Bernardo Zacka


On his book When the State Meets the Street: Public Service and Moral Agency

Cover Interview of April 29, 2018

A close-up

As a work of political theory, When the State Meets the Street is unusual in that it combines normative reasoning with ethnographic fieldwork. Political theory is often criticized for operating at too high a level of abstraction, specifying ideals of justice or democracy that bear little relation to the political world in which we live. I believe that a turn to ethnography can serve to anchor a more grounded approach, situating philosophical reasoning within a more realistic understanding of our political institutions.

Political theory should look to ethnography not just for additional context or meaning or texture, but also to uncover new normative questions that are worth asking.

Seen from a distance, it may seem like all that happens when the state meets the street is the application of legal directives. Seen from up close, however, one starts noticing that the process is far more indeterminate and that the individuals involved have real discretion. Ethnography thickens the plot.

With that, a new terrain for normative reflection opens up. What values should street-level bureaucrats be sensitive to when wielding their discretion? How can we justify that discretion and reconcile it with the tenets of democratic government? How can we hold them accountable?