The Language of Public Administration: Bureaucracy, Modernity, and Postmodernity

The Language of Public Administration: Bureaucracy, Modernity, and Postmodernity

by David John Farmer

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Coping with the practical problems of bureaucracy is hampered by the limited self-conception and the constricted mindsets of mainstream public administration thinking. Modernist public administration theory, although valuable and capable of producing ever more remarkable results, is limiting as an explanatory and catalytic force in resolving fundamental problems about the nature, size, scope, and functioning of public bureaucracy and in transforming public bureaucracy into a more positive force.

This original study specifies a reflexive language paradigm for public administration thinking and shows how a postmodern perspective permits a revolution in the character of thinking about public bureaucracy. The author considers imagination, deconstruction, deterritorialization, and alterity. Farmer's work emphasizes the need for an expansion in the character and scope of public administration's disciplinary concerns and shows clearly how the study and practice of public administration can be reinvigorated.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817389185
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 01/14/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 328
Lexile: 1370L (what's this?)
File size: 506 KB

About the Author

David John Farmer is Professor of Political Science and Public Administration at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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The Language of Public Administration

Bureaucracy, Modernity, and Postmodernity

By David John Farmer

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 1995 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-8918-5



A language is more than a tool for thinking, for conceiving and communicating thoughts. It is also a factory of ideas, approaches, intuitions, assumptions, and urges that make up our world view; it shapes us. Consider national language differences. When the French speak of a window, they assume a different shape than the American's window. They do not think of two rectangles, one on top of the other; rather, they think of the shape of French windows. They assume a different shape when they speak of bread; they assume a long, thin object rather than a rectangular shape. When the French speak of a legal rule, they have in mind something different from what the English mean by the same term; they do not think in terms of a particular case. Examples abound. Stamped into the code mechanism of language is substantive character, reflecting and shaping our view of the world.

Wittgenstein is among those who have made the nature of language clearer. Language, for him, is not a private affair; it is essentially public and social. It is created and maintained interpersonally by a language community, and we participate in a variety of language games. Wittgenstein gives the example of a builder and an assistant to illustrate a primitive language. The language consists of the words block, pillar, slab, and beam. The builder calls out the words, and the assistant brings the respective stone. The words and the action constitute the language game. Wittgenstein's use of the term "language game" emphasizes that the speaking of language is part of an activity or part of a form of life.

Public administration theory is, in an important sense, a language. Public administration theory certainly is a collection of substantive information. As the name implies, this collection should include at least one theory. It could also include—or it may not include—laws, hypotheses, interpretations, or other propositions. Nevertheless, public administration theory is more than a mere collection. This substantive information, which reflects what some have thought and said about public administration practice, is arranged. The arrangement does not need to be either complete or completely consistent; nevertheless, it is recognizable, and the arrangement has consequences. The idea of information being "arranged" can be recognized more easily by making a parallel with computer-stored information; information processed and retained electronically is structured by the computer program. The structuring effected by the computer program has consequences in such terms, for example, as delimiting—or bounding—the form and content of information acceptable for processing.

The way in which public administration information is arranged is the language of public administration. Part of this arrangement is expressed in what we consider to be our ordinary language; for example, our understandings are shaped and constrained by the existence, denotations, and connotations of words such as public servant, bureaucracy, and private enterprise. Another important part of the ordering is the thought patterning that has been created by the way in which public administration theory has developed, for example, in views of the scope of the subject, of acceptable methodology for pursuing the study of public administration, and of the kinds of statements about public administration that are considered to be significant information. These patterns are, to a greater or lesser degree, shared by public administrationists. They constitute the subculture of such thinkers, the language game or games of public administration theorizing. This arranging or ordering governs the way that thinking about public administration can be conducted. By influencing the way ideas can be added, this arranging tends to shape new knowledge. Governing the way in which we speak about public administration, this arranging constrains the examination of old knowledge. This arranging serves as the vocabulary, syntax, and grammar of thoughts on the subject. Viewed as a language, public administration theory reflects the welter of assumptions, intuitions, ideas, approaches, fears, and wishes that shape understandings of public administration and that guide the doing of public administration.

Exploring the possibilities and potentialities for "rearranging" constitutes an important hermeneutic activity that should be a guiding component of a reinvigorated public administration theory. Such rearrangements may be expected both at the surface and at a deeper level in the language that is public administration theory. Understanding and interpreting arrangements and underlying factors should provide insights about the forms of life of the speakers of that language. Exploring the recesses and inner logics of the language of public administration might be compared by some with interpreting dreams; it can reveal some hidden forces that shape the activities of the dreamers.

What can, and should, be done about the nature, size, scope, and functioning of public bureaucracy? How should claims about the "dead weight" of bureaucracy be understood? Can public bureaucracy be transformed into a more positive force for realizing our common dreams, improving the impact of governmental administration on both citizens and public servants? Should we aim further to invigorate public bureaucracy—to obtain the lusty benefits of enterprise in public organizations? What can be accomplished to ensure that a country's bureaucracy is an optimal contributor to, and not a drain on, the rest of society? How can governmental management be developed so that it shows greater initiative, spirit, and competence—married with ethical and effective results? These and similar questions are legitimate and pressing concerns for those wanting an improved quality of life for human beings. Such questions are also of concern to those professional public administrators who are as frustrated (no less than governmental leaders and clients) by the negative aspects of the "system." Even if all agreed on an "ism" (capitalism, socialism, or any other "ism"), a fundamental impediment to realization of the social dream would be our relative ignorance of how best to transform bureaucracy.

Public administration theory, the language of public bureaucracy, should be the dynamo that provides light on such public administration questions. A claim of this book is that modernist public administration theory, although valuable and capable of producing even more remarkable results, is limiting as an explanatory and catalytic force in resolving such pressing questions about the problems of bureaucracy. Part of the book is devoted to explaining that the logic of public administration theory, as it is, encounters limits as a matter of logical necessity. In each of five major underlying lines of development, contraries are encountered for modernist public administration theory. These five lines will be described and defined later under the headings of particularism, scientism, technologism, enterprise, and hermeneutics.

Thinking about public administration and about bureaucracy, it is argued, can work to transcend these limits. It can do so by adopting a reflexive approach toward the language of public bureaucracy, giving a keener appreciation of the nature of its own output and functioning. A reflexive language approach points to the entrapment of public administration theory in modernist assumptions. It also points up the possibilities available in postmodernity. Part of this book discusses aspects of postmodernity that have a special relevance, and it goes into detail in terms of imagination, deconstruction, deterritorialization, and alterity. By seeking to reach beyond the modernist mind-set, public administration theory can be reinvigorated.

The aim of this book is to lay the groundwork for developing more satisfactory answers to concerns (such as those raised in the questions three paragraphs ago) about the nature, size, scope, and functioning of public bureaucracy—to explore the use of a reflexive language paradigm for public administration. The word paradigm is used reluctantly, partly because it may convey the notion of a theoretical magic bullet. There is no theoretical magic bullet, no panacea, no quick fix for the problems of bureaucracy. There is no new miracle prescription, capable of being learned in one minute or not, that explains all and fits all sizes. Nevertheless, paradigm is a familiar notion in the public administration discipline, and its use, despite disadvantages, suggests the general direction in which we are heading.

The reflexive language paradigm, the reflexive interpretation this book explores for public administration, is a way of thinking consistent not only with modernity but also with postmodernity. In grammar, reflexive refers to a verb that has an identical subject and direct object. For example, he dressed himself. In philosophy, reflexivity is a feature of what has been called perspectivism. A beginning can be made by describing the reflexive language paradigm as one of individual and group engagement in a process of playful and attuned dialog with the underlying content of the language of public bureaucracy. The word playful is not intended to propose lack of seriousness; it is used to suggest the creative realization of the opportunities suggested by the essentially hermeneutic character of public administration facts. The word attuned is used to suggest the creative opportunities available within the constraints of the reflexive character of thinking and of the relationship of language to thinking. The reflexive language paradigm is applied in this book by the interpretation of public administration theory in terms of modernity and postmodernity. The rationale for the paradigm is explained in the first section of chapter 2; the character of the application in the present book is discussed in the second section of that chapter. The nature of the paradigm is explained by the account, in chapters 3 through 14, of the application of reflexive interpretation. Reflexive interpretation is not another cookbook or ready-to-hand solution; we have passed that point.

The exploration does suggest that a radical change is needed in the way that we conceptualize the role and nature of public administration theory. A companion adjustment, given only limited attention in this book, is also required in the character of the other social sciences and action programs; in the latter sense, the account given in this book for public administration can be understood as a case study of the situation facing all the social science and the action programs such as social work, education, and health administration. A sea change is necessary in our traditional modernist attitude toward understanding the role and activities of thinking about governing. Without such a root-and-branch shift in the foundations of an understanding of public administration, treatment of the sort of questions we want answered will remain unsatisfactory. The visible hand of bureaucracy will remain heavy and inept.

It is helpful to address such fundamental and practical issues of bureaucracy within the context of our changed, and changing, times. Many students of American public administration are interested in prospects and trends. For example, forecasts of the future, such as those by Toffler and Naisbitt, have been popular. Nevertheless, these sets of predictions, although they forecast amazing developments and point to a greatly changed world, do not clarify the move away from the fundamental mind-set of modernity. Other writers have described how we are passing from modernity to a new and fundamentally different era, which they have christened postmodern; others have different claims for postmodernity. For them, we have reached the end of the modern era, parallel to the end of the ancient world. As a first cut, let us choose from among the variety of descriptions of what might be meant by modernity and postmodernity; chapters 3 and 9 will add qualifications and note other views.

Modernity refers to the distinctive core of assumptions and beliefs about the power and nature of the human subject and human reason (and to related issues) that have constituted the dominant mind-set of the West for the last five hundred or so years, a period of so many technological, social, political, and economic "miracles." The project of modernity, in one view, holds up the prospect of an unlimited advance as if in response to Descartes's call to "master nature" and "enjoy the fruits of the earth without toil." It equates the new subjectivity and reason with emancipation and continuing economic, social, political, and moral progress. This equation forms and informs our day-to-day cultural milieu.

Consider Max Weber's understanding of modernity; Weber is usually accorded a prime place in histories of American public administration. Modernity, for Weber, occurs through greater rationalization. Modernist rationalization, unlike the premodern view of rationality, provides for no natural pattern to which human beings should conform; the self is unconstrained. The nature of this rationalization provides for an abandonment of substantive reason that accepts some values as givens—the sort of rationality that St. Anselm would have accepted when he commented that he was not writing for Gaunilo "the fool." The individual self is now able to choose values, objectives, and meanings freely. This rationality is also explained as meaning the following of a rule, as contrasted with impulse or chance actions. As Shils explains it, "Weber meant by rationalization the coherent ordering of beliefs and actions in accordance with a unifying central criterion.... The systemization of belief is the elimination of logical inconsistencies, the disarming of demons, the denial of magical technology, the increased comprehensiveness or generality of a theory, and the reduction of all individual instances, whatever their diversity, to the status of general classes."

As Brubaker explains, the "specific and peculiar rationalism" that distinguishes modern Western civilization includes, for Max Weber, a depersonalization of social relationships, a refinement of the techniques of calculation, an enhancement of the social importance of specialized knowledge, and an extension of technical rational control over natural and social processes. Brubaker also points out that Weber has sixteen apparent meanings of "rational": deliberate, systematic, calculable, impersonal, instrumental, exact, quantitative, rule-governed, predictable, methodical, purposeful, sober, scrupulous, efficacious, intelligible, and consistent. Benefits can be obtained from this formal rationality, but they are secured at the cost of abandoning substantive rationality. For Weber, conflicts over ends—matters of substantive rationality—have no technically rational solutions.

Postmodernity transforms established ways of thinking, although no single set of postmodernist views exists; rather, postmodernists have different views, and many of them would deny the label. No positive program, no neat system of concepts, and no promise of future benefits are proposed. The title itself is not sacrosanct; next year, postmodernity might be called something else. The variety, the negative character, and even the reservation about the name are reflected in the description of postmodernism as "the name of the congeries of negativities that end the modern epoch. It [postmodernism] is the improper name of the transition from the age of irony to the age of parody. Post-modernism names no positive program nor system of concepts; it narrates no minatory tales, evokes no originary allegories of wholeness, and builds no foundations for future utopias."

Postmodernists such as Baudrillard claim that a fundamental break with the modern era has occurred recently. Baudrillard describes those persons in postmodernity as living in hyperreality, which blurs distinctions between real and unreal. Models, in his view, replace the real. Mass media, information systems, and technology are new forms of control that change the nature of politics and life. For him, boundaries are imploding between information and entertainment, between images and politics; society itself is imploding. Postmodernity, for him, is the process of the destruction of meaning. Like other postmodernists, he criticizes the ideals of truth, rationality, foundation, certainty, and coherence. For Baudrillard, history has ended. Postmodernity is characteristic, in his words, "of a universe where there are no more definitions possible.... It has all been done. The extreme limit of these possibilities has been reached.... All that remains is to play with the pieces. Playing with the pieces—that is postmodernism."


Excerpted from The Language of Public Administration by David John Farmer. Copyright © 1995 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Table of Contents

Contents Preface 1. Introduction 2. Method: Reflexive Interpretation 3. Modernity: The Dialect 4. Modernity: Limits of Particularism 5. Modernity: Limits of Scientism 6. Modernity: Limits of Technologism 7. Modernity: Limits of Enterprise 8. Modernity: Limits of Hermeneutics 9. Postmodernity: The Dialect 10. Postmodernity: Imagination 11. Postmodernity: Deconstruction 12. Postmodernity: Deterritorialization 13. Postmodernity: Alterity 14. Epilogue Notes Selected Bibliography Index

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