Analytic Frameworks for Micro-, Meso-, and Macro-Level Public Administration

Written by: Sebastian Jilke, Asmus Leth Olsen, William Resh, and Saba Siddiki

Sebastian Jilke (Rutgers University), Asmus Leth Olsen (University of Copenhagen), William Resh (University of Southern California), and Saba Siddiki (Syracuse University) formed a group that was originally dubbed “Analytic Frameworks,” but soon renamed itself “Micro, Meso, and Macrobrook.” This clever name is not only a fun play on words, but a clear indication of the topic and goal of our group: to think about the field of public administration from a methodological and conceptual perspective. Our objective is to encourage scholars to be more explicit about the level of analysis (micro, meso, and/or macro) used in their research and to be more accountable in their conclusions to other levels of analysis.

For those unfamiliar, micro, meso, and macro refer to the levels of analysis used in research. Micro-level research examines individuals and individual-level interactions of various kinds, including, for example, people’s intentions, feelings, and beliefs. Meso-level research examines on the study of groups, including teams, units, and organizations. Macro-level research examines the political-administrative environment, including national systems, regulation, and cultures.

Public administration is rich with great debates about the proper level of analysis for the field. Meso level research has been (and continues to be) central to the study of public administration given that many core governance activities involve some degree of collective action (i.e., group behavior). In many respects, leading scholars began the scholarly field of public administration (at least in the West) with a meso-level focus on organizations as units of analysis (e.g., Weber 1922/1968). Herbert Simon (1946, 1947), on the other hand, advocated for how micro-level research on human decision-making should guide meso-level research on organizational behavior. Robert Dahl (1947) and Dwight Waldo (1948), in turn, were skeptical of how micro-level analyses could advance Public Administration, calling instead for further attention to macro-perspectives through the lenses of political theory and constitutional design. But, rather than taking sides, we sought to go beyond those debates by acknowledging the value of each level of analysis. Simply put, micro, meso, and macro level research can generate knowledge and insights that improve both the practice and study of public administration.

While we did not extol the virtues of one level over another, we did assert that scholars currently are not explicit about the level of analysis, and that this is problematic for maintaining coherence as a scholarly field. The challenge is not simply that scholars to do not specify whether their research centers on micro, meso, or macro level phenomena of public governance. Rather, the current mistreatment of levels of analysis creates a lack of analytic accountability to other levels of analysis and an inability to draw valid conclusions about how to scale insights from one level of analysis to a different level. Moreover, without the ability to scale insights, public administration scholars are less effective problem solvers, which means they are less prepared to advance theory and inform practice.

To address these issues, we argued that public administration scholars must make explicit reference to and consciously define the level of analysis in all of their research, regardless of whether that research is conceptual, theoretical, or empirical. We believe that doing so will improve scholarly accountability, and over the longer term, help build a more coherent body of knowledge across levels of analysis. Moreover, we asserted that scholars need to think about in integration across levels of analysis. Thus, for example, a micro-level study is more valuable if it clearly explains the implications of its findings for expected observations at the meso- or macro-level. Similarly, meso- and macro-level studies are more helpful if they explain the potential implications for individual behavior. Integration can be improved not only by scaling insights, but also by jointly pursuing research questions associated with different levels of analysis, and/or engaging multi-level analytical techniques.

Specifying the level of analysis used in research and establishing conceptual accountability across those levels ultimately will improve the credibility of public administration scholarship. Specifically, such actions will help public administration scholars clarify and refine the basic assumptions that inform theory, thus improving the scientific validity of scholarship. In turn, scholars will become more effective scientific problem solvers, which will enable them to be better poised to advise practitioners as they face increasingly complex and uncertain social dilemmas. In so doing, we hope to avoid the balkanizing tendencies that plague many areas of social scientific inquiry. Our hope is that public administration scholarship can avoid the pathologies of uber-specialization and stove-piping that limit further understanding in scholarship and practice.

References

Dahl, Robert. A. 1947. The Science of Public Administration: Three Problems. Public Administration Review, 7(1): 1-11.

Simon, Herbert. 1946. The Proverbs of Administration. Public Administration Review, 6(1): 53-67.

Simon, Herbert. 1947. Administrative Behavior: A Study of Decision-Making Processes in Administrative Organization. New York, NY: Macmillan Co.

Waldo, Dwight. 1948. The Administrative State: A Study of the Political Theory of American Public Administration. New York, NY: Ronald Press Co.

Weber, Max 1922/1968. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. New York, NY: Bedminster Press.