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“Sometimes you don’t know how to move” cultural savviness and learning the ropes of bureaucracy

Luciana Lang (University of Manchester, Manchester, UK)

Journal of Organizational Ethnography

ISSN: 2046-6749

Article publication date: 24 August 2018

Issue publication date: 16 July 2019




Recent works by organisational anthropologists have identified bureaucracy as a major challenge for unskilled workers in the global economy. Daily encounters with bureaucratic processes only enhance general feelings of inadequacy, frustration and insecurity experienced by social groups who have to rely on precarious work. However, a focus on people’s homespun strategies and on the role of the non-profit sector in helping them to navigate bureaucracy is still incipient. The paper aims to discuss these issues.


The research, ethnographic in its approach, unveils some of these challenges by drawing on 29 interviews with migrant workers in a third sector organisation in Manchester, UK. It explores migrants’ work experiences and aspirations, and the strategies used to navigate the bureaucracy embedded in the organisation of their lives. Informed by the different roles the researcher performed at the centre and by the inter-disciplinary nature of the projects, the methodology includes interviews, participative observation, analysis of life story narratives and drawings, and participation in community workshops.


While acknowledging that bureaucracy can keep people in liminal spaces and enhance their sense of insecurity, this paper reveals how personal aspirations and the ability to make connections across different social networks provide the much needed drive that enables migrants to acquire language skills, a tool that helps them to learn the ropes of bureaucratic processes, become culturally savvy, and leave the stage of quasi-citizenship.


Responses highlight the significance of recent welfare reforms and reveal adaptive mechanisms to deal with resulting uncertainties, which include the use of a variety of social networks, learning hew digital and language skills, and seeking specialized knowledge found in organisations in the third sector. The study also questions the taken-for-granted rationality of bureaucracy, unveiling its messy and ambiguous logic.



The author has a heartfelt gratitude to the Welcome Centre in Cheetham Hill for opening their doors to the enquiries, and in particular to Mark Greenwood and his endless generosity in supporting the research. The author is also grateful to all the participants, who gave valuable contributions to this paper. All names have been changed to protect the identities of participants.


Lang, L. (2019), "“Sometimes you don’t know how to move” cultural savviness and learning the ropes of bureaucracy", Journal of Organizational Ethnography, Vol. 8 No. 2, pp. 196-210.



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Copyright © 2018, Emerald Publishing Limited

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