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When the State Meets the Street (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017)

My first book, When the State Meets the Street, examines the everyday moral life of street-level bureaucrats, the frontline public service workers who are the face of the state. Often portrayed as pencil pushers, these workers are in fact, and for a variety of good reasons, vested with a considerable margin of discretion. The book maps the complex moral and psychological terrain that street-level bureaucrats must navigate to deliver public services in a way that upholds democratic values.

When the State Meets the Street won the 2018 Charles Taylor Book Award from the American Political Science Association for the “best book in political science that employs or develops interpretive methodologies and methods.” It builds on my doctoral dissertation, which won the 2015 Robert Noxon Toppan Prize for “the best dissertation upon a subject of political science” at Harvard University.

Since its release, When the State Meets the Street has been reviewed favorably in over twenty academic journals across the fields of political science, political theory, public administration, sociology, policy studies, social and legal studies, and social work. See for instance the reviews in Political Quarterly, Contemporary Political Theory, the LSE Review of BooksSocial Service Review, Social & Legal Studies, Social Policy & Administration, The University Bookman, Constellationsand the American Journal of Sociology.

Related articles and interviews have appeared in The Atlantic, the Boston Review, Salon, Rorotoko, and Vox.

Here are the blurbs and endorsements from the publisher’s website: 

When the State Meets the Street reads as one might imagine a collaboration between Bernard Williams, Richard Sennett, and James Scott could turn out. If there can be such a thing as an instant classic, this book is one.”—David Owen, University of Southampton


“In this refreshing study, Zacka finds in the commonplace decision-making of street level bureaucrats an implicit but coherent moral structure. When citizens experience the state through street-level encounters, the author shows, they are subject to moral reasoning no less than when elected officials expand or contract social welfare policies, or bring a nation to war.”—Michael Lipsky, author of Street-Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services

“Beautifully written, tightly argued, and totally original.”—Michael Piore, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

“In his groundbreaking book When the State Meets the Street: Public Service and Moral Agency, Bernardo Zacka illustrates a new methodological approach for political theory, opens up avenues of normative research on the neglected topic of bureaucracy and bureaucrats and overturns an intellectually dubious, but nonetheless dominant, model of the state… Zacka’s discussion is subtle and thoughtful and opens many avenues for political and moral theorists to explore.”—Alex Sager, LSE Review of Books

“This book…not only offers a valuable contribution to the street-level bureaucracy literature, but is also an essential read for political theorists interested in a bottom-up account of the state.”—Nadine Raaphorst, Acta Politica

“Zacka’s application of normative theory to state-level bureaucrats and his efforts at injecting ethnographically informed descriptive evidence into political theory are to be applauded and should represent a vanguard in political theory.”—Timothy Werner, Administrative Science Quarterly

“An exemplary and exquisitely written book from which sociologists have much to learn.”—Gretchen Purser, American Journal of Sociology

“A bold and interesting contribution… Given the recent ‘behavioral turn’ in public administration, Zacka’s unique efforts to understand individual behavior in relation to social dynamic provides an alternative, serious mezzo-level explanation that should not be overlooked.”—Jodi R. Sandfort, American Review of Public Administration

“Drawing from first-hand observations adds an anthropological sensitivity to the book, in the process showing that political philosophers have much to gain from venturing into the real world. The result is an original book that most democratic theorists should read, especially those interested in moral reasoning in everyday life.”—Jan Pieter Beetz, Constellations

“Zacka persuasively argues that street-level bureaucrats are, in fact, moral agents ‘vested with a considerable margin of discretion.’ More importantly, he makes a compelling case for the normative desirability of that discretionary power… The book draws on a broad array of literatures, from other qualitative work on bureaucracies to psychology, sociology, and normative political philosophy, providing Zacka with an astounding and productive array of interlocutors… Zacka’s remarkable book opens up many intriguing questions and will hopefully be one of many future studies that combine the virtues of an ethnographic approach and normative political theory.”—Yuna Blajer de la Garza, Contemporary Political Theory

“Drawing eclectically from a breathtakingly wide range of sources and disciplinary approaches to the study of politics, policy, and organizations, Zacka develops a robust and analytically rigorous framework for understanding street-level work that builds on, and ultimately surpasses, Lipsky’s original treatment in several respects.”—Chad Broughton, Contemporary Sociology

“It is wide-ranging in its theoretical breadth, evocative in its traversing of theory and practice, and convincing in its marshalling of argument. Above all, it is stylish. It makes bureaucracy—largely neglected in contemporary political theory as technical, apolitical, mundane—intellectually sexy… Brilliant.”—John Boswell, Critical Policy Studies

When the State Meets the Street offers an innovative take on the conditions of and possibilities for frontline workers’ moral agency. Further, the strength of this work is grounded in Zacka’s engagement with previous qualitative research on frontline workers, moving seamlessly from vocational rehabilitation agents in the United States to immigration agents in France… An essential read.”—Sule Tomkinson, Governance

“A thoughtful book that usefully brings the tools of political theory to bear on questions of public administration. It argues persuasively that democratic theorists need to pay attention not just to the principles and the institutions that shape our laws but also to the street-level bureaucrats who interpret and apply them.”—Clarissa Rile Hayward, Perspectives on Politics

“An examination of street level bureaucracy rooted in anthropological fieldwork, but with the philosopher’s toolkit dexterously deployed, it announces [Zacka] as a major new voice.”—Paul Sagar, Political Quarterly

“An unusual work of political theory, invigorating and innovative in terms of its methodology and argumentative thread… Its arguments are the result of a reflection on observed practices and on interpretations and analyses of similar practices in philosophical and social scientific literatures. The perceptiveness and care with which it builds taxonomies for the intra- and interpersonal challenges involved in navigating the normative demands of street-level bureaucracy are an outstanding example of this approach. This perceptiveness and care allow Zacka to address several audiences differently, thus providing orientation for political theorists, for street-level practitioners and their managers, and for citizens dealing with public services. Each of these audiences may come away with changed views.”—Janosch Prinz, Polity

“One emerges from this insightful book with a considerable measure of respect for bureaucrats… Studying their experience as well as their behavior, is indeed, ‘an experiment in living,’ as well as a test of our own values and vision. It is, or should be, humbling.”—Glenn C. Altschuler, Psychology Today

“Since Michael Lipsky coined the term in 1969, street-level bureaucracy has developed into a scholarly theme of its own. Nevertheless, the normative dimensions of the work done in this segment of government bureaucracy have remained almost entirely in the shadow so far. Filling this lacuna the book is an absolute must-read.”—Peter Hupe, Public Administration

“An excellent piece of work that will interest researchers, current and future policy makers, public administrators, and nonprofit leaders as well as students. But more importantly, as part of the need to integrate more political science in the study of public administration, this is a book that is particularly important to political scientists and implementation scholars.”—Nissim Cohen, Public Administration Review

“A really rich and rewarding read. It fizzes with stimulating insights and ideas and offers the kind of empathetic portrayal of street-level bureaucracy which participant-observation is particularly good at.”—Simon Halliday, Social & Legal Studies

“A sophisticated and empirically rich theorization of street-level agency and discretion. Through close and evocative appreciation of the conflicts and dilemmas posed by street-level work, it yields numerous valuable insights into everyday practice.”—James Kaufman, Social Policy & Administration

“From its novel theorizing about the normative underpinnings of discretion to the nuanced discussion of the ‘impossible situations’ faced by street-level bureaucrats, When the State Meets the Street is essential reading that ought to inform the work of scholars and practitioners alike.”—Yanilda María González, Social Service Review

When the State Meets the Street is both a strikingly original work and a penetrating analysis of governmental decision-making. Not only is the book a sophisticated deconstruction of the administrative state, it also encourages liberty-minded readers to expand their intellectual horizons beyond the traditional citizen–government relationship.”—John Ehrett, The University Bookman





Political Theory and Architecture (London: Bloomsbury, 2020)
Co-edited with Duncan Bell; paperback release scheduled for June 2021

Political Theory and Architecture assembles a distinguished cast of political theorists, architectural theorists, and philosophers to elaborate upon a common postulate:  that architecture is not just a mirror for politics but a political force in its own right. Taken together, the contributions to this volume aim to show that architecture deserves a place as an object of study in political theory, alongside institutions, laws, norms, practices, imaginaries, and discourses.

With contributions by: Jan-Werner Müller, Josiah Ober and Barry Weingast, Gabor Betegh, Bernardo Zacka, Ronald Beiner, Nancy Rosenblum, Duncan Bell, Ali Aslam, Margaret Kohn, Benjamin Hofmann, Nathaniel Coleman, Mihaela Mihai, Jeff Malpas and Randall Lindstrom, Antoine Picon, and Fonna Forman.

The book has been reviewed on the Anatomies of Power blog and in Modern Intellectual History

Here is the Table of Contents, and the review blurbs and endorsements that appear on the publisher’s website:

“This marvelous collection, teeming with imagination and critical intelligence, shows how exciting it can be when political theorists go beyond using architectural metaphors to think literally about the built environment-from the aesthetics of individual architectural elements, to the political economy of whole cities, to the political concepts embedded in architectural practice (and beyond). Inspiring and essential.”—Patchen Markell, Associate Professor of Government, Cornell University, USA

Political Theory and Architecture is a lively array of essays that establish new terrain for political theorists to explore. The authors use remarkably diverse methodologies to explore how the buildings we occupy reflect, sustain and change our politics. And while they use the tools of political theory to help us understand architecture, just as surely, the volume enriches our conception of politics through rigorous examination of architecture.”—Keally McBride, Professor of Politics, University of San Francisco, USA

“How should we think about the relationship of politics and architecture? In what ways does the built environment within which we act and interact shape our social and political relationships? Can distinct architectural styles be expressive of particular political values or types of government or forms of community? Does architectural practice act as an agent that enables oppression or emancipation? In addressing such questions, the diverse contributors to this excellent collection construct new sites from which to engage the relationship of architecture and politics, offering new vistas on a topic that has been neglected for too long.”—David Owen, Professor of Social and Political Philosophy, University of Southampton, UK

“The editors' introduction … is a model of conceptual clarity and concision … Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates. Graduate students, faculty, and researchers.”—CHOICE

“How does architecture embody and become inflected by political theory?  Bell and Zacka’s recent edited collection offers a series of fascinating and challenging accounts, addressing the role of architecture as encouraging behaviour and imparting meaning to actions; as symbolizing values; and as fostering a political ethos. The book offers on the whole restrained optimism, recognising even in its gloomier moments that architecture can create democratic space, and sometimes its greatest strength is in its less ambitious statements, on the balconies of Beirut (Zacka), in the preservation of neighbourliness (Rosenblum), or amid the modest power of the greenways (Aslam).”—Chistopher Smith, Professor of Ancient History, University of Saint Andrews and Director of the British School at Rome, 2009-2017, Anatomies of Power Blog