Incrementalism: Dead yet Flourishing

Date01 March 2015
Published date01 March 2015
75th Anniversary
Jonathan Bendor, having earned all
of his degrees in political science at the
University of California, Berkeley, took a
job at the Graduate School of Business
at Stanford University in 1979. He is now
Walter and Elise Haas Professor of Political
Economics and Organizations there and
professor of political science, by courtesy.
He is a member of the American Academy
of Arts and Sciences and was a fellow of the
Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral
Sciences in 1999–2000 and 2004–05.
194 Public Administration Review • March | April 2015
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 75, Iss. 2, pp. 194–205. © 2015 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.12333.
Jonathan Bendor
Stanford University
Woodhouse and Collingwood’s claim is accurate, but
Bendor’s is badly of‌f the mark in an important respect:
although disjointed incrementalism no longer exists
as a clearly identif‌i ed approach to policy making, its
components, especially the “Big  ree” (local search,
iterative adaptation, and the distributed intelligence of
multiple minds) are f‌l ourishing, especially in applied
f‌i elds such as computer science and operations research.
is is relevant for an assessment of “Muddling
rough” because that paper is a work of applied
theory. Indeed, virtually all of Lindblom’s work from
1958 to 1963—“Policy Analysis” (1958), “Muddling
rough” (1959), “Decision-Making in Taxation
and Expenditure” (1961), and Strategy of Decision
(Braybrooke and Lindblom 1963)—was applied
theory, as were signif‌i cant parts of e Intelligence
of Democracy (1965) and e Policy-Making Process
(1968). We have misunderstood what he was
about.2 More importantly, we have misunderstood
what applied theory is and what its role in public
administration might be. Our collective confusion
partly explains why this vital part of Lindblom’s
work, though much cited, did not produce a vibrant
research program.
Incrementalism: Dead yet Flourishing
Editor’s Note:  is 75th anniversary essay revisits the most cited, reprinted and downloaded article in the
history of PAR . Charles Lindblom’s “ e Science of ‘Muddling  rough’” looked critically at synoptic
decision making and introduced a new strategy, disjointed incrementalism, into the social science lexicon.
In an insightful analysis, Professor Jonathan Bendor examines Lindblom’s classic article and the aftermath
of the applied theories it advanced.
Abstract: Charles Lindblom’s 1959 essay “ e Science of ‘Muddling  rough’” is best known for the strategy of deci-
sion making—disjointed incrementalism—that it recommended.  at famous paper and Lindblom’s related work
also provided two theories: a critique of the conventional method (the synoptic approach) and an argument for using
incrementalism instead. Both are applied theories: they are designed to help solve complex policy problems. Lindblom’s
negative applied theory has stood the test of time well: the empirical foundations of its main micro-component (cogni-
tive constraints of individuals) and its central macro-component (the impact of preference conf‌l ict on policy mak-
ing) have grown stronger since 1959.  e picture regarding the positive applied theory is more mixed. As a coherent
decision-making strategy, disjointed incrementalism has almost disappeared. Yet its key elements, the major heuristics
identif‌i ed in “Muddling  rough,” are thriving in many applied f‌i elds. Intriguingly, they are often accompanied by
subroutines—especially optimization as a choice rule—typically associated with the synoptic approach.
Charles Lindblom’s “ e Science of ‘Muddling
rough’” (1959) is one of the most famous
papers published in the Public Administration
Review. Long a cornerstone of organization theory, it
has been reprinted in more than 40 anthologies, and
as of March 14, 2014, Google Scholar reported 8,431
citations, which makes it one of the most cited articles
in the f‌i elds of public administration, organization
theory, and bureaucracy.  ough estimating impact is
an uncertain business, it seems clear that “Muddling
rough” has had a substantial inf‌l uence on several
generations of scholars.
Today, however, it is a spent intellectual force. Even a
casual reading of the literature in public administra-
tion and organization theory indicates that the idea
of disjointed incrementalism as a coherent strategy of
decision making is not discussed much. More than
20 years ago, two sympathetic scholars asserted that
incrementalism “has not spawned a lively research
tradition leading to cumulative ref‌i nement and
amplif‌i cation of the core concepts (Woodhouse and
Collingridge 1993, 131); a few years later, another
scholar stated that “incrementalism’s fate has been [to]
just fade away” (Bendor 1995, 819).1

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