Contesting the Bureaucracy: Examining Administrative Appeals

Lens, Vicki A.

This article explores citizens’ use of administrative hearings to appeal adverse government decisions about their welfare benefits. It draws on interviews with 79 welfare participants and observations of hearings and interviews with administrative law judges in a state in the United States to understand what hearings, and the act of appealing, mean to citizens. I find that beyond individual redress, participants view appealing as an opportunity to expose and repair social injuries and to renegotiate social relationships, social identities and their status as citizens. Their ability to rehabilitate strained social identities and establish their deservingness as citizens is contingent and variable, with hearings sometimes reproducing appellants’ powerlessness and other times allowing for a more positive enactment of citizenship and social status. Over time, participants experience an increase in legal consciousness, using the knowledge of the law and bureaucratic practices they glean from hearings to better navigate the welfare bureaucracy. While this transformation of legal consciousness emphasizes individual gains rather than collective or systemic change, it cultivates a culture of complaining, rather than acquiescing, within the welfare bureaucracy.


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Social and Legal Studies

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Social Work
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December 18, 2012