Dissertation Abstracts

Bureaucratic Encounters in Israel: Lines of Reasoning and Forms of Uncertainty in the Welfare State

Author: Leuchter, Noa , noa.leuchter@gmail.com
Department: Sociology and Anthropology
University: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel
Supervisor: Andre Levy; Michael Herzfeld
Year of completion: 2014
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: bureaucratic encounters , welfare state , social security , organizational behavior
Areas of Research: Institutional Ethnography , Organization , Poverty, Social Welfare and Social Policy

Abstract

This dissertation is based on research in a local state welfare bureaucracy, empirically and theoretically located in the imagined juncture between the Israeli welfare state and the subjects participating in its constructions and practices. Moving beyond the narrow confines of ‘bureaucracy’ or ‘state’, I suggest an open-ended and questioning approach that connects the detailed study of specific locations and practices to the analysis of wider systems of meaning. In doing so, I accomplish two complementary objectives. First, I show how clients as well as employees understood their bureaucratic experiences and their significance, creating an ethnography of a state bureaucracy, contributing to a more profound understanding of bureaucracy as a socio-cultural system. Second, I demonstrate how the Israeli state comes to be thought of and recognized, and how understandings of citizenship and national sentiments were devised and negotiated through these encounters. Specifically, I show how the Israeli bureaucracy is a site which brings together ideologies of social welfare, on the one hand, neoliberal privatization schemes, on the other. That is, the Israeli bureaucracy is a site in which we can observe the ongoing negotiations of the social contract between the Israeli state and its citizens in a volatile period of social and economic changes through its contradictory logics.

In this work I advance three major claims. First, I argue that bureaucrats created an alternative meaning of welfare as ideology and practice through their discretionary participation. Through the analysis of their patterns of decision-making and discretionary actions, I suggest that they introduced a creative, contradictory and even provocative interpretation of welfare. Specifically, I show how when formal institutional arrangements of the welfare state fell short in addressing the needs of clients, bureaucrats, to the extent that they could, took it upon themselves to worked to help weak and marginal groups live with dignity and honor; however, bureaucrats acted this way only toward those groups that they recognized as their counterparts belonging to the national community.

Second, I challenge the idea of bureaucracy as simply a formal, instrumental and rational formation. Rather, I claim that, in these bureaucratic settings, rationality and enchantment existed simultaneously and contributed to the understanding of bureaucracies, and therefore the state, as illegible, and to the experience of bureaucratic encounters as fragmented, contradictory, and arbitrary processes that produce discomforts and anxieties. Furthermore, my ethnography demonstrates that bureaucratic knowledge under certain contexts became available through and for the national community, thus furthering the strength of the bureaucratic institution as a site in which state power and ideology was implemented.

Third, I argue that in light of these findings, bureaucratic encounters are not the only moments during which clients are shaped as national in their citizenship through bureaucratic logic and practice; however, these bureaucratic encounters are the moments in which clients experience their subjective submission to state power and its legitimacy, furthering their dependency and helplessness against it. This subordination is created and re-created through innumerable bureaucratic encounters, contributing to a discourse of loathing and fear of state bureaucracies.

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