488 Public Administration Review • July | A ugus t 201 9
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 79, Iss. 4, pp. 488–499. © 2018 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
University of Mannheim, Germany
Mary K. Feeney
Arizona State University
Knowledge Construction in Public Administration:
A Discourse Analysis of Public Value
Abstract: Public administration is a relatively young field with a growing academic community. Against the
background of enduring discussions about theory and increasing research output and diversification within the field,
the authors apply the sociology of knowledge approach to discourse that combines discourse theories and a social
constructionist tradition to the exemplary case of “public value” research. The authors scrutinize 50 articles from
12 journals over 18 years to trace the development of public value as a concept in public administration research.
Drawing from this exemplary case, they develop propositions and propose a framework for knowledge construction
that is uniquely characterized as public administration. From the anchor points of manageability, economization, and
democratic accountability, the authors develop a framework for analyzing and investigating knowledge development in
other concepts such as network governance, representative bureaucracy, and coproduction.
Evidence for Practice
• Public administration knowledge construction is characterized by manageability, economization, and
• The Three Pillars of Public Administration Knowledge Construction provide a framework to interpret
knowledge developments in public administration.
• Manageability: Public administration research develops solutions for real-world problems.
• Economization: Public administration research defends collective values against the intrusion of an economic
• Democratic accountability: Public administration research and practice serve the public interest.
The social study of science is a meta-science
that targets the analysis of science itself.
The interest in and need to analyze how
knowledge construction and progress take place in
scientific communities has gained importance since
Kuhn’s (1962) research on scientific revolutions. In
public administration (PA), the scholarly debate on
knowledge construction is reflected in the discussion
of the nature, scope, and interdisciplinarity of PA
(Raadschelders 2011). Scholars have examined this
empirically, for example, by taking stock of the body
of knowledge as published in specific academic
journals (Raadschelders and Lee 2011) or by analyzing
coauthorship networks (Hatmaker et al. 2017). Yet
few studies have investigated knowledge construction
in PA as socially constructed reality (Berger and
As the intellectual diversification of the scholarly field
of PA is increasing (Nesbit et al. 2011), understanding
the question of knowledge construction is critical
for progress and theory building (Aimo 2002;
Raadschelders 2011; Riccucci 2010). Developing
fields face the challenge of sorting among and
connecting knowledge from different perspectives and
almost “endless sources of knowledge” (Raadschelders
2005, 627). As researchers, scholars, teachers, and
practitioners select among these endless sources
of knowledge, the field becomes defined by these
choices—by what is included and what is excluded.
In the case of PA, scientific progress in the field
has recently been shaped by powerful paradigms.
Predicting the future of PA scholarship, “The likely
answer is that it will look a lot like it looks now, but
with a different set of buzzwords. In the 1990s, they
were reinvention, New Public Management, and
agency” (Barzelay and Thompson 2010, 295). While
some scholars raise concerns about a loss of theoretical
progress in favor of more and more empirical research
(Meier 2015), it is increasingly important to consider
how the field develops knowledge and advances
Critical to PA theory building is addressing how
knowledge (what we know) comes into being.
A starting point for the process of knowledge
Mary K. Feeney is associate professor
and Lincoln Professor of Ethics in Public
Affairs and associate director for the Center
for Science, Technology and Environmental
Policy Studies at Arizona State University.
Her research focuses on public
management, nonprofit management, and
technology use in government.
Bernd Helmig is full professor of
business administration and chair of
public and nonprofit management at the
University of Mannheim, Germany. His
primary areas of research interest are public
management, nonprofit management, and
Franziska Wallmeier earned her
PhD at the University of Mannheim,
Germany. Her research focuses on public
management, public participation, and
qualitative research methods. She currently
works for the Hessen State Ministry for
Higher Education, Research and the Arts, in