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Critical and Interpretive Public Administration

The bundle Futures of public administration, or Toekomst van de bestuurskunde (Karré, Schillemans, Van der Steen, & Van der Wal, 2017), argues that public administration is mainly developing itself as a science that focusses on what Burawoy (2005) calls ‘professional’ and ‘policy’ types of knowledge. The majority of public administration research, in other words, produces knowledge that is either aimed at refining existing bodies of knowledge, or deals with practical questions posed by policymakers. Critical, reflective, normative public administration research that adds to societal debates and questions the power of administrations is less prominent (Ringeling, 2017). Critical public administration or political science, like the professional branch, primarily seeks to make theoretical contributions. What differs is that it does so by explicitly questioning the paradigms that inform both the theory and practice of public administration (Bovens, 2016; Triantafillou, 2017).

Interpretive approaches to public administration focus on ‘the meanings of policies, on the values, feelings and/or beliefs which they express, and on the processes by which those meanings are communicated to and ‘read’ by various audiences’ (Yanow, 1996, pp. 8-9). Often, interpretive studies are strongly grounded in fieldwork, as its practitioners study the different levels of administrative, political, or organizational life up close and personal; representatives, public managers, policy makers, frontline workers, citizens on the receiving end, or the interactions between them (Rhodes et al. 2007; Yanow 1996; Yanow 2000; Van Hulst et al. 2016; Rhodes 2011). Research focuses on daily practices of actors in the field or on particular processes, typically zooming in on the sense-making, framing or storytelling they engage in.

Critical and interpretive research in public administration form a broad family – to some, they go hand in hand, others portray themselves as engaging in one, but not necessarily the other. They find each other in a shared ambition to explore, at a rather fundamental level, the way in which actors “construct the world through acting on beliefs they also construct”(Bevir & Rhodes, 2010, p. 73). Researchers draw on each other’s work and have a similar focus on unraveling deeper meanings. Both fields also problematize the idea of the objectively knowable (Wagenaar, 2011).

The objectives of this colloquium are to:

Form a community of interpretive and critical scholars within the field of Public Administration and Political Science.

  • Build a secure environment in which junior and senior scholars can receive and give feedback on work in progress, such as papers, manuscripts with an R&R, book proposals, and applications for research grants.
  • Facilitate cooperation between scholars – both junior and senior – resulting in collaborative research projects, joint publications, and/or the organization of panels at national and international conferences.
  • Facilitate philosophical and theoretical exchange between scholars beyond concrete research output, with the aim of strengthening the field and our knowledge of critical and interpretive public administration and political science.
  • Further the development of research methods usually employed within these approaches, such as ethnography, framing analysis, discourse analysis, etc.
  • Improve the participants teaching of critical and interpretive approaches.
  • And in the long term, improve critical and interpretive administrative and political research in the Netherlands and Flanders.

In order to achieve our goals, we propose the following activities:

  • Organize meetings alternating between three themes, all held twice a year:
    • MAKE – The Paper Sessions. This includes one panel at NIG’s annual work conference and a working day in spring. During these meetings, both senior and junior members have the possibility to present and discuss papers.
    • THINK– Barstool Philosophy. Meetings for theoretical discussions of our field of study. Explore theoretical avenues, reflect on the state of the discipline or discuss conceptualizations.
    • DO – Evolving Methods. Meetings to reflect on the practice of conducting critical or interpretive research in the field of public administration. Discuss methodological issues regarding data gathering and analysis and reflect on the position of the researcher.

The latter two meetings are mainly aimed at young scholars (PhD and assistant professors), have an informal nature, and are not necessarily based on papers; they exist to explore ideas more freely.
We make a budget request to facilitate and support the meetings (rent of space, catering costs), which will be the main activity to achieve our goals.

  • Invite a prominent scholar in the field for at least two of our meetings, to inspire with teachings on new developments in theory or methods, to contribute to our discussions from a broader or different perspective, to comment and critically reflect on our work and progress. We make a budget request to cover costs for travelling and accommodation.
  • Organize a recurring panel at the NIG annual work conference, and additional panel sessions at international conferences such as ECPR, International Public Policy Conference (ICPP), EGPA, and IRSPM. 
  • Contribute to NIG education in the form of an elective course for the PhD training program.
  • Publish proceedings of the research colloquium in an edited volume or special issue (to be published towards the end of the colloquium duration). Next to this publication we also strive for journal publications in international peer-reviewed academic journals

 With the colloquium, we expect to generate the following output:  

  • Improved professionalization of scholars using a critical or interpretive approach.
  • Attract at least 25 participants per annum for the two MAKE sessions.
  • A recurring panel at the NIG annual work conference.
  • An elective course for PhDs at the NIG training program.  
  • Publication of a special issue or edited volume and journal publications in international peer-reviewed academic journals.
  • 3 conference panel sessions co-authored by two or more members of the colloquium at international Public Administration and Political Science conferences, for example ECPR,  International Public Policy Conference (ICPP), EGPA, and IRSPM. 

The colloquium explicitly contributes to the NIG’s overarching aim of ‘stimulat[ing], facilitate[ing], and assist[ing] the further scientific development of administrative and political science in the Netherlands’. Examples of critical and interpretive studies can be found in all four subthemes of the NIG research program (four subthemes of Multi-level governance and Europe, Multi-actor governance in complexity, Political institutions and democracy, and Public Management).