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The Multidisciplinary, Interdisciplinary and Transdisciplinary Nature of Public Administration A Methodological Challenge

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Problems facing administrative systems are increasingly becoming rather complex and a discipline known to focus on understanding how administrative systems of government function and preparing people to work in such systems to promote efficiency and
  1 The African Journal of Public Affairs - Volume 9 number 9 • December 2017   The Multidisciplinary, Interdisciplinary and Transdisciplinary Nature of Public Administration  A Methodological Challenge? D E Uwizeyimana School of Public Management, Governance and Public Policy, University of Johannesburg Benon C Basheka* Uganda Technology and Management University Kampala, Uganda Citation : Uwizeyimana, DE & Basheka, BC. 2017. The African Journal of Public  Affairs , 9 (9):1-28.  ABSTRACT Problems facing administrative systems are increasingly becoming rather complex and a discipline known to focus on understanding how administrative systems of government function and preparing people to work in such systems to promote efficiency and effectiveness has to face the complexity challenge. The discipline of Public Administration (PA) must be in position to produce graduates who have the right skills, attitudes, competencies and capacities to navigate the complex environment in which service delivery is currently based. This challenge touches on a significant question, that is, whether knowledge from a single discipline can produce the right people. Some authors have previously accused PA of not being fit to be a discipline because of its ‘promiscuous’ nature as it borrows from many other disciplines to build its knowledge base. Such an accusation is likely to remain because problems of government today cannot be solved by people - civil servants and politicians with one disciplinary focus. It is for this reason that this article examines whether PA ought to be multidisciplinary , interdisciplinary or trans-disciplinary (MIT). INTRODUCTION There is a claim in the literature that Public Administration (PA) as a  discipline or field of study did not exist until 1887. Advocates of such a discourse attribute the founding of PA as a separate field of study/discipline to Woodrow Wilson’s famous  article, “ The Study of Administration ”   published in 1887 (Uwizeyimana 2011:85). Wilson’s article outlined a number of notions and demonstrated his passion to establish PA as a field  2 The African Journal of Public Affairs - Volume 9 number 9 • December 2017   of study independent of and distinguishable from politics (Uwizeyimana 2013:165). The politic-administration dichotomy was later to shape the discipline of PA in what is regarded as the first paradigm (1887-1926) (Uwizeyimana 2013:165). Today, PA as a discipline is facing a new challenge: to determine whether it is, or is not a “ Multidisciplinarity, Interdisciplinarity , or a Transdisciplinarity ”     (MIT) discipline . The approach used in this article is essentially qualitative based on a robust theoretical analysis of the existing body of literature (printed and electronic) in order to attempt to answer the following questions: Does PA’s   “MIT”   mean it has failed to take its rightful place among qualifiers ’  disciplines, inter alia , the Social Sciences, Sociology and/or Management disciplines such as Economics, Development Studies, Information Management, Business Management, Communication, Politics and Law etc.? Does it mean that scholars of PA need to acquire knowledge of other fields of study in order to complement PA and to perform administrative tasks/functions that could not be accomplished without multiple skills and knowledge? Or does MIT mean PA has become a “no man’s discipline ”  that anyone from any other discipline is able to make a “professional career  ” (in the form of professorship or admission to post -graduate degrees) without receiving formal instruction in PA’ s founding theories? What should PA’s MIT mean  in order to protect “Wilson’s legacy”  from being turned into an obsolete discipline (or field of study) to the point where it is becoming increasingly difficult to convince future generations that PA is still a field of study worth pursuing at learning institutions? How can PA co-exist with other disciplines without existing in the first place? CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK  Accordingly, as Uwizeyimana and Maphunye (2014:90- 91) put it, “Many definitions of the term ‘PA’ have been advanced by past and current scholars, and clearly there seems to be strong disagreement of what constitutes PA and its historic srcins and there seems to be disagreements on the future of PA in the domain of PA.A careful analysis of classical and contemporary literature seems to point to two important things. One, there exists Public Administration (with capital initials P and A) and public administration (in lower case) (Coetzee 2012:30). Previous research such as that conducted by Uwizeyimana and Maphunye (2014:90) suggests that: “Public  3 The African Journal of Public Affairs - Volume 9 number 9 • December 2017   administration denotes the activities performed by government (i.e., the phrase in lower case) while “Public Administration” with capital P and A implies the discipline itself”. Thus PA is about “how governments are governed” (Coetzee 2012:83) and the study of PA focuses on “what public administ ration practitioners (the people working in the public sector) do on day-to- day basis” (Coetzee 2012:83). Coetzee’s (2012:30) study concluded that, “While the advent of ‘public administration’ as an activity is as old as humanity, as a discipline it is often associated with the publication of Woodrow Wilson’s renowned 1887 essay on the subject” (see also Auriacombe 1999:57).  Currently, PA as a discipline is facing new scholarly challenges (Kwaku-Ohemeng 2014:469). These challenges range from questioning whether PA is a discipline to the questions of whether it is, or is not a MIT (SAAPAM 2015:1). (Internet Source) reports that “while disciplines in and of themselves are more or less focused practices, scholarly approaches such as multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity, and crossdisciplinarity, which integrate aspects from multiple disciplines, therefore addressing any problems that may arise from narrow concentration within specialized fields is often the greatest challen ge”. This is where the challenge of PA lies. Choi and Pak (2006:351) demonstrate that while “the terms multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary are increasingly used in the literature… they are ambiguously defined and interchangeably used” thereby creating confusion of what they really mean or should mean when applied to a specific context like that of PA. They require some understanding before their application can be debated in this article. Intensive “literature review based on dictionaries, and Google and MEDLINE (1982-2006) searches ” done by Choi and Pak in 2006 concluded that the term “ Multidisciplinarity ” as used in any field and circumstances means   drawing “on knowledge from different disciplines but stays within their bound aries” (Choi and Pak 2006:351). Another common word for “multidisciplinary” is “additive” (Choi and Pak 2006:351). A Thesaurus search shows the term “additive” to mean a “substance added to something in small quantities to improve or preserve it” or something “produced by addition”. Multidisciplinarity which is also called poly-disciplinary means joint use of multiple separate disciplines to create one composite discipline out of them (Gasper 2003:2). In the PA debate, the term “multidisciplinarity” denotes  that for public  4 The African Journal of Public Affairs - Volume 9 number 9 • December 2017   administration scholars to understand the problems in their domain, knowledge from other disciplines is helpful. To understand the poor delivery of public services, for example, the behaviour and attitudes of public officials towards their jobs is increasingly becoming an important explanatory variable and psychology as a discipline will help the PA scholar understand why public administrators may behave in a way contrary to public service norms.  According to IGI Global (n.d.:1)… the term “multidisciplinarity” refers to “ cooperation of experts from different scientific disciplines”. In multidisciplinarity , “researchers from two or more disciplines work together on a common problem, but without altering their disciplinary approaches or devel oping a common conceptual framework” (IGI Global n.d.:1). If this framework of thinking is accepted then one can argue that a particular task, project etc. can require skills from multiple disciplines (multidisciplinarity) in order to be successfully completed, thus making the completion of the task or the project to be multidisciplinary, not the people working on the task or project. The Stony Brook State University of New York (n.d. 1) defines the term “ Multidisciplinary Studies (MTD)” as a “program which  allows a student who is interested in more than one field of study to design an individual major by drawing on courses from two or three subject areas” (Stony Brook State University of New York, n.d.:1). According to this university, “The MTD major leads to a B.A. degree, and is a program of the College of Arts and Sciences” and the “teaching team of this program are drawn from people who are specialists in these different subject areas” (Stony Brook State University of New York n.d.:1). These definitions present us with the following scenarios:   A multidisciplinary discipline is a discipline that is made up of multiple (than one) disciplines;   A multidisciplinary programme is a programme that draws on more than one discipline;   A multidisciplinary task or project is the one that requires cooperation between, and skills from specialists who belong to different disciplines;   A multidisciplinary person is a person who specialises in more than one discipline. Popescu (2013:438) traces the term “t ransdisciplinarit y” to the early 1970s when Jean Piaget, a Swiss clinical psychologist “first introduced the concept at the  5 The African Journal of Public Affairs - Volume 9 number 9 • December 2017   interdisciplinarity  –  Teaching and Research Problems in Universities   Conference  held in 1970”. There is a view that “Since transdisciplinarity seems to have been developed out of multi- and inter- disciplinarity”; then the intention of PA should be “to generate an integrative view of the world and knowledge in order to understand and solve complex problems” (Van Dijk 2013:7). This is because the term “ t ransdisciplinarity” means “  m ultiple disciplinary teamwork” (Choi and Pak 2006:351). A Thesaurus search shows the term “holistic” which applies to “transdisciplinarity” suggests “all -inclusive, rounded, full, complete, general, universal, whole” (Choi and Pak 2006:351). A s Choi and Pak (2006:351) argue, “the objectives of transdisciplinarity  disciplinary approaches are to resolve real world complex problems, through providing different per  spectives on problems”. Thus, in line with Piaget (197 2:144) who defines “transdisciplinarity, as a superior stage of the interdisciplinary relationships, a stage to imply a total knowledge system without borders established among disciplines”; “ Transdisciplinarity ”  , “  integrates the natural, social and health sciences in order to create comprehensive research questions, to develop consensus … definitions and guidelines, and to provide comprehensive … services” (Choi and Pak 2006:351). Thus, unlike multidisciplinarity which relates to the tasks that require the integration of different skills and expertise held by different people who know a lot about a particular subject, transdisciplinarity is about the individual’s ability to master or know a lot about more than one subject or field of study. Transdisciplinarity in PA is important because the real complex nature of managing public affairs demands this multiple approach framework. As Van der Waldt (2012:92-93) argues, the governance concept which seems to dominate in the naming of different BPA programmes listed in Table 2 “is a product of transdisciplinarity” in which “Public Administration and Political Science are considered as its primary contributing disciplines”. “ If PA was transdisciplinary, then PA graduates, experts, scholars and practitioners would integrate knowledge from PA and knowledge from secondary disciplines such as Economics, Sociology, Law, Management Sciences, Development Studies” and many others (Van Dijk 2013:10). Van Dijk (2013:10 ) concludes her argument by stating the obvious that “The trans -disciplinary approach to teaching emphasises that no one discipline is more important or more valuable than another” and that the different subjects that are combined in the PA programme at different universities are complementary.
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