Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Epistemology and Educational Administration

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_291


Epistemology Logical empiricism Traditional science Ethics Critical theory Postmodernism Naturalistic coherentism 



This entry explores in detail the ways in which epistemology shapes both the structure and the content of some of the major theories of educational administration. It does this by examining the epistemological assumptions that lie behind the kind of methodologies required to justify such theories or those epistemologies that query, on epistemological grounds, the relevance of a justificationist framework. Theories to be examined include traditional science approaches that assumed logical empiricism, traditional critical theory approaches that adopted transcendental forms of justification, humanistic approaches that saw values as central, perspectival Kuhnian approaches that advocated subjectivism, postmodern views based on a challenge to the notion of justification, and those that saw coherence as a model of justification. There are many more possible examples, but these well-known theories provide useful exemplars of a more generally applicable thesis.

The Theory Movement

In the early 1950s, in the USA, a concerted and well-funded effort (by the Kellogg Foundation) was made to upgrade research in educational administration with the purpose of improving schools. The aim was to make research more scientific. The model of “scientific” was one borrowed from logical empiricism, in particular, a version of Herbert Feigl’s view that he had taken from the natural sciences and had adapted for social science. And there was a major exemplar of these ideas in the field already: Herbert Simon’s book Administrative Behavior, first published in 1945. The model had three distinctive features:
  1. 1.

    A theory was to be seen as a hypothetico-deductive structure. Roughly speaking, a theory’s most general claims are at the top of the structure with less general claims appearing further down the structure. Phenomena could then be explained by showing that they could be subsumed under relevant claims in the theory.

  2. 2.

    Justification of a theory’s claims proceeds by a process of empirical testing. That is, the theory implies particular empirical outcomes. If these are observed, the theory is confirmed. If contrary outcomes are observed, the theory is disconfirmed. Justification is a matter of accumulating many confirmations and no disconfirmations.

  3. 3.

    Operational definitions of all theoretical concepts are required. This amounts to being able to give empirical measurement procedures for these concepts.


The nature of these claims is driven largely by epistemology. On the matter of operational definitions, it is a question of how do you know what the terms mean, with meaning being given by some empirical measurement procedure. Empirical testing lies at the core of justification. And recasting a theory as a hypothetico-deductive structure is done precisely to facilitate testing.

There are two significant consequences for the content of theories in educational administration. The first is the total exclusion of ethics that arises from belief in a sharp distinction between facts and values. A science of administration is one that deals in knowledge about the way the world is, that is, what can be observed or known through observation. Claims about what ought to be the case, in the sense of a moral “ought,” lie outside the domain of science. This ethics-excluding partition continues even to the present day where perhaps the most influential textbook in this tradition, Hoy and Miskel’s Educational Administration: Theory, Research, and Practice (2013), now into its ninth edition, omits ethics. You would think that this would be perceived as a serious omission because administrators are constantly dealing with the question “What ought I do?” In response, it is tempting to push the answer off into outside goals, construing means as the province of scientific administrative theory. However, even among alternative means, they may not be equivalent on moral grounds.

A second significant consequence is the focus on administrator behaviors, due to the fact that these are observable. In social science, it is hard to make this work even for the simplest behaviors. Consider, for example, Skinner’s attempt to give a behaviorist account of language learning. He begins with a reductio argument as follows. Suppose we have inputs in the form of stimuli that causally impinge on a black box (the mind) which in turn causally impinges on output behaviors. But if there are any significant relations between inputs and outputs, we can methodologically just dispense with the black box assumption and theorize in terms of the linked observable inputs and outputs.

To this argument, Chomsky raised two key objections. The first concerned the definition of a stimulus. How is a stimulus to be distinguished from the many other features of the environment in which a person is causally enmeshed? The required answer is that a stimulus is something that a person attends to. The problem is that the notion of attending to is a mental property or at least something that resides inside the black box. The second objection queries the possibility of establishing systematic links between stimuli and behaviors. For example, how would you ever know that seeing a Renoir on an art gallery wall is more likely to produce the spoken behavior “That’s a Renoir” as opposed to “That matches the carpet” or indeed any arbitrary number of other spoken responses.

These kinds of criticisms helped usher in the cognitive revolution that began in the early 1960s. Nevertheless, social science requires more. Consider the behavior of quickly raising one’s arm with added descriptors specifying rotation, length, angle from the vertical, angle from a person’s front, and so on. None of this is sufficient to meet the explanatory requirements of social science which operates on more fine-grained distinctions. Is the person swatting at a mosquito, bidding at an auction, signaling to a distant acquaintance, or suffering from a tic?


While traditional science of educational administration continued to flourish, largely by ignoring some of the more drastic strictures its logical empiricist epistemology imposed, from the mid-1970s, more systematic alternatives began to be developed drawing on different epistemological positions. The first of these to gain traction as a major challenge was that proposed by Thomas Greenfield. In his classic paper – (Greenfield 1975) – his initial target was the purported objectivity of theories in natural science. His familiarity with the work of Kuhn provided the relevant philosophical ammunition. His various arguments were pitched at establishing the conclusion that empirical evidence was never sufficient for rationally choosing among competing scientific theories, especially those that are paradigmatic. Rather, it is those theories that determine what counts as appropriate empirical evidence. Scattered throughout his paper are three characteristic arguments. First, the fact/theory distinction blurs because observations are always theory laden. Second, theories are always underdetermined by empirical evidence. That is, it is always possible to draw an arbitrary number of different curves through a finite number of data points. Finally, test situations are always complex making it often hard to determine which particular claims or set of claims is being disconfirmed by observations. For Greenfield, if all the evidence there is for a theory is empirical evidence and if empirical evidence is never sufficient for rational theory choice, then what counts is a matter of human subjectivity.

Greenfield then extends this idea to social science but with a further consideration. Because the relevance of human subjectivity is essential for interpreting and understanding the actions of others, the entire apparatus of natural science explanation and justification is entirely inappropriate in social science. Organizations are not realities out there to be fitted into a hypothetico-deductive framework of empirical lawlike generalizations being subject to testability conditions, a view that still manifests within the systems-theoretic approach to theory building and testing. Rather they are human inventions, the result of collective interpretations and interpretations of others’ interpretations. There is no quest for lawlike generalizations. Rather the quest is for sets of meanings that people use to make sense of their different worlds. If there is a switch in these meanings, then there is a corresponding change in organizational reality (Greenfield 1975, p. 7). Greenfield’s arguments ushered in the notion that traditional science of administration was just one possible paradigm for understanding the social world. There were others, including Greenfields subjectivism.

Ethics and Educational Administration

Another approach provided a way to incorporate values into administrative theory. This was first pioneered in the field by Christopher Hodgkinson in his Towards a Philosophy of Administration (1978). In this work, Hodgkinson accepted fully the claim that there is a sharp separation between fact and value. However, what followed next for Hodgkinson was a complete reversal of the argument that traditional science of administration advocates had used to exclude ethics from educational administration. For Hodgkinson drew attention to the many ethical issues that arise in administrative life, including both the setting of organizational goals and the making of choices about how to achieve them. Rather than ethics being peripheral to organizational life, he argued that it was central. The result was both simple and profound in its consequences. If science excludes values and if values are central for administration, then educational administration is not a science at all. Rather, it is a humanism.

Hodgkinson developed an account of organizations based on his epistemology of values. He posited four types of values that formed a hierarchy. At the bottom were type III values whose justification depended just on human affect, what people felt. At the next level were Type IIb values, those justified by appeal to the collective will or a shared solidarity. At the next level, Type IIa values were justified by appeals to rationality. This category could include both utilitarian arguments, including the more arcane methods of utility maximization, and Kantian, or deontological, arguments based on transcendental deductions of what norms are presupposed for ethics to be possible. At the top of the hierarchy of values were those classified as Type I. Called “transrational,” their epistemology took the form of a superior kind of intuition. Although not justified by an explicitly Platonic appeal to the abstract forms, the affinity with Plato’s ideas is clearly there.

This account of values was much more than just a taxonomy of the kinds of ethical decision-making that might exist in organizational life. It was also presumed to offer a structure for understanding organizations based on the kinds of ethical decision-making that existed at each level of organizational life. Thus, at the bottom of the organizational hierarchy could be found the rank and file whose characteristic decisions were Type III. At the next level, a more collective dynamic prevailed. The next level was where rationality dominated, the province of management. And at the top was where the big decisions on organizational purpose and means for achieving it could be found, administrators exercising Type I judgments.

Critical Theory

A further illustration of the role of epistemology from the history of the field can be found in the influence of critical theory, the most systematic expression of which can be found in William Foster’s Paradigms and Promises (1988). The epistemology derives from the early work of Habermas, particularly his Knowledge and Human Interests (1972). For critical theorists in this incarnation, the principal weakness of traditional science of educational administration lay in its assumption that there was only one type of knowledge, namely, scientific knowledge. Habermas, employing Kantian style arguments, identified three fundamental human interests: an interest in manipulating and controlling the world, an interest in communication, and an interest in freedom. More explicitly, scientific knowledge, in presupposing the requirement of manipulation and control, when applied to people, places a premium on treating people as means rather than ends in themselves. Hermeneutical knowledge has, as a presupposition for communication, an ideal speech situation where barriers to communication such as power and inequality are to be resisted and removed. Finally, emancipatory knowledge presupposes social and political arrangements that support the promotion of human freedom.

When this view of knowledge is applied to theories in educational administration, the structure of theories is affected by needing to accommodate these types of knowledge, and the content of such theories is transformed. Thus, critical theory implies accounts of administration that include an ethics of respect for persons, for treating persons as intrinsically of value rather than their value residing merely in their contribution to the organization. It stresses more democratic forms of organizational practice and participation, but in the cause of communication and in honoring the freedoms associated with democratic practice. Moreover, it counsels a wider sense of organizational responsibility with goals being set not just under the constraints of organizational functioning, but with an ethical constraint for promoting the betterment of society.


A fifth, more recent view reflects postmodern influences on educational administration. There are two main varieties of this. The first is a sociological thesis, best described using the term postmodernity, where a society is fragmented, boundaries are unclear, geographies are de-centered, controls are less prevalent, and the present is a possibility of chaos. This is an empirical thesis about the nature of society. The second variety is primarily a philosophical thesis, with a central component being a view of epistemology. Again there are differences within this variety. The one to be dealt with here derives from Richard Rorty’s book Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1980). The book defends three characteristic theses. The first is that there are no foundations to knowledge. This anti-foundationalism is taken to compromise the task of justifying knowledge, to render the task otiose. The second is anti-essentialism, a gesture toward the fluidity of ontological boundaries. It comes with the notion that many of our familiar categories to do with gender, handicap, race, and class are social constructs that are malleable. The third is anti-representationalism, the notion that our theories are not representations of the world and that they do not mirror nature.

The earliest systematic expression of these ideas in educational administration can be found in Spencer Maxcy’s edited volume Postmodern School Leadership (1994). Because of overlapping skeptical epistemologies, there are some similarities between Greenfield’s subjectivism and philosophical postmodernism. However, while Greenfield was content to leave open the kinds of nonempirical factors that might influence theory choice, a number of postmodern writers in the field have settled on the importance of aesthetics. The most recent book-length example of this is Fenwick English and Lisa Ehrich’s work Leading Beautifully: Educational Leadership as Connoisseurship (2016). What needs to be looked at closely is whether aesthetic criteria for leadership have an implicit epistemological function. That is, can these criteria be used to make good decisions is the same way that inferences from data can be helpful. There are ways in which the epistemology can be implied without being able to be specified. One classical example is Aristotle’s practical wisdom – unable to be specified in rules but visible in wise outcomes. Another is Hodgkinson’s account of leadership as a moral art. On his view, something that is an art cannot be specified by a procedure or an algorithm. And so it may be with leading beautifully.

Naturalistic Coherentism

The final approach to be considered is that developed over a 25-year period through a series of books and many papers by Colin Evers and Gabriele Lakomski. (For a recent overview, see Evers and Lakomski 2015.) Their epistemology is known as naturalistic coherentism. The coherentism is based on the notion that there is more to justification than empirical adequacy. In addition to empirical adequacy, what else is important is that theories need to be consistent, they need to be comprehensive, the various parts need to cohere, and there is value in simplicity which tells against the addition of ad hoc assumptions to bring the theory into line with empirical evidence. This combination of epistemic virtues makes for a coherentist account of justification. Although this epistemology is not foundationalist and leaves open the question of essentialism, it is representationalist. That is, it claims that our best theories are like maps that help get us around our social and natural worlds at better than chance or coin tossing. The naturalism is a tilt against so-called armchair epistemology. It is the requirement that the epistemology is sanctioned by our best natural science. Furthermore, a science of administration is also required to cohere with natural science. In developing accounts of decision-making, expertise, leadership, the role of emotion, and practical reasoning, Evers and Lakomski’s naturalism draws on work in cognitive neuroscience to account for the dynamics of knowledge acquisition and change and of knowledge representation. On this view, the best administrative theory would be one that accounts for administrative phenomena in the most coherent way. But note a caveat. Administrative phenomena occur in material contexts. So, for example, the most appropriate theory of leadership in one school can be entirely inappropriate for another school. This result leads to an emphasis on theory building. Because a lot of knowledge in social science is both provisional and context dependent, this approach sees building an account of leadership as a trajectory of trying out theories that are believed to be useful, applying them and then if they are unsuccessful, using the coherentist epistemology to make improvements for the next iteration of application. The result is a process view of administrative knowledge rather than a content view. In terms of what the epistemology allows in a theory, its holism permits both ethics and considerations of human subjectivity to be part of the resulting web of belief. And in the matter of structure, a theory is best seen as a web, as Quine imagined, with the most central, least revisable parts at the center and the most easily revised parts toward the periphery.


Although the above five examples provide clear evidence of the role of epistemologies in shaping both the content and the structure of theories in educational administration, it is arguable that this is something that applies to many other approaches to educational administration. This will be evident from the various contributions to the encyclopedia’s section on educational administration.


  1. English, F., & Ehrich, L. (2016). Leading beautifully: Educational leadership as connoisseurship. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  2. Evers, C. W., & Lakomski, G. (2015). Naturalism and educational administration: New directions. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 47(4), 402–419.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Foster, W. (1988). Paradigms and promises. Buffalo: Prometheus Books.Google Scholar
  4. Greenfield, T. B. (1975). Theory about organization: A new perspective for schools. Cited as reprinted in Ribbins, P., & Greenfield, T. B. (1993). Greenfield on educational administration. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  5. Habermas, J. (1972). Knowledge and human interests. Portsmouth: Heinemann.Google Scholar
  6. Hodgkinson, C. (1978). Towards a philosophy of administration. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  7. Hoy, W. K., & Miskell, C. (2013). Educational administration: Theory, research and practice (9th ed.). Columbus: McGraw Hill.Google Scholar
  8. Maxcy, S. J. (Ed.). (1994). Postmodern school leadership. Santa Barbara: Praeger.Google Scholar
  9. Rorty, R. (1980). Philosophy and the mirror of nature. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Simon, H. A. (1945). Administrative behavior. New York: The Free Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The University of New South WalesSydneyAustralia

Section editors and affiliations

  • Colin Evers
    • 1
  1. 1.University of New South WalesSydneyAustralia