Defining the Boundaries of Public Administration: Undisciplined Mongrels versus Disciplined Purists

By Rodgers, Robert; Rodgers, Nanette | Public Administration Review, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Defining the Boundaries of Public Administration: Undisciplined Mongrels versus Disciplined Purists


Rodgers, Robert, Rodgers, Nanette, Public Administration Review


A crisis of identity has always hounded the field of public administration (Mainzer 1994; Waldo 1968). Some people worry that the field lacks focus and thus has no identity. Others worry that the field is being "slowly nibbled to death" by the behavioral sciences (Fesler 1975, 117). The truth of the matter is that public administration has always been a little schizophrenic about its identity.

Some public administration faculty members are trained in neighboring disciplines such as political science, accounting, law, management, sociology, planning, and economics. Others are trained in public administration. Some publish in a wide array of journals, including those from disciplines where they earned their Ph.D.'s. Others exclusively publish in public administration journals. What is the mix of the "disciplined purists" who were trained in public administration and tend to publish in public administration journals versus the "undisciplined mongrels" who were trained outside of public administration and tend to publish in non-public administration journals?

Our study answers this question by looking at the publishing activity of a junior faculty panel that had appointments in public administration programs beginning in the fall of 1990. First, we look at the number of faculty with degrees in public administration relative to other disciplines. Then we look at the publication activity of our panel over an eight-year period and compare the number of their publications in straight public administration journals with the number of publications in other journals. A measure of journal quality is also used to evaluate whether the quality of non-public administration journals is better or worse than public administration journals.

We hypothesize that undisciplined mongrels will publish more articles and will be cited more frequently than disciplined purists, we offer this hypothesis for two reasons. First, many of the non-public administration journals are more widely read and more frequently cited than the straight public administration journals, so articles published in those journals receive more notice. Second, we believe that the complexity of problems confronted by public administration researchers requires the creative perspectives that are more typically found with multi-disciplinary orientations.

A multidisciplinary orientation is a huge advantage to a field like public administration. Theories that illuminate understanding tend to evolve by cross-fertilizing ideas across disciplines (Mosher 1975; Waldo 1980). There has been more mingling of the hard with the soft sciences over the years and a greater integration of diverse theoretical lenses (Farmer 1995; Frederickson 1980). This is as it should be. Research that addresses technologically sophisticated policy questions simply cannot be contained within the confined boundaries of traditional scientific disciplines (Birkhead and Carroll 1980; Lindblom 1972; Stone 1990). Even specialties such as the biological sciences are an invaluable resource to the field (Savage 1974). It stands to reason that public administration research is destined to be intellectually chaotic (Stillman 1991) and conceptually untidy (Golembiewski 1977).

To summarize, the expository evidence suggests that a vast body of research in public administration spans across many different disciplines. Therefore, we expect that a significant body of work by faculty members from public administration programs will be published outside the highly restricted domain of public administration journals. We also hypothesize that the products of muitidisciplinary research should yield more important contributions to the field.

If the research of undisciplined mongrels turns out to represent the bulk of publication activity by faculty and is more frequently quoted than articles that are published in straight public administration journals, we need to revisit the current methods that are used to evaluate and rank public administration programs. …

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