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On March 3rd, 1991, Rodney King was pulled from his car by Los Angeles police after a high-speed chase and horribly beaten by officers. The incident sparked outrage and ultimately riots throughout the city when the officers involved were acquitted of the charges related to the beating. In the King case, and many other instances of excessive force perpetrated by police, the involved agencies and courts have used compliance with their own policies to justify actions that have resulted in civilian injuries and deaths. In these cases, law enforcement agencies and even juries have found, despite the deaths of unarmed civilians, that neither law nor policy has been violated. In thirteen of the most high-profile cases between 2014 and 2016, two-thirds of the officers involved stayed on the job and fewer than half were indicted or charged with a crime. In the Freddie Gray case alone, of the six officers directly involved in the case, three had the charges dropped and a jury acquitted three others (Park & Lee, 2017).

Such instances reveal an ethical conundrum in which harm can be done, and in cases of deaths of unarmed civilians the worst possible harm, but administratively and legally, no wrong has been committed. This paradoxical and apparently increasingly common phenomenon occurs when the very laws, policies, procedures and practices that have been developed and implemented expressly to ensure appropriate behavior by officers, or other administrators, have either absolved officers from responsibility, or worse, may have even caused the violence to occur in the first place (McSwite, 2001). Here, the notion of "moral injury" as "involving an act of transgression that creates dissonance and conflict because it violates assumptions and beliefs about right and wrong and personal goodness" (Litz, et al., 2009) is also helpful in making sense of the perceived injustice.

When harm is done without a formal institutional accounting, and that harm is suppressed within the social and institutional setting of said harm, injustice and moral injury are the result. Though the acts of violence occur between individuals, the injustice and moral harm spills beyond the involved individuals into the community. Minority communities increasingly policed with military tactics and gear (Steinmetz, Schaefer, & Henderson, 2017; Paul & Birzer, 2004), militarized borders and immigration and law enforcement (Massey, et al., 2016), and hyperbolic initiatives, such as War on Drugs, that obscure biases including racism (Cooper, 2015) all contribute to police encounters closer in form to enemy engagement than 'serving and protecting.'

Despite extensive efforts to develop and implement ethical systems, the very structure of contemporary administrative ethics and corresponding systems that aim to preclude injustices not only fail to prevent then, the logic and operation of those systems can paradoxically exacerbate the potential for both harm and injustice. Critiques of administrative ethics developed by Harmon (2005), Anderson (2006), McSwain and White (1987), Farmer (2002), and others, reveal how ethical theory and practice presumes an instrumental rationality where "good knowledge" is the basis for and cause of ethical action (King, 2000). A consequence of this instrumental reasoning renders ethics a matter of control, specifically control of knowledge that in turn marginalizes harm simply as instances where control was not possible or was elusive. Additionally, "good" public administration relies of standardization of procedures to render complexity manageable (Waldo, 1980). So although public administration ethics places responsibility on individual actors, systematic change is sought through the development and refinement of procedures that act as an organization's epistemic framework measuring individual interactions and behavior to procedures and not harm. Once we have outlined this pervasive structure, logic and operation in contemporary administrative ethics, we explore an emerging line of thinking about ethics, integrated with a conceptual orientation we describe as qualitative praxis. This orientation simultaneously opens an alternative to instrumentally rational ethical theory, and suggests avenues for resistance to administrative injustice. We present a more extensive depiction of qualitative praxis later in the paper, but briefly at this point, qualitative praxis proceeds from a recognition that the competencies needed for effective qualitative research and its integration into practice are simultaneously the competencies needed for supporting egalitarian, democratic governance. The power in these linked concepts is the recognition that actions perceived as being unjust are both the concern for ethics, and also the product of the rational approach to ethics (Harmon, 2005). We conclude by revisiting the use of force by police in an effort to explore the consequences and possibilities raised via qualitative praxis.


It can be argued that awareness of the importance of integrity and ethical behavior among public administrators coincides with the founding of the profession. One interpretation of Mosher's era of Government by the Good, understands the Good as not only reflecting efforts to enhance the objective effectiveness of public agencies through the scientific study of administration, but also the moral good that was a part of the personnel and wider reforms of the progressive era (Pershing & Austin, 2015). However, it wasn't until after World War II, or even later with the emergence of the Civil Rights, Equal Rights and Anti-War movements, that ethical public administration might require something beyond effective implementation of decisions made by elected officials was widely considered, and administrative ethics became a recognized self-reflective subfield of both study and intentional practice. The discourse of public administration has traditionally been concerned with educating public administrators in concepts and practices to help maintain integrity in public service and develop standards to understand the effectiveness of achieving those standards (McSwite, 1997). In the decades that followed, a robust body of administrative ethics theory and research emerged (Rohr, 1989; Cooper, 1998; Gortner, 1991; Bowman, 1991). While the approaches within this growing collection of work varied, the shared working assumption in public administration ethics is that good government is achieved by proper behavior of administrators and proper behavior is based on good knowledge, whether theoretical or empirical.

Many formal definitions of and, to a great degree, our social connotation of ethics and the possibility of justice hang loosely or intuitively around the idea of fairness, and we expect that the formal and informal systems within which we live to achieve that end. John Rohr's Ethics for Bureaucrats (1989) argues forcefully that public administrators are unique in their position and relation to citizens, and as such, have a correspondingly unique ethical obligation to members of the wider community. The societal expectation of fairness as a manifestation of justice is, while not clearly or precisely defined, strongly held. In the instance of excessive force and cases of perceived administrative injustice there is a strong sentiment that serious harm has been unfairly meted out or heaped upon an individual or community. To amplify this perception, often even without acknowledging responsibility, the fairness of rationally developed procedures and policy is assumed as being a necessary or a given result of how public administration denotes fairness through procedural and instrumental means. When a wrong is done, the remedy is the establishment of rationally developed, proactive mechanisms in order to actively avoid the harms that occurred in the first place. Good knowledge, extracted from 'ethical' failings, is brought around in a feedback loop to develop good knowledge that in turn will lead to more ethical actions, such as the avoidance of unnecessary force.

Deeply ingrained in administrative theory and practice, the structure of instrumental rationality is expressed in a logic that operates through: 1) generalized wholes/concepts as abstract and universal 2) analytical and reductionist reasoning that breaks wholes into parts assumed to have ontological coherence and stability (largely via binary of categories) and 3) does so for instrumental, means/ends purposes (King, 2000). Despite the analytical and logical power of this work, as well as its appearance in varying forms of augmented codes, enhanced training and various other reforms in administrative agencies of all shapes and sizes and across all levels of government, the experienced injustice of the King and more recent cases including that of Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown and others, has persisted. In order to make better sense of why this is the case, we next examine the structure and logic of modernist administrative ethics in more detail.


In our analysis, contemporary public sector administrative ethics, whether in the form of workplace or professional codes of ethics, the advancement of principle or virtue based approaches, or similarly, the development of formulaic or calculative orientations, all operate via a structurally similar logic and rationale. In varying ways, each of these approaches sustain problematic assumptions of modernism ontologically, epistemologically and in the illusion of a comprehensive form of reason and rationalism. In the last several years, a series of parallel critiques of administrative ethics has emerged, that in total, can be read as seeking to understand the conceptual and operational limits of contemporary administrative ethics. In this section, we examine these critiques in some detail in order to be clear about what an alternative orientation towards administrative ethics must do instead.

Ontological Structure and Limits

The ontological critique goes beyond a claim about complexity and decision models like bounded rationality as a behavioral response to that complexity. This critique instead points out that the limits of modernism aren't merely the cognitive limits of humans or informational limitations of data collection and analysis, but that ontologically the world doesn't exhibit the certainty that modernism assumes. Waldo (1980) describes the problems of mainstream administrative ethics as emerging from an intrinsic complexity and uncertainty in the world, and therefore instrumental rationality is not reliable in yielding expected results. Further, this critique of ethics insists that truly objective knowledge of the world is impossible and claims of certainty (Waldo, 1980), the modernist illusion of certainty (Farmer, 2002), and narrow and strict forms of rationalism (Harmon, 1995) should be questioned. This critique of objectivism and related positivist causal ontology has two related lines. First, this critique posits the social and political world as non-deterministic (Farmer, 1995; Fox & Miller, 1996). Embedded in this claim is the argument that the number of and relations between variables may allow for the inductive identification of patterns, but that the existence of such patterns does not imply a corresponding possibility of deductively specifying outcomes with any substantial degree of certainty in any given circumstance. Second, no degree of accounting for--or rhetorically finessing away--value conflict, nor rationalization of decision systems into the structure of the organization will be sufficient if uncertainty is ontological rather than epistemological.

Another element of the ontological critique argues that though there are many forms of rationality, whether instrumental, technical or scientific, they coexist with a representational ontology in which truth is understood in terms of accurate depictions of the world. Representation relies on a model-copy process of knowledge production where copies are evaluated according to their fidelity to the object being represented, or the model (Catlaw, 2007). Further, within a modernist ethical framework, variation is accounted for in two ways: either bias exists in the "knower," or the copy has measurable difference to the model. Objectivity through methodological rigor has traditionally accounted for the former (Daston & Galison, 2007) and the latter is assumed to be a "natural" difference or deviation. Catlaw's (2007) analysis shows the conceptual and experiential limits of these responses and leads to the conclusion that, in short, we cannot have positivist knowledge that is accurate, let alone "right".

Intellectually, we may accept a more nuanced ontological view, but ideologically and socio-institutionally, we operate under these representational assumptions, and our institutions and practices embody them. In fact, ethics assumes, if not requires these assumptions. In the absence of the operation of these assumptions and the perceived stability and transcendence they suggest as being inherent in the world, the logically necessary result is ethical relativism.

From Ontology to Epistemology - discrete, accurate taxonomies

A second category of critique for contemporary administrative ethics argues that it embodies another important element of modernism as well. Starting from the ontological claim above, which assumes the world is stable and sensible in terms of cause-and-effect relations, the epistemological assumption is that the world also arrays into a coherent, exhaustive and mutually exclusive set of categories, or taxonomic framework, and that this framework is knowable to human actors. Perhaps most famously embodied by Linnaeus' biological taxonomy, the possibility of this order of resemblance and resulting "unity behind appearances" as Catlaw (2007, p. 68) describes it, does not hold. Foucault's (1994) analysis of the human sciences and the possibility of such a structure of knowledge demonstrates the gaps and limits in the very possibility of such taxonomic schemes developed at the intersection of modernist ontology and epistemology. For the purposes of considering administrative ethics, Harmon's (2003, 2005) description of the experienced, and necessary consequences of Foucault's analysis is more important. For one, the failure of the presumed mutual exclusivity of any taxonomy--ethical in this analysis-- will inevitably result in a clash or paradox of principles. That is, modernism assumes it will be possible to analyze any situation such that the appropriate and only the appropriate principles can be brought to bear. However, the appearance and operation of principles is often simultaneous rather than being mutually exclusive, and no amount of applied reason resolves this experienced paradox.

This isn't to suggest that logic, reason and methodological rigor have no place in ethical analysis. The application of reason and logic can reveal strengths, weaknesses, and even absurdities. Nevertheless, a principle-based system cannot hold as the basis of a transcendent or universal operational response in the messiness of human environments.

Returning to the model/copy logic described above, modernist administrative ethics assumes, or at least leaves unquestioned, representational capacity of language, that is that it is possible for us to re-present in language a comprehensive depiction and analysis of the world that is capable of exhaustively articulating the nature of ethical issues and can correspondingly depict universally--in every jurisdiction and in every moment what the nature of an ethical dilemma is and what the appropriate behavioral response should be.

Harmon (2005) identifies a related experiential problem of this collapse of the possibility of knowledge as comprehensive, exhaustive and ontologically mutually exclusive, particularly as it applies to principle as the basis of ethical action. If one accepts the modernist assumption about taxonomies, in this case principles that inform ethical behavior, there are several variations of how those taxonomies fail to retain their integrity. The first variant of this problem is most clear in where there is overt conflict between principles and their implied values, which reveals that rather than being mutually exclusive of each other, as a modernist taxonomy would suggest, those principles may be simultaneously present and irresolvably at odds with one another. Ironically, even if one adopts a stance that allows for simultaneous, yet preferentially

ordered multiple principles, there is no a priori basis on which to prioritize them. Finally, in the absence of some basis for prioritizing and balancing principles, there is a potential for the over expression or over emphasis of any particular principle. While there may be overt and widespread support for emphasizing principles of security or safety, for example, over-emphasis of any one can easily have negative consequences for other principles that remain more implicit, such as liberty or equity (Harmon, 2005).

One other line of inquiry further defies the possibility of modernist ethics from being effective in resolving the paradox of harms and wrongs. In localities perceived as being besieged by high levels of crime, law enforcement is susceptible to a particular logic that leverages a rhetorical use of evil to demand a response that ultimately becomes evil as well (Anderson, 2006; McSwite, 2006). When crime is characterized as being evil, inaction is unacceptable and the severity of the response must be commensurate to the moral repugnance of the original act. The problem is that the response to the crime, carried out in the name of justice, can become so severe that it comes to be as evil, or even more so than the original crime. The rhetorical operation of evil applies to other concepts as well, including war and the war on crime. For instance, there is a perception that high levels of violent crime constitute enough of a threat to be combated as a "war on crime."

Within the intersectionality of rhetorical evil and the professional risk in policing, the absoluteness of evil changes the officers' situational risk assessment as such that every encounter should rationally be treated as a mortal threat to themselves and others around them. Without a stable and universally agreed upon an a priori ordered list of principles to guide action, in addition to the real possibility that the consequences of a false positive in assuming a benign encounter may be mortal to the officer and bystanders, an officer should rationally generalize an impending encounter as having significant potential for harm by a suspect upon officers and bystanders. Given this combination of conditions, the use of dramatic and severe action--determined by an officer's logical and analytical assessment as the "decision maker" who will or will not come under evaluation--is warranted. The paradox that emerges from conditions or perceptions of high risk, mandates for ethical action to be rationally arrived at, and an unbounded set of ethical principles, force an officer into a decision model that privileges analytical consistency with policy over considerations of justice, injustice, moral harm, and public good. Hence the conditions that enhance the likelihood of evil or injustice being done by officers are amplified.

Modernist Subjectivity and Agency

Another line of critique arrays around agency and subjectivity. As we noted above, part of the logic of modern administrative ethics is the notion that good knowledge can lead to good action. Implied in this, and embedded in modernist approaches, are several assumptions. One is that the individual or subject is the unit of analysis. Second, that subjects are capable of exercising something like unfettered agency and therefore can and do behave largely rationally. This results in the behavioral or cognitive possibility for a form of literacy, or the ability to rationally read and write, analyze and influence the world (King, 2000). Harmon and McSwite point out that, "any theory of ethics concerned with the appropriateness of individuals' behavior MUST start from the assumption that human beings have choice, that they have the capacity freely to choose to act in one way or another" (2011, p. 28; See also Love, 2008). Traditional administrative ethics also assumes that people are capable of comprehending and responding to ethical prescriptions as they are intended. Finally, there is a shared assumption that the consequences of violating those prescriptions will be effective in structuring behaviors.

One response that has emerged out of this logic is the development of and emphasis on legalistic and juridical ethical responses. The American Society for Public Administration's early ethical handbooks makes this point explicitly, wherein its first section is entitled "Relationships to Law," which grounds administrative ethics in a framework in which laws are to be the ethical basis of administrative behavior. Importantly, this individualistic and legalistic logic is in place not only in the formally enacted law, but also through values expressed therein (Rohr, 1989) and as codes of behavior formalized for any given agency or jurisdiction (Wood 1955). That same logic is expressed in other ethical approaches like Rawls' formal development of fairness (Hart, 1974), virtues (Cooper, 1991), or consequentialist calculations (Cooper, 1998). Harmon and McSwite summarize this point noting that:
The objectivist view of morality prevails strongly, and moral or
ethical codes and rules are seen as primarily regulatory in nature.
That is, such codes and rules are viewed as defining the boundaries of
behavior that are required for the maintenance of an organizational or
social system. Hence, the rules are accorded a certain objective
necessity, and what they are seen to yield is a system survival (2011,
p. 44).

The result is that modernist systems of codes fail because there is always something new or different or novel in our experience of the world. Further, codes actually produce the behavior, not respond to or bound that behavior. Rational choice models of behavior assume self-interest, and the purpose of explicit codes is to bound that behavior. But, the rationale may be backwards in that rational choice systems codes, and their inherent limits or gaps, may in fact create the behavior that they seek to preclude when the principles behind elements of the code conflict, prompting actors to behave in ways that are rational under one principle, but unethical when examined through the lens of an alternative principle.

Another outgrowth of the emphasis on subject and agency based ethics is a sort of "bad apple" logic in which ethical frameworks are designed to either preclude or respond to ethical failures by focusing mostly, if not solely on the individual actor. When administrators do wrong, it's often presumed that her or she is a bad apple, rather than the system being the key factor in factor in causing unethical or unjust action. However, organization theory reminds us that one of the central functions of organizations and the structures that comprise them is to do the same thing over-and-over in stable, consistent and efficient ways. If a member of an organization does something unethical our unjust, the very nature of organizations makes it likely that the behavior will manifest again and again.

To the degree that systems and structures, "bad barrels", are considered, the responses modernist in their abstract and universalistic character. As such, they tend to employ a sort of "fire-and-forget" (Pershing & Austin, 2015) response, whether patching a gap in the code of ethics, replacing the leadership and thereby fixing the culture, or systematizing the values via comprehensive ethics training. The assumption is that once the systems or structures source of the problem is addressed, then the system itself can be left to function effectively on its own, with little if any intervention. McSwite (2003) points out that while change is necessary, neither typical approach to change--what they describe as either "folk theory" or individual attitudinal or behavioral changes or institutional, systems or structures changes--are sufficient. This implies that ethics initiatives must instead be iteratively and reflectively managed.

Rationalist-individualist ethical models also tend to ignore or understate the importance of emotion, affect and other non-rational factors in decision-making. Research on non-rational aspects of decision-making has gained significant empirical and theoretical momentum over the last two decades. Antonio Damasio's popular (1994) and empirical work (Damasio and Damasio, 2012) illustrates the contribution emotion makes to decisions, and critically, the consequence of its absence in cases of brain injury. Importantly, for decisions that have ethical consequences, emotions including empathy, which is also being shown to have a strong neurological component, become that much more important (Ramsoy et. al., 2015).

Harmon (2005) also shows the disjuncture between the modernist model of choice and decisions dominant in both our ideology and organizational practices in what he terms the "Hubris of Consciousness." The difficulty is that research in psychology and the neurosciences is problematizing the traditional model of decisions that assumes thought and reason take place prior to action. Liet's research describes the results of fMRI studies that reveal conscious thought as following the initiation of neurological activity of movement rather than preceding it. If action precedes conscious thought, even some of the time, it profoundly challenges the apparent illusion--user illusion--of reasoned decision-making (as described in Norretranders, 1998) that is a prerequisite of the right knowledge-right action model of administrative ethics.

The final difficulty of subjectivity and agency as it relates to theory and practice of administrative ethics has to do with the presumption of the agent as more-or-less autonomous moral character actor. The notion of the autonomous individual has been problematized elsewhere (Love, 2008), as being politically and empirically tenuous. To the degree that officers and administrators are socially embedded and informed/influenced, socially interactive processes and relationships necessarily influence their decisions. The implication is, that regardless of how well reasoned principle may be, its application to individual and group decisions is never going to be merely principle-based. Moreover, this same socially embedded depiction of the subject suggests that despite the power and elegance of the logic behind the articulation of what is presumed to be an a priori principle, that principle is itself developed within and is shaped social set of influences. Principle is never purely reasoned in an abstract, universal form. It is, despite our beliefs otherwise, always already informed and shaped in and by the social.

There is one last paradox in the modernist, objectivist models that bears attention. In the rationalist and objectivist model, especially in its positivist extreme, the Newtonian character of the ontology means that causes and effects are so mechanical as to eliminate the possibility of agency. Neither statistical indeterminism/probabilism nor bounded-rationality provide an avenue of response here as neither address how an objectivist ontology undermines the very possibility of agency. Again we find ourselves in a conceptual paradox: the necessary ethical condition of freewill cannot be exercised unfettered in a world that is determined nor can an individual effectively exercise rational freewill in a world that is unpredictable, where one cannot know if their intentions will bring about expected results. Beyond the profound problem of undermining agency, there is an additional, unintended consequence of obviating the responsibility of individuals for their actions. If causes are mechanical, there is no choice to be made, and if there is no choice, there is no responsibility. In the systems/structures model, larger dynamics like culture, power and ideology shape, if not determine individual choice, and by a parallel logic, absolve the individual of responsibility for actions taken. To understand everything through positivism is to absolve agents of any responsibility for the harms that result from the actions, because they are merely one in an infinite chain of cause and effect, over which they have no influence.

Alternatively, we suggest that we face squarely the fact that a causal, rationalist-objectivist understanding itself denies the possibility for any kind of moral or ethical evaluation. Instead of privileging models that operate from a premise of knowledge determining action, which in-turn requires ontological possibility of certainty for responsible action, critiques of public administration ethics approach toward uncertainty suggest knowledge and action are fundamentally entangled in a complex, chaotic, intrinsically unknowable world. Uncertainty is not just an experiential reality, but is instead an ontological reality that cannot be overcome by refining the comprehensiveness of systems of principles, codes or calculative schemas. In the end, uncertainty undermines the legitimacy of one's rational intentions and actions and therefore is an affront to public administration's authority in achieving good government.


To recap, in contemporary, developed settings, the stability and coherence of the modernist ethical framework described above collapses. There is too much complexity and the systems are too interconnected and tightly coupled to fit with that framework. That is, complexity makes the following generic formula inadequate:
Positivist/Right knowledge (facts/data/concepts <which we already
know>) + right analysis (especially quantitative but critical thinking
too <which we already know>) = good action (Good action necessarily
results in good outcomes).

The critiques we explored in the previous section imply that we have to recognize that we don't know things with positivist confidence, and can't assume accuracy or comprehensiveness of knowledge to more than a loose approximation. This, in turn means we can't presume subsequent action to have a likelihood of success with any degree of certainty. Ethics, under such conditions, cannot merely deliver or even facilitate the acquisition of the knowledge necessary to effectively operate in contemporary settings. Neither an exhaustive/comprehensive body of abstracted or universal knowledge, nor the grounded mastery of case-based knowledge is sufficient. It is important to, again, recognize that "good" here entails a dualism that emerged at the beginning of the 20th Century, where in good implies both empirical effectiveness and normative or ethical appropriateness (Parkes & Austin, 2015).

In order to move toward an alternative conception of administrative ethics, we turn to the work of Gilles Deleuze, and to Deleuze's work with Felix Guattari. Deleuze is a thinker of connections and in an increasingly monitored and securitized state composed of global communication networks, networks of governance, social networks, transdisciplinary studies, online education, and beyond. Deleuze provides useful updates to the field's conceptualization of connections, relationships and their evolution. In our view, Deleuze's depiction of societies of control (1992), which is characterized by a richly complex topography of networks, connectivity, and relations, is precisely the terrain of contemporary governance and administrative ethics. Michel Foucault (1994) suggested that the 20th century was characterized by disciplinary enclosures, wherein discrete, stable institutional settings like prisons, schools, and factories enclosed and shaped individuals into prisoners, students, and line workers, through the creation and deployment of bodies of knowledge specific to each of these settings. Stable institutions of enclosure are subsumed by always shifting knowledge sets, and complex interconnected institutional arrangements relationships and stable identities, both individual and institutional, would be superseded by identity codes and passwords (Deleuze, 1992). In short, Deleuze's depiction of current conditions as societies of control implies a subtle qualitative shift in the behavior of the political-economy. Yet despite the high levels of complexity, fluidity, tight coupling, and rapid modulation in the world Deleuze describes, there is also a powerful, conservative inertia in societies of control that sustain the underlying structures of the political-economy. This inertia results in a set of dynamics wherein much of our experience and many existing practices will remain highly stable and resistant to change. As a result, change and reform initiatives that are enacted in the conditions that are characteristic of societies of control are likely to be reterritorialized or subsumed back into existing structures of power and resource distribution now present in the political economy. If we want to make substantive and sustained efforts to enhance the normative and ethical behavior of administrators and their institutions, what more might we do?

Contributions from Qualitative Research

The notion of qualitative praxis as it relates to our thinking about ethics draws both from what we know about conducting high-quality, qualitative research and praxis as an intentionally politically attuned approach to integrating theory into practice. In an effort to avoid qualitative praxis becoming reified into a thing (Miller, 1998; White, 1998), it useful to start from a loose conception of it as a disposition. Considering the elements of qualitative research first, there are several attributes that we draw on to inform the notion of qualitative praxis. First, it entails a degree of ontological openness and tends to be anti-essentialist (Reason, 2003; Johansen, 2014). This attitude or orientation retains a focus on the rigor of methodological reductionism but rejects the possibility of ontological reductionism. Qualitative research approaches also entail a great deal of epistemological pluralism (Suri, 2012), or the stance of being open to, often intentionally acknowledging and seeking out alternative and marginalized knowledges (Farmer, 2008). This tendency towards epistemic pluralism also contributes to a sense of emerging or evolving understanding that develops iteratively and is unlikely to yield understandings that are presumed to be static, exhaustive or comprehensive (Strauss and Corbin, 1990). Together, this ontological and epistemological openness allows for greater emancipatory tendencies, in that it is attuned to the new, different, and other as is found in action research approaches (Small, 1995). Diversity, here, is important for both normative/political reasons and also empirical reasons (Surowiecki, 2004). Finally, although not exclusive to qualitative approaches specifically, qualitative praxis adopts an orientation that is skeptical of, or even rejects essentialist ontological assumption including individualism and agency or other static elements of being, as well as related notions about the existence of clear, mechanical causal levers or mechanisms of control.


The concept of praxis is fairly well developed as a intentional integration of theory and practice, often entailing so element of egalitarian resistance to marginalizing economic, political or social dynamics (Marcuse, 1964). Praxis is also action oriented in that it rejections the hard researcher/subject delineation. It allows for openness to, if not embrace of an intentional inquiry-action intersection, wherein the knowledge--or wisdom, following the idea of epistemic pluralism noted above-- gained is actionable in the setting it was gleaned from. Moreover, in some cases, theory, inquiry and wisdom are deliberately emancipatory. Drawing briefly from critical theory, praxis is not proposed as a rational or comprehensive form of analysis and action, but is instead a practical and political choice of direction and commitment within lived circumstances and settings. According to Marcuse, "Existential man acts, but he knows not why he acts. He sets off on a course of action, but he knows not where (as cited in Kellner, 1984, p. 98)." This is the sort of praxis necessary to produce a "society aimed at generating both free, self-conscious individuals in Marcuse's sense, and, through such discourse, a normative community." (Akard, 1983, p. 214 - emphasis in the original). Deleuze (1992), too, understands that that it's not just culture and political economy that now function this way but nearly, if not all, domains are normative communities. We can the transpose the totalitarian state of Marcuse with the totalization of societies of control and find praxis equally valuable.

Another feature of praxis is important here as well. To start, we acknowledge that McSwite (2003) is correct in the assessment that while individual and institutional changes are necessary, they are not sufficient. More importantly, the enactment of individual normative and institutional changes has the counterintuitive effect of reinforcing the existing structures. As such, the effective response to injustice is not simply to go directly at the existing behavioral and procedural expressions of that injustice with the aim of positing a new, comprehensive essentialist or transcendent theory and practices of ethics. Doing so flies in the face of contemporary ideology, animates exactly the resistance that McSwite identifies, and stands little chance of achieving substantive or lasting change. Instead, the wicked or rhizomatic conditions that demand a different understanding of and approach to both ethics and action are the same conditions that open a space for qualitative praxis of the "authentic political discourse" sort. Because it eschews the possibility of comprehensiveness, praxis can be iterative in the face of complexity without being teleological, and retains the notion that neither knowledge nor derived action strategies are final.

Those same conditions also highlight the degree to which politics is embedded in praxis. Deleuze and Guattari (1987) develop an intersecting concept in the notion of lines of flight or forms of political movement and resistance within larger systems within the political-economy. For Deleuze, art, and especially film and literature, offer metaphorical and literal "lines of flight," or avenues through which both critical exploration and conceptual alternatives can be explored. For Deleuze, what a concept is is less important than what a concept does. In other words, rather than being a tool that purports to reflect an a priori reality, the active force of the concept creates connections across fluxes and milieus, allowing us to conceive new ways to envision what the world is and how we're in it (May, 2005). Concepts, like principles, are thus not ready-made or immutable structures beyond experience. Instead, Deleuze, and Deleuze and Guattari follow the task of philosophy see as being set out by Nietzsche. "We must no longer accept concepts as a gift, not merely purify and polish them, but first make and create them..." (Deleuze and Guattari, 1994, p. 5, - emphasis ours). Deleuze and Guattari's concepts are intended to challenge the status quo and the instrumental rationality that orders our lives and knowledge (Farmer, 1995). As a result, it is necessary to go beyond simply importing concepts of Deleuze and Guattari, and adapting them yet another academic discipline. Concepts are developed for use, and specifically to use them as a means of unsettling what is presumed to be stable (Holland, 2011; Lohmann & Steyaert, 2006, p. 91). Gane (2009) suggests that Deleuze and Guattari's (1994) idea of concepts allow for a field to revisit core questions that have been forgotten through its evolution. This folding in of the concerns of the past by revisiting texts through Deleuze and Guattari reworks old questions and investigations and allows for authors and concepts long assumed dead, to be engaged as contemporaries. In a time when the field of public administration continues an expansive growth from security to education, to heath and beyond, qualitative praxis provides a means to address the very questions from which the field emerged, such as what are appropriate roles and limits of government? Following Deleuze's logic, if transcendent ethics is impossible given the processes of reterritorialization in contemporary settings, a critical question is then, how can we create the conditions (culture and corresponding resources) to support something resembling positive liberty, or the ability to exercise choice regarding one's future and how to achieve that future, should agents choose to pursue it--without creating a setting that leads to oppression?

Toward that objective, qualitative praxis can, again, be thought of as partly being a disposition. It is one that adopts an anti-foundational ontology and then develops practices that embrace that ontology. While the recognition of the limits of a positivist ontology is well developed in the literature of public administration and beyond, what qualitative praxis adds to that existing line of thinking is a reification-resistant and reflective development of a disposition based set of practices that are also attuned to and reflective of the dominant ideology. Moreover, qualitative praxis embraces, in a more extensive and precise way, the line of thinking in Deleuze and Guattari (1987) starting with an examination of and assumption of attributes of societies of control, and the experience and the features of societies of control for governance settings. It also embraces and operationalizes the Deleuzeguattarian idea of nomads, war-machines and the like, as alternatives for contemplating action in governance. Practically, the implication is that qualitative praxis is not about up-ending the dominant ideology or accomplishing wholesale changes in administrative practice. It is instead a means of pushing, resisting, adapting and flowing in different ways within that ideology and the corresponding structures. It is a sort of "sociopolitical judo," using the dynamics of existing structures and their inertia within the society of control and against itself while knowing that any successful "hit" or change can't be sustained in perpetuity or replicated in all circumstances. However, as we name and construct the world, we create our relation to the world in an autopoeitic or self-organizing act. The ethical question that becomes clear is, if our creative acts are always becoming something for future peoples, how best to be responsible for our creations? In this sense, who and what is let into the door as a result of our choices and actions is increasingly important. Deleuze (1992) and Catlaw (2007) suggest in similar ways that individuals entering into and exiting from spaces bring about new forms of power in the form of access and the codes, concepts and corresponding language, that permit passage amongst these spaces. Fortunately, qualitative praxis and its explicit adoption and adaptation of qualitative research practices, and reflective praxis is well oriented to embody reflection and response to these possibilities.

If Deleuze's characterization of societies of control above is apt, then in conjunction with these elements of qualitative research and praxis, an alternative formula to the one above would be something like:
Some knowledge/wisdom (which we don't "have" in the sense of mastery,
and instead have to build socially/collaboratively) + Some kind of
analysis (qualitative and normative) = Contextually, normatively good
outcomes (democratic, equitable, secure...).


There are a variety of consequences that result from a move to an orientation towards ethics based in the notion of qualitative praxis. The following section examines first a set of conceptual considerations and then, speculatively, practical implications within the context of reform practices currently being adopted by many departments as a means to prevent the kinds of incidents described at the beginning of this article.

Conceptual Implications

One caveat to note before we describe some of those implications is that we understand qualitative praxis as operating within the nonlinear, interconnected and dynamic conditions characteristic of Deleuze and Guattari's (1987) conception of rhizomes. From that perspective, the reflections that follow do not fall within a logical, sequential or prioritized hierarchy, but are interconnected and potentially mutually reinforcing. The following depiction is intended to be suggestive the potential of qualitative praxis and not exhaustive or comprehensive. Lastly, while our focus is on policing and the use of excessive force, we see this line of thinking applying broadly to administrative ethics.

If the critiques of modernist administrative ethics above, and the characterization of societies of control are valid, then many of typical ethical systems responses, including enhancing ethics codes and ethics trainings, or changes in personnel will be insufficient as a means to reduce police violence. Similarly, calls for reform to police policies including the end to "broken windows" policing, the use of body cams, enhanced community oversight, greater independence between investigations and prosecutions, demilitarization of police forces and others are critical, but none will be sufficient, both because of ontological indeterminism and because of the tendency for any such change to be reterritorialized back into existing patterns and structures of power and resource distribution.

One outgrowth of the adoption of this disposition of qualitative praxis moves us to consideration of conditions in ways that are concrete and contextual rather than abstract, essentialist or transcendent. As such, work out of the disposition of qualitative praxis tends to be specific to the lived experience of those in community at any given moment. In a similar way, qualitative praxis is sensitive to initial conditions--including values. Because societies of control are always already in the midst of things, the current arrangement of things--social, political, economic and other structures--is unique to each circumstance, and makes the continuing development of that setting equally unique. This complexity also recognizes the ongoing character of wicked problems, resulting in the iterative re-solving as opposed to the possibility of transcendent or permanent resolving of problems. Qualitative praxis, by virtue of drawing on Deleuze's (1992) depiction of societies of control, is intentionally political in its recognition of the presence of power and resource dynamics as being pervasive in the contemporary political economy. The intersection of actionable research and the politics of praxis provide a lens to both understand the specific expression of those dynamics or structures in any given setting, and a space and process by which to respond. While it rejects foundational claims, it is not relativist.

These attributes have several other consequences. First, adoption of the sort of disposition and associated processes of inquiry and action associated with qualitative praxis will be attuned to the unique conditions of each setting, including both the community dynamics and that of the police and other institutions within the community, including their histories, cultures, experiences and perceptions. This, in turn, supports and reinforces practice changes like de-escalation and mental health training, the development of Crisis Intervention Teams and community policing. The contextual and iterative character of this disposition also resists reterritorialization to the extent that qualitative praxis is oriented toward on-going becoming instead of static assumptions of being. Moreover, its attunement to social, political, economic and historical context brings the interconnected attributes of wicked problems, including systemic racism, generational poverty, mental health, environmental injustice and the like, directly into the discourse. The move towards qualitative praxis also pushes against a tendency to adopt fire-and-forget (Pershing & Austin, 2015) policies or reforms and the selection of "Men of Reason" (McSwite, 1997), both of which are assumed to be capable of fixing problems comprehensively and permanently. Instead, responsibility for reform and maintenance of a community's quality of life is ongoing and shared.

As a part of the dynamics of societies of control, disciplinary enclosures have evolved from discrete spaces such as prisons, and schools, to rhizomatic structures in which difference and variation are no longer understood as belonging to or identifying one space as distinct from another. Rather, variation/difference is understood through connections such that one is a student AND a suspect AND a role model AND a deviant AND more. When combined with our description of how Deleuze and Guattari consider concepts based on what they do, rather than what they are, qualitative praxis pushes against the essentialism of identity and instead considers the consequences of concepts like identity in both perception and response to conceptual labels and opens a space for multiplicities. That is, individuals aren't suspects OR students, they are entirely both/and, which opens new potential for shared affect and emotion, whether that's empathy, anger, frustration, joy, pride or beyond. This aspect of the disposition of qualitative praxis, when embodied by both police and community members and when conjoined with attention to the limits of systems responses, also resists the tendency towards assuming bad apples--that when either an officer or a community member does something wrong, that they are necessarily a bad apple and that dealing with the individual will be sufficient to preclude the same thing from happening again.

Despite this acknowledgement of both/and multiplicities, qualitative praxis resists relativism, and does not hold that all options or all choices are equally valid. Not everything is possible but everything can be connected. The existing ideology and inertial dynamics of societies of control limit the scope and scale of deterritorialization, and the potential slippage towards radical relativism. Qualitative praxis assumes that discursive processes are open, but not infinitely so. Existing structures are acknowledged as having evolved with some functional purpose and so long as that function remains operative they will remain relatively stable. While change is possible, unchecked slippage into chaos or radical relativism is nearly impossible. As an experiential matter, then, relativism is a problem of logic not lived experience in community.

Finally, qualitative praxis retains an express attention to responsibility and/or accountability. Part of the social outrage resulting from incidents of excessive force, is a result of the sense that no one is being called to account or held responsible in any substantive way. Part of what qualitative praxis does is force an explicit acknowledgement of and attunement to the dirty hands problem or the inevitability that political actors, either elected and merit, take actions that do harm and have dirty hands as a result. Under qualitative praxis, we confront the fact that we make choices and act. Working from that disposition, we explicitly and implicitly build the structures that perpetuate those choices and actions are, in our view, likely to be much better under qualitative praxis, but we acknowledge that harms will inevitably result. Because we actively make those choices, we must also bear the responsibility for them as well. When we acknowledge our role in responsibility in those choices, we can no longer abdicate our responsibility for them to a system of policy, code, principle, procedure, or formula. We, both as individual actors and as members and agents of an organization/institution, are necessarily and perpetually called/held to account for our actions. This pushes against an over-reliance on organizational structures like chain of command, especially in paramilitary organizations, to consider something more like Weick's (1993) notion of virtual role systems wherein practice and culture supports greater openness and attunement to multiple knowledges moving through the organization--and community--in nonhierarchical and nonlinear ways. Moreover, because we are part of a larger social network or community, responsibility is shared, but because of the reflective, anti-essential and anti-foundational disposition entailed in qualitative praxis, shared responsibility is less likely to slip into reality that no one is responsible. In the context of police relations with the community, this too reinforces the practice and maintenance of community representation and community policing. The result is a bit like the difference between face-to-face v. digitally mediated discussions, and the tendency to say things in the anonymity of electronic environments largely dissipates when having to look into the eyes of a message's audience only to see something like Satre's gaze in return.

Our final reflection about the implications of this disposition of qualitative praxis departs from the possibility of drawing concepts and practices, like Weick's virtual role systems, that already exist in the literature and/or practice. As we noted earlier, Deleuze and Guattari's notion of societies of control suggests that the possibility of revolution or other forms wholesale change are highly unlikely. Pershing and Austin (2015) argue that although the move to post-structuralist theory remains a fairly radical departure from the typical, organizational perspectives, its adoption does not imply the need for radical or profound changes in every or all practices. Rather, they suggest the possibility that old practices can be reconceptualized, from a new or alternative perspective--or disposition--and can be utilized in ways that yield different experiences and different outcomes. The implication is that the kinds of reforms being advocated to reduce police violence noted above may be exactly the approaches to adopt, but when accompanied by a disposition of qualitative praxis, they are more likely to have the intended impact.

Implications for Practice

Here we turn our attention to some speculative, but practical implications that the turn to qualitative praxis have for ethical practices. To do so, we explore several attributes of three inter-related reform approaches adopted by many police departments in an effort to either preclude or respond to incidents of excessive force, namely the adoption of de-escalation training and practices, and related aspects of enhanced mental health training, and the development of Critical Intervention Teams (CIT). In exploring these approaches, we suggest that there are consistencies with our depiction of qualitative praxis that could be leveraged to make real the dispositional shift we described in the prior section. There's nothing about these reforms that ensure their intersection with qualitative praxis is logically or operationally necessary, but as we indicated in our outline of the limits of modernists ethics, we see any sort of comprehensive or fire-and-forget embodiment as impossible.

Rather than present an exhaustive description of these reform strategies, we highlight several of the central and core aspects of de-escalation and related reform efforts and explore their potential intersection with the attributes of qualitative praxis. Among the elements of de-escalation is the admonition to slow down or back off from the assumed need for immediate action or intervention (McFarlin, 2017). Doing so supports the aims of de-escalation in that it can reduce tensions and the perceived need to resolve (solve) the situation based on an officers authority or knowledge. As a potential expression of qualitative praxis, slowing down also opens the potential for officers to gather more information about the circumstances by observation enabling officers to develop a qualitatively richer, thicker understanding that might not be obvious when first coming upon a scene or when working from a narrower procedural punch-list of factors to consider or steps to take. This also creates room to consider the possibility of multiple courses of action, rather than the first, traditional or habitual tactic, which may be based a more deterministic culture or ideology of a given department.

De-escalation approaches also emphasize communication, including strategies like the avoidance of commands, or the use of "verbal judo" strategies can reduce the likelihood of direct conflict (McFarlin, 2017; Schoenle, 2017; Joyner, 2016). Beyond reducing the potential for verbal or physical conflict, asking questions of parties and gathering more and more diverse information creates the potential to recognize that more than one body of knowledge may be present and relevant. That officers and community members often have vastly different world-views is only too clear. Recognizing, and then endeavoring to better understand the breadth of those world-views and the knowledges they entail would be central to a disposition of qualitative praxis. Emphasizing communication and information gathering--as well as observation as noted above--also has the potential to support the integration of analysis and action. That is, actively observing and asking questions is not merely data gathering in support of analysis, but is in fact a form action and can also be generative of a complementary co-created situational knowledge.

Last, de-escalation advocates that officers exercise discretion in, for example, choosing what action to take, or whether some form of positive action is warranted at all (McFarlin, 2017). As a means of de-escalating a potentially violent encounter, the choice not to take positive action is an obvious means of reducing the prospect for violence to occur. Exercising discretion also implicitly acknowledges the potential for multiple courses of action, and while not necessarily being non-deterministic in and of itself is at least consistent with the possibility of a non-deterministic disposition.

In principle, de-escalation and the enhanced mental health and CIT strategies common to de-escalation strategies suggests openness to other aspects of qualitative praxis as well. For example, de-escalation approaches recognize that there is likely a high degree of complexity to the scenarios faced by officers, and not only are more and different kinds of data needed, the scenarios themselves are likely to be understood as non-deterministic and non-linear in their character. Further, De-escalation approaches tend to de-emphasize control based either in knowledge or in authority and are correspondingly are also open to the possibility of a wider range of potential positive outcomes beyond making an arrest, and in doing so move towards a more non-deterministic understanding of the setting. Finally, there is the promise that de-escalation can more intentionally embrace a degree of sociality, which is part of qualitative praxis. At a minimum, CITs and their procedures are often developed through a stakeholder process that engages a fairly wide range of community members and perspectives. Beyond their development, their operation is also necessarily social in that the success of CITs is dependent on the maintenance of a network of community members and institutions that can respond at any time to a wide range of scenarios.

Although these practices were not developed with anything like qualitative praxis in mind, they do have the potential to be consistent with the characteristics and disposition of qualitative praxis that we've described. Given that the ideological tendency in many organizations, reinforced by their cultures, is toward fire-and-forget attempts to embed organizational change in policy and procedure and then trust that the practices will both persist and be effective, there is reason to be dubious about the potential of the organizations that adopt these practices to embody a disposition of qualitative praxis. However, a further aspect of qualitative praxis that we draw from Deleuze and Guattari (1994) is an ontology of becoming rather than being. The implication is that, even if it were possible, adoption of the disposition and any corresponding practices needn't be comprehensive. What is required instead, are individuals who understand and are willing to advance the ideas, even if movement is halting and uneven.

Having said all of this, our final conclusion is somewhat modest. An individual or institutional disposition that embraces qualitative praxis cannot entirely eliminate unethical behavior. But as the critiques we explored at the outset of this paper point out, no other approach can do so either. It's also modest in that it does not propose a systems, structures or practices change that will, in and of itself, be a panacea. However, we are hopeful about its potential for supporting ongoing, reflective change that is resistant to the limits of modernist ethics, in part because qualitative praxis is attuned to the structures and behavioral influences that contribute to institutional injustice. It is also more attuned and responsive to individuals and groups who are marginalized. Finally, qualitative praxis supports the sort of reflective robustness and resilience to be sustained as a practice that mitigates injustice and contributes to intentional pursuit of justice.


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Author:Austin, Eric K.; Callen, Jeffrey C.
Publication:Public Administration Quarterly
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Date:Jun 22, 2018

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