Brown Bag Lecture Series: Emily Bosk

Wednesday, February 13, 2019 11:45am - 1:00pm

GSE Lecture Hall (room 124)

Brown Bag Lecture Series

Iron Cage or Paper Cage? The interplay of worker characteristics and organizational policy in shaping unequal responses to a standardized decision-making protocol

Emily Bosk

Asssistant Professor of Social Work, Rutgers University

In an unequal world, standardized decision-making tools offer the promise of redressing explicitly and implicitly biased decisions and the unfair outcomes they produce (Espeland & Stevens, 1998). Such tools have proliferated in domains as diverse as credit scoring, housing, hiring, criminal justice, and child welfare. These fields have turned toward standardized decision-making tools in the view that interventions in decision-making are necessary to solve racial and gender inequality that persists despite laws prohibiting discrimination. Work that embraces standardization as an equalizing force stands in contrast to research on standardization and street-level bureaucrats, which asserts that standardized procedures are not self-actuating and cannot be understood apart from the environments in which they are utilized (Lipsky, 1980; Timmermans & Epstein, 2010; Brodkin, 2012). In this study, I compare frontline child welfare worker responses to an actuarial-based risk assessment implemented to standardize decision-making in two different states. I observe that in a highly controlled decision-making environment, child welfare workers whose racial and sex characteristics afford them higher status report subverting the tool; conversely, workers in the same position whose ascriptive characteristics yield them lower status in terms of race and sex describe following the rules. In an environment where the same tool is only ceremonially adopted, however, all workers experience decision-making as unconstrained, regardless of their ascriptive characteristics. In this context, social status characteristics influence workers’ response to the tool but do not determine their choice to utilize or ignore it.


Emily Bosk is an Assistant Professor of Social Work and a Faculty Affiliate with the Institute for Health, Health Policy, and Aging Research, the Center for Violence Against Women and Children, and the Department of Sociology. Dr. Bosk works at the intersection of social theory and applied practice. Her research uses rigorous social science methods to theorize how organizations and individuals understand and intervene with vulnerable children and families and to trace out the policy and practice implications of these approaches. Current research includes: analysis of standardized decision-making in child welfare at the individual, organizational, and policy level; issues related to the lack of integration of social service systems for families; understandings of ‘badness’ in young children and adolescents; programs to support parent-child relationships and infant mental health. Dr. Bosk has held fellowships in The Prevention of Child Maltreatment and the Promotion of Child Wellbeing through the Doris Duke Foundation and in Clinical Social Work in the Intensive In-Home Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Services Division at the Yale Child Study Center. Her work has been funded by grants from The National Science Foundation, the Kellogg Foundation, and the Fahs-Beck Fund for Research and Experimentation.

Join us remotely via webinar! Go to:


Who to contact:

Colleen McDermott