Ben Merriman Joins School faculty

The School of Public Affairs and Administration welcomes Assistant Professor Ben Merriman for the Fall, 2016 semester.

Dr. Merriman earned a B.A. in Sociology at James Madison University (2008) and an A.M. in Sociology at the University of Chicago (2010). He recently completed his Ph.D. in Sociology at the University of Chicago.

As a sociologist, Professor Merriman brings an interesting lens to the intersection of public administration and his degree. “Historically, public administration and American sociology took shape at the same time in response to a very similar set of intellectual and political issues; they are each, in their own way, institutionalized forms of the Progressive impulse.”

He continues, “A century later, I believe sociology and public administration, as disciplines, still have a complementary set of concerns and goals. More than any other topic, American sociologists study social inequality. As a discipline, sociology is excellent at identifying inequalities and the problems that arise from this, but it is less well-equipped to define the practical ways those problems might be ameliorated. Public administration is very good at understanding how those issues can be addressed in practice. Additionally, in the period since the emergence of the New Public Administration, public administration has, in theory and practice, become even more oriented toward the kinds of topics that interest American sociologists.”

“Almost all disciplines have valuable things to say about public administration,” he adds. “One of the appealing things about the School [of Public Affairs and Administration at KU] is that it brings people from many disciplines together. I’m joining a faculty that includes scholars trained in public administration and public affairs, but there are also scholars in fields like ecology, geography, law, and political science. All of these disciplines intersect, but the intersections only become apparent when scholars with different kinds of training have a chance to talk with one another. The School is full of active scholars doing interesting and varied work.”

Merriman’s recent research has examined past and current friction between states and the federal government on the issues of environmental protection, the provision of health care, and the administration of elections, as well as conflicts between states about the management of water and other natural resources.

“These disputes involve questions of policy – what should government do? – as well as questions of law and government structure – who has the power to make and administer policies in these areas?” explains Merriman. “It’s obvious that the answers to these questions matter. What is less obvious, but extremely interesting, is that administrative law has played a central role in how these conflicts are defined and resolved over the last few years. (Of course, I don’t need to tell people in a public administration school that administrative law is important.)”

Merriman also describes his work as partly historical. “For example, I’m currently studying how the federal judiciary began to use social science and statistics when deciding cases, particularly cases about voting rights and legislative redistricting. Courts started using such evidence quite some time ago, but that’s not a matter of merely historical interest; that history affects the way courts deal with similar cases today.”

Some of Merriman’s other work addresses how governments and researchers should respond to ethical and administrative issues raised by technologies like genetic engineering. He believes “those issues will only become more pressing in the near future. As the technologies become more powerful, it will be more important to consider how they can be used responsibly.”

This Fall Dr. Merriman will help kick off the School’s new Law & Society undergraduate major and teach Introduction to Law & Society (LWS 330) and Methods in Law & Society (LWS 332). He has previously taught courses in the social sciences at the University of Chicago and the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Merriman concludes, “I’m excited to join the faculty at the start of the law and society major, which will build on the School’s traditional strengths. I look forward to being part of a thriving intellectual community, especially since my experience with the community so far has also been friendly and welcoming. Being at KU is also an unexpected and pleasant homecoming for me: I grew up in Kansas, and much of my family lives in Lawrence. I’m very glad to be back. I’m proud to be a Jayhawk!”