Thinking in Public about Public Affairs: A Response to, and Expansion of, Zuo, Qian, and Zhao

Samuel Workman


In “Understanding the Field of Public Affairs through the Lens of Ranked Ph.D. Programs in the United States,” Zuo, Qian, and Zhao (2019) take an innovative approach to discussing the field of public affairs with attention to program, gender, and citation and hiring patterns. The essay that follows is not so much a critique of their approach as it is a plea to the academy to think more broadly about what it means to teach and research in the field of public affairs. I argue that this is increasingly important for understanding what it is we are teaching and orienting teaching and research toward problems that citizens and elected officials face together.

First, I address public affairs as an institutional label and the implications of these brick-and-mortar divisions for teaching public affairs as well as research into public problems. These tensions underly much of the empirical analysis in Zuo et al. (2019), but my aim here is to lay them bare. From there, I glimpse the contributions to the study of public affairs in its most natural home discipline—political science, where the politics that undergird public affairs is more vivid. I include a discussion of public affairs as organizational maintenance, and identification with the means (Jones, 2003) versus public affairs as addressing public problems. In this, I highlight the role of research centers and funded research. Finally, I note that a broader perspective on public affairs is imperative in teaching and training public managers as well as the field’s leverage on understanding and solving important public problems.