7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on September 13, 2012
One might say that the overarching idea behind Chris Ansell's book is that shared understandings of ideas, material existence, and their interactive relations makes a practical difference in one's understanding of big picture issues of democracy, mediating issues of public policy governance, and micro issues concerning the sort of administration appropriate for public institutions which inhabit that space.
Ansell in effect argues that a "pragmatist democracy" has not yet been widely understood and is a core part of the contemporary challenge of politics, public policy, and administration. He argues that inherited Weberian notions of hierarchical governance of coordination through promulgation of rules, "New Public Management's" notions of results-oriented and performance-measured coordination through market incentives, and liberal and neoliberal notions of democracy which have tended to wash back and forth between mechanisms for coordination by rules, and/or by incentives (emphasized differently according to one's antecedent ideological viewpoint), all hold in common the fallacy of "dualism" in world view. He points out this analytic shortcoming is expressly addressed by the founders of pragmatism and arguably is compounded in each case, perhaps not accidentally, by overemphasis upon a preferred "mechanism" as imagined solution to public problems. Indeed, it is not hard today to find either-or arguments as to an appropriate "mechanism" of public policy, arguments which typically currently talk past one another rather than seek problem-solving approaches concretely to "objective possibilities" (as articulated by A.G. Ramos circa 1970) for situations at hand. One's notion of power, accountability, and responsibility is integral to this dilemma and explored with some direct attention in this book.
Chris Ansell presents his argument for forward-moving thinking in contemporary thought and presents his timely and thought-provoking view that pragmatism as classically understood, addresses the fallacy of "dualism," (either-or or reductive thought simply said) which tacitly (in Michael Polanyi's sense) has remained too prominent in public affairs and still underpins much of dominant thought in politics, public policy, and its administration.
Ansell's text is unique in offering a pragmatist interpretation of his late senior colleague at Cal, Philip Selznick's unique contribution to both law and organizational analysis. Ansell's analysis of Selznick's contribution is offered as a countervailing frame of reference to that of Max Weber. Selznick's lifelong analysis disputes not Weber's notion of hierarchy as an endemic character of the modern world, broadly understood, but rather disputes Weber's "iron cage" as an objective necessity. Selznick's institutional interpretation is more open-ended to "objective possibilities" and is more fluid then the "dualistic" approach to organizational analysis which Ansell argues with some persuasion characterized Weber's approach (and arguably that of his students such as Robert Michels) at the level of tacit assumptions informing their organizational analysis. Ansell is also unique in demonstrating with some care connection between Selznick's thought and that of Mary Parker Follett (who was a deep student of senior founders of pragmatism), a connection which significantly enriches the thought of each.
Despite the practical relevance of his volume, the danger of the subtitle is that it may put off active consideration of his material by some professional programs of public policy and administration. That is, it is true that Ansell explores the notion of "evolutionary learning" in depth and that he underscores the practical bearing of ways of thinking about democracy, governance, and institutions at macro, mediating, and micro levels of analysis. It's also true that "public philosophy" is a fair way of stating the bearing of ideas on action, most visibly at the macro level. The risk is that attention to diverse ways of seeing are seldom addressed deeply or explicitly in programs formally organized to address professional challenges in public policy and administration. Nevertheless, for insightful instructors and for readers reflectively conscious of the bearing of ideas upon action, this thought-provoking book is warmly recommended.