Assessing Qualitative Studies in Public Administration Research

Published date01 July 2018
AuthorSonia M. Ospina,Marc Esteve,Seulki Lee
Date01 July 2018
Assessing Qualitative Studies in Public Administration Research 593
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 78, Iss. 4, pp. 593–605. © 2017 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.12837.
Seulki Lee is a doctoral candidate in New
York University s Wagner Graduate School
of Public Service. Her current research
focuses on accountability challenges in
collaborative governance. Other research
interests include performance management,
citizen satisfaction, and leadership. She
was the recipient of the Fulbright Graduate
Study Award 2015.
Marc Esteve is associate professor of
international public management in the
School of Public Policy, University College
London, and visiting professor at ESADE
Business School, Barcelona. His primary
research interests focus on understanding
how individual characteristics influence
decision making, specifically in
interorganizational collaborations. He has
published in journals such as the
Journal of
Public Administration Research and Theory,
Public Administration Review, International
Public Management Journal,
Sonia M. Ospina is professor of
public management and policy in New
York University s Wagner Graduate School
of Public Service, where she teaches
qualitative research methods. Interested in
participation and inclusion in democratic
governance, she does social change
leadership and social innovation research
and aims to develop collective leadership
theory. She is an elected fellow of National
Academy of Public Administration in the
United States and the Scientific Council of
the United Nations–based Latin American
Center for Development Administration.
Research Article
Abstract : Systematic reviews of research methods in the public administration field have assessed the progress of
research practice and offered relevant recommendations to further develop research quality. But most recent reviews
examine quantitative studies, and the few assessments of qualitative scholarship tend to focus on specific dimensions.
This article calls attention to the overall practice of qualitative research in the field of public administration. The
authors analyzed 129 qualitative studies published during a five-year period (2010–14) in the six top public
administration journals, combining bibliometric and qualitative analyses. Three findings are drawn from the
analysis. First, qualitative work represents a very small percentage of the journal articles published in the field. Second,
qualitative research practice uses a small range of methodologies, mainly case studies. Finally, there is inconsistency in
reporting methodological decisions. The article discusses the implications of these findings and offers recommendations
to ensure methodological rigor while considering the integrity of the logic of inquiry and reporting standards of
qualitative research practice.
Evidence for Practice
Qualitative research, based on thick descriptions of real-life settings and understandings of participants
worldviews, can help close the gap between practitioners and researchers.
Scholars should care about methodological reporting standards, as this can enhance research credibility for
policy makers.
Public administration research should increase the use of certain qualitative traditions (e.g., ethnography and
participatory action research) to enrich the interaction between researchers and practitioners.
Sonia M. Ospina
New York University
Marc Esteve
University College London
Seulki Lee
New York University
Assessing Qualitative Studies in
Public Administration Research
T he exponential growth of quantitative
research (Pitts and Fernandez 2009 ) has
been accompanied by a parallel, continued
development of qualitative research (Dryzek 1990 ;
Fischer 2003 ; Miller 2012 ; Stone 2002 ; Yanow and
Schwartz-Shea 2014 ). These trends reflect a rich
and robust tradition of empirical research in public
administration (PA). In this context, qualitative
research can be viewed as a well-established
methodology capable of answering “big questions”
in PA and helpful to strengthen the field s links to
practice (Stout 2013 ). Over time, conversations
have shifted from questions about legitimacy to
more productive exchanges around frameworks and
approaches (Riccucci 2010 ; Stout 2013 ), criteria to
improve rigor (Brower, Abolafia, and Carr 2000 ;
Dodge, Ospina, and Foldy 2005 ; Lowery and Evans
2004 ; Miller 2012 ; Stout 2013 ), and sound research
design (Cappellaro 2017 ; Schwartz-Shea and Yanow
2012 ).
This is consistent with “the explosion of reflections on
qualitative research and methodology in recent years”
in the social and administrative sciences (Blatter,
Haverland, and Van Hulst 2016 , xix). Of importance
for PA are efforts in political science (e.g., Blatter,
Haverland, and Van Hulst 2016 ) and management
(e.g., Boisot and McKelvey 2010 ) to bolster
appreciation of good qualitative research practices and
their potential contributions to knowledge generation.
The primacy of quantitative methodologies in most
disciplines demands that we continue to ensure that
both types of research have equal standing regarding
the legitimacy of knowledge claims generated by
empirical research (Blatter, Haverland, and Van Hulst
2016 ; Ospina and Uhl-Bien 2012 ).
Periodic assessments of research practice can
contribute to this goal. However, the most recent
comprehensive assessment of PA qualitative studies
dates from 2000 (Brower, Abolafia, and Carr 2000 ),
with a smaller effort reported in 2004 (Lowery and
Evans 2004 ). As of today, there is no systematic
answer to how the overall practice of qualitative
research has evolved since these reviews were
published. Indeed, we do not even know whether
This manuscript was originally submitted
and accepted as
Research Synthesis
The feature editor, Michael McGuire, is
gratefully acknowledged for their work
in soliciting and developing this content.
Effective with Volume 78, the
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