Spaces of Encounter: Public Bureaucracy and the Making of Client Identities



Abstract In this article I analyze the intertwining of cultural narratives, identity stereotypes, and the material environment as these factors shape public service negotiations between clients and officials. I emphasize the material deficits, spatial barriers, and bureaucratic procedures that restrict the storylines clients and officials use to make sense of one another. This article is drawn from a two-year ethnographic study with African American young mothers (ages 16–20) under the custody of the child welfare system. I focus here on the experiences of one young mother and explore several scenarios in her struggle to obtain public housing. I argue that service deficits can be explained not by the commonly articulated narratives of client “shortcomings” but, rather, by the nature of the organizational and material conditions guiding exchanges between public service gatekeepers and young mothers. I suggest that this work advances narrative approaches to psychological anthropology by attending to the roles of social and material boundaries in framing the stories people can tell each other. [identity, adolescent mothers, public bureaucracy, service negotiation, narrative]