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What Constructivism Contributes to Public Administration

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Ben Tafoya
October 23, 2023

Why do we view the state of the economy through a partisan lens? We have seen for decades that whatever party controls the White House gets positive ratings from those that identify with their party. During the Obama Administration, which was guiding economic policy in the shadow of the Great Recession, 58 percent of Democrats and Democratically leaning independents replied to a Pew Center poll indicating that the Administration’s economic policies “made the economy better.” In contrast, only 9 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents felt the same even though the recession began under the Bush Administration.

The trend is the same during today’s complex economic environment, where employment is strong but inflation is still beyond Federal Reserve targets. In a CBS poll from the summer of 2023, 52 percent of Democrats indicated that the economy was good, while just 15 percent of Republicans said the same. The same CBS poll recorded reversed trends during the Trump Administration; Republican views of economic performance dramatically shifted in one month once Donald Trump took office. Their approval of the economy stayed high until the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic.

These differences in perceptions extend to opinions on automobiles. A Pew survey from the summer of 2023 found that almost 40 percent of respondents from the United States would likely consider an electric vehicle (EV) when they purchase a car. Broken down into partisan sub-groups, only 20 percent of Republicans agree, while 56 percent of Democrats would consider an EV. The same poll indicated that support among Republicans for phasing out gasoline-powered vehicles has declined over the past two years to 16 percent, while Democrats have 64 percent in favor of the action.

Understanding these differences in perceptions should be helpful to public administrators who must interact with a public split over the integrity of elections, the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion efforts and protections for the rights of the LGBTQ community. We observe the same phenomena, the state of the economy, and come to different conclusions. We are asked about our intentions regarding a major consumer purchase and respond with wide variations of opinion consistent with our partisan identification.

There is in the social science theory Constructivism, which helps us understand this matter. Simply, it tells us that our relationship with society is socially constructed. People construct knowledge through their involvement with and participation in the world around them through the perspective, values and worldview of the community in which they exist. Therefore, we are creatures of the world in which we inhabit, and that world shapes our reaction more so than the discovery of “objective” fact.

Public administrators frequently try to use the scientific method to uncover problems and gauge solutions by observing some phenomena, posing a hypothesis, crafting a research method, collecting data and then confirming or rejecting the hypothesis. It can be frustrating for the social scientist or scientific researcher when members of the media or public ignore the outcome of this process because it does not conform to their existing paradigms through which they experience the world. We have all lived through this in the ongoing response to COVID-19 around vaccines and masks.

Among the challenges for public administrators is the growing segregation of our society by points of view. While this trend did not start recently (in fact, researchers have identified an increasing divide since the 1970s), the trend is deepening each year. This situation is challenging for politicians and policymakers as they try to respond to divergent viewpoints. However, it is crucial to recognize that while geography and demography predict the majority position on an issue or value, it is by no means unanimous. Some issues call for the consideration and protection of the rights of minorities.

Some of the differences in perceptions are explained by lived experience. When the economy contracts, it eventually expands, but it takes time to recover the lost production from the recession and regain growth at trend. For those who experience unemployment during this period or those who have family, friends or neighbors who are unemployed or underemployed, their perception of economic policy may be different than those without such challenges. Similarly with inflation, while today, the rate of change in prices is significantly lower than in the summer of 2022, the overall price level is higher and still slowly growing. Like unemployment, people experience inflation in different ways and will be sensitive to an eroding standard of living should their incomes not rise enough to offset the costs.

Understanding the perception of citizens, their experiences, values and environment may help public administrators craft policies that address constituent concerns. As crucial as outcomes are, so is the process. As Zingale wrote in a review of Constructivist Approaches to Public Administration, “Constructivism holds that what matters is how governance is experienced and meaning is constructed by public administrators and the community they serve through human-derived means (e.g., language) and interpretation of lived realities.” This observation wisely argues for an inclusive discipline that accommodates diverse perspectives on needs and wants.

Author: Dr. Ben Tafoya is an adjunct faculty member at Northeastern University in Boston teaching Economics. Ben is the author of a chapter on social equity and public administration in the recently published volume from Birkdale, Public Affairs Practicum. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Threads at bentafoya . All opinions and mistakes are his alone.

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