Street level bureaucrats' role perceptions and decisions in preventive welfare policies. A case study from Denmark.

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Within recent decades, and widespread throughout both Europe and the United States, welfare policies and interventions fighting social inequality have seen an increasing use of preventive measures. Prevention, the argument goes, especially if it is done at a very early stage, has the benefit of solving problems efficiently, since such problems have not yet been allowed to grow big. However, since preventive measures are also characterized by an inherently fuzzy logic of having to identify problems before they become problems, the task of deciding when to intervene preventively entails a large discretionary power for street-level bureaucrats (SLBs). Furthermore, since many preventive measures and interventions are directed at the daily lives and practices of families and children, the task of deciding when to intervene may very well come to depend on the perceptions of “normal practices”, values, virtues and perceptions of
justice among SLBs. In a previous paper, I showed how this is actually the case for teachers, childcare workers and community health nurses, as they tend to define possible problems of early intervention in both a professional language of diagnosis and a “common sense language” of norms and intuitions (Harrits and Møller 2014).
Also, SLBs perception of their own roles and responsibilities vis-à-vis the families may prove important for understanding decisions on when to make early interventions, as well as for understanding the possible (in)effectiveness of prevention for fighting social inequality. In the present paper, I therefore explore the way in which SLBs describe their own role and responsibilities and the way in which such role perceptions may impact or shape SLB “discretionary reasoning” when deciding on early intervention. To complete this task I draw on both theories on street-level bureaucracy and professionalism (including in particular Maynard-Moody and Mushenos distinction between citizen agency and state agency), as well as sociological theories on identity and reasoning (including in particular Bourdieus notion on habitus). Data comes from a qualitative research project from Denmark, with 58 interviews among schoolteachers, childcare workers and community health nurses. This gives me the
opportunity of exploring the possible link between role perception, discretionary reasoning and decisions both within and across cases, using both a narrative and interpretive logic of analysis and comparative analysis. On the basis of the analysis, the paper finally discusses some normative issues, focusing on the ways in which SLB role perception and decisions within preventive policies may facilitate and hinder interventions empowering citizens and families, and helping to fight problems of social inequality.
Antal sider23
StatusUdgivet - 2014
Udgivet eksterntJa
BegivenhedLaw & Society - Minneapolis, USA
Varighed: 29 apr. 20141 jun. 2014


KonferenceLaw & Society


  • Socialt arbejde og sociale forhold