Political Science, Public Administration, and the Rise of the American Administrative State

By Lee, Eliza Wing-yee | Public Administration Review, November-December 1995 | Go to article overview

Political Science, Public Administration, and the Rise of the American Administrative State


Lee, Eliza Wing-yee, Public Administration Review


U.S. political science is itself a political phenomenon, and, as such, is a product of the state;... every regime tends to produce a political science consonant with itself (Lowi, 1992; 1).

The political power struggle underlying the politics-administration dichotomy...was...a monumental struggle between two thoroughly different systems of political ethics" (Rosenbloom, 1993; 504).

The relationship between politics and administration, and the boundary between the discipline of political science and public administration have been topics of perennial discussion in the field of public administration. Recent articles in the PAR have brought the discussion forward again (Rosenbloom, 1993; Whicker, Strickland, and Olshfski, 1993). For instance, Whicker, Strickland, and Olshfski discuss the extent to which public administration can learn from political science, and suggest that bridging the cleft between political science and public administration is the intellectual basis for overcoming the dichotomy.

In this article, I address these issues through a critical study of the intellectual history, not just of public administration but also of political science. The contention is three-fold. First, historically, political science has played an important role in defining the intellectual space of public administration. Examining the historical rise of political science and public administration from the late 19th century to the 1930s shows that the intellectual heritage of public administration, its theories and methods, has been highly defined by a project of the science of politics.

Second, explicating this historical relationship requires an integral picture of the historical rise of political science, public administration, and the American administrative state as dialectical relationships between intellectual ideas, political order (as norms and institutions), and material conditions. Regarding their relationships as historical and dialectical means that none of these categories are fundamental or determining of the development of others. In general, both political science and public administration arose in response to the political crisis of their time. In return, both have played crucial roles in the transformation of the liberal tradition and the rise of the administrative state.

Third, I discuss the politics of method, that is, its ontological presuppositions and political consequences. Various critiques of science have pointed to the relationship between contemporary scientific knowledge and the political order. Jurgen Habermas argues in his Legitimation Crisis (1973) that the contemporary liberal state is effectively saved by renovating liberalism with the ideology of positivist science, that is, by the scientization of politics. Lawrence (1989) also argues that a positivistic conception of science, the development of bureaucracy, and the expansion of the state grow directly out of the liberal tradition. Lowi (1992) perceives that science is an inherent part of the bureaucratic state. In this article, political science and public administration as intellectual ideas are closely related to liberalism as a set of political values and institutions. As such, liberalism is to be treated as a historically evolving institution. It consists of highly abstract values such as freedom, democracy, equality, and justice, whose concrete meanings have changed over time, often because of renovation by other nonliberal ideas. In this case, it is argued that political science and public administration have played a substantial role in the renovation.

Late Nineteenth Century

The Gilded Age Crisis of the Liberal State Numerous works on the intellectual history of American political science and social science have critically studied the origins of these disciplines. It is generally recognized that American social science emerged in the late 19th century in response to the Gilded Age crisis of the liberal state (Skowronek, 1982; Seidelman and Harpham, 1985; Ross, 1991; Lowi, 1992; Farr and Seidelman, 1993). …

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Political Science, Public Administration, and the Rise of the American Administrative State
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