Street-Level Bureaucracy, Interprofessional Relations, and Coping Mechanisms: A Study of Criminal Justice Social Workers in the Sentencing Process

Published: November 2009

This article builds on the work of Michael Lipsky and develops an argument about the significance of interprofessional working for street-level bureaucracy. It presents an ethnographic analysis of criminal justice social workers writing presentence reports for the Scottish courts. Social workers’ report writing for judges brought into relief issues of relative professional status. Social workers were uncertain of their place within the legal domain and concerned about their credibility as criminal justice professionals. Reports were written, in part at least, as a way of seeking esteem and credibility in the eyes of judges—a motivation that undermined the policy objectives of social enquiry in sentencing. Applying the conceptual tools of Bourdieu to our findings, we argue that street-level bureaucrats who have to work across bureaucratic “fields” may find, or fear, that the cultural and symbolic “capital” they retained within their own field is undervalued in the symbolic economy of new fields, putting them in a position of relative inferiority. This issue of relative professional status, and how officials respond to it, is significant for our understanding of street-level bureaucracy.

Authors / Editors

Prof Fergus McNeill

University of Glasgow

Prof Neil Hutton

University of Strathclyde