The purpose of this paper is to provide a sociological analysis of everyday interaction on the physical front line of the Norwegian welfare state.
The data are from a short-term ethnographic study in the reception/waiting rooms of three local welfare offices. These are important sites for access to benefits and services. The focus is on the situational and interactional aspects: how do people behave and interact with fellow visitors as well as with front line staff in this institutional context? For the analysis, Goffman’s conceptual framework on behaviour in public places is combined with concepts from a theory of access to welfare benefits.
The analysis shows how people fill these spaces with different activities, and how they are characterized by a particular type of welfare “officialdom”, boundary work and the handling of welfare stigma. Everyday interaction on the front line gives insights into the tensions in an all-in-one welfare bureaucracy and into the implementation of digitalization. The paper concludes that “old” and “new” tensions are expressed and managed at the front line, and suggests that more attention be paid to the new barriers that are developing.
The study contributes an ethnographic approach to a seldom studied part of welfare administration. The waiting rooms in the Norwegian welfare organization are actualized as a social arena influenced by new trends in public administration: one-stop shops, a new heterogeneity, activation policies and digitalization processes.
The research that this paper is based on was part of the evaluation of the NAV reform, funded by the Norwegian Research Council. Earlier versions of the paper were presented at the ESA 11th Conference, August 2013, and at internal work seminars at the Department of Sociology, University of Bergen and at the Uni Research Rokkan Centre. The authors would like to thank participants at these events, as well as the anonymous referees and the editor for valuable comments.
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