Prolegomena to a caring bureaucracy

European Journal of Women's Studies 24 (3):202-217 (2017)
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Abstract

Bureaucracy has had few admirers, as a quick perusal of 20th-century political and social theory readily indicates. In recent years, several feminist theorists have also joined this vociferous anti-bureaucracy chorus, denouncing bureaucracy’s excessively hierarchical, impersonal, cold and controlling nature. The goal of this article is to review these charges and to show why the term ‘caring bureaucracy’ is not an oxymoron. In the first two sections, the author considers the various reasons why bureaucratic structures are said to be bad both for the people who work in them and for those who deal with them. The author proposes to discuss these charges in light of some research on feminist organizations and street-level bureaucracy. The intention is not to offer a paean to street-level discretion or to the claims of ‘the heart’ in public service; it is, rather, to underscore at once the beauty and the danger of discretion. It is also noted that feminist theorists ought to be cautious when they call for ‘flattened hierarchies’ and for fewer rules in large institutions – for these might work against the best interests of women. The last part of the article offers the outline of a caring bureaucracy and suggests avenues to be explored in future care ethics research.

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