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Published as Chapter 5 in Distributed Agency, N. J. Enfield & Paul Kockelman, eds.

The democratic state is an administrative state: the actual work of representative governance is done primarily in administrative agencies, which interpret and implement the often vague ambitions inscribed in statutes. When we talk about agency in the state, then, we must primarily be talking about agency in agencies. That may seem odd. Bureaucracy seems like the absence of agency: just mechanistic gear-grinding continuing things begun by other, distant, powerful actors. Where can agency find a foothold amid the faceless people, the featureless buildings, the infinite red tape, the endless unread files? So, another oddity: administration has world-changing effects, yet seems bereft of agents. Infuriatingly — yet conveniently — bureaucracy appears as an undifferentiated entity exerting power that cannot be held to account.

This common image, it turns out, distorts our understanding of both agencies and agency. It conceals the complex distribution of possibility and responsibility within bureaucracy, which involves individual subjectivities, interpersonal relations, and socially structured decisionmaking (Blau 1963; Bernstein 2008). And it obscures the varied ways that accountability for bureaucratic action is structured by different social arenas allow. What kind of accountability is available, it turns out, depends on the position from which one does the accounting. Here, I unpack one administrative process to show how units of agency emerge and blend in the ongoing process of differentiation and subsumption that characterizes bureaucratic action. I then explain how one particular social arena — litigation — provides a scaffolding for bureaucratic accountability that, like all scaffoldings, both enables and constrains.

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Oxford University Press



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agency, bureaucracy, administration, litigation


Agency | Law | Litigation

Agency in State Agencies