[xviii] Arendt, H. (1992) Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Penguin Books.

[xix] Adams, G. and Balfour, D. (1998) Unmasking Administrative Evil. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

[xx] Sieber, S. (1981) Fatal Remedies: The Ironies of Social Intervention. New York: Plenum Press; Scott, J. (1998) Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[xxi] Hegel, G. (1991) Elements of the Philosophy of Right. A. Wood ed., H. Nisbet trans. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.20, 389-390; Hegel, G. (1967) Philosophy of Right. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 164, 283.

[xxii] Warren K. (1993) We have debated ad nauseam the legitimacy of the administrative state – But why? Public Administration Review 53(3): 249-254.

[xxiii] Ospina, S. and Dodge, J. (2005) It’s About Time: Catching Method Up to Meaning – The Usefulness of Narrative Inquiry in Public Administration Research. Public Administration Review 65(2): 143-157.

[xxiv] Pitts, D. and Fernandez, S. (2009) The state of public management research: An analysis of scope and methodology. International Public Management Journal 12:399–420.

[xxv] Rosenau, P. (1992) Post-modernism and the Social Sciences: Insights, Inroads and Intrusions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[xxvi] DeLeon, P. (1997) Democracy and the Policy Sciences. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press; Miller, H. and Fox, C. (2007) Postmodern Public Administration. London: M.E. Sharpe.

[xxvii] Pitts, D. and Fernandez, S. (2009) The state of public management research: An analysis of scope and methodology. International Public Management Journal 12:399–420.

[xxviii] Redford, E. S. (1969). Democracy in the Administrative State. New York: Oxford University Press.

[xxix] Fox, C. J., & Miller, H. T. (1995). Postmodern public administration: Toward discourse. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

[xxx] Bevir, M. (2011). Public administration as storytelling. Public Administration, 89(1), 183-195.

[xxxi] Stivers, C. (1994). The listening bureaucrat: Responsiveness in public administration. Public Administration Review, 54(4), 364-369; Alkadry, M. (2003). Deliberative discourse between citizens and administrators: If citizens talk, will administrators listen? Administration & Society, 35(2), 184-209; Catlaw, T., Rawlings, K. and Callen, J. (2014) The Courage to Listen: Government, Truth-Telling, and Care of the Self. Forthcoming.


What is the right thing to do? Listen.

by Shea Robison

Idaho State University

As an administrator, and as a person, what is the source for good action in this world?  On the surface, this appears to be a sophistic or obtuse philosophical question, but it is a question that actually lies at the heart of not just public administration, but of living in the world itself: Not only how are we to administrate well, but also how are we to live well in this world?

Both acting and living well in this world are reasonably premised upon our actions coinciding with the true operation of the world as it actually is, or that our knowledge of the world accurately guides our actions.  The problem with such an approach in public administration is that, as evidenced by the long and ongoing history of the academic study of public administration, we do not have any such access to the Truth about the world of administration as it actually is – other than at best we only partially or contingently understand the world of administration.  The same state of affairs holds equally for the world at large, especially in ethical terms; for all the scientific knowledge we may have gained about our world through physics or genetics, for example, even these areas have unanswered questions and significant theoretical blindspots, and the tentative knowledge we do have does not of itself provide any clear-cut ethical prescriptions.  In the end, we are still left with the question of how are we to know to act and to live well in this world.

According to Michel Foucault’s close reading of the Western canon, there are two primary modalities in Western thought for living truthfully, what Foucault refers to as “Platonism” and “Cynicism,” or belief in an ideal world upon which our present world is derived versus belief that the world we are in is the only world there is.  In “The Courage to Listen: Government, Truth-Telling, and Care of the Self,” the authors rely on Michel Foucault’s rendering of these two primary modalities to suggest the latter as the proper orientation for both ethical (or ‘right’) administration and ethical living.  The authors contrast the otherworldly Platonic ‘care of the soul’ with the Cynical or Socratic ‘care of the self’ as distinguished by their emphases on the source of knowledge – Platonic knowledge is exclusive and timeless and apart from existence, while Cynical knowledge “focuses on the unique contours of material existence and sees truth as manifested through that very existence.”

The authors identify the application of this care of the self as applied to public administration through the practice of parresia, or truth-telling, first through the “questioning and testing of one’s way of life and relationship to oneself,” and second through the social practice of speaking freely in public.  In both cases, the key practice as identified by the authors is that of listening.  In the first case, the administrator listens to himself or herself in the context of his or her surroundings as the means for determining right action; in the second, through listening the administrator fosters free dialog among the parties involved in their area of administration as the means for discovering right administrative action.

This combination of personal and public listening is similar to the concept of public administration as a Nietzschean Joyful Science I have written about in a previous post.  In both approaches, the vocation of public administration is not separated from one’s actual life but rather both are intertwined in a process of personal and public realization.  The objective in both is not to divine the fundamental principles of administration, but rather to discover those principles which apply best in the perpetual process of becoming that is public administration.  Also, in both the Foucauldian and Nietzschean approaches the social and the personal depend upon one another, as personal listening and realization depends as much upon the social context for guidance as the ethical development of the public sphere depends upon persons who are engaged in this active process of personal listening.


Public Administration as a Joyful Science


Shea Robison

Idaho State University

Public administration is ultimately a means to impose order on a world that defies ordering.  The institution of government is an attempt to establish order and control over the world at large, and public administration is one of the primary means through which government attempts to exert this control.  This control is generally assumed as given in most theories and models of public administration – as manifest primarily in the relative lack of questioning or testing of this assumption of control.  However, that the history of the field of public administration has been wave after wave of different ‘solutions’ to this problem of control without consolidation is evidence enough that this assumption of consistent control is unfounded.

Acknowledging this lack of control would seem to call into serious doubt the utility or necessity of public administration as a field or a practice, which is why it is so assiduously avoided within the field.  I propose, though, that finally accepting this actual lack of control actually strengthens the field of public administration.  From this acceptance emerges a much stronger practical justification for the study and practice of public administration based on ideas elaborated by Friedrich Nietzsche in his book Die Froliche Wissenschaft, or The Joyful Science (1887),[1] in which Nietzsche recommends the constant search for an uneasy balance between an inherently subjective but life-affirming artistry versus the demythologizing systematization of science which can become life-denying if taken too far.  This new justification, though, requires a fundamental reconceptualization of both the role and the purpose of public administrators, as well as a revaluation of the field of public administration.

As mentioned before, owing to currents both within and outside the academic study of public administration, different approaches to public administration have been en vogue at different times, only to be surpassed by the next movement.  Some of these movements in roughly chronological order have been: Wilsonian calls for a depoliticized and efficient public administration (Wilson, 1887), the reductionism of scientific management (Taylor, 1911) and the POSDCORB approach to administration (Gulick, 1937; Lindblom, 1959, 1979), the formalistic of theories of organizational behavior, as typified by the work of Herbert Simon (1947),the emergence of New Public Administration premised upon recognition of the value-ladenness of public administration (Waldo, 1948),the free market-inspired New Public Management movement with its return to an emphasis on formalized efficiency combined with – at least in theory – an enhanced provision of services (Osborne and Gaebler, 1992), and the recent emergence of postmodern and post-structural critiques and recommendations (Fox and Miller, 1995), and other orientations which emphasize the historicity of institutions, the decentralization of power (Peters and Pierre, 1998; Frissen, 1999), networks of interconnectedness, and the multiplicity of perspectives.

The development of these different approaches is not as segregated as this timeline suggests, as there is significant conceptual and chronological overlap between all of these different ‘movements’ in public administration.  Still, the majority of these approaches have been the search for generalizable and objective solutions to this problem of insufficient or ineffective administrative control; even many of the postmodernist approaches often presuppose an ordering which privileges their methods as better than traditional or conventional approaches.  That this history continues, then, demonstrates that – except for the trivial or tautological details – administrative phenomena are not adequately described by any one approach, but rather are unique, irreducible, dynamic, contingent, nonlinear, and so on, except for those transient instances when they are not; otherwise, the search for solutions would have ended and the field of public administration would have moved on to consolidation.  This also means that well-prepared public administrators are those capable of recognizing and responding to the multiplicity of unique, irreducible, dynamic, contingent and nonlinear situations they will encounter.

Thus, if there are indeed a multiplicity of perspectives and no objective means to ultimately adjudicate between them, as proposed by the postmodernists (Miller, 2002; Miller and King, 1989; Wamsley and Wolf, 1996), then these modernist perspectives and methods (i.e., objectivity, top-down hierarchy, etc.)  have just as much a place in the toolkit of the well-prepared public administrator as any other.  The art of this new ‘Joyful Science’ of public administration, then, would be in recognizing the circumstances in which different tools are applicable, and in properly applying these different approaches.

Another aspect of this new Joyful public administration, as suggested by Nietzsche, is also that each administrator learn to recognize and develop his or her own unique artistic style as an administrator.  Instead of trying to remove all traces of oneself from one’s work so as to achieve an appropriately objective scientific detachment, the goal is to acknowledge and harness our individuality and inevitable subjectivity in concert with the available tools and unique administrative circumstances to create our own joyful music or art of public administration.

In this new Joyful Science, then, the history of public administration becomes neither a progressive march nor a dialectical synthesis, but rather the gradual filling of the toolbox in which the benefits and drawbacks of each new tool are elucidated through experience, and the future is open to the discovery of still other tools for an increasing number of unique circumstances.  This pragmatic perspective is not new (McSwite, 1997; Follett, 1924), but the explicit openness to all modes of knowing – especially in the acceptance of both postmodernist and modernist approaches as called for by the circumstances – may be a relatively unique addition to public administration from this Joyful Science approach to public administration.  Likewise, the explicit emphasis on the self-realization of the public administrator as an individual via his or her inevitable subjectivity balanced against the circumstances of administration as an occupation may also be a new and welcome wrinkle.

These are just a couple of the implications of this approach that remain to be worked out, but the potential for this project is quite promising.


Follett, M. P. (1924) Creative Experience. New York: Longmans, Green & Co.

Fox, C. J. & Miller, H. T. (1995) Postmodern Public Administration: Towards Discourse. London: Sage Publications.

Frissen, P. H. A. (1999) Politics, Governance and Technology: A Postmodern Narrrative on the Virtual State, New Horizons in Public Policy. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Gulick, L. (1937) Notes on the Theory of Organization.

Taylor, F. (1911) The Principles of Scientific Management.

Lindblom, C. (1959) The Science of “Muddling Through.” Public Administration Review 19(2.), pp. 79-88

Lindblom, C. (1979)Still Muddling, Not Yet Through.” Public Administration Review 39(6.), pp. 517-526.

McSwite, O. C. (1997) Legitimacy in Public Administration. A Discourse Analysis. London: Sage.

Miller, H. T. (2002) Postmodern Public Policy. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press

Miller, H. T. & King, C. S. (1998) Practical Theory. American Review of Public Administration, 28(1), 43-60

Nietzsche, F. (1887) The Gay Science. Translated by J. Nauckhoff (2001). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Osborne, D., & Gaebler, T. (1992). Reinventing government: how the entrepreneurial spirit is transforming the public sector. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co.

Persky, J. (1990) Retrospectives: A Dismal Romantic. Journal of Economic Perspectives 4(4): 165-172.

Peters, B. and J. Pierre (1998) Governance Without Government Rethinking: Public Administration. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 8(2): 223-243.

Simon, H. (1947) Administrative Behavior; A study of decision-making processes in administrative organization. New York: Macmillan Co., 1947.

Snider, K. (1998) Living pragmatism: The case of Mary Parker Follett. Administrative Theory & Praxis, 20(3), 274-86

Waldo, D. (1948) The Administrative State. New York: Ronald, 1948.

Wamsley, G. L. & Wolf, J. F. (1996) Introduction: Can a high-modern project find happiness in a postmodern era? In Refounding Democratic Public Administration. Modern Paradoxes, Postmodern Challenges, ed. G. L. Wamsley & J. F. Wolf, pp. 1-37. London: SAGE.

Wilson, Woodrow. June, 1887. The Study of Administration, Political Science Quarterly 2.

[1] Following Walter Kaufmann’s influential translation, this title is usually translated as The Gay Science; but before then it was translated as Joyful Wisdom.  I have chosen to translate Froliche as “Joyful” and Wissenschaft as “Science” as this seems to more adequately capture in contemporary vernacular the sentiment Nietzsche was trying to communicate, especially as juxtaposed against Thomas Carlyle’s famous reference to economics as the “dismal science” (Persky, 1990).


Knowledge, action and democracy

For most practicing non-MPA administrators, as well as the vast majority of regular citizens, the connection between knowledge and action in contemporary administration of democratic government involves an assumption of practical knowledge about the relevant administrative duties – including knowledge of the relevant laws – which inform the appropriate administrative actions.  For these same groups of people, a knowledge of democratic principles of decisionmaking which inform democratic actions by administrators is also assumed, but more on an implicit level; democratic action is the sine qua non for acceptable public administration, and the standard according to which actions are going be judged – but typically only when these administrative actions fall under scrutiny; otherwise, efficiency and legality are the main concerns.

This expectation of practical knowledge and action in public administration is a reflection of what Cheryl Simrell King identifies as the uniquely Western fixation on rationality, or ‘means-ends’ reasoning (King, 274).  As King details, this obsession with rationality dates back to at least Descartes and the Enlightenment.  This Cartesian rationality is constituted by belief in three things: instrumental action, objectivism, and analytical means, and is manifest as the dichotomizations of self-other, mind-body, and rationality-irrationality (generally as the juxtaposition of cool reason versus hot emotion).  This rationality is preferred because of its supposed contribution to control, with the rational mind controlling that which is irrational such as “matter, nature, animals, body, emotions, and so forth” (274).  King also invokes the dichotomization of male-female as central to this rationality, with ‘male’ representing the mind and all that is prioritized as rational, and ‘female’ as being associated with all that is irrational and therefore less valued.  

As such, King recommends a feminist ethics as the proper grounding for a more valid perspective for public administration because it emphasizes a “fundamental relational aspect of the world and the self…that is nonoppositional, nonhierarchical, and nondualistic” (279), points of view which are more reflective of the actual world in which public administrators exist.  However, the insistence by King on an exclusively feminist perspective is imperialistic and unnecessary as there is nothing inherently feminist about non-conventional viewpoints which do not dichotomize the world and which propose a more relational view of the world – there are any number of perspectives which are not premised on this fundamentally gendered feminist perspective but which can likewise produce many of these same critiques as well as similar and substantially different counter-recommendations.

King identifies many of the ontological and epistemological issues from this conception of rationality, noting that the “myths” of objectivism and analytical means have been thoroughly exposed, but that the emphasis on instrumental action remains as a practically unquestioned assumption in public administration that “good means ensure good ends,” or that good decisions emerge from “reasoned and reasonable” decisionmaking processes (273).  However, as King notes, on both neurological and political levels, it is often the case that people are moved to action by the nonrational or the passionate or emotional, and so more valid theories of public administration will incorporate this inherent nonrationality.

For example, Cunningham and Weschler suggest that modern public administration theory premised upon this linear means-ends reasoning meets the needs of staff-oriented practitioners, but not the needs of line managers who operate in fluid, complex, often chaotic and emotionally charged situations.  While staff workers “enjoy working with abstract systems [and] prefer learning the necessary technical information” so they can “coast along familiar roads,” line managers “prefer working with people [and] deal with unstable environments” (106).  Thus, according to Cunningham and Weschler, for public administration theory to provide the appropriate knowledge which will lead to better decisions, more post-modern theories like those espoused above by King, which speak to the messier reality of line managers, should be taught in MPA classes.  However, this recommendation prompts questions as to the validity of this distinction between line and staff administrators, whether they are as distinct in their preferences and whether their working environments are as different as Cunningham and Weschler suggest.

Likewise, in the end it is not clear how or why the narrative-based “associational public spaces” approach advocated for by King would produce any different or better outcomes than the modernist approaches she critiques.  King suggests that because narratives are a “fundamental human activity” (285), space for agonistic deliberation needs to be created  in public administration in which proponents of all the different aspects of a public problem can come together to tell their stories.  In this space, the ‘goodness’ of these competing accounts will be determined not by their adherence to rational principles but by their coherence, or the degree to which the stories make sense, and their fidelity, or whether the story “rings true” (286).  In such a space, according to King, “competition and gamesmanship will drop away, along with hierarchy and oppositional stances… Data and facts will be recognized as only part of the story [and] power relationships will be exposed and deconstructed” (288). 

However, this approach assumes and requires that participants will come to this space with a willingness to be transparent, to not have ulterior motives, and to be understanding of the position of others.  The main issue is that if people exhibited these characteristics in the first place these associational public spaces would naturally result, but King seems to overlook the influence of the emotionality and nonrationality in these situations which invalidate the rationalistic approaches she critiques.  It is thus not clear how King’s prescription is ultimately any different from the modernist instrumental action, or how her prescription is not also just another instance of ‘good’ means ensuring ‘good’ ends.

Works Cited

King, C.S. “Talking Beyond the Rational.” American Review of Public Administration 30.3 (2000): 271-291.

Weschler, R.Cunningham and L. “Theory and the Public Administration Student/Practitioner.” Public Administration Review 62.1 (2002): 104-110.


Knowledge, power and democracy

There are a couple of ways that knowledge is related to power.  In one very basic sense, knowledge is a means to anticipate or predict outcomes so as to beneficially control those outcomes.  Knowledge comes as a result of learning; learning practically by definition assumes that comprehension is enhanced so as to allow improved performance (e.g., it would be practically nonsensical to speak of someone learning a skill in a positive sense who then performs that skill worse than before – a  person can learn bad habits but this would be learning in a negative sense, and not something to be sought after).  Ideally, knowledge as enhanced comprehension from learning leads to enhanced control over outcomes – therefore knowledge equals power.

Another way that knowledge is related to power is in the determination about what is worthwhile or valid to learn and what is not.  As Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, in perhaps one of the most seemingly obvious observations in the history of philosophy, “the world is everything that is the case.”  But Wittgenstein then immediately followed this observation with the more nuanced declaration that “the world is the totality of facts, not of things.”  By this Wittgenstein indicated that as we can have no unmediated or pure experience of the world, any experience we do have of the world is not of the things in this world themselves but rather of our filtered representations of those things, which we organize into constructs we call facts.  Unless one is positing a transcendental spiritual faculty of pure perception, this mediation is the case in purely physical terms (i.e., our brains only experience the world as electrical impulses from our sensory organs), and intellectually (if our brains experience the world through secondhand representations, any subsequent theorizing about this world is necessarily built on these representations).  Because we have no unmediated perception of the world, all we have to work with in explaining this world are ‘clouds’ of facts.  These clouds of facts can be arranged into any number of possible patterns.  Which patterns of facts are accepted as being more representative of the world, and therefore worthy of learning for the reasons cited above, depends on many factors beyond alleged correspondence with the unmediated world.  As pure correspondence of facts with things can never be known with certainty, authoritative facts are determined by power relations between different actors; these power relations will be premised upon different factors in different contexts.

This is where theories of ontology become so important, as different ontological beliefs will interpret a given pattern of facts in significantly different ways.  Margaret Stout (2012) provides a primer of different ontologies, arranged in a 2×2 matrix categorized by what is the source of being and whether the expression of that source is static or dynamic.  From this matrix, Stout identifies four major ontological positions: Undifferentiated Individual, Differentiated Individual, Undifferentiated Relational, and Differentiated Relational.  Stout first links each of these ontological positions to distinct political forms (Classical Conservatism, Modern Liberalism, Socialism, and Postmodernism, respectively), and then to different theories of public administration based on these different ontological commitments.

In the context of public administration, Robert Denhardt (1981) proposes a critical theory of public organization, as distinct from the conventional rationalistic and positivistic instrumentalist theories which dominate the field.  These traditional theories, in both the natural and social sciences, describe the world through sets of propositions linked together by logical necessity.  These conventional theories are premised primarily upon the Differentiated Individual ontology identified by Stout, which holds that individual identities (i.e., people, instances, cases, etc.) are fixed with static properties which can be measured.  The identification and measurement of these static differences and similarities between instances constitutes scientific knowledge, and the application of this knowledge constitutes learning.

Through reference to Max Horkheimer and Jurgen Habermas in particular, Denhardt identifies how this scientific method serves specific interests and needs, “first in the control of nature, but later in the control of human beings” (629).  Habermas identifies this “purposive-rational” method of creating knowledge as intrinsically instrumental, specifically for the solution of means-ends problems.  Politically, this instrumental scientific rationality results in a narrowing of the public sphere – or the arena in which society establishes its normative agendas – to those problems which are amenable to scientific measurement.  Administratively, public management becomes a technical field premised upon the securing of predictable outcomes through scientific measurement, which in turn results in the “depoliticization of the citizenship” (631) which may not have problems which are measureable in this way.

According to Denhardt, by limiting ourselves to these measurable facts and manifest behaviors, “we implicitly endorse the social conditions which have created those facts and those behaviors,” and, in the process, “the supposedly objective analyst becomes a political actor, working in behalf of the status quo” (633).  Hence the need for critical theories of public administration which instead of controlling people “seeks to assist people in determining their true needs” through open communication (634).  For Denhardt, per Habermas, the outcomes of this decentralized critical public administration will be more democratic, and therefore better, than conventional scientific public administration.

These conclusions, however admirable, rest upon the assumption that more democracy is inherently better.  However, unless this assumption is simply accepted by fiat, it is unclear how or why democratization is either a natural outcome of openness or inherently good.  For example, Denhardt equates the democratization of social relationships – which occurs at the collective level – with the realization of “the true needs of the individual” (634), though without providing explanations for why this connection between levels necessarily holds.  As likely as the full realization of the individual is to result from this democratization, it also seems just as likely that different majorities would coalesce which would stifle individual expressions which do not coincide with the inclinations of these new majorities.  This concern for the tyranny of the majority was one of the main concerns of the Framers of the Constitution, and is not as easily resolved as assumed by Denhardt, Habermas, and so many others.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig, and C. K. Ogden. Tractatus Logico-philosophicus. Mineola, N Y.: Dover Publications, 1999.

Denhardt, Robert B. “Toward a Critical Theory of Public Organization.” Public Administration Review 41.6 (1981): 628.

Stout, Margaret. “Competing Ontologies: A Primer for Public Administration.” Public Administration Review 72.3 (2012): 388-98.