I am a political theorist who studies the state as it is experienced by those who interact with it and those who act in its name. My first book, When the State Meets the Street: Public Service and Moral Agency (Harvard University Press, 2017), probes the moral lives of street-level bureaucrats, the frontline public service workers who serve as the everyday face of the state. My second book project, provisionally titled Institutional Atmospherics: The Interior Architecture of the Welfare State (under contract with Harvard University Press), interrogates the silent political work performed by the architecture of the spaces in which we meet these bureaucrats.

Both projects put the accent on a branch of government, public administration, that has received far less attention in political theory than the legislature and the judiciary. Both are concerned, moreover, with the theme of moral and political agency in adverse conditions. What does it take for street-level bureaucrats to remain balanced moral agents in a work environment that conspires to undermine their moral agency? What difference can architecture make when it must operate against the legacy of policy decisions and social meanings that limit what it can do?

To tackle these topics, I practice a form of political theory that aspires to combine the analytic rigor of philosophy with the de-familiarizing insights and problematizing re-descriptions that are the hallmark of phenomenology and ethnography. I try to approach well-known political institutions with a studied naivete, temporarily suspending the abstractions through which we customarily apprehend them, so as to see them from fresh angles. This leads me to take seriously the idea that, when encounter it, the state is in the first instance someone, somewhere, a person in a place. I have written about the lineage and promises of such an approach in a series of articles devoted to what I call “political theory with an ethnographic sensibility.”

When the state meets the street

When the State Meets the Street is a foray into the world of street-level bureaucrats. 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. It draws on scholarship from across the social sciences, as well as on participant observation I conducted over a period of eight months as a receptionist in an anti-poverty agency.

To understand the challenges that street-level bureaucrats face as agents of the democratic state, I step back from the moment of ethical decision-making to consider, more broadly, the moral dispositions they bring to work, and how these dispositions are affected by the pressures they encounter at work. I show that street-level bureaucrats are caught in a predicament. The proper implementation of public policy depends on their capacity to remain attuned to a plural landscape of democratic values. Yet in the midst of a work routine characterized by chronic shortages of staff, limited resources, and emotionally-charged face-to-face encounters with clients, such a mandate all too often translates into having to choose between options that all involve a sense of moral loss. Making such choices repeatedly is not just cognitively demanding, but morally tormenting, and this triggers a range of coping responses involving a simplification and narrowing of the moral landscape. This leaves public service agencies in a bind: the case for discretion at the street level is predicated on bureaucrats’ capacity to exert judgment along different dimensions of value, yet the conditions of work encourage a drift towards reductive takes on the role. To meet this challenge, I argue that public service agencies need to look beyond institutional design and normative principles to foster a moral ecology consisting of practices at the individual, group, and managerial level that can support street-level bureaucrats in both mitigating the drift towards moral specialization and in making the best of it.

The book makes three contributions. Methodologically, it exemplifies the potential of practicing a form of political theory that pays close attention to carefully reconstructing and critically interrogating the lived experience of situated agents. Programmatically, it points towards, and begins to sketch, what a bottom-up normative theory of the state might look like, one that starts not with constitutional provisions and law-making, but with the moment of service provision. Substantively, it offers a revised picture of how bureaucracy and moral agency are co-dependent, and why their relationship is tenuous. In particular, the book suggests that if welfare agencies undermine moral agency, it is not because bureaucrats must mechanically apply rules, but because they must shoulder day in day out the weight of difficult discretionary decisions they make in our name.

When the State Meets the Street has been reviewed favorably in over 20 academic journals across the fields of political science, political theory, public administration, sociology, policy studies, social and legal studies, and social work. It won the 2018 Charles Taylor Book Award from the American Political Science Association for the “best book in political science that employs interpretive methodologies and methods,” and it is based on my doctoral dissertation, which won the 2015 Robert Noxon Toppan Prize for the best dissertation in political science at Harvard. 

Institutional atmospherics

Since the publication of my first book, the focus of my research has shifted from the moral dispositions of bureaucrats to the physical environments in which we typically meet them. My second book project, Institutional Atmospherics, examines how architecture participates in setting the tone of our encounters with the democratic welfare state, and to what political effect. The project takes up three inter-related questions: How should we conceptualize architecture as a political force? What should we demand of it in our ordinary encounters with the state? And how can we understand the challenges of building for the democratic state (in a way that upholds democratic values), while building in the democratic state (where architecture must accompany policy decisions it does not control)?

Institutional Atmospherics is anchored in three extended case studies, documenting for the first time the evolution of the interior architecture of public employment offices in the UK, the US, and Denmark from the early twentieth century to the present. Drawing on field visits, interviews, and research into government archives and museum collections of photographs and architectural plans, I show that these offices, though bland and generic in appearance, have been a terrain of experimentation in design since their inception. I argue more specifically that democratic governments have had to grapple with the question of how to use architecture to redeem a social ritual—a trip to the “unemployment office” to claim benefits or search for jobs—that had come to be seen as stigmatizing and degrading, while knowing full well that architecture cannot by itself fundamentally transform the ritual.

I show that the UK, the US, and Denmark have tackled this question differently, deploying architecture, respectively, to reframe the ritual, to neutralize it, and to humanize it. They have done this by drawing on different design horizons inspired by supermarkets and banks (UK), by generic office architecture (US), and by the home and coffeeshops (Denmark). I argue that while the temptation to borrow architectural idioms from other spheres of society is understandable, and in some cases warranted, it is a risky proposition, for these idioms let in more than meets the eye. They conjure up associations, moods, and configurations that can subtly alter the relationship between citizens and the democratic state. The legacy of their adoption is tarnished with painful ironies—of an architecture that aspires to uplift claimants, only to silence them; of one that tries to mend the relationship between citizens and the state, only to efface it; and of one that yearns to put the parties at ease, only to estrange them further. These ironies, however, are instructive. By dwelling upon them, we can understand more precisely not just how architecture can fail us, but what we might hope from it, and what we should demand more generally of an interface between state and society—a question that will continue to haunt us as the bureaucratic encounter migrates online. 

In preparation for working at the intersection of architecture and political theory, I co-edited with Duncan Bell a collection of essays on the topic, Political Theory and Architecture (Bloomsbury, 2020). As we explain in our “Introduction,” the volume assembles a distinguished cast of theorists to elaborate upon a common postulate: that architecture is not just a mirror for politics, but a political force in its own right. My own chapter in the collection, “What’s in a Balcony?” (Political Theory and Architecture, 2020), probes the contribution of an architectural element, the balcony, to the social life of the city. Taking my hometown, Beirut, as a case study, the essay argues that balconies are a space-in-between that supports a distinctive form of sociability, assembling people who live within proximity, but who are otherwise strangers, around a common world of events and experiences. Once we appreciate this, balconies appear in a different light, not just as private amenities, but as a public good of sorts, and architecture, not just as a container for social relationships, but as a force that can be constitutive of them. I also engage with the theme of city life in “What is Public Space For?” (The Routledge Handbook of Ethics and Public Policy, 2019). There, I revisit four traditions of political thought that have informed our democratic political culture, and show that they propose competing imaginaries of public space, along with different understandings of what makes public space valuable and what can threaten it. 

Political theory with an ethnographic sensibility

Most of my work as a political theorist begins with finely textured, thick descriptions of the social world, which I treat not just as illustrating theory, but as generative of theoretical insights. The aim is not to outdo anthropologists or sociologists at their trade, but to borrow from their ways of seeing to open political theory onto new phenomena and to unpack “experiments in living” that we can learn from. I sketch the lineage, potential, and limitations of such an approach in two co-authored articles—“Political Theory in an Ethnographic Key” (American Political Science Review, 2019; with Matthew Longo); “Fieldwork in Political Theory”(British Journal of Political Science, 2019; with Lisa Herzog)—and in a symposium on the theme of “Political Theory with an Ethnographic Sensibility,” which I edited for Contemporary Political Theory (2020). 

While these three publications examine what an ethnographic sensibility can bring to political theory, “The Politics of Sight” (R&R, American Political Science Review; co-authored with Jasmine English) does the reverse. The paper revisits in detail one of the sterling examples of ethnography in political science, Timothy Pachirat’s Every Twelve Seconds, subjecting it to the kind of analytic treatment and parsing of unstated premises that are characteristic of political theory. Doing so unlocks new areas of significance in Pachirat’s own ethnographic material, and helps us arrive at a different interpretation of it. Our essay provides an example of how interpretive work can be rigorously scrutinized and interrogated, even though it does not lend itself to replication in the same way as some quantitative studies conducted within a positivist tradition of inquiry do.