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How Race, Sex, and Age Frame the Use of Authority by Local Government Officials

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Thanks to the civil rights movement, women and racial and ethnic minorities increasingly hold positions of public authority—but they experience and exercise this authority differently from white men. Based on 162 narratives collected from 49 US local government officials (city administrators and police), I find that women, minorities, and younger officials in positions of authority face a paradox of rules. Because they have lower social status with the public and within their organizations, they must rely on formal and explicit rules as a key basis for their authority, but such reliance causes their very authority to be questioned. Social status based on implicit assumptions about social identities, including race or ethnicity, sex, and age, originates outside of organizations and has effects society wide. This study shows that social status continues to permeate US local government organizations in both subtle and explicit ways, even in bureaucratic settings that are formally committed to merit and professional norms.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: June 1, 2010


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