The Bureaucrat and the Poor : Encounters in French Welfare Offices book cover
1st Edition

The Bureaucrat and the Poor
Encounters in French Welfare Offices

ISBN 9781138306523
Published June 16, 2017 by Routledge
228 Pages

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Book Description

Welfare offices usually attract negative descriptions of bureaucracy with their queues, routines, and impersonal nature. Are they anonymous machines or the locus of neutral service relationships? Showing how people experience state public administration, The Bureaucrat and the Poor provides a realistic view of French welfare policies, institutions and reforms and, in doing so, dispels both of these myths. Combining Lipsky's street-level bureaucracy theory with the sociology of Bourdieu and Goffman, this research analyses face-to-face encounters and demonstrates the complex relationship between welfare agents, torn between their institutional role and their personal feelings, and welfare applicants, required to translate their personal experience into bureaucratic categories. Placing these interactions within the broader context of social structures and class, race and gender, the author unveils both the social determinations of these interpersonal relationships and their social functions. Increasing numbers of welfare applicants, coupled with mass unemployment, family transformations and the so-called 'integration problem' of migrants into French society deeply affect these encounters. Staff manage tense situations with no additional resources - some become personally involved, while others stick to their bureaucratic role; most of them alternate between involvement and detachment, assistance and domination. Welfare offices have become a place for 're-socialisation', where people can talk about their personal problems and ask for advice. On the other hand, bureaucratic encounters are increasingly violent, symbolically if not physically. More than ever, they are now a means of regulating the poor.

Table of Contents

Contents: Foreword, Steven Maynard-Moody; Preface to the English edition; Introduction; Part I The Social Conditions of the Administrative Relationship: The public; Organising face-to-face encounters; An unequal relationship; Administrative exchanges, normative exchanges. Part II The Agent's Two Bodies: The post and the role of the agent; On becoming an agent; The agents as individuals; Facing misery; Managing social inequality; The agent's separate identities. Part III Questioning the Institutional Order: Flaws in the system; Putting up with the institution; The return of the repressed individual; Adapting the institution; Appendices; Indexes.

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Vincent Dubois is Professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of Strasbourg, France.


'By emphasising the encounters of the least powerful state actors and our least powerful citizens, Dubois presents a different, at once more troubling and hopeful view of the administrative state. Throughout The Bureaucrat and the Poor the emphasis remains on the fragility of social roles: nothing is so fixed as to prove immutable; all is contested and in play. For students and scholars of administration and policy, these are essential insights and well worth the read to appreciate in full.' Steven Maynard-Moody, The University of Kansas, USA 'This first-rate ethnography provides a unique vista point from which to understand how public policy translates into mundane dealings with marginal populations. By mating the theories of Bourdieu, Goffman and Lipsky, The Bureaucrat and the Poor delivers the best analysis yet of the specificity of bureaucratic domination and makes a signal contribution to the comparative sociology of welfare reform in the neoliberal era.’ Loïc Wacquant, University of California, Berkeley, USA ’A lucid, well-written and well-organised account of everyday bureaucracy at the welfare agency’s window, solidly based on observation: first-class empirical sociology, savvy, streetwise, and with a wicked sense of clients’ covert tactics. French bureaucrats and their clients are clearly not unique: as Dubois portrays them they look uncannily familiar.’ Abram de Swaan, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands 'Vincent Dubois’ newly translated The Bureaucrat and the Poor: Encounters in French Welfare Offices provides an ethnographic "insider’s" look at the double role enacted by welfare workers as they encounter their clients. In his ethnographer’s role, Dubois follows these street-level bureaucrats up close and personal, and explores the workers’ "double bodied-ness" as they juggle at one and the same time their administrative roles and responsibilities with their human compassion for the misery of the poor with whom they interact an