PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION IN PERSPECTIVE: EPISTEMIC PLURALISM David John Farmer, Virginia Commonwealth University Abstract: This is the keynote talk given in the Plenary Session of the May 2011 annual meeting of the Public Administration Theory Network. The conference program and site committees were chaired by Dragan Stanisevski, Thomas Bryer, and Mohamad G. Alkadry.
I want to argue, again, that epistemic pluralism including such perspectives as neuroscience is a promising strategy for transforming Public Administration’s (PA’s) language game – or, if you like, for putting PA in perspective. I also want to acknowledge in unrelated and related footnotes the power of myths in PA. To explain, let’s ask five questions. First, why start with Wittgenstein, and what’s an example of a powerful PA disciplinary myth? Second, what is epistemic pluralism? Third, what is neuroscience? Fourth, why should PA care about such a foreign discipline as neuroscience? Fifth, how can PA evaluate whether epistemic pluralism has significant benefits? First, why Wittgenstein? PA does have its set of language games, as do Economics and Philosophy and the rest of disciplines – and epistemic pluralism is directed in the shorter run at upgrading PA’s language game. Wittgenstein is well known for pointing to the nature and the significance of a language game. On nature, he points out that language is an activity or a form of life, a game, and people participate in a variety of language games; he notes that the words and the action (thinking, emoting, judging and acting – we may add) constitute the language game. For instance, a language is at least embedded, as is PA’s set of language games. It is also a game which thus is played and played with – and which is in a multiplicity of games. Others can add to Wittgenstein’s comments, like Michel Foucault, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Roland Barthes. Foucault speaks about the activity of power and normalizing in shaping what counts as truth (little t truth). Merleau-Ponty speaks of bodies as living organisms which body forth the possibilities in the world. In his account of myths of French everyday life, Barthes describes myth as a language. He explained that he started by using the word myth in what he called a traditional sense. “But,” he states, I was already certain of a fact from which I later
tried to draw all the consequences: myth is a language.” One mythology he described was entitled “Soap-powders and Detergents” – and that points to corporate as well as traditional governmental activity, e.g., deceitful pronouncements in advertising and by public relations specialists. He also wrote about the latent imperial mis-messages hidden in the depiction of a beautiful young French soldier of color gazing at the drapeau francais and listening to the Marseillaise, with adoration on his young face – with emotional effect in the breast of any of us lovers of France. Myths are part of our PA and other language games. On significance of language games, there is Wittgenstein’s well known claim that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (Wittgenstein, 1922). Although the meaning seems fairly obvious, let’s give three examples – starting with the technicist or practical example mentioned in the conference program for the doctoral program. Thanks to Richard, Tom and Jennifer and the participants. I enjoy pronouncing the word praaac-tical. Also I choose it, because having to stay within the lines of obvious practicality does rule out from its world even practical ways of thinking like “thinking as play.” As I mention the three examples, I wonder if you would mind playing with the following questions. I would say “Yes” to each. Do you yourself have many (or one) language game? Is that the same for PA? Do your language games relate to the intellectual, emotional, aesthetic and the biological? Are there levels of languages (and myths), with some being more powerful than others? If the limits of my language limit my world, does the limits of my world also limit my language? Are languages chosen mainly for unconscious reasons, e.g, including maintaining my comfortable life? Do you think that Wittgenstein means that you should do what it takes to understand your own language, being ready to tweak it? Well, I think so. For example 1, turn to the mythic language limit that PA-speak must be obviously practical, limiting the scope of practicality, e.g., perhaps to what is perceived as practical. Mythic language tends to be open-ended, and we do notice that what is considered practical by a G-S 1 (not many of them in the Federal Government) is not what is considered practical by a department head. Or, is practical what is considered practical by our audiences, e.g., by practical mid-level bureaucrats – constituting the highest level of virtually all of our MPA students? My PA language would thereby be limited, as the conference program describes, to favor the technicist. It would also be limited to the micro, and what works right away
(i.e. like, metaphorically, what I might do at work next Monday morning). This language game may (or may not) be covered by supplementary mythic pronouncements like (on the ASPA website) “advancing excellence in public service” or “promotes professionalism in public administration.” Is this the same or another language game (with the biological features we will mention later) that can be described in terms of common sense? How will such a language of PA as practical (or commonsensical) tend to result in limiting my world? How will it devalue the other (better: barely see the other)? For one thing, we can agree that it will devalue the long run and the macro. For another thing, it will not see as administrative issues that upgraded governmental administration seems to require. Here are two examples, and you can identify others. For instance, such a language might not attach importance to the relevance of lobbying for administrative programs (partly perhaps because its vision is limited to the middle-level manager) or the relevance for bureaucracy of the growing gap between very rich and poorer folks. The last item may appear less weird if one takes into account Wilkinson’s and Pickett’s argument that increasing wealth disparity increases certain bureaucratic needs and costs. Recall the questions about whether you have a multiplicity of languages that somehow glob together to construct you and your world, socially or unconscious or not. My PA language must include other languages, e.g., from my era, from where I live and work, from how I play. For example 2, let’s imagine it is true that your PA language is shaped to incorporate the national myths that Richard Hughes’ describes (I didn’t make them up, and I agree that other countries also have their own myths) as including the myth that the U.S. is the chosen nation, the myth of the U.S. being nature’s nation (uniquely a natural phenomenon), the myth of the U.S. being always the innocent nation (not to mention the mythic dimensions of American capitalism). Wouldn’t you tend to construct your PA world on an exceptionalist basis? How far (if at all) does such myth-constricted language limit the world of American Political Science (as in APSA) or of PA? Is this a reason why American PA recognizes that PA began with Woodrow Wilson? For example 3, a number in PA (many in PATNet) have a variety of broader language games. For the sake of practicality both narrow and broad, my interest is in tweaking these language games with epistemic pluralism. I don’t mean to imply
that epistemic pluralism is a cure-all for PA’s language games. It has a catalytic effect, but more is required to give what I would consider desirable in PA thinking, emoting, judging and action limitations. The gods are cruel and deceitful, especially when it comes to killing the language that is king. Are you happy with the umph on both the PA theory and practice sides, when you compare with (say) the economic and business language games? I didn’t say truth; I said umph – the kind of umph that mathematical economics and the cell phone business exude. I will just speak about the theory side, and ask whether it is too much to hope that PA could upgrade it disciplinary game record when it comes to openness to new ideas? (BTW, I was going to ask about PA’s game record in being invited (say) to give authoritative advice in its own disciplinary area when it comes to national issues like big government, outsourcing (in 1993), and reducing the cost of bureaucracy (in 2011). But I decided to stick with the case of new ideas. With the exception of PA at its edge, PA has exhibited what may be termed a hamhandedly dull reception to sets of new ideas like poststructuralism, postcolonialism and New Rhetoric. Don’t forget that deconstruction, as another example of something very practical, was introduced to the United States by Jacques Derrida in a 1966 seminar at John Hopkins. Despite its influence in the 1980s and the early 1990s on social sciences like political science, it wasn’t until the mid-90s that deconstruction dipped its toe into PA – and the water was a tad chilly. What in PA language games is making the emotional parts of the games chilly? I agree that PA writers will have to take the lead in laying a foundation for changing the language, and I agree that epistemic pluralism is hard. It will be difficult even for the PA discipline to change the traditional structure of its teaching to incorporate epistemic pluralism. The mythic bureaucratic response, it seems, will ever be “We are already doing that.” Second, what is epistemic pluralism? Epistemic refers to knowing, and pluralism can refer to a minimal strategy of more than one way. Rather than a minimal strategy, I understand it here as a grand strategy that refers to a multiplicity of perspectives. It is a grand but realistic strategy that reflects the late Dwight Waldo’s claim (that I like to quote) that administrative “thought must establish a working relationship with every major province in the realm of human learning”
Waldo, 1956). It is an aspiration with a long history, perhaps with too limited a history of application. I don’t mean that a single or a minimal strategy is never to be preferred, just as I don’t mean that nothing else is needed. Mainstream PA and other mainstream disciplines have yielded some valuable results without utilizing any perspectives except their own. Again, PA and most social disciplines have used one or a minimal number of different perspectives, e.g., perspectives like the political, or the psychological, or the economic, etc. These individual perspectives have also produced enriching results. Yet, by itself and in isolation, a solitary way of looking can be misleading. Similarly, a minimal strategy of using perspectives can give only parts of puzzles, parts of the road map. A grand strategy, rather than a minimal strategy, of epistemic pluralism can yield a quantum gain in understandings. It is a myth that epistemic pluralism is a form of relativism. Epistemic pluralism can yield better hypotheses for positivist exploration, or it can be used for hermeneutic purposes. Just because there are two or more perspectives does not mean that there is a relativist conclusion, any more than the existence of two roads to Chicago means that there are two Chicagos. Let’s repeat a quickie illustration. Let’s imagine that Richard Clarke (2008) is right that the homeland security function in the U.S. government suffers from the administrative problem of bloat. What could non-homeland security subjects add to the study of bloat, a problem perhaps of managing, money, effectiveness and planning? Consider possible insights from five specialties. First, couldn’t the business perspective tell us about the relevance of supply chain management (SCM). Second, couldn’t the economic perspective tell us how corporate money warps the administration of policy and co-shapes policies – buying, for instance, contracts and jobs and tax relief. Third, couldn’t the post-structural (or the postmodern) inform us more fully how the hyperreal accentuates fear. The hyperreal refers to items or events that, rather than being merely real or unreal, are more real than real. Fourth, couldn’t traditional PA (if Donald Kettl wouldn’t mind being lumped into this category) mention the existence of the catch-22 problem of homeland
security administrators telling the truth about the possibility of providing absolute security – a system under stress. As fifth, couldn’t the psychoanalytic perspective offer supplementary help. As this conference has mythology in its title, let consider Carl Jung’s compensation view of myth, for instance. He described this in “Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies.” Jung does not see all myths as psychological; but he does describe myths as “original revelations of the preconscious psyche, involuntary statements about unconscious psychic happenings, and anything but allegories of physical processes.” He talks about the UFO, among other things, as a collective projection that creates meaning, where flying saucers are the traditional symbol for wholeness – the mandala. To offer a simplified account of his meaning, it was a myth that was popular in the dawn of the nuclear age when the two halves of the world faced the fate that for the first time each could destroy the whole of humanity. Apparently, it was terror for those without myth. Clearly, there are yet other perspectives. The preference in my 2010 book (Farmer, 2010) was to use eleven perspectives. These perspectives were PA from a traditional perspective, from a business, from an economic, from a political, from a critical theory, from a post-structural, from a psychoanalytic, from a neuroscience, from a feminist, from an ethical, and from a data (or philosophy of science) perspective. These perspectives were used to identify insights about five PA elements that were used as vehicles, as it were, for examining implications for PA theory and practice. The five vehicles were the different kinds of planning, the different kinds of management, the meaning and relevance of what underlies public administration (e.g. the social construction of relevant societal beliefs and attitudes), the scope of public administration, and the extent of imaginative creativity in public administration – considering not only the mid-level. As I’ll mention later, the five set of implications have to be synthesized on a hermeneutic basis. Third, what is neuroscience? Neuroscience may well be “the” science of the twenty-first century. It has produced – and is creating – spectacular results. As we all know, neuroscience is the variety of specialties that study the brain – the central and the peripheral nervous systems – and the relationships of these organs
to such activities as remembering, thinking, behaving, judging, deciding and feeling. (This seems a large part of what is involved in PA.) The levels of analysis in neuroscience include the molecular, cellular, systems, behavioral and cognitive; they extend to many other divisions. Other social sciences are way ahead of PA in using neuroscience. Neuroeconomics has existed on the margin of economics for more than a decade. And, true to form, political science trails after economics but before PA. Sorry to re-emphasize this. It is important to recognize that the biology of the brain is shaped by its experience. Yes, our three-pounds of brain is biological; but it is more than that. Not only biological but also social, psychological, and spiritual and other factors shape and re-shape the functioning of the brain. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s capability of adapting, through re-wiring the 100 billion or so neurons in the average brain – more than the stars in the sky, they tell us.The brain is shaped and re-shaped by its experiences. To illustrate this feature, it is also pleasing to repeat that, as we listen to anyone’s words and as we talk (or write), neuroscientists claim that our own brains are changing. Fourth, why should PA care about neuroscience? Neuroscience can be helpful at both the PA macro and the micro levels, in both the shorter and the longer runs. Ideology, aggression, creativity, morality, individual differences and sense of identity are among topics of relevance to PA. There are huge and vibrant literatures on each of these topics in neuroscience. As one example, there is a book (Tancredi, 2005) entitled Hardwired Behavior: What neuroscience reveals about morality.As another example, there is Brain and Culture: Neurobiology, ideology, and social change (Wexler, 2006). Richard Restak has claimed that neuroscience will “revolutionize how we think about ourselves and our interactions with other people.” The subtitle of his book (Restack, 2006) is How the emerging neurosociety is changing how we live, work, and love I have quoted him and listed his seven brain-based developments providing new societal capabilities, e.g., brain scans for certain jobs, tests to reveal private tendencies and thoughts, and chemical enhancers to stimulate wants. For the PA managing element, couldn’t the literature of neuroscience be relevant when considering the nature of the administrative person? This literature describes
the role and functioning (as indicated earlier) of such brain parts as the amygdale and the thalamus in processing fear. For example, there is the somatic marker hypothesis. Couldn’t PA specialists revisit the functioning of fear in bureaucratic life, in view of the neurobiology of fear. For instance, doesn’t this relate to issues like courage in bureaucracy, and even undue deference by some subordinate employees (even full professors with little to lose) to their supervisors. For what underlies the practice and study of PA or any other discipline, aren’t many administrative and other beliefs shaped within the brain? The mirror neuron system (functioning when we look one another in the eyes and when we look at another’s actions) is implicated in inducing copying behavior between humans. Does this not suggest how a PA language could be led to conclude that the brain unconsciously shapes the idea that “familiar and common sense information is probably true information,” especially when common sense is unanalyzed? Again, doesn’t this have relevance not only for discouraging undesirable, but also encouraging desirable, behavior? I sympathize with those who want a massive restructuring of the discipline. I don’t sympathize with those who, as a step on the way, want to establish a more limited union of disciplines, e.g., I have written as a limited discipline that of neurogovernance. I agree with Bacon, Descartes, Kant, Hegel and Comte and our contemporaries like the biologist E.O. Wilson that the fragmentation of knowledge distorts knowledge. In subjects like PA, the distortion is as great as in any. I applaud attempts, largely vain and counterproductive, of the National Science Foundation – and before it national agencies like the Social Science Research Council in the 1920s – to work toward the lost unity. But an obvious problem for a larger or a narrower union is that complete victory is unlikely: the cats are out of the bag. I don’t think it is really adequate to seek such broadening of scopes primarily organizationally – seeking salvation through either a massive or a less massive top-down structure of disciplinary reform. I do see epistemic pluralism as a feasible opportunity to avoid the bureaucratic solution. If that leads eventually to re-restructuring, that is fine. But meantime, a more attractive aim (helped by the catalytic power of neuroscience) is shorter term – major language game tweaking, with powerful programmatic results.
Fifth, how can PA evaluate whether epistemic pluralism has significant benefits? Try it, for the shorter run. Play with the possibilities. The shorter run aim is an expansion, through epistemic pluralism, in PA’s language game. Those who write have to take the lead, or not. Here are two possibilities. First, try listening to people at this conference talking about mythologies and jot down in your mind ideas about PA that are suggested by myth theory. I wouldn’t be amazed if a conference called “Mythologies of Governing” generated implications for PA from insights from the myth theory perspective, unless the conference ignores its theme. Some of us approach myth from a traditional point of view, e.g., perhaps like Ovid or Vergil thinking of myth as emotionally and aesthetically pleasing but as intellectual nonsense. But I suggest trying more up-to-date myth theory. Here is an example. I look forward to hearing about the relevance of theorists of myth and rituals, many stressing the primacy of ritual over myth. Maybe someone at this conference might decide to draw conclusions from the parallel between bureaucratic and ritual procedures (aren’t bureaucratic procedures rituals, and aren’t rituals bureaucratic procedures, or some or all?), doing so by considering the duo of ritual and language in a proand anti-administrative way. Is there is a parallel or equivalence between procedure and ritual (visit any bureaucracy), and what else does that imply (if anything) for PA? Second, here is another (and unrelated) possibility. Try it, or not. All you need is a sheet of paper and a pencil. Down the left side of a sheet of paper, list perspectives with which you are familiar – or alternatively (say) twelve perspectives. If you wish, you can copy the eleven perspectives I use in the book “Public Administration in Perspective: Theory and Practice through Multiple Lenses” (Farmer, 2010). It is helpful to choose an additional perspective of your own, e.g., evolutionary biology or even myth theory. Typically disciplines contain more than one variety or branch: I recommend choosing whatever is mainstream. Across the top of the page, list one or two – or alternatively (say) six sub-parts or elements of PA. Again if you wish, you can choose the elements I chose - planning, managing, what lies underneath PA, the scope of PA, and imaginative creativity within PA. Yet again, it is helpful to choose an additional element – e.g., a particular focus like Big Government, or Outsourcing, or Cost.
The object of the exercise would be to fill in the boxes with notes from each perspective for each of the elements. For instance, what is an implication of Psychoanalysis for PA planning? I claim it’s that PA planning should recognize the unconscious more than it does. What is an implication of psychoanalysis for PA managing? My first choice is to ask for understanding of Psychoanalytic Organization Theory. What is an implication for what underlies PA? My choice is to ask whether there is an unconscious workplace. And so on. The goal is to interpret the perspective, as Paul Diesing (1991) explains for hermeneutics, to fit all the details into a consistent and coherent message that fits into the context. It is to interpret the relevance of the perspective for PA, which might be different for the original aim of the perspective, e.g., to impact a targer set of non-PA issues, rather than to help PA. Try it in different ways. A possibility is to ask students to start with such a set of boxes, and they can start with group work to begin the process. Another possibility is to continue to amend the notes during the semester. Students (or others) can begin by imitating and borrowing from my book, but they are asked to develop their own candidate items – and develop their own justifications in sheets on each box. Sometimes the students amaze me with what they can achieve; at other times, not so. The most interesting part is often when perspectives contradict one another. Imagine how insights from (say) the economics or politics or business perspectives might compare and contrast with those from the critical theory, post-structural, psychoanalytic, ethical, feminist and the neuroscientific. Imagine what (say) neuroscience would (and will) contribute. When that first exercise is completed, at least three others remain. The first is to summarize and synthesize the implications for each of the elements or sub-parts of PA. The second is to synthesize what has been learnt for PA as a whole, using the insights for further reflection. (I spare students and moi from doing anything additional of a positivist nature, but that could be done – possibly – in terms of creating and testing the more interesting hypotheses that might emerge). The third exercise is to reflect on – to contemplate one at a time - substantive conclusions the students or you have reached. This procedural description makes it seem that the exercises described are bureaucratic, ritualistic – as if creative imagination and reading and excitement
were not required. Let me re-play the last exercise to make the point at least for high-key creative imagination being recommended. In contemplating a substantive conclusion, one alternative – or not - is to follow neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen’s advice to reflect while walking on a treadmill and to start by practicing imagining. Riding the treadmill induces neurons to fire, and I have often fantasized (maybe next semester) about taking a class to the gym. She also recommends pumping up the imagination by getting outside yourself. If you are like Einstein, imagine yourself riding on a photon; if you like cars, imagine yourself as a carburetor. The reflection can move to reflecting on your own lived and work experience, if you think it might be relevant. Does this synthesized point conflict or agree with my examined lived and work experience? In this case, is my examined common sense (in Franklin’s words) vernacular, constructed or projected reality? Is an alternative lived and work experience feasible? (I don’t mean to suggest that the work and lived experience is always the complete loser; but neither is a complete winner). Then go on to contemplate the application, reflect on it being applied in X and then in Y – now or within 40 years. Then reflect on the proposition itself by itself. And so on. Alternatively, students as a start (or you) can write an analytical paper in a parallel fashion – or not – that discusses the implications for PA of (say) three perspectives and that synthesizes the implications for PA as a whole, pointing out examples of important implications excluded from such a minimal approach. Let me end with two questions. First, do you really have confidence that PA theorizing has the umph and the resources it needs over coming years in its language game, and that its language game cannot be enriched by the addition of epistemic pluralism? Second, why did Dwight Waldo, not a reckless person, write that “administrative thought must establish a working relationship with every major province in the realm of human learning?” References Clarke, Richard (2008). Your government failed you: Breaking the cycle of national security disasters. New York: Harper. Diesing, Paul (1991). How does social science work? Reflections on practice. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburg. Farmer, David John (2010). Public Administration in perspective: Theory and practice through multiple lenses. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe.
Restak, Richard (2006). The naked brain: How the emerging neurosociety is changing how we live, work, and love. New York: Harmon. Tancredi, l. (2005).Hardwired behavior: What neuroscience reveals about morality. New York: Cambridge University Press. Waldo, Dwight (1956). Perspectives on administration. Tuscaloosa: Alabama: University of Alabama, 1956. Wexler, Bruce (2006). Brain and culture. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT. Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1922). Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. London and Henley, United Kingdom: Routledge and Kegan Paul.