Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Particularism versus Universalism in the Brazilian Public Administration Literature

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Particularism versus Universalism in the Brazilian Public Administration Literature

Article excerpt

Introduction

The contemporary study of public administration as a separate academic discipline is generally seen as having its origins in the United States (Dunshire 1999). As the discipline spread, questions were soon raised about the applicability of lessons learned in this country. Dourival de Souza Carvalho Junior and Sylvia Constant Vergara (1996) indirectly raise the fundamental issue that will be addressed in this article: the conflict between grounding public administration in the national and local context, while avoiding a debilitating "administrative nationalism" that blinds administrators to lessons from elsewhere (135-37).

The importance of context has long been appreciated. In early development studies, Alexander Gerschenkron (1952) and Gunnar Myrdal (1971, 30-45) pointed to the different historical conditions that the industrialized world and the current crop of hopeful industrializers face. O.P. Dwivedi has written more recently that failures in development have occurred because "(1) for many years the western scholars have been unable to include the non-western contributions to developmental studies; (2) ethnocentricism and ignorance in the West have continued to overshadow the need to appreciate the role of local tradition, culture religion, and style of governance ..." (1990, 92). Similarly, Fred Riggs has argued that "a naive willingness to copy American practices and accept American advice is especially dangerous when the American presidentialist regime is equated with democracy. Precisely because the American political system, including its bureaucratic components, is so different from what is normal in other countries, both the American example and the advice given by Americans often produce results that are both unintended and disastrous" (1994, 27).

Gerald Caiden agrees with Riggs, arguing that parochialism "... afflicts too much of the study or science of public administration. Much of what purports to be universalistic is actually highly culture bound and idiosyncratic. Probably Americans are the worst offenders. Too many, ignorant of the world outside the United States, merely generalize about American public administration, not recognizing that American ideas and practices are idiosyncratic and the exception rather than the rule" (1994, 46). This all appears very healthy. Carl Meacham, however, suggests the down side of this turn to particularism is that "many non-Western transitional states reject approaches used by advanced Western nations, primarily to escape dependency in any form ..." (1999, 47).

There is a danger here, though, in throwing out the baby with the bath water. In Meacham's terms, stymied development resulting from rejecting useful lessons learned elsewhere could, paradoxically, increase dependence. In a recent article, Klinger and Washington (2000) discuss this in the U.S. case. The "ignorance of the outside world" pointed to by Caiden certainly renders dubious attempts by Americans (and other developed-world scholars) to extrapolate lessons beyond their own contexts. However, this also suggests that U.S. public administrators miss many important lessons that might be gleaned from elsewhere. For Klinger and Washington, "... parochial assumptions hinder U.S. public administrators from realizing the two fundamental advantages of an international and comparative perspective on public affairs. First, they keep us from learning from the rest of the world and from applying these lessons to our own advantage. Second, they keep us from understanding our own country in context, and from seeing ourselves as others see us" (2000, 36).

This article discusses this debate between enlightening contextual grounding and debilitating "administrative parochialism" in the Brazilian context. It will start by presenting calls by a number of Brazilian public administration scholars for what might be termed an "administrative particularism," or an assertion that universal lessons do not apply in the discipline. …

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