Metaphors and the Development of American Bureaucracy

Jonathan Koppell

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


This article outlines the strengths and limitations of the tidal and tectonic metaphors and introduces the potential insights offered by adding relativity and reflexivity to the metaphorical soup. Three claims regarding the use of metaphors in understanding bureaucratic development are presented through an examination of two of the most profound developments in contemporary bureaucracy: the shift from administrative to market-based delivery of public goods and the erosion of regulatory boundaries between institutions and sectors. The article then shows how tidal and tectonic metaphors are combined with dashes of reflexivity and relativity to capture the dynamic reshaping of the traditional administrative regulatory state. It finally provides several promising research questions for scholars that span metaphorical approaches to American bureaucratic development. It is noted that a theory of administrative reform that integrates the metaphors of tides, tectonics, reflexivity, and relativity will be richer than one which unconsciously accepts a single perspective.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Oxford Handbook of American Bureaucracy
PublisherOxford University Press
ISBN (Electronic)9780191594694
ISBN (Print)9780199238958
StatePublished - Jan 2 2011
Externally publishedYes


  • American bureaucratic development
  • Market
  • Public good
  • Reflexivity
  • Relativity
  • Tectonic metaphors
  • Tidal metaphors

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences(all)


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