The making of immigrant clients: An ethnographic study of categorisation work in the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration (NAV)


Maria Gussgard Volckmar-Eeg
Keywords: immigrants, Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration, NAV, welfare services, street-level practices


In this study, I contribute to our understanding of the welfare services provided to immigrants. How street-level bureaucrats make sense of and categorise immigrant clients determines the services provided to them. This categorisation has both individual and societal implications: it affects the immigrants’ chances of living a ‘good life’ and the structures of social inequality, as well as the sustainability and legitimacy of the entire welfare state. Through four scientific articles, I explore the following: Howdo street-levelbureaucrats make senseof and furthercategorise immigrant clients? Howdoes this workrelate to the larger institutionalrelations ofstreet-levelpractices? My primary source of data is five months of ethnographic fieldwork at a frontline office in the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration (NAV). Using an abductive approach, I combine a street-level perspective with analytical concepts from institutional ethnography to unpack the categorisation work of caseworkers in NAV. I have focused on their mediating role as street-level bureaucrats and explored their work through their standpoint.

In NAV, the number of unemployed clients with immigrant backgrounds is steadily increasing, now constituting around half (45%) of the clients managed by the frontline offices. Moreover, immigrant clients often become dependent on benefits from NAV over time and alternate between services and departments within NAV rather than ‘out’ to paid employment. To improve their services to immigrants, NAV has defined ‘immigrants’ as a prioritised client group and developed a separate section in their counselling policy directed at improving caseworkers’ cross-cultural counselling of immigrant clients. However, the policy does not define when and how the caseworkers are supposed to put cross-cultural counselling into use, at least beyond the concept of counselling immigrants. Hence, the caseworkers must operationalise an ambiguous definition of ‘immigrant clients’ within a bureaucratised and textually coordinated system of client categories. As NAV is increasingly characterised by welfare conditionality, the different client categories open for the provision of different services.

In addition to the five-month ethnographic fieldwork at a frontline NAV office, I rely on data from observations at three of NAV’s internal courses in ‘cross-cultural counselling: how to counsel clients with immigrant background’ and 11 subsequent interviews of caseworkers who attended the courses. During the fieldwork, observations, and interviews, I also gathered different texts that the caseworkers referred to, which constitutes a third source of data. My last data source is previous research analysed in a qualitative evidence synthesis.

The current study consists of four research articles that also serve as standalone contributions. The first article is a qualitative evidence synthesis of how social workers operationalise, that is make sense of and make use of, cultural competence and cultural sensitivity. The findings show how social workers experience challenges when they employ the cultural concepts in their street-level practice. The second article explores the circumstances in which street-level workers factor culture into their comprehension and categorisation of a client. The caseworkers do not interpret every immigrant client as ‘cultural’ but differentiate between cases dependent on whether they can make sense of the client’s troubles within the institutional frames. Article three describes how caseworkers prioritise clients and depicts the ‘positive’ equivalent of being categorised as a ‘different’ immigrant client: the star candidates. The caseworkers perform an emotional creaming, where their emotions towards clients help them identify clients ‘likely to succeed’ in terms of bureaucratic criteria. The fourth article depicts how the caseworkers use institutional texts to exclude ‘language cases’ from services and benefits and how their practices take form as a pinball machine. Cases where they define the client’s problem as concerning ‘language’ get bounced through the system and end up in the office drain, where it is out of play and ‘stuck’ with social security benefits.

By describing how street-level bureaucrats differentiate between and categorise immigrant clients in their everyday practices, these findings have three interrelated overall contributions:

1. When caseworkers categorise immigrant clients, they demonstrate nuanced understandings of immigrants and their challenges.

Street-level welfare bureaucrats must balance the principle of equal treatment and be responsive to the different needs of clients. Previous research has been inconclusive about which differences matter and describe how the street-level bureaucrats risk emphasising the distinctiveness of immigrants too little, too much or the wrong way, particularly when it comes to ‘culture’. My findings show how the differentiating dimension the caseworkers use is not (merely) whether the client is an ‘immigrant’ or ‘cultural’. The caseworkers consider culture to be one of several potentially relevant aspects when they categorise immigrant clients. Culture is applied as a ‘last resort’ category for the client they struggle to make sense of within one of the institutional classifications. The caseworkers categorise these non-sensible immigrant clients as ‘cultural’ or ‘language cases’. These are the clients who are avoided or excluded from services. Moreover, when they decide to prioritise a case, the decisive factor is whether the street-level bureaucrats consider the client as being ‘far away’ from success in the labour market. The findings show how the immigrant category may be counterproductive and contribute to the ‘othering’ of clients who do not easily fit the eligibility criteria for courses and benefits. To gain further insights into why welfare services struggle to accommodate some clients and provide sufficient services to them, future research should aim to further unpack what the street-level bureaucrats categorise as the residual vagueness of (immigrant) clients.

2. Street-level categorisation is a dynamic categorisation work.

In their examination of the welfare services provided to immigrants, researchers have focused on the input or output of street-level categorisation or have described categorisation as an independent variable. In the current study, I have used analytical concepts from institutional ethnography in an abductive approach to explore how street-level bureaucrats (in NAV) mediate access to and the outcomes from services through their categorisation work. This perspective has contributed to the unpacking of street-level categorisation as a dynamic work where the caseworkers make use of two intersecting interpretive frameworks: the distinction between immigrants/non-immigrants and sensible/non-sensible cases. The combination of a street-level perspective and analytical concepts from institutional ethnography have been crucial to describe how categorisation is a continuous process the street-level bureaucrats carry out during their everyday work and not just a result of their employment of static categories to specific client characteristics. or something the caseworkers do in the first interaction with a client. I encourage future research to use the notion of categorisation work to further explore the services provided to (immigrant) clients in other welfare services.

3. The non-sensibleness of (some) immigrants is textually mediated.

One of the most frequent recommendations for how to improve service provision to immigrant clients is through increased cultural sensitivity among street-level bureaucrats. My findings suggest that the bureaucratic frames—more specifically the institutional texts—contribute to mediating the non-sensibleness of (some) immigrant cases. The textuality of the bureaucratic context, such as the organisation of services, the terms and boundaries for benefits or measures and the performance indicators used, are important elements in street-level bureaucrats making of immigrant clients. This is particularly the case regarding the making of ‘residual cases’, the vague ‘something more’ that the street-level bureaucrats cannot seem to fit in the institutional categories. Hence, it is seemingly limited help in accentuating increased reflectiveness and recognition of (cultural) diversity among street-level bureaucrats to achieve a more accurate categorisation of and service distribution to immigrant clients. To identify the processes and mechanisms that contribute to such differentiating practices, researchers need to consider ‘the street-level bureaucrat in context’, which is typically proposed by social workers for clients.

These findings have three corresponding implications for NAV. First, to be of help to the caseworkers, client categories should be based on specific needs or troubles, rather than partially concealed demographic variables such as ‘immigrant background’. Second, as the caseworkers categorise clients in a continuous process, the tools aimed at helping caseworkers differentiate between cases, such as the ‘need assessment’ needs to be adapted so that it is a useful part of their everyday work. Third, to change the outcomes of categorisation processes, there is need for a change in focus from the attitudes and knowledge of the individual caseworker to how the formulation of terms, conditions and measures promote specific differentiation-practices and contribute to create the vague ‘something more’ of (immigrant) clients.

Author Biography

Maria Gussgard Volckmar-Eeg

PhD research fellow
Department of Social Studies
Faculty of Social Sciences
University of Stavanger


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