Iron cage or paper cage? The interplay of worker characteristics and organizational policy in shaping unequal responses to a standardized decision-making tool

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Abstract

Studies are largely optimistic about the ability of standardized procedures to constrain decision-makers' biases and produce more equitable results across fields. However, work that embraces standardization as an equalizing force stands in contrast to research on standardization and street-level bureaucrats, which asserts that standardized procedures are not self-actuating and cannot be understood apart from the environments in which they are used. I examine how frontline workers vary in their approach to an actuarial-based tool intended to standardize judgments. In a highly controlled decision-making environment, child welfare workers whose racial and sex characteristics afford them higher status report subverting the tool; conversely, workers in the same position whose ascriptive characteristics yield them lower status in terms of race and sex describe following the rules. In an environment where the same tool is adopted only ceremonially, all workers experience decision-making as unconstrained, regardless of their ascriptive characteristics. This work fills gaps in knowledge about how social status and organizational context intersect to affect rule abidance. Examining these dynamic relationships advances understanding of how organizations reproduce inequality and the limits and potential for standardization to transform social hierarchies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)654-676
Number of pages23
JournalSocial Problems
Volume67
Issue number4
DOIs
StatePublished - 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science

Keywords

  • Bias
  • Child welfare
  • Decision-making
  • Inequality
  • Standardization

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