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Organizational Framing of Bureaucratic Behavior in Community Corrections

PAQ, Vol. 44 No. 4, 485-514 (2020)

For over half a century scholars have considered the “bureaucratic personality” (Merton 1940), a concept synonymous with rigid rule following to overcome organizational alienation and powerlessness among workers. Recently, scholars have introduced the “unbureaucratic personality” (DeHart-Davis, 2007) or “unbureaucratic behavior” (Brockmann, 2017). In this paper, we use both concepts to explore how probation officers and frontline supervisors experience work in one Mid- Atlantic state. Based on ethnographic fieldwork and focus group data, we contend that lack of voice and buy-in for organizational change frames bureaucratic or unbureaucratic behavior in important ways. We argue that, despite participants holding unbureaucratic personality traits, organizational structure and culture in this agency more often shapes frontline workers’ bureaucratic behavior, even in the face of organizational reform. When staff exhibit unbureaucratic behavior it appears as a coping mechanism for the rapid, and sometimes, ill-defined or unsupported changes. While normative judgments regarding bureaucratic or unbureaucratic behavior are important, they are often in the eye of the beholder. Here, we extend the concepts of bureaucratic and unbureaucratic behavior to a criminal justice setting, allowing readers to judge the normative implications for themselves.

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