What Is an Administrative Science?

THE DISTINCTION MADE IN CHAPTER III between the ethical and the factual helps to explain the nature of administrative science. Scientific propositions, it was said in that chapter, are statements about the observable world and the way in which it operates. Ethical propositions, on the other hand, are expressions of preferences. Do principles of administration qualify, under this definition, as scientific propositions, or do they contain an ethical element?


Sciences may be of two kinds: theoretical and practical. Thus, scientific propositions may be considered practical if they are stated in some such form as: “In order to produce such and such a state of affairs, such and such must be done.” But for any such sentence, an exactly equivalent theoretical proposition with the same conditions of verification can be stated in a purely descriptive form: “Such and such a state of affairs is invariably accompanied by such and such conditions.” Since the two propositions have the same factual meaning, their difference must lie in the ethical realm. More precisely, the difference lies in the fact that the first sentence possesses an imperative quality which the second lacks. The first sentence can be said to be “true” or “false” only if this imperative aspect is ignored.

This situation is strictly analogous to that which we found to hold with respect to decisions. In so far as decisions can be said to be “correct,” they can be translated into factual propositions. Their ethical element must be eliminated before the terms “true” and “false” can be applied to them. Similarly, the propositions of a practical science must be put in hypothetical form in order to eliminate the ethical element.

When factual propositions are selected primarily for their usefulness in deriving one imperative from another, they may be considered practical. In other cases, they are theoretical. It is clear that they differ from each other only with resnect to the motives of the nersons who employ them.

First, science is interested in sentences only with regard to their veri- fication. Hence, science is concerned with the factual aspects of meaning, but not with the ethical.

Second, practical sciences differ from theoretical sciences, as those terms have been used here, only in their ethical aspects.

Propositions of an Administrative Science

Propositions about administrative processes will be scientific in so far as truth and falsehood, in the factual sense, can be predicated of them. Conversely, if truth or falsehood can be predicated of a proposition concerning administrative processes, then that proposition is scientific.

It is sometimes thought that, since the words “good” and “bad” often occur in sentences written by students of administration, the science of administration contains an essential ethical element. If this were true, a science of administration would be impossible, for it is impossible to choose, on an empirical basis, between ethical alternatives. Fortunately, it is not true. The terms “good” and “bad” when they occur in a study on administration are seldom employed in a purely ethical sense. Procedures are termed “good” when they are conducive to the attainment of specified objectives, “bad” when they are not conducive to such attainment. That they are, or are not, so conducive is purely a matter of fact, and it is this factual element which makes up the real substance of an administrative science. To illustrate: In the realm of economics, the proposition “Alternative A is good” may be translated into two propositions, one of them ethical, the other factual:

“Alternative A will lead to maximum profit.”

“To maximize profit is good.”

The first of these two sentences has no ethical content, and is a sentence of the practical science of business. The second sentence is an ethical imperative, and has no place in any science.

Science cannot tell whether we ought to maximize profit. It can merely tell us under what conditions this maximization will occur, and what the consequences of maximization will be.

If this analysis be correct, then there are no logical differences which distinguish the sentences of one science from those of another. Whatever differences exist must arise from the subject matter of the several sciences, rather than from the intrinsic nature of their sentences.


The discussion thus far leads to the solution of one issue which has been debated by methodologists of the social sciences. It has often been argued that the social sciences involve ethical norms, and therefore lack the objectivity of the natural sciences. A recent statement of this view may be found in Robert S.Lynd’s Knowledge for WhatI103 Since it is clear that truth or falsehood cannot be predicated of ought-sentences, this distinction cannot be valid. If there are fundamental differences between the natural and the social sciences, they must lie in some other direction.

Another group of distinctions, although valid, must be dismissed as superficial. First, social phenomena are probably far more complex than the data with which the natural sciences are concerned. Consequently the task of discovering regularities underlying social phenomena might be expected to be more difficult. Second, experiments cannot be carried on in the social sciences without regard to the consequences for the objects of experimentation. The doctor in Arrowsmith had an unequaled opportunity to experiment with vaccine under controlled conditions; but his human values got the best of him, and he found himself unable to deprive his control subjects of the benefits of treatment. The validity of both of these distinctions may be granted, but they can hardly be considered fundamental. Complexity is a matter of degree, and it may well be questioned whether some of the more involved phenomena which have been dealt with in the physical sciences are not as complex as some of the simpler social phenomena. Experimentation, too, can hardly be the real distinction, for astronomy, the first developed of the natural sciences, has never had the advantages of the laboratory in discovering its laws.

Expectations as Factors in Social Behavior

If there is a fundamental difference between the social and the natural sci- ences, it derives from the fact that the social sciences deal with conscious human beings whose behavior is influenced by knowledge, memory, and expectation. Consequently, knowledge by the human beings themselves of the forces which mold their behavior may (but need not) alter that behavior. It is apparent today, for example, that public awareness of the uses to which propaganda was put in an earlier world war affected to some degree public reaction to propaganda in the Second World War.

This does not mean that it is impossible to state valid laws of human behavior. It simply means that one of the variables to be included in the statement of social laws is the state of knowledge and experience of the persons whose behavior the law purports to describe.104 The more deliberate the behavior which forms the subject matter of a science, the more important the role played by knowledge and experience.

This characteristic of purposive behavior, that is, its dependence on belief or expectation, has further consequences in the social field when group behavior is involved. The decision of each member of the group may depend on his expectation of the behavior of the other members of the group; that is, A’s decision may depend on his expectation of B’s behavior, while B’s decision may depend on his expectation of A’s behavior. In this way a certain indeterminacy may arise, as indeed it does in such social institutions as the stock market, where successful behavior involves outguessing other participants in the market with regard to these expectations.105

It is a fundamental characteristic of social institutions that their stability and even their existence depend on expectations of this sort. In so far as behavior of another person can be accurately predicted, it forms a portion of the objective environment, identical in its nature with the nonhuman portions of that environment.

Applying these considerations to the field of administration, we see first of all that the administrative organization implies purposive behavior on the part of its participants. Hence the expectations of these participants will be a factor in determining their behavior. Further, part of their expectations will involve expectations as to the behavior of other members of the administrative organization.

In this sense administration is not unlike play-acting. The task of the good actor is to know and play his role, although different roles may differ greatly in content. The effectiveness of the performance will depend on the effectiveness of the play and the effectiveness with which it is played. The effectiveness of the administrative process will vary with the effectiveness of the organization and the effectiveness with which its members play their parts.


We may summarize the conclusions we have reached with respect to a science of administration. In the first place, an administrative science, like any science, is concerned purely with f actual statements. There is no place for ethical assertions in the body of a science. Whenever ethical statements do occur, they can be separated into two parts, one factual and one ethical; and only the former has any relevance to science.

Using the terms “theoretical” and “practical” as they have been defined in this section, an administrative science may take either of these two modes. On the one hand, propositions about administration may be descriptions—with reference either to a particular organization or to organizations in general—of the way in which human beings behave in organized groups. This might be called a sociology of administration.

On the other hand, a practical science of administration consists of propositions as to how men would behave if they wished their activity to result in the greatest attainment of administrative objectives with scarce means.106

These two alternative forms of administrative science are exactly anal- ogous to the two fonns which economic science takes. First economic theory and institutional economics are generalized descriptions of the behavior of men in the market. Second, business theory states those conditions of business behavior which will result in the maximization of prof it.

This treatise has included discussions of both the sociology of admin- istration and the practical science of administration. Chapters IV, VI, VIII, and X have been concerned primarily with the former, and Chapters III, IX, and XI primarily with the latter.

Source: Simon Herbert A. (1997), Administrative Behavior, Free Press; Subsequent edition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *