When the Law is not Enough: A New Research Agenda for Studying Frontline Work

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Over 30 years ago, Michael Lipsky in his theory on street-level bureaucracy suggested that ‘the law’, i.e. legislation and political regulation, is not sufficient for understanding what goes on at the front line or street level of governmental agencies or for understanding what types of benefits, sanctions and services confront citizens in their daily lives. In stead, he suggested, professional discretion is inevitable in connecting general and abstract political and legal frameworks to concrete action vis-à-vis citizens. Since then, research in street-level bureaucracy has expanded, overall supporting Lipsky’s original claims, and demonstrating different mechanism at play in street-level bureaucratic organization. This research typically employs a perspective of ‘law abidance’, meaning that street-level behavior and procedures are typically seen as obstacles for the ‘direct’ or ‘pure’ implementation of the law. Following this analytical perspective is also an implicit normative perspective suggesting that the law is the only source of legitimacy for state action. In contrast to this, other scholars (e.g. Michael Musheno and Steven Maynard-Moody) has suggested that street-level organizations should also be studied in a different perspective, namely as facilitating encounters between citizens and the state. In such a perspective, the law is not necessarily the point of departure for understanding such encounters or for understanding the concrete actions of street-level bureaucrats and state employees. In stead, we must recognize how some state employees are guided by many other things besides the law, including e.g. stereotypical conceptions, or a normative wish for making lives better for the citizens they serve. This paper follows this tradition, presenting and discussing insights from sociological research on state and citizen encounters. Two main perspectives for understanding such encounters are suggested: 1) a power perspective focusing on the social interaction and context of interaction between state employees and citizens 2) a knowledge perspective, focusing on how professional knowledge, practices and norms function as a context for encounters.
Thus it is suggested, that to understand what goes on at the front line of state agencies, we must move beyond the legal and political context and focus on the social context of encounters, including power dynamics, knowledge production and normative self-regulation of professionals. Following this analytical discussion, the paper closes with a normative discussion of secondary or supplementary sources of legitimacy for state action, namely the possible legitimacy of a ‘discourse ethic’ (cf. Habermas) and the inclusion of citizens in decision making, and the possible
legitimacy of expert knowledge.
Antal sider25
StatusUdgivet - 2015
Udgivet eksterntJa
BegivenhedLaw & Society - Seattle, USA
Varighed: 28 maj 201531 maj 2015


KonferenceLaw & Society


  • Socialt arbejde og sociale forhold
  • Street-level bureaucracy