PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION by PUBLICADMINISTRATIONTHEONE is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at http://publicadministrationtheone.blogspot.in/.
Tuesday, November 15, 2016
SITUATING SOCIAL SCIENCES IN THE PHILOSOPHICAL DEBATE ON RESEARCH METHODOLOGY WITH A FOCUS ON PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION - LAVANYA SURESH
This article contextualises and locates social sciences in the
wider debate of research methodology. It goes on to narrow
down its focus to the discipline of Public Administration by
tracing its evolution and reaches the conclusion that a Kuhnian
historiography of a scientific discipline has characterised the
growth of theory in this discipline since its inception.
THE METHODOLOGY behind social science research work invariably
depends on the philosophical orientation one subscribes to. There are two
philosophical schools of thought dealt with here, the scientific school that is
geared towards “generalisability beyond spatio-temporal context” (Mukherji
2000:14) and the Hermeneutics approach which involves empathic
interpretation of reality, both have their relative strengths and weaknesses.
The scientific school of thought gained from the contributions of Karl
Popper, Thomas Kuhn and Imre Lakatos. Following are the summarised
versions of the philosophies and what each thought of others work.
The central aspect of Popper’s theory is that he sees science as a set
of distinct unconnected theories (DiCicco and Levy 1999) that may be
overturned at anytime. This he terms as “fallibilism”. (Walker 2010:438)
The strength of a theory lies in its resilience to withstand falsification rather
that in verifiability (Mukherji 2000). His concern was not with paradigm
shift as in Kuhn but on identifying anomalies so as to falsify existing theory.
Hence refutation is the mark of progress, wherein, dominant and competing
theories are pitted against each other leading to the development of science.
The two vital principals of enquiry are thus “avoiding narrow specialisation”
and maintaining a “highly critical approach.” (Wallcer 2010:439).
To summarise, Popper criticises Kuhn calling dominant paradigms
and incommensurability as myths (Walker 2010) and established an open
society characterised by multiplicity of methodologies and theories, which
ultimately are conjectures that need to be critically examined and then tested.
The results may allow for falsification which will either set aside theories
that are inaccurate or elevate those that can be empirically tested.
The limitations of this theory are pointed out by Kuhn, who criticises
falsification stating that, if any and every failure were to fit the grounds for
the rejection of a theory then all theories would be rejected. (Kuhn 1970)
Kuhn’s Revolutionary Theories of Scientific Development
Kuhn refutes the assumption that development of science is a cumulative
process and states instead that science develops by successive revolutions
from one paradigm to another. (Kuhn 1970). The interim periods are
characterised by what Kuhn calls as ‘Normal Science’ during which time
all research and all scientists are guided by a dominant paradigm, that leads
to narrow and directed research (Kuhn 1970; Walker 2010).
Paradigms may be “understood in terms of its life-cycle” (Walker
2010:435) marked by phases. The pre-paradigm phase is characterised by
debate on legitimacy of methods, problems and standards of solutions, this
actually helps define the paradigm. Once the paradigm is assimilated, the
phase of normal science appears and all decent disappears. Problems that
do not conform to the paradigm, that is anomalies, are usually ignored. The
concerns of legitimacy, etc., once more come to the forefront just before
the scientific revolution (Kuhn 1970), when the dominant paradigm is
first challenged. This phase is called as the period of crisis at which time
anomalies mount and an awareness of the same is brought about. There
shall be extensive studies into the anomalies that lead to discoveries (Wade
1977) and an alternative paradigm is proposed that ultimately brings on
The scientific revolution is therefore a “destructive-constructive
paradigm change” (Kuhn 1970:66) that leads to the development of
science. The alternative paradigm, however faces a consequent struggle
for acceptance among the defenders of the old paradigm. This stand off is
ultimately solved by “non-rational factors” (Wade 1977:144) like persuasion.
The idea of “incommensurability” (Wade 1977:144) between competing
paradigms that Kuhn emphasises at this point is central to his theory, as
a new paradigm does not build on an older paradigm, it only supplants it.
Lakatos ‘s Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes (MSRP)
Lakatos’s MSRP closely resembles Kuhn’s theory of paradigmms even
though he criticised him. To quote Lakatos, “Where Kuhn sees paradigm;
I also see rational research programmes”. (Walker 2010:436). Lakatos’s
theoretical framework describes the development of science in terms of
progressive development or degeneration (Walker 2010; DiCicco and Levy
1999). According to Lakatos, a science comprises a number of distinct and
competing series of research programmes (DiCicco and Levy 1999). Within
these research programmes he identifies certain core entities; they are as
follows (DiCicco and Levy 1999):
(i) Hard core assumptions:They are assumptions that are
‘irrefutable’ and not subject to empirical testing. Researchers
utilise the same to formulate auxiliary hypothesis;
(ii) Auxiliary Hypothesis: This is a protective belt around the hard
core assumptions, drawn from it and are subject to empirical
(iii) Positive Heuristic: Research in the programme is guided
by positive heuristic, which is “a partially articulated set of
suggestions or hints” (DiCicco and Levy l999: 686).
(iv) Negative Heuristic: Are those that “delineate the types of
variables and/or models that ought to be shunned by researchers
within a research programme because they deviate from the
assumptions of the hard core” (DiCicco and Levyl999:686).
Lakatos, unlike Kuhn, focuses on the evaluation of the progressive
nature of science. (Walker 2010). His criterion for scientific development is
seen in the light of ‘problemshifts’. Those that are consistent with hard core
assumptions are termed as intraprogram’ problemshifts and those that violate
the hard core assumptions are termed as ‘interprogram’ problemshifts and
generally initiate new research (DiCicco and Levy 1999). Hence scientific
progression has three criteria:
(i) The alternate theory must include all “unrefuted” facts of the
previous theory– “Theory of Subsumption” (Walker 2010:438)
(ii) It must predict a novel fact;
(iii) The theory should have additional corroborative evidence over
the previous theory.
Degenerating or ad hoc research programmes fail to fulfil the above
criteria. Hence like Kuhn, Lakatos also looks at the efficient growth of
scientific knowledge. (Walker 2010). However, a limitation demonstrated
by DiCicco and Levy is that MSRP fails to elaborate on the progressive
or degenerating nature of individual projects in a research programme.
(DiCicco and Levy 1999).
Relevance of Kuhn, Lakatos and Popper to Social Sciences
In discussing research methodologies social sciences often look to
Kuhn, Lakatos and Popper for meta-theoretical guides. Kuhn and Lakatos
themselves have, however, been very critical of this application of their
work. Nevertheless, Kuhn’s “paradigm mentality based on normal science
and incommensurability has been widely employed, if not internalised, by
political scientists.” (Walker 2010:436).
Lakatos is referred to by DiCicco and Levy as the, “...the metatheorist
of choice” (DiCicco and Levy 1999:676; Walker 2010). Scholars in many
fields, from international relations to economics have used MSRP. Unlike
Kuhn and Lakatos, Popper applied his ideas directly to social sciences.
(Walker 2010) and his theory of falsification has been seen as being equally
pertinent to social and as it is to natural sciences.
The hermeneutics approach has widely been applied to social science
studies. Wilhelm Dilthey and Hans-Georg Gadamar are two profound
thinkers within this school of thoughts.
Dilthey’s Hermeneutics as the Foundation of Geisteswissenschaften
Dilthey was of the opinion that hermeneutics is the foundation of
any discipline that interprets expressions of man’s life or in other words
Geisteswissenschaften (humanities). He objected to the adopting of natural
sciences methods to the study of man and instead wished to establish the
epistemology of Hermeneutics or a method to study man and understand
him (Palmer 1969).
Understanding is re-experiencing the thoughts of the author. The bases
of his theory of understanding are the concepts of utility of life, expression,
• Life is the complex fusion of feeling and will that is experienced
and needs to be understood in terms of the context of the past or
history”. Life must be understood in the experience of life itself
• An expression is the expression of the inner life of man by
way of art, language, etc., “in which the spirit of man has been
objectified” (Palmer 1969:112).
• Historicality or history can tell man what his nature is today,
though this nature is not fixed.
This gives rise to the hermeneutic circle in which understanding is
grasped from the reciprocal relation or dialogue between the whole (context)
and its parts (text), with regard to the lived experience of the interpreter or
his historicality. Or in other words, the interpretation depends on the situation
in which the interpreter himself stands and hence changes with time.
Gadamar’s Philosophical Hermeneutics
Hermeneutics to Gadamar is a philosophical process wherein
understanding is ontological or a process in man in a culture and history
and is marked by both universality and historicity. This understanding is
not reached methodologically as in Dilthey, but through a dialectic process
between tradition and one’s own self-understanding or prejudgements
Therefore, understanding functions through a relation of past, present
and future. Interpretations are based on not only what one experiences at
present, but on the tradition of interpretation that existed in the past and the
possibility it opens for the future. Language is the medium through which
history speaks. Hermeneutics then is human understanding that is historical,
linguistic and dialectical. Understanding is not “an act of man but an event
in man” (Palmer 1969:216).
A Case for a Kuhunian Approach to Public Administration
The publication of Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
in 1962 provides a “definite hallmark for identifying paradigm shifts or
revolutions” (Paine 2002) in fields of study. It enables us to gain a whole
new outlook to the development of a subject and tempts one to adopt the
same to social sciences as well. However, this application has its challenges;
Kuhn himself points to the gap between natural science and social science
(Kuhn, 1970). He “characterises the social sciences by their fundamental
‘disagreement’ over the ‘nature of legitimate scientific problems and
methods” (Walker 2010:433). Nevertheless, the auther believes that such
an application is not only possible but also advantageous as it allows for
the identification of the definite revolutionary ideas that have given new
life to a discipline over the ages. To illustrate, the author has chosen one
branch of social science–Public Administration.
Public administration has developed through a“constellation of facts,
theories and methods” (Kuhn 1970:1) that have been brought about by a
“piecemeal process” (Kuhn 1970:1). Be it the contributions of Woodrow
Wilson, Herbert Simon or Dwight Waldo, each has led the discipline in
Kuhn’s idea is explained by paradigms that are dominated by a theory.
These paradigms lead to the establishment of normal science; which is a
period wherein the dominant theory acts as the basis of research for the rest
of the scientific community (Kuhn 1970). In public administration, Woodrow
Wilson’s concept of dichotomy set the tone for the early studies in the field
(Henry 2004) and characterised the Paradigm of Political/Administrative
Dichotomy (Henry 2004)1887-1926 (Avasthi and Maheshwari 2005), Henry
Fayol’s Industrial and General Management underpinned the development
that occurred during The Principles of Administration Paradigm 1927-1937
(Henry 2004), Elton Mayo’s Hawthorne Experiment influenced the Human
Relations (Bhattacharya 2004) Paradigm 1920’s-1930’s, Herbert Simon’s
Administrative Behaviour defined the Behavioural (Bhattacharya 2004)
Paradigm 1938-1947 (Avasthi and Maheshwari 2005), and so on.
When a paradigm is established it attracts most of the next generation
researchers, who set out to further articulate it. These works based on the
paradigm do not overtly disagree with the fundamentals established by
the dominant theory (Kuhn 1970), as can been seen in the first paradigm
of Public Administration. All works, from Frank Goodnow’s Politics and
Administration 1900 right up to Leonard D. White’s Introductions to the
Study of Public Administration 1926, held true to Woodrow Wilson’s
concept of dichotomy (Henry 2004). This phase of ‘normal science’ Kuhn
states also allows for detailed and in-depth study, often developing models
and principles that facilitate the paradigm (Kuhn 1970) as was done by
Luther H. Gulick and Lyndall Urwick in the Papers on the Science of
Administration, Mooney and Reiley in Principles of Organisation and W.F.
Willoughby in Principles of Public Administration (Avasthi and Maheshwari
2005) in the Paradigm of Principles of Administration. They determined
its significant facts, matched the facts to theory and applied the same to
the problems of the time, which are the characteristics that mark Kuhn’s
literature of normal science (Kuhn 1970).
Ultimately though, the aim of normal science is puzzle solving (Kuhn
1970) or in other words, researches set out to solve the problems that
confront the paradigm. As was done by the thinkers within the Paradigm of
Principles of Administration, who set out to use the “network of concepts,
methodologies, (and) theories” (Kuhn 1970:42) of the paradigm to solve
the problem of effectiveness and efficiency that plague the times (Avasthi
and Maheshwari 2005).
But normal science does not stay the same. It has an in-built mechanism
to bring about change, for as it expands the number of novelties or anomalies
tend to increase (Kuhn 1970). Initially anomalies are ignored; as Mary
Parker Follett’s Creative Experience 1924 was during the dominance of the
Paradigm of Principles. (It was only with the coming of the next paradigm,
the Human Relations approach, that her work was recognised.) But, when
the current paradigm persistently fails to explain all puzzles the anomalies
can no longer be ignored.
These anomalies are results that “violate the paradigm-induced
expectations” (Kuhn 1970:52-53) and it brings in a period of crisis, where
in extensive studies into the anomalies occurs. This ultimately leads to the
scientific revolution. Elton Mayo’s Hawthorne experiments are a notable
example of the same. The experiments began as an attempt to prove the
efficacy of the principles that marked the Paradigm of Principles but the
results demonstrated the influence of the social and psychological factors instead, shaking the foundation of the principles school of thought
(Bhattacharya 2004). Such cases are termed as discoveries by Kuhn and
lead to revolutions. The Hawthorn studies led to the establishment of the
human relations approach which ultimately became the next paradigm.
Hence, initially only what is expected is observed, gradually an awareness
of an anomaly occurs; this awareness opens up a period of adjustment till
that time that the anomaly becomes the basis of the next paradigm and is
anticipated within it. It is then that the discovery is complete (Kuhn 1970).
After the discovery of a new paradigm and its assimilation, the
previous paradigm is discarded. But “The decision to reject one paradigm is
always simultaneously the decision to accept another” (Kuhn 1970:77) i.e.,
a previous paradigm is declared as invalid only if an alternative paradigm
is available to take its place. Hence there is no competition of theories
but a replacement of the old by an “incompatible” (Kuhn 1970:95) new
paradigm. This was illustrated in the development of public administration,
when the discipline was redefined by Herbert Simon (Bhattacharya 2004)
during the behavioural paradigm. His principle thesis was that there are no
such things as principles of administration (Avasthi and Maheshwari 2005)
and he called the principles as “no more than proverbs” (Bhattacharya
2004: 13). He provided an alternative positivistic approach in dealing with
administrative challenges, the substantial focus shifting towards ‘decision
making’ (Bhattacharya 2004). These changes are the revolutions that
characterise the development of the field. In Kuhn’s view one sees this
development as a cumulative process only when a person “writes history
backwards” (Kuhn 1970:138). Hence, advancement in a field of study is a
succession of paradigm bound periods, punctuated by revolutionary breaks
Therefore, as illustrated above, Kuhn’s scientific revolutions can
quite successfully be applied to social science. Social scientists in the past
have looked to Kuhn for methodological guides to develop the discipline
(Walker 2010) and will continue to do so in the future. As David Truman
in his presidential address to the American Political Science Association
(APSA) stated, the application of Kuhn’s concepts of paradigm is a very
helpful means to regenerate the discipline (Walker 20,0:433). Although
predominantly philosophical in its emphasis paradigm does not totally
negate sociological and psychological aspects in science, especially so for
it concerns the numbers of the community of scientists. Hence it does not
leave a small window open for humaneneutics.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Lavanya Suresh – PhD Scholar, CPIGD, Institute for Social and
Economic Change (ISEC), Bangalore.
CONTENT COURTESY - IJPA JAN- MARCH 2015