The Herbert Thesis Revisited: A Critical Commentary

By Martinez, Thomas | Public Administration Review, July-August 1997 | Go to article overview

The Herbert Thesis Revisited: A Critical Commentary


Martinez, Thomas, Public Administration Review


Twenty Years after Adam W. Herbert offered an insightful analysis of role demands and pressures experienced and perceived by minority public administrators, Murray, Terry, Washington, and Keller (1994) set out to revisit and test Herberes thesis. Their stated purpose is to empirically examine: "Whether Herbert's theory was still applicable given the myriad of technological, political, and social changes that have occurred in the United States over the past 20 years. More specifically, we were interested in how minority public administrators view their role in relation to the demands and dilemmas described by Herbert. In other words, have the perceptions of minority public administrators changed over the past 20 years or have they remained relatively the same" (Murray et al., 1994, 410).

For all those interested in the propositions set forth or inferred from Herbert's work, a 20-year retrospective is most welcome. It should allow us to explore the continued applicability of his work and assess it in light of what we have since learned. However, the study of Murray and his associates contains several weaknesses that limit a sound reassessment. First, its stated purpose is to revisit Herbert's thesis to determine whether the perceptions of minority administrators have changed. However, this is misleading because Herbert offers a theoretical discussion not a test. Thus, only the applicability of Herbert's theory, not change, can be tested. Second, the methodology and reporting of findings on the most critical area (i.e., the testing of Herbert's role determinants model) includes no tables, no statistical analysis beyond frequency and mean response data on selected items and, through errors of omission, raises more questions than are answered. For example, the representativeness of the sample appears to be assumed, but it is not discussed, despite apparent errors. And, third, because the 51-item survey questionnaire itself is not presented in whole or in part, readers are largely to accept that the instrument validly measures and tests Herbert's model. This is of particular concern given the study interpretation of findings and its confidence in conclusions. On several points the study appears to misinterpret Herbert's propositions such that the validity of the instrument for the testing of Herbert's work is left open to question.

Beyond simple criticism of the methodology, the more important question here is, what is missed by this treatment? First, the study may not advance Herbert's work as it does not explore its underpinnings in administrative and/or governmental theory, nor in the other areas of the social sciences necessary for clarifying its value to the study and practice of public administration. Second, it may not advance the application of social science research methodology necessary for the empirical investigation of such critical constructs as role, role expectations, and role conflict as attributed to minority administrators by Herbert.

In the final analysis, the study may overlook the greater value of his work. That is, Herbert's contribution is not the offering of a definitive framework for retesting. Rather, the questions he raises and his framing of the discussion has, over the past 20 years, spurred various theoretical and empirical works. Others have sought to build on his work and its explicit and implicit propositions. In this sense, the study may undervalue his work.

The Role

Determinants Model

In 1974 Herbert offered an analysis of the role demands and dilemmas influencing the role behavior of minority administrators. He identifies the conflicting expectations that may be perceived or experienced by minority administrators as they attempt to reconcile: (1) system demands; (2) community accountability; (3) colleague pressures; (4) personal commitment to community; (5) personal ambition; and (6) traditional roles.(1) While these various role demands are not unique to minority administrators, he argues that, in combination, they are particularly relevant to the conditions in which minority public administrators find themselves.

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