Home Introduction to public Administration METHODS OF INQUIRY IN PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION


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Public administration has evolved and developed over time, this has been possible because of relentless investigations into issues bothering on the improvement of the discipline. Major methods of
inquiry into the discipline that will be discussed here are historical method, descriptive method, experimental method, survey method and case study method.

At the successful completion of this unit, you should be able to:

  1.  Explain Historical Method 
  2.  Examine Descriptive Method 
  3.  Describe Experimental Method 
  4.  Discuss Survey Method 
  5. State Case study Method 
  6. Define Institutional Approach 
  7.  Explain Comparative Approach 


3.1 Historical Method of Inquiry in Public Administration Historical sources may be classified into two major categories, namely, documents and relics. Documents are usually written whereas relics are generally archaeological or geological remains such as tools and utensils. Relics are not written. For instance, a letter written by President Goodluck Jonathan would be a document from the standpoint of the information it contains but would be a relic from the standpoint of spelling errors or other aspects which are not part of what Jonathan intended to transmit. Among the various
documentary sources are:

  1. Official records, minutes of meetings, committee reports and legal documents 
  2.  Institutional records, attendance rolls, university bulletins 
  3.  Memoirs, biographies, diaries, personal letters, books on the philosophy of a known scholar, and so on. 

Historical sources can further be classified into primary and secondary sources;

  1. Primary sources are data provided by actual witness to the incident in question. 
  2.  Secondary sources of data come from a middleman who acts between the original witness and the present consumer. 

Secondary data are subject to an inherent danger of inaccuracy. Whenever evidence is transmitted form one individual to another, it tends to become distorted. Occasionally secondary sources have

been so carelessly compiled that they are in a category of unverified hearsay or rumor. For this reason, reliable historians rely as much as possible on primary sources, using secondary sources only as hypotheses to bridge the gaps between the various pieces of primary data, and at times the historian may have to rely on secondary sources. He must bear in mind the limitations of such data. In the event that numerous gaps in the primary source cause his over – reliance on secondary source, he should refrain from attempting the study at all.

Self – Assessment Exercise 3.1

Explain historical method of inquiry in public administration

3.2 Descriptive Method

Descriptive method is concerned with the collection of data for the purpose of describing and interpreting existing conditions, prevailing practices, beliefs, attitudes and ongoing process. Descriptive inquiry is that investigation which specifies the nature of given phenomena.  The specification can be simple or it can be complicated. The importance of descriptive inquiry in public administration as well as other fields of educational endeavor clearly implies complexity of
phenomena. The need for systematic ways of telling what a situation is, means that the situation is no longer simple. It can no longer be understood directly and without synthesis.  Descriptive inquiry gives a picture of a situation or a population. Any consideration of phenomena generally begins with a full understanding of the phenomena. Accurate descriptions are

imperative for making a wide range of policy decisions. For example the Nigerian department of labour makes detailed surveys of unemployment; these attempt to describe unemployment in the

Nigerian economy for the purpose of knowing what the situation is. Such surveys provide the basis for eliciting possible policies considered and those ultimately accepted as a result of the inquiry, represent value decisions. While the research findings may have

been useful, it cannot be concluded that the policies were determined scientifically.

Descriptive inquiry is basic for all types of research in assessing the situation as a prerequisite to inferences and generalizations. While descriptive inquiry is a prerequisite for finding answers to questions, it is not in itself sufficiently comprehensive to provide answers. Descriptive inquiry cannot establish cause and effect relationships. From description the investigator cannot deduce conclusively the cause of the phenomena or predict what the future phenomena will be. Descriptive inquiry using the same design done at specified periods of time can, indeed, show trends in description from which

hypotheses can be gleaned and later tested under controlled experimental conditions.

Self – Assessment Exercise 3.2

Explain the basic assumptions of the descriptive methods of inquiry in public administration.

3.3 Experimental method

The steps of experimental method are essentially those of the scientific method. They may be outlined as follows:

  1. Selecting and defining the problem: The problems amenable to experimentation generally should be converted into a hypothesis. This hypothesis can be verified or refuted by the experimental data. The variables to be investigated should be defined in operational terms. 
  2.  Reviewing the related literature: This shows how the present research fits into the scheme of things. It surveys the research previously done on the problem and evaluates what this research has and has not accomplished in solving the problem currently under study. Thus in this review, the research should point out very carefully the similarities and, more importantly, the differences between that research and his current study. In order to do this effectively, the researcher must do more than consider the findings as they are reported. He must examine the findings critically in light of the research methodology, the specific procedure employed, the control, the sampling and the measuring instruments used. 
  3. Drawing up the experimental design: This section should place primary emphasis on the question of control, randomization, and replication and should include a clarification of such basic aspects of the design as the place and duration of the experiment. It is generally advisable to conduct a pilot study because of the complexity of an experiment in order to ensure the adequacy of the design.
  4.  Defining the population: It is important to define the population precisely so that there can be no question about the population to which the conclusions are to apply. 
  5.  Conducting the study: It is important here to insist on close adherence to plans, especially as they relate to the factors of control, randomization, and replication. The duration of the experiment should be such that the variable under investigation is given adequate time to promote changes that can be evaluated and to insulate the influence of such extraneous factors as novelty. 
  6.  Assessing the outcomes: Careful consideration must be given to the selection of the criterion on the basis of which the results are to be assessed, for the efficiency of the experiment depends largely on the fairness of the criterion used. 
  7.  Analyzing and interpreting the results: The researcher is concerned with the operation of the factors under investigation. He must be especially sensitive to the possibility that the results of his/her study arose through the operation of uncontrolled extraneous factors. The researcher must further insulate at a given probability level the possibility that the experimental findings are simply the results of chance. In no other area of research is the need for competence in statistical procedures so clearly indicated as in the analysis of experimental data as the basis for their valid interpretation.
  8.  Drawing up conclusions: the conclusions of the study must be based on the findings of the study. Care must be taken not to over – generalize the results obtained. The results also pertain only to the conditions under which they were derived, and, since control may have distorted the natural situation, care must be taken to restrict the conclusions to the conditions actually present in the experiment. 
  9.  Reporting the result: The study must be reported in sufficient detail so that the reader can make an intelligent judgment as to its validity (Fisher, 1957) 

Self – Assessment Exercise 3.3

Describe experimental research

3.4 Survey Method

The survey method is interested in the accurate assessment of the characteristics of whole populations of people. Only rarely, however, do survey researchers study whole population; they normally study samples drawn from populations. From these samples, the researcher infers the characteristics of the defined population or universe. The study of sample from which inferences about population can be drawn is needed because of the difficulties of attempting to study whole populations. Random samples often furnish the same information as a census at much less cost, with greater efficiency sometimes, greater accuracy.

Sample surveys attempt to determine the incidence, distribution, and interrelations among sociological and psychological variables. Survey research focuses on people, the vital facts of people, and their beliefs, opinions, attitudes, motivations and behavior. Surveys are particularly versatile and practical, especially for the administrator, in that they indentify present conditions and point to present needs. Surveys do not make the decisions for the administrator, but they can provide him with information on which to base sound decisions.  Surveys can be conveniently classified by the following methods of obtaining information: personal interview, mail questionnaire, panel, telephone and controlled observation. Of these, the personal interview far overshadows the others as the most powerful and useful tool of social scientific survey research (Osuala, 2005)

Self – Assessment Exercise 3.4

Discuss survey research

3.5 Case Study Method

Case study has a long history in social science research and has been used extensively in public administration more especially in the area of motivation. For example both Freud and Piagnet typically used case studies to develop their theories. Criticism of their techniques damaged the case study approach, but the increased acceptance of qualitative research and in particular, participant observation has, as corollary, revived the acceptability of the case study.

The case study can either be quantitative or qualitative, or even a combination of both due to the constraints of a sample of one or a single unit being studied. With the restrictions that brings for

statistical inference, most case studies lie within the realm of qualitative methodology. Case study is used to gain in – depth understanding replete with meaning for the subject, focusing on process rather than outcome, on discovery rather than confirmation. Case study must involve the collection of very extensive data to produce an understanding of the entity being studied. Shallow studies will not make any contribution to administrative knowledge (Osuala, 2005).

Self Assessment Exercise 3.5

State the importance of case study as one of the methods of inquiry in public administration.

3.6 Institutional Approach

This is the earliest approach to the study of governmental administration. It was largely based on the legal rights and obligations of government. The approach tended to emphasize formal relationships and separation of powers among the three tiers of government – legislature, executive and judiciary. Under this approach, generalizations were often based upon analysis of formal

organization practices and the constitutional delegation of authority and responsibility to the three arms of government. Policy and administration were often dichotomized, with the assumption that

the role of administrators was almost entirely confined to merely carrying out policy designed by the formal political arms of government (Onah, 2005).

Self – Assessment Exercise 3.6

What is the basis of analysis under institutional approach?

3.7 Comparative Approach

This approach owns its development to comparative politics. The Second World War marked the development of comparative approach among academic studies of public administration. This

development was as a result of the following:

  1. The creation of several new international organizations 
  2. The United States volunteered to assist in promoting economic recovery programmes in Europe and the Far East 
  3.  Western countries led by USA developed programmes of aid and technical assistance to benefit the Asian and African countries that became independent from the late 1940s through the 1950s and 1960s.
  4.  The concern of some public administration scholars with the search for a science of public administration 

As a result of the reasons stated above, many American public administrators and some academic experts of the discipline were sent to foreign countries in the late 1950s either to assist in administering economic programmes or as technical experts to strengthen the public administration institutions of some of the newly independent countries. From their concrete experiences this

experts discovered that the existing assumptions of public administration elaborated in USA were inapplicable to the realities of the foreign countries. The first efforts by some of these experts to compare notes on the subject took place at the conference on comparative public administration held at Princeton in 1952. This conference therefore gave birth to the comparative approach to the study of public administration (Adamolekun, 1983).

Self – Assessment Exercise 3.7

Explain the basic issues that were responsibility for the development comparative approach to public administration


This unit has outlined and discussed the various methods of inquires used in public administration. The discussions show that the success in the administrative work depends to a large extent on the efficient method of gathering and applying the information at various levels. 


This unit considered the following approaches for discussion; Historical Method, Descriptive Method, Experimental Method, Survey Method, Case study Method, The Institutional Approach,
and Comparative Approach. It discussed their theoretical assumptions, usefulness and weaknesses as a mode of inquiry in public administration.


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