Stereotypes in Context: How and When Do Street-Level Bureaucrats Use Class Stereotypes? 93
Gitte Sommer Harrits
Stereotypes in Context: How and When Do Street-Level
Bureaucrats Use Class Stereotypes?
Abstract: Stereotype use in street-level work and discretionary judgments is important because of the possible
introduction of bias. This article contributes to the study of stereotypes in street-level work by suggesting that stereotypes
are related to both cognitive and social uncertainties. A distinction between uncontrolled stereotype activation in
the interpretation of information and controlled stereotype application in decision making is made to allow for a
more nuanced study. A unique design combining semistructured interviews and a vignette experiment is presented to
accommodate this theoretical framework. Results show that stereotype activation is conditioned by class difference and
involves both categorization and simplified assumptions. Stereotype application is conditioned by class as well as by the
homogeneity of the social contexts of street-level institutions. These results suggest that in order to decrease stereotypical
bias in frontline encounters, one solution may be to increase social heterogeneity.
Evidence for Practice
• Street-level work can benefit from becoming more reflective about the use of stereotypes.
• To understand how stereotypes work, it is helpful to distinguish between stereotype activation,
an uncontrolled reaction attributable to deep-seated social and cultural learning, and stereotype
application, a more controlled use of stereotypes when weighing different types of information in
• Stereotype activation and application are both conditioned by class differences between street-level
bureaucrats and clients. Stereotype application is also conditioned by the homogeneity of the social contexts
of frontline institutions.
• Efforts to decrease the impact of stereotypes should focus on stereotype activation and involve increasing
social heterogeneity in frontline encounters. This could be done by organizing work to increase interactions
between street-level bureaucrats and citizens of different classes. Emphasizing the collection of different types
of information and perspectives may also help reduce stereotype application.
The literature on street-level bureaucracy has
consistently demonstrated that discretionary
judgments are shaped not only by political,
administrative, and organizational structures but also
by frontline social relations, identities, and citizen
encounters (Brodkin 2012; Dubois 2010, 2014;
Epp, Maynard-Moody, and Haider-Markel 2014;
Lipsky 2010; Maynard-Moody and Musheno 2003;
Soss, Fording, and Schram 2011). As pointed out by
Lipsky (2010) and Maynard-Moody and Musheno
(2003), for example, one important mechanism
shaping street-level judgments is the use of social
stereotypes. However, not many studies have tried
to disentangle more precisely how and when street-
level bureaucrats (SLBs) use stereotypes. The lack of
specific studies of stereotype use at the street level
is unfortunate, as stereotypes involve the possible
introduction of bias in encounters between the state
In light of this, this article makes three contributions.
First, a theoretical framework for studying stereotypes,
drawing on sociological and psychological theory, is
presented. It is suggested that stereotypes be seen as
reducing both cognitive and social uncertainty, as they
function as a frame for the interpretation of information.
Further, the distinction between stereotype activation
and application is suggested as key to studying how and
when street-level bureaucrats use stereotypes. Second, a
methodological framework using vignette experiments
that allows for interpretive analysis of reasoning and
systematic assessment of final decisions is presented.
Third, empirical results show how stereotype use is
linked to class differences between SLBs and citizen-
clients and to the social contexts of street-level work.
Discretion and Stereotypes: What Do We Know?
The literature typically includes stereotypes as one of
several mechanisms linked to frontline discretion, and
Gitte Sommer Harrits is associate
professor in the Department of
Political Science, Aarhus University. Her
research focuses on social class, social
categories, street-level bureaucracy, and
professionalism. She has recently published
work on the use of class categories in
Denmark in British Journal of Sociology,
and on professionals’ claims to authority
in Journal of Professions and
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 79, Iss. 1, pp. 93–103. © 2018 by
The American Society for Public Administration.