The New Sciences of Administration: Chaos and Quantum Theory
Overman, E. Sam, Public Administration Review
The "new sciences" - chaos and quantum theory - have attracted considerable attention from scholars across a spectrum of academic disciplines. Before his untimely death, I asked E. Sam Overman to prepare an essay that explains what the new sciences are and how they relate to public administration theory and practice. This essay is published below. Professor Overman's essay provides context for the two review essays that immediately follow.
Looking beyond reinvention and post-bureaucracy for a moment, the more interesting developments on the frontier of administrative theory and practice are in what are collectively called the new sciences. New science is a general term for the theories and ideas being generated in separate scientific disciplines like physics and biology that do not exactly conform to classic Newtonian scientific explanations. Chaos theory and quantum theory are both examples of new sciences. As this and the following essays only partially attest, the new science literature is already significant and rapidly growing, especially into the areas of administration, management, and public policy. So what? What are the ideas of the new sciences and what are their implications for the new science of administration?
It is obvious that scientific thought and experiment have always had a strong influence on administrative theory and practice. Based on the ideas of men like Newton and Maxwell or Darwin and Linnaeus, science developed and refined not just specific theories of gravity and electricity or evolution and classification, but large-scale ways of thinking upon which we base our inquiries in many other disciplines, including the social, political, and administrative sciences.
Whether used as metaphor or method, classic scientific thinking had a profound impact on administrative theory. To define public administration, for example, Woodrow Wilson relied on the exclusivity of politics and administration, the indivisible administrator, and the objectivity of law. To design and implement management methods, Frederick Taylor relied on fixed time and space, the primacy of physical reality, and simple causal relationships. Finally, Max Weber's rational bureaucratic image of specialization, clear lines of authority, and rule-based procedures mirrored the ideals of logical empiricism in the scientific community.
Yet during the last century, science itself has changed, and the new sciences challenge not just the assumptions of our older, established scientific theories, such as evolution and atomism, but also our logic and assumptions about the nature of reality and life. The problem is that the great majority of what we know as the administrative sciences has not changed, but instead remains wedded to the old Newtonian language and logic of scientific determinism.
The new sciences of physics, biology, and psychology as well as new theories of chaos, quantum mechanics, or cognitive psychology now lead us to rethink and reformulate a new science of administration for the 21st century, not just reinvent the old one. This is not a new administrative science based on a crude form of physics envy, but a careful reconsideration and reformulation of the administrative phenomena that surround us in our everyday lives.
There is not one sentence, one paragraph, or even one book that can tell us what the new sciences are. They are a very loosely coupled set of ideas and findings that indicate some fundamental transitions in our thinking about the world. But, taken together, the theories and ideas of the new sciences presented here portend a new administrative science as well. The most passionate advocates of the new science go so far as to say that twentieth-century science will be remembered for just three things: relativity, quantum mechanics, and chaos (Gleick, 1987; 4-5). In these essays, we examine the last two of these and their implications for a new administrative science.
The modern administrator probably knows chaos best from first-hand experience. …