A Century of Progress
title of the 1933 Chicago World's Fair
Science Explores, Technology Executes, Mankind Conforms
motto of the 1933 Chicago World's Fair
Enthraled with Modernity: The
Histori(2il Context of Knowledge
and Theory Development in Public
Guy B. Adams, University of Missouri-Columbia
What impact has the "culture of modernity" had on the
field of public administration? Guy B. Adams contends
that the American cultural preoccupation with modernity has shaped the study of puhlic administration into an ahistorical and atemporal field that stresses technical rationality and has limited capacity to address critical questions facing society. This approach to public administration puts its emphasis on professionalism
and the "scientific" and "rigorous" study of the field.
Adams calls for greater attention to history that produces a "genuinely open inquiry" in the field.
Much has been written in the last decade on knowledge and theory development in the field of American public administration (White, 1986; Ventriss, 1987;
Hummel, 1991; Box, 1992; McCurdy and Cleary, 1984;
Perry and Kraemer, 1986). Although beneficial, none of
these analyses has taken a self-consciously historical
approach to questions of knowledge and theory development in public administration,' This article seeks to place this discourse in its historical context.
The most important aspect of the historical context is
the culture at large within which American public
administration is practiced, researched, and taught.
Today, the culture at large may be characterized as one
of modernity (Turner, 1990; also Bernstein, 1985;
Bauman, 1989; and Rabinbach, 1990). Modernity is the
culmination of a centuries-long process of modernization. Intellectual strands of modernity reach back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but as the
defining characteristic of our own culture, modernity
coalesced only within the past century. Modernity
describes a social, political, and economic world
increasingly characterized by "...secularization, the universalistic claims of instrumental rationality, the differentiation of the various spheres of the life-world, the bureaucratization of economic, political and military
practices, and the growing monetarization of values"
(Turner, 1990, p. 6).
Our culture of modernity has as one of its chief constituents technical rationality (Barrett, 1979)- Technical rationality is a way of thinking and living that emphasizes the scientific-analytical mindset and the belief in technological progress. In the United States, the cornerstone of technical rationality was laid down just before and during the Progressive Era (1896-1920). A
confluence of two streams occurred during this period
which unleashed a flood of ideas and practices into the
social and political worid (Wiebe, 1967, pp. 145-163).
One of the two streams emerged from the then recent
history of epistemology in Western culture. This first
stream was the scientific-analytical mindset that was the
legacy of seventeenth century Enlightenment thinking.
The second stream was the product of the Great
Transformation of the nineteenth century and comprised the technological progress characteristic of this period of industrialization with its unparalleled succession of technological developments.
Public Administration Review •July/August 1992, Vol. 52, No. 4
In this article, I examine the state of historical scholarship within the field of public admihistration. The development of technical rationality, along with professionalism and the
emphasis on science and efficiency are closely examined. I
suggest that the belief system of technical rationality accounts for the persistent atemporality of social science in general and public administration in particular. The implications of atemporality for knowledge and theory development in public administration are discussed. In spite of considerable...
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