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date: 27 June 2022

Constructivist Approaches to Public Administrationlocked

Constructivist Approaches to Public Administrationlocked

  • Nicholas C. ZingaleNicholas C. ZingaleLevin College of Urban Affairs, Cleveland State University

Summary

In 1887 Woodrow Wilson captured the challenge of public administration when he wrote, “It is getting to be harder to run a constitution than to frame one.” While he was referencing the United States, the concept is not bounded geographically or by any one form of government. What prevails is that the role of public administration is as dynamic as the political and institutional landscapes in which it resides. Subsequently, public administrators face ongoing questions on the meaning and function of their job within differing worldviews and images of government. This means having to decide on ways to implement laws, policies, and programs within situational conditions that are sometimes routine, stable, and predictable and at other times fragmented, distorted, and unique. Thus, public administrators are never too far removed from the fundamental question of how administration should come to know and understand society when having to make difficult choices. Knowledge, after all, is a sine qua non to running a government.

While the answer to this question often conjures up a methodological response, a deeper analysis suggests fundamental differences at play in terms of how knowledge, and subsequently reality, is formed. Constructivism is centered on the idea that all knowledge is subjective and socially constructed. So much so that even the hallmark of science—objectivity—cannot escape social construction, which makes absolute scientific understanding impossible. Therefore, constructivism rests on the premise that objectivity is never possible because there is no way to get fully outside of the experiences that preshape and prestructure what can be seen, thought, and analyzed.

Language itself is a preconstructed way to communicate, and while simple words like dog and cat may have agreed-upon generalities, they have highly individualized meanings. This is not unlike scientific facts, such as gravity. Science can define gravity in general terms, but individuals experience it in their own way. To the constructivist, scientific facts are no more than the facts that matter and make situational sense at that moment. The meaning of facts can change along with the situational conditions as new understandings emerge or, like the pragmatist, until something better comes along to more fully explain a phenomenon.

This creates a challenge for public administrators, who find themselves having to contend with varied situational interpretations emanating from preexisting experiences within a socially constructed world muddled with implicit bias, prejudices, and prejudgments. The profession is fraught with impeding political expectations, institutional and constitutional constraints, and unreconcilable public interests. Administrators are supposed to know what to do and how to do it. They are expected to be experts, but what justifies expertise in a socially constructed world if not knowledge and knowing? What constitutes knowledge is, therefore, a central concern to the profession and is always in question.

Constructivism is a broad field that can be traced through pragmatism (knowledge as practical application), phenomenology (knowledge as experienced and situated), postmodernity (knowledge as power), and most recently transdisciplinarity (knowledge that transcends disciplinary frameworks). Within each of these, knowledge is hermeneutically refined.

Scholars within public administration tend to adhere to particular schools of thought that often contrast constructivism and positivism as dichotomous modes of inquiry. This point of departure is not trivial, as it routinely presents a quandary on what basis to use when making effective decisions, shaping policy, understanding organizational goals, and implementing programs. These are ongoing challenges within public administration that remain unsettled. As a result, public administration is often referred to as a non- or preparadigmatic disintegrated field of study from which constructivism is as much contested as it is influential in shaping the meaning of the work and research.

Subjects

  • Governance/Political Change
  • Policy, Administration, and Bureaucracy
  • Political Values, Beliefs, and Ideologies
  • Post Modern/Critical Politics
  • Qualitative Political Methodology

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