Esoteric, Practical or In-Between? Musings on Different Types of PA Research

Public Administration is a field that always seems to be in crisis or at least some period of transition. I have been at the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) conference for the past few days, and I am noticing a certain separation in scholarly approaches to public administration. Perhaps this separation is just another paradox, or perhaps it is something more serious, but I think (or at least hope) I am starting to wrap my head around it. Basically I see two research groups.

The first group is characterized by:

  • Research questions inspired by practice;
  • An emphasis on context over generalizability;
  • More straightforward methods;
  • The embracing of case studies;
  • Focus on local and state government;
  • Impact on practice over theory;
  • Acceptance of the chaos of politics; and
  • An embrace of ambiguity.

The second group is characterized by:

  • Research questions inspired by academic elites;
  • Experiments and more complex models;
  • An emphasis on generalizability over context;
  • Increasingly more internationally focused;
  • Emphasis on applying new methodologies to old problems;
  • Focus on theory over practice;
  • A desire to control for and/or operate outside the chaos of politics; and
  • Less tolerance for ambiguity.

I think quality research can be done using both approaches, but I worry that the emphasis on the second group among scholarly outlets will limit the practical impact of the field. To put in the form of a question, are PA scholars ceding the production of actionable research to less rigorous think-tanks and interest groups by prioritizing a more esoteric approach to research? I am painting a very broad brush here, and need to give it more thought, but fair to say this conference has me thinking about the future of PA research.


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