Kirstine Karmsteen

Mastering the alienating forces of street-level bureaucracy: A relational account of practices creating meaningfulness in the Danish child welfare services

This dissertation takes it point of departure in the observation of a tension. To social workers in Danish child welfare service, all parts of their work were associated with both satisfaction and frustration. While the literature on street-level bureaucracy has excellently identified and theorized the complexities, paradoxes, and alienating forces explaining the frustrations of social workers – and frontline workers in general – it is still premature in explaining the satisfaction and successful balancing of the complexities characterizing street-level bureaucratic work. The dissertation explores the satisfaction and endeavors of social workers to balance the complexities of street-level bureaucratic work and finds three relational practices that create meaningfulness in everyday work among social workers in child welfare services: a practice of creating ‘professional solidarity’ among colleagues, a practice of creating meaningful administrative work, and a practice of balancing the regulatory role with the role of the helper in citizen encounters. Overall, the dissertation shows how, in each of the three relational practices, the interpersonal work directly oriented towards citizens was closely intertwined with bureaucratically oriented obligations to the rule of law. These meaningfulness-creating practices contribute to enabling social workers to ‘master’ – not cope with or survive – the complexities that characterize their work. On this background, the dissertation contributes to a discussion on what works in child welfare services and public services more broadly. 


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