Public administration is a complex field that is shaped and developed according to the needs of people. The technical and political development of society changes the principles of interaction, which is also reflected in the approaches to administration and regulations. However, some of the fundamental principles have remained unchanged for decades. Farmer’s book The Language of Public Administration reflects the development of public administration as it shows the transition from modernism to postmodernism and presents concepts that are relevant today.
Core Concepts Presented in the Book
The book begins with the author’s reflections on the essence of language and, in particular, the language of public administration. Farmer (1995) says that language is a subjective construct of society since different peoples can describe various objects or concepts with the same word. The same idea also characterizes the language of public administration, which, according to Farmer (1995), consists of people’s different ideas about public administration arranged into a specific system. Nevertheless, the author sees the differences between the approaches to the perception of reality and truth by modernism and postmodernism.
Modernity, according to Farmer (1995), views reality as a definite entry that can be divided into parts, objectified and rationalized. Knowledge is objective and therefore accumulates to create a coherent narrative. At the same time, postmodernism sees the world through the perception of many researchers who study it from different perspectives (Farmer, 1995). For this reason, it is impossible to define the correct point of view, accumulate knowledge, and create a general narrative.
This idea also determines the approach of modernism and postmodernism to the study and interpretation of conclusions. According to Farmer (1995), modernism reflects the results, and postmodernism focuses on analyzing the lenses that gave these results. On these concepts, the author builds his reasoning about the limitations of modernism and the features of postmodernism in public administration.
Limitations of Modernity in Public Administration
The author highlights several limitations of modernity, which are barriers to effective public administration. First, the particularism or specialization of public administration makes it difficult to capture the complete picture and use beneficial characteristics outside of American, public, and administrative (Farmer, 1995). In other words, public administration focuses only on the American nation, which prevents it from using the experience of other countries and ethnicities. Moreover, the focus on public affairs discourages a relationship between the public and private sectors that could learn from each other (Farmer, 1995). At the same time, the focus on administrative functions prevents the broader picture from being captured, which limits the multifunctionality of administration needed in some cases.
The author also highlights the limitations of particularism, scientism, technologism, hermeneutics, and enterprise. According to Farmer (1995), public administration relies on a scientific approach that excludes the value statements since it cannot identify the morality grip of the central values. Moreover, technologism, hermeneutics, and particularism do not comply with the contemporary demands of organizations. As the author puts it, rationalism is based on “depersonalization of social relationships, the 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 (Farmer, 1995, p. 5). Thus, modernist concepts are limited in their practical ability to resolve postmodern problems in public administration.
Imagination is a word that describes moving from a strictly bureaucratic model and rationality. According to Farmer (1995), imagination is a key feature of postmodernism, which allows expanding the possibilities of public administration. However, modernism in which rationality plays the first role should also be part of the administration of postmodernity since it contributes to economic, technical achievements, and reasons management. Nevertheless, imagination should be primary as it allows specialists to go beyond rationality and find new effective approaches to administration.
Another idea that should contribute to the improvement of public administration is deconstruction. Farmer (1995) argues that deconstruction is needed to decompose the grand narrative that underlies public administration. Such a process will help the public to see trends or elements that could not be considered or were inconsistent. This process is necessary because people are surrounded by surreality, in which things and ideas have different interpretations depending on the point of view. Consequently, its revision and study contribute to the improvement of public administration as it reevaluates and notes relevant issues that may not have been studied before.
Deterritorialization and Existence of Other
Another central idea of the book is the elimination of language coding and the independence of public administration. According to Farmer (1995), a holistic approach to public administration will help improve its functionality and efficiency by exchanging information with other fields and interactions. This same process will assist in the deconstruction of the grand narrative that limits public administration.
At the same time, recognizing other people’s differences and thinking from different perspectives is essential to understanding the needs of society. Since the main task of public administration is to meet these needs, it must have a transparent approach to management. Farmer (1995) says that the government should take care of the needs of every citizen, be open in decision-making processes, and explain policies in a language that people can understand. These approaches must be key in postmodernism to facilitate the development of effective public administration.
Relevance of the Book’s Claims to Modern Study of Public Administration
Farmer’s (1995) conceptualization of postmodernist ideas in public administration has significant relevance to the modern study of public administration. In particular, the proposed concepts of deconstruction and imagination might help resolve administrative issues related to employee management. As evident from Litzky et al. (2006), one of the most significant complications of employee management is the attempts to reduce deviant behavior, which commonly occurs based on strict and inflexible norms and regulations.
Moreover, the omnipresence of technicality that persists in the contemporary workplace and so vigorously criticized by Farmer (1995) might be eliminated by deconstructing the managerial narrative. Therefore, if applied with the postmodernist approaches suggested by Farmer (1995), the solution might be found in consideration of multiple points of view that would allow for discovering a personalized solution for encouraging lawful behavior in the workplace.
In a similar manner, the theoretical argumentation of the relevance of postmodernist ideas in contemporary public administration is applicable to organizational theory. In particular, one of the most tentative issues in modern public administration and organizational management is the foreseeing of adverse events and planning for containment and anticipation to improve preparedness to crises (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2007). As stated by researchers, “organizational reliability depends on how well prepared the organization is to be mindfully reactive” (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2007, p. 65). Thus, since modern organizations seek to improve their reactive capacity, Farmer’s (1995) idea of deterritorialization will allow for building proactive managerial approaches based on interdisciplinary analysis and the inclusion of multiple points of view.
A similar issue applies to governmental decision-making in times of crisis. As claimed by Janis (1971), when making strategic decisions in a strictly established group, ambiguity and poor decisions are inevitable because “groupthink involves non deliberate suppression of critical thoughts as a result of internalization of the group’s norms” (p. 44). Thus, the reconstruction of a group would allow for changing the patterns in non-critical and structured thinking, which is ineffective in the modern public administration environment. In such a manner, the postmodernist approach to public administration gives practical and conceptual tools for organizations to think outside the box and develop their agility, flexibility, and creativity, which results in better effectiveness, efficiency, and functionality.
Another concept criticized by Farmer (1995), bureaucratic rationality, is also relevant to the study of public administration and becomes clearer with the application of Farmer’s (1995) ideas on flexibility, non-technicality, and imagination in public administration narrative. The generalized attention to the organizations that produced some historical crimes against humanity has been characteristic of the contemporary study of public administration (Clegg, 2006).
Within this context, organizational rationality provokes the emergence of total institutions such as the Nazi government, concentration camps, and other organizations that were enabled due to the rule of modernity principles in public administration (Clegg, 2006). Thus, the introduction of postmodernist concepts into the context of total institutions’ study might provide a basis for qualitatively new insights into effective and value-based public administration. Notably, in the context of organizational performance, Farmer’s (1995) claims to allow for investigating and clearly differentiating between individual and organizational purpose. Indeed, as stated by Katz and Kahn (1966), organizations have an ultimate general purpose which is not merely a sum of the individual purposes of the stakeholders involved in the organization.
Therefore, the application of Farmer’s (1995) ideas to the modern study of public administration allows for resolving significant theoretical and practical issues and obtaining new perspectives on long-existing problems.
Author’s Ideas’ Limitations
Despite the strengths of Farmer’s (1995) ideas on the scope and thinking patterns in public administration, there are some limitations in the author’s text. Indeed, while providing a solid theoretical discussion of how public administration research and studying should be approached, the scholar provides limited practical solutions and tools for administrators to use in their daily performance. Thus, the author provides a rather generalized universal theoretical lens through which the solutions should be found. In addition, the text is built on the assumption that modernist approaches are outdated and ineffective, which is why such concepts as regulation and control are inadequate in postmodern public administration. However, the argument seems to lack a substitution of such an important element as organizational control.
In summation, the review of Farmer’s (1995) book under the title The Language of Public Administration demonstrates the author’s emphasis on the deficiencies of modernist concepts and the benefits of postmodernist ideas in the context of contemporary public administration research and practice. It is imperative to eliminate scientism, particularism, technologism, enterprise, and hermeneutics due to their ineffectiveness and the overall limitation of proper management of organizations. Instead, such concepts as imagination, deconstruction, deterritorialization, and alterity should dominate to ensure value-driven, agile, flexible, and proactive decision-making in public administration.
Clegg, S. R. (2006). Why is organization theory so ignorant? The neglect of total institutions. Journal of Management Inquiry, 15(4), 426-430.
Farmer, D. J. (1995). The language of public administration: Bureaucracy, modernity, and postmodernity. University of Alabama Press.
Janis, I. L. (1971). Groupthink. Psychology Today, 43-76.
Katz, D., & Kahn, R. L. (1966). Organizations and the system concept. In The social psychology of organizations (pp. 257-267). John Willey & Sons, Inc.
Litzky, B. E., Eddleston, K. A., & Kidder, D. L. (2006). The good, the bad, and the misguided: How managers inadvertently encourage deviant behaviors. Academy of Management Perspectives, 20(1), 91-103.
Weick, K., & Sutcliffe, K. (2007). Principles of containment. In Managing the unexpected: Resilient performance in an age of uncertainty (pp. 65-82). John Willey & Sons.