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Author's Note: This paper was originally written and presented in 1999 as both a critical reflection on Public Administration's ongoing "identity crisis" and a rather (often too harsh) assessment of several recently published works that seemed exemplary of the problem being highlighted. Although some aspects of the argument made in the paper did find an outlet (see Dubnick, 2000), its length and contentious tone meant it was unlikely to find a mainstream outlet for publication. Nevertheless, it did circulate among colleagues and generated some collegial and published reaction (see Bogason et al., 2000). Eventually relegated to a location at the author's website, it continued to circulate via intermittent downloads, with notable increases in "hits" at the beginning of each academic term. It seems that over the years it became required reading in a number of doctoral seminars at various institutions, and as some graduates of those programs have taken up positions at other institutions, the paper's life and influence (for good or bad) has been sustained.
With the advent of online journals such as the Journal of Public and Nonprofit Affairs (JPNA), it became logistically possible to consider publishing a lengthy piece such as "Demons…," and I was pleasantly surprised when the editors approached me about revisiting the paper for possible publication. As flattering as the suggestion seemed, the prospect of undertaking what might be regarded as the longest "revise and resubmit" in history was daunting, not merely due to the length and complexity of the paper and its thesis, but also because my views of the field and works (and "gatekeepers") I critiqued have modified and mellowed somewhat. What we did agree on was to have JPNA publish the original paper (with a few very minor tweaks) along with some external commentary. The result is that what you are about to read has not been "updated" as to facts, and especially as to opinion; moreover, you will not find a reference in the bibliography more recent than 1999. That said, I hope some of the arguments offered can still prove valuable to those who, like me, are committed to the future of our field.
For the past half-century, those defining the field of Public Administration in their role as its leading "theorists" have been preoccupied with defending the enterprise against the evils of value-neutral logical positivism. This polemical review of that period focuses on the Simon-Waldo debate that ultimately leads the field to adopt a "professional" identity rather than seek disciplinary status among the social sciences. A survey of recent works by the field's intellectual leaders and "gatekeepers" demonstrates that the anti-positivist obsession continues, oblivious to significant developments in the social sciences. The paper ends with a call for Public Administrationists to engage in the political and paradigmatic upheavals required to shift the field toward a disciplinary stance.
Political science, public administration
Journal of Public and Nonprofit Affairs
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
Dubnick, Melvin J. “Demons, Spirits, and Elephants: Reflections on the Failure of Public Administration Theory.” Journal of Public and Nonprofit Affairs 4, no. 1 (2018): 59-115.
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