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Staking My Claim on

the Study of Public Administration


A Reflection on PAT-Net
Laura Hand
Arizona State University
As a newcomer to the PAT-Net Conference, I had no idea what to expect.
I was intrigued by the conference theme, Alternative Ways of Thinking
about Democratic Public Administration and Policy, because it seemed to
bridge a gap in my educational experience. I had a traditional public policy
curriculum during my masters degree and found the explanations of human
behavior and the narrow definition of scientific inquiry, especially in regard
to policy evaluation, to be extremely dissatisfying and at odds with my own
experiences and worldview. This particular theme for the PAT-Net Conference could not have come at a better time in my educational career because it
exposed me to a range of ideas that can seem illegitimate in the instrumental
and positivist field of public administration and public policy but are anything
but illegitimate for me.
In the graduate student workshop prior to the conference, one of the
workshop leaders recommended that as future academics, we should not only
identify our research interests and agenda but also think of those interests in
a much broader way; we should have a position on what public administration as a functioning system within a democratic society means to us. That
advice stuck with me throughout the conference and well beyond. It is easy
to become ensnared in some of the traditional, intractable arguments of public
administration: qualitative versus quantitative, practice versus theory, questions of legitimacy, and so on. But perhaps this advice gives us a way out of
those traditional arguments or at least gives them less traction, or maybe even
makes them irrelevant. For example, in one of the panels, someone commented
that qualitative research is often defined as not quantitative. This was a
revelation to me (showing my navet, Im sure) because defining qualitative
research in that way defines it in terms of quantitative research, rather than
allowing it to stand on its own. Realizing that this type of definition keeps me
embroiled in the quantitative/qualitative debate is the first step toward getting
out of it. I applied it to my own thoughts about my research agenda and found
similar definitions in my own thinking of my work. I was defining my point

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Administrative Theory & Praxis / March 2011, Vol. 33, No. 1, pp. 106107.
2011 Public Administration Theory Network.
1084-1806/2011 $9.50 + 0.00.
DOI 10.2753/ATP1084-1806330106

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of view about public administration in a democratic society in terms of what


it is not instead of what it is. I began to realize that defining my work in this
way did not allow for the levels of creativity, passion, uniqueness, and possible
application I saw in many of the panels. It allows us to break from the status
quo and stake our own claim on the study of public administration. It allows
us to be a part of our research rather than as a supposed objective observer.
This advice was in evidence in many of the panel presentations, where the
presenters own meaning making within the realm of public administration
did not have to be decoded but was out in the open. It created the possibility
for critical reflection on the presentation that focused on ideas rather than
being bogged down in numbers or sample size or external validity concerns.
For me, this was the alternative way of thinking about public administration
and public policy; the idea that the researcher can come out from behind the
written word, from behind the safety of numbers and significance tests and
sample sizes, and assert what public administration means for him or her in
a democratic society.
As a student, I felt very welcome in a situation that could have been very
intimidating. All of the giants of the field were very generous with their time,
advice, and constructive comments, and I never felt like I was anything but a
full, participating member of the Network.

Laura Hand is a Ph.D. student in the School of Public Affairs at Arizona State
University. Her research interests include the exploration of critical theory in
public policy design, research methods, social equity, and citizen engagement.
She holds a masters degree in public policy from Arizona State University.

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