Studies portray public social services as a classic example of street level bureaucracy. While a wide brand of literature examines frontline workers’ discretion and policy implementation, very limited research aims to understand how socio-political factors such as identities and social statuses shape those practices. Specifically, there is lack of research on how ethnical-national identities in the light of a national violent conflict, shapes social workers’ discretion and coping strategies.
This pioneering study aims to fill this gap by examining the multifarious character of public social services in ethnically Jewish-Arab mixed cities in Israel. These cities represent a unique case study since they provide social services to an extremely low-income diverse group of clients in such terms as ethnicity, religion and culture. Moreover, they operate within the contexts of ethnically disputed cities and the intense national Israel-Palestine-Arab Countries violent conflict. The current study explores the strategies Jewish and Arab social workers adopt to manage cultural diversity needs and structural and institutional inequalities in the context of violent-national conflict.
Seventy in-depth semi-structured interviews were conducted with social workers at different levels of seniority and administration (frontline social workers, managers), in three mixed cities in Israel (Jerusalem, Haifa, Acre). The sample is predominately female and represents both Jews and Arabs working in three different areas of social welfare services (children and youth, domestic violence and elderly). The study is based on a purposive sample and the participants were recruited via the municipal social services. Interviews elicited participants’ perceptions and coping strategies that characterize the work of social-welfare services in mixed cities. The data was transcribed verbatim and coded thematically using ‘ATLAS’, a qualitative software, and guided by the principles of grounded theory. The data was analyzed across cities and within each one of the cities as well as across social workers’ roles.
The findings reveal there is no explicit national or municipal policy that defines the roles of social services in mixed cities. Therefore, social workers shape, interpret, translate and implement policies in diverse ways. Their policy interpretation is shaped mostly by their national identities and personal perceptions of the concept ‘contested city’. Moreover, the findings indicate on three models characterized social services in mixed cities: integrative, divided and segregated. Data analysis reveals that the national conflict shapes clients-workers encounters, social service-community relations and inter-staff members’ relationships, particularly in times of violent escalation.
Conclusion and implications:
The study shows that a national-violent conflict intensifies the roles of social workers as street level bureaucrats who act as informal policy decision makers. Moreover, it shows that ethnical identities in the light of a national-violent conflict, actively shapes social workers’ discretion and coping strategies. The study highlights the importance of developing policies for social services in contested cities. Such policies might advance the ability of public welfare services to operate in contested cities through a multicultural approach, while addressing wider social and ethnic inequalities, in the context of violent-national conflict.