Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

The Varieties of Theory and Their Roles in Public Administration

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

The Varieties of Theory and Their Roles in Public Administration

Article excerpt

The truth is that the whole fabric of our knowledge is one matted felt of pure hypothesis... Not the smallest advance can be made in knowledge beyond the stage of vacant staring, without making an abduction at every step. (Peirce, 1901) 

Claims regarding the nature of sound theory and the character of proper enquiry are conveyed by way of Master narratives (Boje, 1991), Dominant discourses (Gee, 1992), and Cultural texts (Denzin, 1992). By enabling and constraining what may be said intelligibly, these devices facilitate thought and communication. In the social sciences, these narratives, discourses and texts draw distinctions among empirical (positive) theories expressing opinions about what is the case objectively, normative (evaluative) theories expressing judgments about what is desirable or undesirable, interpretive theories seeking inter-subjective meaning, and speculative theories conjecturing beyond what is observable to what might be the case (Warren, 1989; Wagner, 1963). And the tales these narratives tell "suggest that theories grounded in certainties can and ought to replace the [other] approaches" (Warren, p. 606). For this reason, a movement is afoot to cut much of what currently weighs-in as social scientific theory from social science curricula .(Rehfeld, 2010, p. 466).

This paper argues that neglecting normative, evaluative, interpretive and speculative theory in Public Administration is a detriment to sound thinking and effective practice. Toward this end, the paper first delineates the rationale for either deemphasizing these varieties of theory or replacing them altogether with empirical theory. It goes on to identify the non-empirical assumptions and ontological commitments of empirical theory and argues that these may only be justified by interpretive, normative and speculative theories. It concludes by demonstrating how normative, interpretive and speculative theory are necessary to progress and decision-making in several kinds of administrative contexts where empirical theory cannot attain our ends. Put another way, this paper argues that the move afoot to eliminate speculative, interpretive and normative theory from social science and its curriculum is an attempt to close the theory-space of the social sciences in a way that must reduce necessarily our capacity to make certain kinds of decisions and to progress towards whatever ends we think we might wish to seek.


The subjects, objects and ends of the social sciences are multifarious, multifaceted, compound, convoluted, intricate, essentially contested, elusive, and unstable. Accordingly, the logics of enquiry are disparate and the theoretical discourses rife with values, hopes, fears and ideals. Often, these are held with some passion, and at times set forth with an exaggerating force of imagination. Additionally, the development of some theories betrays a tendency to the prescriptive rather than the descriptive and explanatory. Others include what can only be called hypotheses by analogy as they are propositions incapable of demonstration as true or false. And still others seek to advance certain concepts, principles and models as tools for comprehending behavior and establishing norms that are well beyond those that might follow straightforwardly from what is observable. Added to the mix is a tendency among a few to impart a numiniousity to ancient notions, the results of which are a "nostalgia for paradise," a bittersweet longing for the perfection and beatitude prior to the fall (Eliade, 1979, passim) that seems to be more pleasing aesthetically than illuminating.

Empirically oriented philosophers of science pose an offer of relief from the difficulties and frustrations inherent to theorizing in this milieu. A series of coherent statements is both true and worthy of the rubric theory, they propose, if (and only if) those statements both (1) correspond closely to what is observed objectively or can be immediately inferred impartially, and (2) do a respectable job of describing and explaining those observations and inferences in such a way as promises to enable us to attain our ends reliably, both now and in the future. …

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