Diversity and public administration (completed)

Boris Nieswand

Based on the case study of a local youth welfare office, this ethnographic project examines how diversity is constituted within the everyday work of public administrations. Within this context, four months of participant observation were carried out in 2009 in the counseling center of a youth welfare office in an ethnically diverse district of a large German city, along with archival research. The project will be continued in 2010. Within the framework of this project, the assumption is that diversity is not simply an external reality of public administrations, but that it is constructed in a reciprocal manner at the border between the public administration and its social environment.

In the case of the youth welfare office, classifications related to individuals are of the greatest importance for the construction of diversity. Practically speaking, this means that first a decision is made regarding the criteria according to which a person is to be classified in order to then determine to what kind of diversity this classification corresponds. A problem relevant to social theory hereby becomes apparent. Complex societies are characterized by an inflated production of individual-based differences. They provide a constantly increasing and continually diversifying excessive offer of potentially relevant categories with which persons and their characteristics can be identified. This becomes especially relevant in social spaces such as the youth welfare office, that are, on the one hand, points at which different systems of expert knowledge intersect (such as medicine, law, public administration, social work, psychology) and, on the other hand, places of intersection for these systems of knowledge and the daily world of the people and families who appear at the youth welfare office as clients and for whom very different social classifications are often of more importance (gender, ethnicity, religion, etc.). Precisely because it is difficult to determine in advance what and in which constellation something will be important in the proceedings of a youth welfare case, a practical problem arises, namely that different forms of individual-based differences, including general everyday differences as well as highly specialized ones, must constantly be newly selected, placed in relation to facts, and adapted to specific conditions and cases.

The diversity concept provides an opportunity to examine the construction and interplay of classifications. In this sense it refers not only to a state of ethnic diversity, but points to the coexistence of individual-based differences and dimensions of difference as well as to the forms of their interactions within a social context. The relationship between everyday ethnic-cultural and function-specific, individual-based categories is of special interest for this project.

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