Legitimacy and public administration: Constructing the American bureaucratic fields

Thomas J. Catlaw, Qian Hu

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    8 Scopus citations


    Legitimacy claims can only be made and processes of legitimation can only unfold in a specified context. This article uses Pierre Bourdieu's concept of the social field to name this context and to analyze the construction of the bureaucratic or public administrative field in the United States. Field is meant in a triple sense-public administration as a general, institutionalized field in the structure of government; public administration as a professional field; and public administration as an academic field of study. Thus, rather than the bureaucratic field, the relationship of these bureaucratic fields or an "ensemble of fields" is analyzed to consider how each field both bounds its own legitimation struggles and draws from other fields for symbolic resources-what Bourdieu called symbolic capital-to establish its legitimacy and position. The multifield quality of public administration is used to show how the nature of the general bureaucratic field is distinct from other fields insofar as it purports to represent a universal, general interest. This difference is used to theorize a distinction between "general" and "specific" legitimation processes.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)458-481
    Number of pages24
    JournalAmerican Behavioral Scientist
    Issue number3
    StatePublished - Nov 1 2009


    • Legitimacy
    • Legitimation
    • Pierre Bourdieu
    • Public administration

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Social Psychology
    • Cultural Studies
    • Education
    • Sociology and Political Science
    • General Social Sciences


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