Evans, Tony and Harris, John
A case of mistaken identity? Debating the dilemmas of street-level bureaucracy with Musil et al
European Journal of Social Work, 9, (4), . (doi:10.1080/13691450600958494).
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Lipsky's Street-level Bureaucracy (Russell Sage Foundation, New York, 1980) has exerted a strong influence on the study of public service organisations. There has been a growing interest in using this perspective to understand the organisational context of social work and Musil et al.'s article in the EJSW (2004, 'Do social workers avoid the dilemmas of work with clients?', European Journal of Social Work, vol. 7, no. 3, pp. 305-319) reflects this interest. Musil et al. argue that it is possible to identify two forms of practitioner response to the constraints of street-level bureaucracies: adapting working practices in ways that disadvantage service users or challenging working conditions in order to achieve more professionally acceptable practice. Their contribution to the debate is helpful, particularly with regard to their identification of responses by practitioners that seek to advance the interests of service users. However, we view their approach as constrained by lack of consideration of the construction of social work roles within particular street-level bureaucracies. We suggest that Lipsky's work should be approached as a tentative analytic framework, rather than as a fixed model and we argue that a productive approach to research on social workers as street-level bureaucrats is conjunctural analysis. Such analysis examines the contexts, circumstances and statuses of practitioners and how these factors shape the specific forms of street-level practice that operate in particular organisational settings. We illustrate this in our discussion of the factors that are likely to have had a bearing on the two practice settings used as case studies by Musil et al.
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