ISSN 1062-7421
Vol. 12 No. 3 (March 2002) pp. 139-142.

KNOWING RIGHTS: STATE ACTOR'S STORIES OF POWER, IDENTITY, AND MORALITY by Trish Oberweis and Michael Musheno. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Co., 2001. 123 pp. Cloth $79.95. ISBN: 0-7546-2123-5.

Reviewed by Thomas Vander Ven, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Ohio University

KNOWING RIGHTS is a short, subtle book about the use of subjectivity and discretion by two groups of state actors-police officers and vocational rehabilitation specialists. According to the authors, state actors use personal values, morality, and identity to guide their everyday adjudications and decisions on the job. The average reader will probably not need a lot of convincing on this point. State actors, like all human actors, are not automatons; they approach their jobs with a constellation of experiences, predispositions, and identities that inevitably contour everyday work decisions. Although the authors' thesis appears a bit obvious, their
analysis is not. The major strengths of the study can be found in Oberweis and Musheno's careful and convincing methodological approach and in their persuasive argument about the complexities of identity.

A critical, constructivist, sociolegal approach to the variability of law drives the study. The authors seek to show us that some voices and identities are privileged over others when it comes to law in practice. State actors' get the "right" to "know" what is "right." According to the authors, this idea is an extension of Foucault's triangle of power:

"Where there is power, there is a right to determine what is true. The three come as a set. Moreover, the triad holds when 'right' is taken in either of two ways, first as a set of freedoms, as in a 'a right to' do something (or not) and also in its moral, normative sense, as contrasted to what is 'wrong.' Both of these senses are important in placing the state and state actors within this triangle of power, right, and truth. This is the sense in which we want to bring a notion of 'right to bear on
state agents' discretionary decisions, as a double entendre which fuses truth with power" (p. 2).

The analysis focuses on two groups of public servants-police officers and vocational rehabilitation workers-in a racially mixed municipality in the American Southwest. The investigators use an impressive array of methodological techniques to understand discretionary processes in these agencies. The sources of data include: newspaper accounts, U. S. Census data, official organizational documents, ethnographic field notes, police car 'ride-alongs,' and interviews. The main sources of data, however, are state actors' stories. These stories, or narrative data, were constructed through a process whereby police and rehabilitation workers were asked to tell descriptive anecdotes about the circumstances and motives surrounding issues of justice, fairness, and acts of personal discretion in the field. Oberweis and Musheno make a very convincing argument for the use of stories as opposed to more traditional interviewing methods.

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Stories, according to the authors, ".can be deployed as a tool for expanding participant input. Where interview questions can presuppose answers and restrict the domain of possible responses, an invitation to tell a story presupposes that their will be some response, and does not guide the content of that response to nearly the same extent. Asking participants to tell stories rather than answer a set of questions gives more authority about the content of the data to the participant" (p. 45).

The process of story construction allowed the study respondents to be equal collaborators in the creation of data. The investigators gave respondents several days to plan and write down stories about field experiences that related to "how your own beliefs about fairness or unfairness helped you make decisions" (p. 109). The content of stories was supplemented with information gleaned during follow-up probes after the story was completed. These narratives were then transformed by the researchers into written stories with the approval and assistance of the storytellers. That is, all respondents were told that they would have the final authority over the content of the story. Storytellers were given the text, pens, and allowed time to edit the story for errors and to add clarification as they saw fit. All changes suggested by the storytellers were made and the final product was counted as story data.

Data analysis was accomplished by way of triangulating the data. The authors note that story data-especially stories personally selected by and edited by respondents-does not suffice alone for an understanding of state actor discretion. Because their study is an interpretive one, they recognize that they needed to use other sources of information, such as interviews, document review, and participant observation data to interpret stories. Field notes, for example, allowed the investigators to compare the deliberate attempt of one police officer to tell "exciting" stories to the mundane reality of his job which generally involved "routine visits to local apartment complexes, making a pitch for the managers to cooperate with the police in the community partnership" (p. 46).

This method of collecting state actors' stories produced some rich and interesting data indeed. The interpretation of the data, however, may leave the reader confused as to what might be learned from the study. Chapter five, which contains the core of the research findings, begins with the following statement: "State agents' work is riddled with moral decision making" (p. 67). This is a straightforward and fairly non-controversial point of view-we all draw from a menu of personal values and cultural expectations when making important decisions. An important question, then, is "what are the social patterns of discretion used by those in power?" If, as the authors say, some notions of what is right are given more credence than others, then how are culturally diverse assessments of morality socially
distributed across occupational categories and positions of power?

Although this question is never directly confronted, there are some themes developed in the data analysis chapters (chapters 5 and 6). One theme is that police officers project their own sense of justice and morality onto those they are meant to serve and protect. One of the centerpiece stories in the book involves a police officer that "sets up" a drunken, pregnant prostitute to be arrested on a public indecency charge because she fails to meet his personal expectation of what a "mother should be." The authors contend that he draws from his

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own identity as "good family man" and compares unfavorably the intoxicated, pregnant woman to his own wife as a way of constructing wrong from right. "The arrestee has committed no major violation of the law, yet Hinkley goes out of his way to arrest her.. By arresting, Officer Hinkley articulates an identity for himself that is different from hers, and enforces his 'good' identity through a moralizing politics of prosecution" (p. 71). The ideological implication here is that the police officer uses his privileged, hegemonic standpoint to judge the different cultural standards of a disadvantaged woman. In other words, "who is HE to judge HER?"

At this point, it seemed as if the analysis would take a critical perspective on the way that race, class, and gender shapes decision-making (i.e., white, middle-class males in power thrust their values onto those they police). Instead, the authors suggest that there aren't ideological patterns at all. In fact, the authors argue, "the identities of state agents, as for other political subjects are fractured. Race, gender, class, and occupation and any number of other social orderings mix, mesh, and combine and contradict each other to create a heterogeneous, fractured body of individuals bound by a shared identity as 'state agents' whose moral intentions are complex, diverse and riddled with the traces of a whole host of other identities" (p. 72). Are we to assume, then, that race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and ideology are equally distributed throughout state occupations? The empirical evidence on the characteristics of American police officers would suggest otherwise. It is on this point, that the investigators miss an opportunity to discuss the possibility that moral decision-making is not just an extension of one's individual identity, but a
collective phenomenon that exists within particular occupations. Because of the overrepresentation of white males in police work, do most police officers, by and large, share a particular moral agenda that results in patterned biased responses to the general public?

Although this question is not addressed, Oberweis and Musheno do suggest that state actor discretion is often driven by the social memberships of decision-makers. In one story, for example, a lesbian police supervisor creatively interprets family leave policy to accommodate another lesbian officer requesting leave to attend to her partner who is undergoing surgery. Although Officer Marker (the lesbian officer) is described as "conscientious" and willing to expand notions of family to accommodate someone who shares a common characteristic, Officer Hinkley is described as constricting the meaning of family in order to "better match his own moral identity and to delegitimate a person who is not like him and his family" (p. 75). The message, here, is that some moral standpoints (i.e., equity for same-sex
relationships) are preferable to others (i.e., negative attitudes toward drinking while pregnant). The policy implication is that a more diverse workforce would result in more tolerance and fairness in the street-level decisions of state actors. This is a reasonable objective, however, the authors say very little about the ways in which state agencies might systematically recruit to serve the interests of diversity or any other ways that varieties of moral standpoints might be incorporated into the public

The stories of vocational rehabilitation specialists are also used to demonstrate that individual moral perspectives play an important part in discretionary decision-making. Although

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the study suggests that police officers use discretion to accommodate what is fair to them, rehabilitation specialists are shown to use discretion based on what they think is fair to their clients. One hearing-impaired specialist, for example, sometimes uses her authority to advocate for her hearing- impaired clients against the wishes of their parents. As a representative of deaf-culture, the specialist "believes that she has the right, or is 'right,' to disrupt the family relationships that interfere with what she, the state agent, wants them to be" (p. 77). Again, a state actor draws from her social membership as a hearing impaired person to make discretionary decisions that, from her point of view, represent the "right" thing to do. As with police decisions, this suggests that patterns in state actor discretion owe much to
the social demographic composition of the workforce. Although the book talks a lot about the importance of individual identity, the data suggest that the social and cultural structure of the workforce is what matters most.

The social and cultural environments of these worksites are, in fact, discussed in some detail. The authors provide an excellent history of the police department and state rehabilitation services administration. These histories suggest the importance of ideological movements, policy trends (community policing), and administrative turnover. The historical analysis demonstrates that discretion waxes and wanes and changes form depending upon larger social structures and cultural ideas. Yet this part of the analysis is very brief and too subtle. There is an excellent but brief discussion of the tension between macho motives for fighting crime and the more public-friendly orientation of community policing.

Finally, scholars who use qualitative research methods to understand culture, identity, and law in practice will find this study illuminating. The sections on methodology and the conceptualization of identity are detailed and insightful and offer convincing critiques of mainstream scholarship.


Copyright 2002 by the author, Thomas Vander Ven.