Deconstructing Public Administration Empiricism

Published date01 July 2007
Date01 July 2007
Subject MatterArticles
Deconstructing Public
Administration Empiricism
Larry S. Luton
Eastern Washington University, Cheney
Like much social science empiricism, public administration empiricism
at its best recognizes that it presents probabilistic truth claims rather
than universal ones.1In doing so, public administration empiricists are (to
a degree) recognizing the tenuousness of their claim that their approach to
research is better connected to reality than research that does not adhere to
empiricist protocols. To say that one is 95% confident that a quantitative
model explains 25% of the variation being studied is not a very bold claim
about understanding reality.
They are also masking a more fundamental claim that they know an
objective reality exists. The existence of an objective reality is the essential
foundation on which empiricism relies for its claim to provide a research
approach that is superior to all others and, therefore, is in a position to set
the standards to which all research should be held (Brady & Collier, 2004;
King, Keohane, & Verba 1994). In one of the most direct expressions of this
claim, Meier (2005) has stated, “there is an objective reality” (p. 664). In
support of that claim, he referenced 28,000 infant deaths in the United
States in 2000. He went on to attribute about one-third of those deaths to an
inadequate health care system. Recognizing that the one-third figure was
conjectural, he described the suspiciously rounded 28,000 number as real.
This brief anecdote points toward the direction of my argument. This arti-
cle will not challenge the existence of an objective reality; it will take an
Administration & Society
Volume 39 Number 4
July 2007 527-544
© 2007 Sage Publications
hosted at
Disputatio Sine Fine
Editor’s Note: Disputatio Sine Fine has been a popular feature of A&S, but idle for several
issues now. It seems likely that this input from Larry Luton will bring it back to vibrancy. The
issues he raises have been simmering in the field of public administration for some time. A
frank and open discussion may be helpful to all of us. We welcome responses to it. The sub-
missions should be shorter than the typical article and may be without many of the features of
an academic article, but should be something with the qualities of scholarly dialogue, with cita-
tions if the author wishes, civil in nature, and without ad hominem argument. They will be
reviewed by the editor for such qualities, but not put through the usual process of blind reviews.
agnostic position on that question because it is unclear to me whether we
can ever be certain about such a thing. The basic argument here is that
public administration empiricists’ claims to measure reality are quite prob-
lematic. Refusing to dispute the existence of infant deaths is not the same
as conceding the accuracy of an attempt to measure them.
This article’s approach will be based on close examination of some of
the best public administration empiricist research available. It will begin by
reviewing key aspects of the empiricist claim to be connected with reality.
It will then examine those aspects by focusing on specific examples of public
administration empiricist research published in top-rank peer review acad-
emic journals—examples that most any public administration researcher
would recognize as quality work. The shortcomings found in such work
can, I think, be fairly characterized as representing typical shortcomings of
public administration empiricist research.
In addition, because the value of research depends on its ability to
address important questions (cf. Lynn, Heinrich, & Hill, 2001, p. 11), this
article will focus on research that has done so. For empiricist work to make
a significant contribution to the growth of knowledge, it needs to be
thoughtfully connected to important theories and concepts. The issues
addressed by the research examined here include red tape, representative
bureaucracy, and performance measurement. It seems unlikely that many
would question whether the concepts of red tape, representative bureau-
cracy, and performance measurement have been important ones for public
administration in the last several decades. Pandey and Scott (2002) have
identified red tape research as an area where much progress has been made
in recent decades. Meier (2005) has described the past 30 years’ work on
representative bureaucracy as “high quality empirical work” (p. 663).
Performance measurement has also specifically been recognized as an
“empirical exemplar” (Miller & Fox, 2007, p. 19).
In sum, using focused attention on three narratives, this article will suggest
that because of the tenuousness of their claim to do research that is connected
to reality, the knowledge claims of public administration empiricists are suffi-
ciently weak that the field of public administration ought not perceive them as
having set the benchmarks for quality research (cf. Gill & Meier, 2000, p. 193).
The Foundational Claims of Public
Administration Empiricists
Having granted the possibility that an objective reality exists, I begin
with the empiricist claim that their work is connected to it. At its heart, that
528 Administration & Society

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