Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Critical Social Analysis and Service Learning Methods: Investigating Social Class and Inequality through MPA Courses

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Critical Social Analysis and Service Learning Methods: Investigating Social Class and Inequality through MPA Courses

Article excerpt


Public policy and administration courses at the graduate level tend to focus on the professional development of government administrators and managers. This development is generally understood within the context of improving government efficiency and effectiveness through performance measurements and cost effectiveness (Kingdon, 1984; Lindbloom, 1980). However, little course preparation is given to skills that would help public managers better understand the power arrangements that impact the very programs that managers oversee. Arguably, doing social analysis through critical theory and service learning methods, can help as an instructional tool to bridge the gap that exists between theory and practice in the professional preparation of public managers (Martin, 2002; Martin 2003). The combination of critical social analysis and direct experience through service learning provides a much needed venue in the preparation of public managers. This approach provides for reflection on policies and programs based on the analysis of power arrangements that impact issues of race, gender, and social class.


During the second half of the nineteenth century, social scientists such as August Comte began using empirical methods to describe social change (Comte, 1875; Comte, 1876). However it was Karl Marx, during this same time period, who introduced an innovative form of systematic analysis that examined social arrangements based on the distribution of power. These arrangements were assessed on the basis of emerging industrial capitalist substructures inherent within Western society. For Marx, social criticism played a pivotal role in identifying the authoritarian trends of anti-Enlightenment traditions. Thus in The German Ideology (1845) Marx states, "The class having the means of material production has also control over the means of intellectual production, so that ... the ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant [social class]" (p. 129).

The emergence of Marxist social analysis has attempted to identify, to a large degree, the "rational" construct for Western society's economic organization, capitalism. In this analysis, Marx and his subsequent interpreters, concluded that industrial capital's prioritization of capital over labor has lead to the alienation and exploitation of people. Since capital (profit) and labor (wages) are pitted against each other, an inherent form of struggle exists between the two. For Marx, this social arrangement results in class antagonisms and serves as the basis of Marx's social analysis. Thus in The Communist Manifesto (1848) Marx states, "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in contrast opposition to one another" (pp. 158-159).

Besides Marx's approach to social analysis, other significant contributions have been made by social theorists such as Emil Durkheim and Max Weber. While he agreed for the most part with Marx's observations on class conflict, Durkhein nevertheless argued that rigid class systems tend to disappear as society becomes increasingly democratized. In The Division of Labor in Society (1933), Durkheim argued that the emergence of autonomous democratic systems can at times result from human solidarity and good will, precisely because self-interested individuals prefer social solidarity as opposed to class warfare. Durkheim viewed economic exploitation and poverty for the most part as a byproduct of a cyclical economy. In fact, Talcott Parsons in The Structure of Social Action (1937) argued that class struggle, at various moments in society, has been superseded by individuals in order to promote their mutual well-being and social cohesion. This phenomenon is examined in the empirical research of Ted Gurr who confirms the notion that the increased depravation of the oppressed tends to make them less likely to initiate any form of social upheaval. …

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