Cover image for Fostering Autonomy: A Theory of Citizenship, the State, and Social Service Delivery By Elizabeth Ben-Ishai

Fostering Autonomy

A Theory of Citizenship, the State, and Social Service Delivery

Elizabeth Ben-Ishai


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Fostering Autonomy

A Theory of Citizenship, the State, and Social Service Delivery

Elizabeth Ben-Ishai

“Elizabeth Ben-Ishai’s work speaks in important ways both to normative theories of the liberal state and to ongoing conversations about the design and implementation of public policy. Her work reconstructs a notion of autonomy, usefully positioning this centerpiece of liberal commitments not as a mere bulwark against the state but as a kind of standard by which we can assess which forms of state interventions are quite compatible, and perhaps even required, in order to foster autonomy. Ben-Ishai’s work is conceptually sophisticated and commendably ambitious.”


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In Fostering Autonomy, Elizabeth Ben-Ishai explores the role of the state in fostering autonomy in vulnerable citizens—such as people who are addicted to drugs, domestic violence survivors, welfare recipients, and undocumented immigrants—through social service delivery. Building on a feminist conception of “relational” autonomy, the book draws on empirical examples of service delivery to generate a rich theoretical account of the autonomy-fostering state.

Ben-Ishai's analysis focuses on four case studies. The first two cases, on “New Paternalist” programs and welfare policies for immigrants, present examples of programs and policies that fail to foster autonomy. This is in part because they are premised upon flawed notions of the autonomous individual and its relationship to the state. The second two cases, on services for domestic violence survivors and harm-reduction services for people who use drugs, turn the preceding autonomy-fostering failures on their head, pointing to unique instances of services that effectively enable autonomy. These cases demonstrate the ways government services shape citizens’ abilities to live autonomously—“to pursue their own ends or life plans.”

“Elizabeth Ben-Ishai’s work speaks in important ways both to normative theories of the liberal state and to ongoing conversations about the design and implementation of public policy. Her work reconstructs a notion of autonomy, usefully positioning this centerpiece of liberal commitments not as a mere bulwark against the state but as a kind of standard by which we can assess which forms of state interventions are quite compatible, and perhaps even required, in order to foster autonomy. Ben-Ishai’s work is conceptually sophisticated and commendably ambitious.”
“Elizabeth Ben-Ishai’s book makes an important and illuminating contribution to the literature on the social and political dimensions of autonomy. By showing how the state can either foster or impair autonomy through social welfare service delivery, Fostering Autonomy adds considerable empirical depth to theoretical debates about relational autonomy.”
“In this superb and timely analysis, Elizabeth Ben-Ishai explains why states should strive to foster autonomy and how social service systems can be used to pursue this goal. Blending theoretical insights with careful empirical observations, Ben-Ishai challenges us to rethink our conceptions of citizenship, autonomy, and the state. Her relational approach yields a powerful critique of prevailing assumptions and practices. It also provides valuable conceptual resources for thinking about where we should go from here.”
“The most striking thing about Elizabeth Ben-Ishai’s book is the way she skillfully moves between the conceptual and the concrete, using theory to reflect upon the implications of public policy and using studies of public policy implementation to build and rebuild theory. In doing this, Fostering Autonomy brings together two concerns that have long occupied feminist and democratic theorists: autonomy and the role of the state. . . . [Ben-Ishai’s] attention to the lived experience of individuals as they engage with the state is a wonderful example of practical political theorizing that has the potential to expand and enrich democratic politics for us all.”

Elizabeth Ben-Ishai is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Albion College.



1 Introduction

2 Toward a Revised Conception of Social Citizenship: An Autonomy-Focused Model

3 The New Paternalism: Rethinking State Intervention and Autonomy

4 Taking Responsibility: PRWORA’s Limits to Immigrant Access

5 “Coordinated Fragmentation” and Domestic Violence Services

6 Embodied Recognition, Ascriptive Autonomy, and Harm Reduction

7 Conclusion





Can the state foster autonomy in addicted drug users without requiring abstinence? When these users participate in the delivery of state-funded services for which they are also recipients, how can we understand the role of the state? Is a battered woman who chooses to remain in an abusive, even potentially lethal, relationship acting autonomously? What, if any, is the role of the state in intervening in her decision-making process? Do harsh sanctions, including the loss of all benefits, levied by a paternalistic state on welfare recipients who fail to meet rigid work and conduct requirements facilitate autonomy competency? Do legal citizenship requirements set the boundaries of the state’s obligations to members of its community, or does social service delivery in the context of a globalizing world blur such distinctions? Can autonomy and coercive relations of domination coexist? This book begins to reconcile the sometimes-paradoxical claims surrounding the role of the state in fostering autonomy through social service delivery, often in our most vulnerable citizens—citizens that conventional theories of autonomy largely fail to accommodate.

Despite the complexity of these questions, I argue that the state does indeed have an obligation to foster autonomy, wherever possible, in its individual citizens. Moreover, I suggest that despite the apparent tensions that emerge in practical and theoretical attempts to engage in autonomy-fostering practices, it is possible—and desirable—for the state to endeavor to do so. Such an obligation exists in states that lay claim to standards of equal citizenship rights for all members of the community—liberal democracies that are founded on particular notions of justice and inclusion. Simply by focusing on this particular attribute—autonomy—this study makes two claims. First, I participate in the project of “reclaiming” autonomy from its conventionally individualistic context. That is, I argue that autonomy ought to be valued. Though feminists and other critical scholars have sometimes seen this concept as exclusionary, a growing number of theorists have reconceived of autonomy in a way that, I am convinced, highlights its importance. Second, I suggest that autonomy is a capacity that can be fostered. This claim follows from the first as it is related to the reconceived notion of autonomy as relational; in this conception, autonomy develops not in isolation but out of enabling social relations.

With these initial claims in mind, in the chapters that follow I draw on empirical examples of social service delivery models in order to develop a theory of the “autonomy-fostering state.” Moreover, I consider the implications of such a theory for our conceptions of autonomy, citizenship, service delivery practices, and the state itself. In this introductory chapter, I lay out the theoretical starting points for my consideration of each of these interrelated concepts and anticipate how they will come to life in the context of the “case studies” I discuss below. The theory of autonomy I offer is closely tied to citizenship, as I claim that the capacity for autonomy is a central requirement for access to and exercise of the rights and status associated with citizenship—that is, citizenship is in many ways the political realization of autonomy. My theory of the state also follows from the account of autonomy I put forth. I suggest that given a notion of autonomy as socially constituted, the state-citizen relationship must be seen as a pivotal site at which such constitution occurs. I turn to service delivery because it is for many the primary site at which interaction with the state takes place. Moreover, my concern with the autonomy of vulnerable and marginalized people makes service delivery particularly illuminating. This project, then, contributes to theories of autonomy and the state in two different but related ways. First, I offer a normative account of what the autonomy-fostering state might look like. Second, following from this account, I offer a set of analytic tools that help us to better make sense of the contradictions and tensions that emerge from the practices of existing liberal-democratic states.


Feminist political theorists have rightly been concerned with problems of autonomy for some time. The broadly conceived feminist project of overcoming gender oppression (understood in a far-ranging array of ways) is necessarily connected to the notion of individual autonomy. Where such oppression has denied women—and those ideas, institutions, and relationships gendered “feminine”—proper respect, recognition, and access to resources, it has often also (or consequently) denied them the opportunity to develop and exercise autonomy. By autonomy, I mean the capacity to live one’s life according to one’s own plans—that is, the capacity for “self-government.” Despite the relevance of autonomy to feminism, feminists have also been concerned about the implications of such notions of self-government, which are sometimes criticized for being overly individualistic; for referencing only atomistic, unencumbered, and independent individuals, categories that have conventionally excluded most women; and for ignoring the inherent sociality of human beings. In response to these claims, many theorists, feminist and otherwise, have argued that autonomy is a “relational” concept.1

Given that humans are socially embedded creatures, autonomy cannot be theorized as though such interdependence does not exist. Instead, we must navigate the path between acknowledging the “constitutiveness of social relations” and the “value of self-determination.”2 Autonomy can be understood, then, “as an acquired set of capacities to lead one’s own life”—that is, acquired in the context of our various relationships.3

Thus the capacities associated with autonomy “do not merely emerge naturally, but must be developed through various processes involving educational, social and personal resources.”4 Given the importance that liberal societies often place on protecting the vulnerable, “[they] should be especially concerned to address vulnerabilities of individuals regarding the development and maintenance of their autonomy.”5 Joel Anderson and Axel Honneth identify three “relations-to-self” that are central to autonomy-competency and therefore require particular social supports: self-respect, self-trust, and self-esteem.6 Catriona Mackenzie further elaborates why these relations-to-self are so crucial: “Because our practical identities are complex and dynamic, deliberating about what we ought to do involves self-interpretation—working out which of our desires should constitute reasons for us, which commitments are most important, which emotional responses we should attend to, how to reconcile inner conflicts arising from the obligations of different social roles, and so on.”7 The three relations-to-self referenced by Anderson and Honneth constitute or shape practices of self-interpretation. In turn, it is relationships of recognition that are central to establishing enabling relations-to-self; where such recognition does not exist, one’s autonomy is threatened. That is, “one’s autonomy is vulnerable to disruptions in one’s relationship to others.”8 This attention to the vulnerability of our capacity to act autonomously brings into focus the relations of power so pivotal in determining what contexts will be most conducive to developing autonomy-competency. The trajectories of power that we find in given social contexts are important for our understanding of the types of relationships that constrain relations-to-self, and therefore the development of the capacities required for autonomous action.

For example, Marilyn Friedman discusses autonomy in relation to male dominance. She points out just how damaging and contraindicated relations of dominance are to autonomy. One response to the experience of being dominated, Friedman explains, is to “abandon wants and values that dominance relationships prevent [the dominated] from realizing. A dominated person may try to convince herself that she never really wanted those things in the first place.”9 In addition, Friedman notes, a chronically dominated person may come to rely on certain structures and institutions for protection. She may subsequently be reluctant to criticize these sources of protection: “My capacity for critical thinking would be constrained by my need for protection.”10 The likelihood of, first, abandoning one’s desired means or ends or, second, losing the opportunity or capacity to level criticisms at dominant institutions in society—which happen to afford some of us protection from some kinds of domination—represents a serious assault on the opportunity to develop and exercise the capacity to act autonomously. Where the state delivers social services in such a way that leads those dependent on it to be embedded in relations of dominance, autonomy is threatened.

This relational conception of autonomy and its underlying analysis of relations of power are central to my argument in this book. Indeed, it is such an understanding of autonomy that makes the possibility of fostering autonomy coherent. Using existing accounts of relational autonomy as a starting point, in the chapters that follow I use the empirical examples that serve as case studies to present a richer account of the specific social relations that enable and hinder autonomy, and the empirically situated problems or discontinuities that suggest a need for greater nuance in our theories of autonomy. For example, one chapter on services for domestic violence survivors draws our attention to, on the one hand, the complexities of the effects of oppressive socialization on autonomy, and on the other hand, the contextual nature of autonomous action. Further, in a chapter on the “new paternalism,” the relationship between autonomy and paternalism is complicated in light of a more nuanced conception of paternalism that takes into account power relations. Another chapter on immigration provisions under welfare reform complicates even further the relationship between citizenship—in this case legal citizenship—and autonomy. Though it is social citizenship that most often crops up in discussions of social welfare service delivery, legal citizenship, too, plays an important role in granting access to autonomy. But legal citizenship is not often a product of autonomous decision making, instead emerging as a product of birth. Migration decisions, in turn, can be considered autonomous, but only when conceived of relationally—as a product of vast global economic inequalities that shape the life prospects of individuals. Such a relational account of migration decisions better situates claims to responsibility, both individual and collective, that arise in debates over immigrant welfare claims.

In order to better grapple with the problems of autonomy that emerge from my analysis of empirical examples, I offer elements of a theory of autonomy that differ from other theorists’ accounts. I do this first, in my treatment of the debate over procedural versus substantive accounts of autonomy, and second, in my use of both the ascriptive and capacity-related notions of autonomy. The debate between procedural and substantive accounts of autonomy has preoccupied autonomy theorists for some time. Theorists who understand autonomy as “content-neutral” or “procedural” argue that “the content of a person’s desires, values, beliefs, and emotional attitudes is irrelevant to the issues of whether the person is autonomous with respect to those aspects of her motivational structure and the actions that flow from them.”11 That is, what matters for autonomy is not the substance of the autonomous belief or action, but rather the way one arrives at this belief or action. There are no particular values that the autonomous individual must adopt in order to count as such. The key to autonomy for proceduralists is some form of self-reflection, indicating that actions are taken in accord with certain values held by the individual, rather than impulsively or according to values one does not perceive to be “one’s own.” Marilyn Friedman explains: “That something matters deeply to a person when she attends to it, and that this concern partly directs her choices and actions, imparts a special significance to her behavior that it is appropriate to call determination by herself as the self she is.”12

But such a conception of autonomy is limited, many theorists have noted, by the pervasive existence of oppressive socialization and the ensuing internalization of values that serve to limit one’s autonomy. This does not mesh well with the high value that proceduralists place on the individual’s perception of herself as engaging in critical self-reflection that enables her to make choices and take actions that are “her own.” In response to such objections, theorists of procedural relational autonomy note that what is her own will always be a product of social relations: we cannot dismiss perception of self-reflection out of hand simply on account of socialization, since indeed one cannot be “outside” socialization. But Paul Benson highlights an important problem with this response: “Certain forms of socialization are oppressive and clearly lessen autonomy. In some prominent cases, the general means by which oppressive socialization operates are no different than those through which benign socialization takes effect.”13 Thus, unless we are willing to concede that, because both fall under the rubric of “socialization,” decisions made under the constraints of oppressive socialization are equally autonomous to those taken within the context of enabling socialization, critical reflection may not be a sufficient means for discerning between autonomous and nonautonomous behavior.

In contrast, substantive views of autonomy require that it be consistent with certain conditions that go beyond the procedural requirements of self-reflection. While some strong substantive theories require that autonomous individuals have the capacity to direct their own lives in accord with specific values or norms (e.g., they may require a high degree of rationality or a rejection of specific norms deemed oppressive), others are less stringent, requiring that one’s autonomous decisions, preferences, or actions be formulated or taken in accord with broader content guidelines. For example, in a related account of responsibility, Benson suggests that “self-worth” is an ideal condition for evaluating standards of personal responsibility (and autonomy) that helps us make normative claims about oppressive socialization.14 Benson usefully distinguishes between substantive theories of autonomy for which the normative content required applies to specific “preferences or values that agents can form or act upon,” and those that instead focus on “normative competencies.”15 In the latter accounts, normative constraints may be applied to the agent’s capacities for decision making, but not necessarily the decisions she makes.

In this book, following Benson’s account above, I defend a “weak” substantive account of autonomy that attaches normative content to competencies rather than specific values. I develop this account most fully in chapter 5. The account I provide, however, diverges from other substantive accounts insofar as I stress that the “substance” of autonomy must be figured with attention to the specificity of a given context. As critics have rightly noted, substantive accounts of autonomy run the risk of being exclusionary or further marginalizing some groups; they may fail to be contextually sensitive, imposing substantive markers of autonomy that do not accurately or justly account for the nature of autonomy in a given setting.16 In contrast, more fruitful accounts of substantive autonomy must view particular arenas—be they policy arenas, cultural arenas, political contexts, and so forth—as spaces within which the specificities of the substance of competencies associated with autonomy can be worked out. These competencies, for example, may include the relations-to-self described above (self-respect, self-esteem, and self-trust), but what form such relations-to-self take cannot be theorized in the abstract, but rather must take into account the context within which they are developed and realized. As I explain in the later chapters, this methodological approach—moving back and forth between concrete intuitions and theories that are more general—can be understood as contiguous with the value placed on “experience” in much feminist theoretical work. Ultimately, the ability to make normative claims about oppression is central to my defense of a substantive account of autonomy. Rather than generating exclusionary criteria for autonomy, a substantive account generates much-needed mechanisms for criticizing dominant social structures that constrain autonomy.

The second way I expand on the existing accounts of relational autonomy is by making use of and further developing an account of ascriptive autonomy. As I note above, I understand autonomy to be the capacity to pursue one’s own ends or life plans. But there is a finer distinction to be made in specifying what it means to be autonomous. Following other theorists,17 I view autonomy as referring not only to a capacity but also to a status. That is, one is recognized as autonomous; autonomy is often ascribed to some individuals and not to others. It may well be the case that autonomy is ascribed to individuals who possess the capacity. But given the politically charged and conceptually muddled ways that the concept of autonomy is sometimes deployed in popular and academic contexts, the attribution of recognition and the existence of capacity may also fail to overlap. Nevertheless, the two senses of autonomy are indeed interwoven. Recognition theorists, as I discuss in greater depth in chapter 6, have noted that the psychic effect of misrecognition can often impede our sense of self, and following from this, I argue that our capacity to act autonomously can also be constrained by misrecognition.18 On the other hand, the ascription of autonomy to one who is not necessarily fully endowed with the capacities for autonomy may in fact promote the development of these capacities: the experience of being recognized as autonomous may create certain expectations, responsibilities, and feelings of inclusion that themselves promote autonomy.19 This interrelatedness makes attention to the dual nature of autonomy important to a fully fleshed-out theory of the autonomy-fostering state.

I use this notion of ascriptive autonomy in chapter 3 to complicate our understanding of paternalism and in chapter 6 to further elucidate the relationship between harm and autonomy. Simply by breaking autonomy down in this way, we are able to get a better handle on what it means to foster autonomy. Indeed, both autonomy understood in the ascriptive sense and in the capacity sense are relationally constituted. The ascription of autonomy is often a function of the expansiveness of our conception of the autonomous individual. In disentangling autonomy from independence, I seek to widen the possibilities for such ascription—or to theorize the institutional and social conditions under which relations of recognition are more justly configured.

An understanding of autonomy as both a capacity and status highlights the link between autonomy and citizenship. In this vein, I turn next to a brief overview of the notion of citizenship that I develop in the book. It is such a conception of citizenship that, to a great degree, motivates the concern many have with autonomy to begin with.


The link between relations of power and individuals’ abilities to develop and exercise the capacity to act autonomously is particularly salient when we consider the relationship between autonomy and citizenship in contemporary welfare states. Much as autonomy is ascriptive, as noted above, citizenship has been theorized as referring to a “status.” Autonomy, in both its capacity and status forms, I suggest, is critical to the status of citizenship and the related claims to the rights and duties associated with citizenship. The limitations placed on an individual’s development and exercise of the capacity to act autonomously—by, for example, relations of dominance—directly bear on first, her attainment of recognition as a full rights-bearing citizen, and second, her capacity to exercise the rights and perform the duties associated with the status of citizenship.

T. H. Marshall most famously explored the notion of citizenship-as-status. Marshall referred to this status as one that “admitted [men] to a share in social heritage” and recognized them as “full members of the society.”20 In the nineteenth century, Marshall explains, the growing conflict between the equality claims of citizens and the inequalities between social classes created by the market system fostered increased tension between what he refers to as social rights on the one hand and civil and political rights on the other. Civil rights (and political rights, which Marshall sees as an offshoot of civil rights) are associated with the new competitive market—the equality of opportunity afforded to all (white, male, etc.) citizens—while social rights (“the right to a modicum of economic welfare and . . . to live the life of a civilized being according to the standards prevailing in the society”) are associated with relatively static, predetermined rights based on needs.21 Marshall suggests that the Poor Law Act of 1834 in England was particularly revealing of the effort to eliminate social rights from the status of citizenship. The poor were required to make their claims to social rights as an alternative to the rights afforded by citizenship, including civil rights of personal liberty and any political rights they may have possessed.22 The status of citizenship was revoked for those who were “dependent” on the state. The protection of the state was available only in exchange for the renouncement of one’s rights as a citizen.

Marshall claims that social rights encountered a revival in the twentieth century. Though he was referring to the British context, within the United States there was also a growing movement toward increased social rights, perhaps reaching its height in the form of the Great Society pursued by President Lyndon Johnson. But the status of citizenship has increasingly, since the 1970s and particularly in recent years, been regressing in the direction of the stigma and disenfranchisement that characterized the era of the Poor Law; for example, welfare reforms in Britain and the United States at the end of the twentieth century challenged entitlement-based approaches to welfare provision (to varying degrees). Moreover, though his theory has proved useful in many ways for feminist accounts of welfare, dependence, and autonomy, feminist theorists and scholars of welfare policy have criticized Marshall’s account for its failure to fully account for the experience of women. For one, his chronology of the development of civil, political, and social rights, in that order, does not describe the experience of women in most of the world. Linda Gordon notes, “Throughout the world women won important social rights from the state before they got the vote.”23 Beyond simply perverting the chronology of the development of citizenship rights, this failure to fully consider the role of women leads Marshall to overlook various forms of dependence. While dependence on the state is, for him, mistakenly stigmatized, Marshall primarily considers dependence (in adult males) as emerging from exclusion, temporary or permanent, from the wage labor workforce. My focus on feminist conceptions of autonomy in this book draws on Marshall while pushing his analysis of dependence further, particularly by reinserting the experience of women in the development and provision of the social rights of citizenship. In turn, I move beyond a solely market-focused account of the appropriate provisions entailed in social citizenship status, taking into account the ways that social rights are implicated in the conventionally “private” realm.

While social citizenship forms a key axis along which to evaluate social service delivery and its relationship to autonomy, the legal status of citizenship—on which one’s political and civil rights hinge to a great degree in the United States and elsewhere—is also a critical area of investigation. Despite what may seem to be the relatively obvious connection between legal citizenship and the social rights of citizenship (including access to welfare service provision), there is a persistent gap between immigration scholars’ work on citizenship—focusing on the politics and policies of literal borders that shape nation-states—and the work of theorists who focus on nationally situated citizenship.24 While the latter group interrogates questions surrounding the rights and duties associated with national citizenship, it often fails to connect these questions to those of legal and political boundaries. Such scholars’ “disregard of the larger world frame and of the permeability of national borders serves to distort and limit any account these scholars may offer of the practices and institutions and experiences of citizenship as it is practiced within the nation-state.”25 Assuming necessary “completion” or “closure” with regard to the communities to which citizens belong, these studies miss important aspects of the normative questions stemming from citizenship.

One way of understanding this gap between scholarly work on immigration and work on nationally focused citizenship is to highlight the internal differentiation specific to American citizenship. That is, because the United States has historically constituted some groups of native-born citizens as “foreign,” most often on racialized grounds, a great deal of nationally focused scholarship on citizenship has been oriented toward the troublesome exclusion and differentiated citizenship afforded to native-born minorities.26 Indeed, in many parts of the book, this internal exclusion is my focus. But the issue of immigrant access to welfare benefits provides an important opportunity to bridge this gap; we cannot understand the notions of autonomy and citizenship that underlie social service delivery for immigrants without examining the statuses of “immigrant” and “citizen.” In chapter 4, I flesh out the contours of the relationship between legal and social citizenship in the context of the provisions of the 1996 U.S. welfare reform bill, known as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), that deny many immigrants access to benefits.

Throughout the book, therefore, I explore the implications of explicitly focusing on the fostering of autonomy in theories of citizenship. In the chapter that follows, I argue for a revised notion of social citizenship, founded on a relational conception of autonomy, which highlights the necessity for autonomy-fostering service delivery as a component of the resources required for full citizenship. In the cases I explore in the remainder of the book, more inclusive notions of citizenship are always at the normative foundation of my claims regarding potentially autonomy-fostering service delivery. Accordingly, I view service delivery as a key site at which the assumptions and stigmas associated with vulnerability in our society may be challenged and the appropriate resources for developing the capacity for autonomy provided. With this in mind, I turn to the implications of and motivations for choosing service delivery as a site of importance for the autonomy-fostering state.

Service Delivery

I focus on service delivery in the book because it is a key juncture at which the relationship between state and citizen plays out. As Michael Lipsky argues in his seminal work Street-Level Bureaucracy, “In a sense street-level bureaucrats implicitly mediate aspects of the constitutional relationship of citizens to the state. In short, they hold the keys to a dimension of citizenship.”27 Street-level bureaucrats—the public bureaucrats by whom social welfare services are primarily delivered—play a central role in determining the access that service users have to the status of citizenship and, in turn, to autonomy. It is therefore unsurprising that the delivery of social welfare services has been a site of considerable criticism, debate, and frustration, both in the academic fields of political science and public policy and in public discourse. Nevertheless, this arena remains relatively uninvestigated by political theorists; though considerations of justice and liberty in the context of social welfare provision have been of interest to theorists, there is little theorizing of service delivery practices specifically as an arena within which citizenship—and autonomy—is constructed. I begin to fill this gap, building a theory that draws on the empirical evidence that my colleagues in the other subfields of political science provide and analyze.

The challenges of effectively delivering social services are both structural and ideological. With regard to the structural limitations that street-level bureaucracies face, Lipsky argues that there are almost insurmountable difficulties in achieving sufficient accountability within these settings, particularly where workers possess a high degree of discretion, which is indeed necessary for the jobs they do.28 Accountability, Lipsky notes, “is the link between bureaucracy and democracy.”29 Yet, while it seems evident that we ought to work to sustain this link, attempts to impose measures of accountability within the context of social service delivery have threatened the quality of these services. For example, efforts at greater accountability, perhaps in the form of expanded or more intrusive efficiency and accuracy measures, may ultimately “erode workers’ sense of responsibility for clients,” leading them to carry out their duties in a more mechanistic, potentially less productive, and less empathetic manner.30

The reasons for this chasm in the maintenance of, on the one hand, accountability, and, on the other, flexibility or discretion, are manifold. In the Untied States, some of these reasons are related to the manner in which federal and state funds are distributed, bearing on the resources that specific street-level bureaucracies have available to them. Constantly pressured resources lead to overloaded workers, who, while they require discretion, may come to rely on this discretion as away of streamlining their work and potentially acting in unfair, exclusionary ways.31 In addition, the ideological underpinnings of social welfare service provision in general bear considerable responsibility for the problems facing street-level bureaucracies. That is, as Lipsky writes, “American street-level bureaucracies must be understood as organizational embodiments of contradictory tendencies in American society as a whole.”32 While the welfare state generates programs built to respond to the insecurity and inequality that the economic system inevitably produces, these programs—and the workers who administer them—are also designed to maintain and reproduce that economic system. In this sense, street-level bureaucrats are indeed involved in a project of social control; their job is to deliver services in such a way that they do not undermine the status quo, which often requires that they impose disciplinary constraints on clients, with the objects of this discipline ranging from the nature of clients’ appearance to other aspects of their self-presentation. Yet in fulfilling the first imperative of the welfare state, to respond to needs, street-level bureaucrats are also often a manifestation of society’s humanitarian impulses. These contravening impulses complicate our understanding of the state as an agent of social control, as I discuss in more detail below.

The form and function of social service delivery in the context I pay particular attention to here—the United States—is also a product of popular conceptions of poverty and dependence. Lipsky, whose book was published in 1980, describes Americans’ “deep conviction that poor people at some level are responsible for the conditions in which they find themselves, and that receiving benefits labeled ‘for the poor’ is shameful.”33 Certainly, this sentiment remains prevalent and perhaps even stronger in the early twenty-first century, with the popular welfare reforms of 1996 relying heavily on such assumptions.34 Public intellectuals and politicians emphasize the pathology of poverty—referring to an alien “underclass”—and the undeserving nature of those who, they claim, receive benefits in exchange for doing no work (i.e., participating in the wage labor economy). Lipsky also notes that social services delivered to the poor (or other marginalized groups) are seen, in general, as a cost rather than as a benefit.35 These troubling attitudes and the consequent tensions in social service delivery that Lipsky describes manifest themselves in on-the-ground practices that directly affect the distribution of citizenship rights in the United States.

As I mentioned above, service delivery is perhaps the key site of state-citizen relationships. As Joe Soss writes, “Through welfare participation, individuals enter a relationship with government that may be designed in a variety of ways.”36 Lipsky, too, notes that most citizens have their sole interactions with the state (or what they think of as the state) by way of their engagement with street-level bureaucracies, be they schools, welfare offices, or police officers. The relationship that is formed, I suggest, determines the extent to which citizens will be given the opportunity to develop the capacities to act autonomously, and relatedly, but still distinctly, whether they will be recognized as autonomous. Soss argues that welfare participation teaches clients how government and bureaucracy in particular will respond to their claims, and what sorts of claims they are entitled to make on it: “It teaches citizens lessons about whether they can be effective in petitioning government and whether they have standing to act without fear of retribution.”37 The “dilemma of action,” as Soss puts it, that citizens are conditioned to respond to via welfare service delivery experiences is a central component of both the exercise and development of autonomy competency. Political or social action, whether in response to the welfare system or elsewhere in the public sphere, can be a key arena for building and exercising the skills necessary for autonomous activity.

Soss’s fascinating study of welfare participation as a site of political action highlights the important political function of making claims on the welfare state. Through interviews and participant observation, Soss finds that welfare participation can be a key site for making claims on the government that are, more so than elsewhere, effective in yielding them “tangible, immediate, and helpful actions from government.” Soss argues that through the process of claiming welfare rights—which is mediated by service delivery practices—clients “can enhance their power to accomplish goals and serve as capable members of the polity.”38 Even in the context of mechanisms of social control, welfare may at some junctures afford recipients the opportunity for greater autonomy than they likely otherwise would have had. Soss’s view of service delivery is thus, to an extent, more optimistic than Lipsky’s. While he by no means exonerates the system of the sorts of contradictions and tensions that Lipsky finds, he acknowledges that social welfare service delivery plays an important role in clearing the way for disadvantaged, traditionally marginalized individuals to exercise their capacity to act autonomously.

I want to take Soss’s observations one step further in proposing that, through service delivery, the welfare state can not only allow for autonomous activity, it can and should directly engage in the task of fostering autonomy. Soss’s observations do not demonstrate that such activity is occurring. For the most part, delivery of public assistance in the United States has not been undertaken in a manner that serves to foster autonomy.39 Elsewhere in the welfare state, in sometimes equally politicized and stigmatized arenas, some service delivery does seem to fulfill the goal of fostering autonomy. In the chapters that follow, I consider several examples of these programs, which I will introduce below, and extract from them some general ideas and principles that may be applicable to the delivery of public assistance as well.

It is important to note that no definitive prescription for service delivery practices emerges in the course of the book. This is the case for a number of reasons. First, as I stress throughout, contextual details are of much importance to any conception of the relational conditions that best foster autonomy. As I note above, I consider the substance of autonomy to be constituted in a manner that goes between abstract theoretical principles and must take account of given political and social contexts. For example, I explain one dimension of the relevance of context in chapter 3, finding that the structure of relations of power is critical to our understanding of what distinguishes autonomy-fostering practices from paternalistic practices. Moreover, as my discussion of harm reduction in chapter 6 emphasizes, service users can (and perhaps ought to) play an important role in the delivery of services and the structuring of principles according to which such delivery is organized. Given this input, it is difficult to delineate autonomy-fostering practices with great specificity unless the details of a given situation are available. Finally, as I turn to next, the “state” is not a singular entity, but rather a fragmented, diverse, and sometimes contradictory set of entities. Given this multiplicity, what constitutes fostering autonomy in one manifestation of the state may not do so in another.

The State

Some theorists view the goal of fostering autonomy as contrary to the interests of the state as a whole, while others argue that turning to the state as a tool with which to resist the oppression of marginalized groups, especially of women, is inherently misguided. The state, they claim, is either a mechanism of social control or an instrument of patriarchal power. These theorists pose an important challenge to both the normative and empirical claims in this book. Of course, most theorists recognize that the state is not a monolithic entity; rather, it is an amalgam of various institutions and practices that are not always aligned with one another’s interests. But even when viewed as a complex, though abstract, entity, many theorists still question the plausibility of the state as a mechanism of “empowerment”—as the popular buzz-word might be used to describe “autonomy fostering”—arguing that the state is too fraught with gendered, racialized power dynamics that privilege the independent, white, male citizen to serve this purpose. I argue, along with a number of other feminist theorists writing over the course of the past two decades, that out of the competing and often contradictory interests and goals emerging from the network of institutions and actors that the state comprises come important opportunities for programs that can and do foster autonomy, even for the most vulnerable and traditionally marginalized members of our communities.

Throughout the book, I engage with the understanding of the state that views it as primarily a mechanism of social control and masculinist power. Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward present the most well-known, and perhaps most convincing, approach to the former critique.40 Piven and Cloward’s model of the welfare state pays particular attention to the social-ordering role of work, or paid employment. When the poor are working, they will think and act as required to preserve the source of their subsistence. Nonwork has the opposite effect, however, especially when it is a condition endured by many people. In the absence of work as a source of order, potential unrest threatens to disrupt capitalist production and, in turn, profit making. Without the regulating function of work, and in combination with the effects of material deprivation, people turn to various forms of protest and resistance that may, at their most extreme, “threaten to overturn existing social and economic arrangements.”41 In this model, welfare does not simply attend to the deprivation brought about by unemployment. Its primary function is to restore order. Order is restored by way of conditionality; relief depends on fulfilling certain requirements. On the other hand, the stigma associated with welfare promotes the compulsion to work under any conditions, no matter how unjust or unsatisfactory with regard to meeting basic needs or respecting fundamental rights.

Wendy Brown offers a version of the social control critique that sees the state as necessarily a masculinist entity.42 As I discuss in chapter 5, despite the gradual diminishment of the power differential between individual men and women, Brown argues that the state has come to occupy many of the same positions of power once held by men. Moreover, the state does not deliver on its claims to neutrality, instead taking up a masculinist perspective, built on historically male-held leadership roles, masculinist institutions and modes of protection and regulation, and the reproduction of dominant notions of femininity. Therefore, Brown rejects the notion that the state can be an agent of liberation or progressive challenges to gendered forms of oppression; rather, to seek out the state as an ally in feminist aims is to turn to an agent of masculine power as a mechanism for protection from, paradoxically, masculine power. Though rationalized and bureaucratized, state power represents a continued assault on women’s freedom.

Though Brown does disaggregate the state in her discussion of its different functions,43 she maintains a relatively unnuanced view of the state’s interests, even in its multiple functions: all arms of the state ultimately make use of their power for patriarchal ends, she argues. While I do not reject the claim that patriarchal power exists to a wide extent within the various divisions of the state, I challenge the notion that these various arms, even given the continued existence of patriarchy, can never act in enabling ways in the lives of women or other feminized subjects. As I will point to in greater detail in later chapters, other theorists do offer more nuanced accounts, challenging the category of “patriarchy” as an adequately cohesive way of characterizing the state. In her essay on “The New Feminist Scholarship on the Welfare State,” Linda Gordon calls into question the value of the term “patriarchy” as a descriptive or analytic category for study of the welfare state. First, she notes the fuzziness of the word: “By using a word so filled with fatherly, familial, organic, fixed hierarchical relations to describe today’s male supremacy, situated in a nonfamilial, inorganic, meritocratic society, we lose much of its power and nuance, and we mask significant historical change.”44 Moreover, even if the state has come to occupy positions of domination previously held my individual men, notes Gordon, there is a certain imprecision in describing both individual male subordination of women and the gender oppression emerging from the state as examples of patriarchy. Gordon further notes that the use of the “state patriarchy” model is inflexible because it fails to acknowledge the genuine gains that women have made, instead representing “them as an inevitable epiphenomenon of modernization or secularization rather than as the result of collective political struggle, that is, of feminism.”45

Picking up on this critique of the state patriarchy model as presenting only a picture of the state as oppressor, Barbara Cruikshank’s Foucauldian account of the welfare state highlights the complexities of the inevitable power relations between state and citizen. Explaining the workings of state power, she defines a “technology of citizenship” as “a method for constituting citizens out of subjects and maximizing their political participation.”46 Such technologies of citizenship, she suggests, do not cancel out the autonomy and independence of citizens, but rather are modes of governance that work on and through the capacities of citizens to act on their own.47 Thus Cruikshank takes seriously welfare policy that seeks to “empower” recipients; she does not simply dismiss such policies as modes of social control. Nevertheless, she notes that the process of making citizens “self-governing” also renders them “governable.”48 Thus, while Cruikshank’s approach to the welfare state is more subtle than the state patriarchy model, she remains suspicious of welfare programs that claim to foster self-government in recipients, noting that such self-government often entails the self-directed but highly conditioned assent of the recipient to align her goals with those of, for example, individuals and groups situated in bureaucratic or therapeutic positions of power.

Throughout this book, while taking heed of the great potential for the state to act as an agent of disempowerment, even if in the less apparent but equally deleterious manner Cruikshank points to, I present a more optimistic account of the state—that is, of the autonomy-fostering state. While I do not claim that such a state exists in entirety in any one place, by pointing to the workings of particular arenas of the state’s many arms, and to the interactions among these arms, I begin to offer a picture of a state that generates the relational conditions necessary to foster autonomy.49 There are several key elements of the autonomy-fostering state that emerge out of my analyses of both autonomy-hindering programs and autonomy-enabling service delivery programs:

Embodied recognition: In the case of many social welfare services, the recipients of benefits lay claim to needs that are explicitly embodied; our understanding of the state must therefore consider the extent to which it accounts for such embodiment. Attention to “embodied autonomy,” I argue, can be found in the autonomy-fostering state, as demonstrated by the programs I explore in chapters 5 and 6. In turn, the cases of new paternalist programs and the provisions of PRWORA affecting immigrants (discussed in chapters 3 and 4, respectively) highlight a failure to recognize both the embodied needs of some individuals and their capacities for autonomy and responsibility. These cases point to how the absence of a conception of the embodied elements of autonomy deeply affects racialized and gendered bodies in ways that perpetuate structural inequalities.

User involvement: Service delivery models that involve users in the development and the delivery of services have profound implications for the autonomy-fostering potential of the state. When users, as in the case described in chapter 6, run their own harm reducing needle exchange program at the behest of the state, who is state and who is client? This confusion is a productive one, I argue. In a similar sense, the success of the programs for domestic violence survivors, which I discuss in chapter 5, rely in part on the checks and balances generated by the involvement of advocates who are often survivors of domestic violence themselves. The PRWORA programs I discuss that limit autonomy do not employ methods of user involvement. The absence of such elements of service delivery point to a broader implication of user involvement: by involving users in service delivery, the state ascribes autonomy to these users in ways that enable the capacities necessary for autonomy. In contrast, where pregnant teenagers and unemployed adults, for example, are seen as incompetent and immigrants as lacking responsibility (as they are in the PRWORA programs I discuss), such ascription of autonomy is a long way off.

“Coordinated fragmentation” within the state: At times, the conditions for autonomy-fostering service delivery arise out of the contradictory impulses of the various state arms involved in a particular type of service delivery, even if the intentionality of each arm is not itself aligned with the aim of fostering autonomy. The fragmentation of the state—the multiplicity that defines it—can be fruitful where appropriately coordinated; we see this in my accounts of both services for domestic violence survivors and harm reduction services for drug users. This feature is related to the prior one: the notion of the “state” is complicated when its agents—the individuals delivering the state-funded services—are service users themselves.

I return to these features throughout the book as I discuss the case studies outlined below. These elements are relevant to varying degrees in each of the cases, but for the sake of clarity and to allow sufficient depth, in each case I focus on some elements more than others.

Though these features of the autonomy-fostering state are instructive, as with service delivery, no singular theory of the state or “road map” of the autonomy-fostering state emerges from this book. Nevertheless, the various accounts of autonomy fostering I offer in this book usefully challenge the social control and patriarchy models of the state (while acknowledging the existence of these motivations at certain junctures of state power). Further, these accounts contribute to and advance more complex accounts of the state, like Cruikshank’s, which tend to focus primarily on the constraining elements of state power, rather than the enabling ones, which themselves are often depicted as implicitly constraining.

Plan of the Book

In chapter 2, I further develop the account of citizenship that underpins my concern in this book with fostering autonomy. In this chapter, I focus on the social rights of citizenship; later in the book, I take up questions of legal citizenship. I argue for a revised notion of social citizenship that has at its core a relational conception of autonomy. The standard notion of social citizenship, often attributed to T. H. Marshall, does indeed have autonomy at its core; it seeks to correct the economic inequalities that compromise one’s ability to act autonomously. Because it does not account for the relational nature of autonomy, however, it occludes the reality that autonomy does not hinge solely on the adequate provision of material conditions—that it is also fostered or constrained in the context of social relationships. Where these relationships are well structured, autonomy is more likely to emerge. This feminist conception of autonomy brings to light an understanding of social citizenship rights as concerned with actively promoting autonomy by establishing and cultivating the relational support necessary to foster this capacity. In this chapter, two prominent critiques of the concept of social citizenship serve as an entry point to theorizing the autonomy-focused model I propose. On the one hand, some critics charge that the rhetoric of social citizenship fails to consider the mechanisms of social control that always accompany, and often overshadow, social welfare rights. On the other hand, the language of social citizenship rights is criticized for its “passive” conception of citizenship, focusing only on rights without accounting for the role of duties or obligation. By reconceiving social citizenship as a status that grants individuals not only the right to freedom from material constraints on autonomy, but also the right to access services and resources necessary to foster and develop the capacity to act autonomously, we can effectively respond to these critiques.

Chapters 3 and 4 examine aspects of the 1996 U.S. welfare reforms emerging from the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. These cases present us with examples of programs and policies that fail to foster autonomy, as they are premised on flawed notions of the autonomous individual and her relationship to the state. From these cases, the deeply damaging effects of formulating social welfare service policy, based on misconceived notions of the self and the social relations in which it is embedded, become apparent. Along with the cases discussed in chapters 5 and 6, these chapters take up specific practices that may fulfill the requirements of social citizenship, as reconceived in chapter 2, while also developing the theoretical accounts of the state and autonomy that are at the core of the book

In chapter 3, I consider whether a theory of an autonomy-fostering state ought to be understood simply as a version of “forced to be free”: Is the notion of the state “fostering autonomy” imbued with some elements of paternalism? Moreover, can the state force us to be free? That is, can paternalistic social service delivery ever be autonomy fostering? I approach these important questions by distinguishing autonomy fostering from paternalist practices, specifically those associated with the new paternalism, the influential theory of “supervisory” approaches to social welfare service delivery that underpins many key aspects of PRWORA, and welfare reforms in Britain and some other European countries. I consider two instances of new paternalist service delivery in the post–welfare reform United States: workfare and pregnancy-prevention programs, both directed at welfare recipients. These two programs respond to what many new paternalists claim are the two primary causes of poverty: nonwork and unwed pregnancy. A careful look at each sharpens our view of what it means for the state to foster autonomy—or to fail to do so, as is the case here. Throughout, I suggest that this incompatibility between autonomy-fostering and paternalist social policy makes most sense when founded on a notion of paternalism that highlights its implication in oppressive power relations rather than solely its association with interventionist policy. In this light, the assumption at the core of new paternalism—that of service users’ incompetence—reveals the autonomy-constraining implications of such intervention, which is characterized by a lack of respect and recognition.

In chapter 4, I explore the relationship between legal citizenship, social citizenship, and individual autonomy by examining challenges to immigrant and refugee access to welfare benefits in the United States since the 1996 welfare reforms. These reforms coincided with significant immigration reforms, tightening the requirements for legal citizenship and loosening the accountability requirements for the state in its dealing with immigrants. As a result, like in the previous chapter, this policy serves to hinder rather than foster autonomy. I suggest that the reforms are founded on a claim that immigrants who seek out welfare have failed to “take responsibility” for the consequences of their autonomous choice to migrate. This claim is deeply problematic, first because it assumes an individualistic conception of autonomy, and second because it reflects a view of immigration divorced from the reality of the economic and political interdependence of nation-states throughout the world. Immigrants’ decisions to migrate can be understood as autonomous, I suggest, but only when autonomy is conceived relationally. Such decisions, where taken by emigrants from impoverished nations, must be understood as relationally constituted in part by the failure of the United States to take responsibility for its political and economic actions, which allow American citizens to live a comparatively privileged life at the expense of citizens of other nations. In fact, if we shift the notion of personal responsibility at the heart of the foundational claim to one of political responsibility, understood as a critical expression of autonomy, we can understand many immigrants’ claims to welfare rights as a way of taking political responsibility. Such claims challenge structural conditions of inequality generated by the system of “birthright citizenship,” which unequally and arbitrarily distributes the benefits of citizenship status.

Chapters 5 and 6 turn the preceding autonomy-fostering failures on their head: I consider unique cases of service delivery that offer insights into state-citizen relationships that are indeed autonomy fostering. Though they fall within the category of social welfare service delivery, these cases fall outside what popular discourse tends to think of as welfare. It is partly because of this marginal status that the cases offer us the opportunity to rethink theories of the state and to revision its relationship to citizen-users.

In chapter 5, I explore a particular model of service delivery for survivors of domestic violence: “coordinated community response” programs (CCRs). This chapter is centrally focused on theorizing the state in the context of autonomy-fostering practices. I conceptualize the state as a fragmented and plural entity comprising various “loosely coupled” arms that are sometime in conflict with one another. Given this conceptualization, the notion of what I refer to as the “coordinated fragmented state” helps us to understand the dynamics that can enable the state to foster autonomy. The case helps to elucidate this notion of coordinated fragmentation: CCRs take advantage of the tensions inherent in the state in such a way that they are able to foster autonomy more effectively than conventional forms of service delivery. Moreover, the multiplicity of this model offers opportunities for a balance to be struck between care-oriented and justice-oriented elements of the autonomy-fostering state. This balance is made effective partly because of the mechanisms of self-critique extant in the coordinated fragmented state. Additionally, domestic violence services are particularly revealing as a site for considering the dynamics of an autonomy-fostering state, since questions of state intervention, power relations, and individual autonomy are at the forefront of discussions of domestic violence in a wide range of disciplines.

In chapter 6, my theoretical focus is the relationship between harm and autonomy. Although I argue that harm impedes autonomy, I resist the intuitive notion that harm and autonomy exist in a zero-sum relationship (i.e., more harm, less autonomy). This account does not sufficiently allow for the varieties of harm that exist, the multiple sites at which harm is produced and inflicted, and the plural set of actors that are affected by harm. Seeking to complicate this account, I suggest that harm reduction—a model of response to drug use and addiction that seeks to minimize the harm associated with drug use without necessarily requiring abstinence—is a unique location at which the state can foster autonomy in vulnerable citizens. Examples of such programs include needle exchanges and methadone maintenance. I explore two forms of harm. First, I suggest that successful harm reduction programs respond to the harm of misrecognition by enabling a space for recognition not just by the state, but by the community, too, including service users’ “peers.” In these spaces, a measure of ascriptive autonomy can be achieved. Second, this case demonstrates that autonomy competency requires attention to embodied forms of harm, where the notion of harm must be flexible and open to continual reinterpretation. In the case of harm reduction service users, the terrain of such contestation often revolves around the politics of pain and pleasure. Both forms of harm point to the fact that the notion of an autonomous addict is not oxymoronic, but simply an example of the confluence of a variety of harms with other potentially autonomy-enabling forces. Even in situations of extreme dependence, this case demonstrates, autonomy is, and ought to be, possible.

Finally, I conclude in chapter 7 by taking note of some recent developments in policy and media treatment of harm reduction, domestic violence services, and debates over immigrant rights. I try to reconcile my arguments in this book with what seem to be the continued difficulties at establishing an autonomy-fostering state, or at least autonomy-fostering practices within the state. Despite the challenges that continue to arise, I argue, a theory of the autonomy-fostering state helps us to better make sense of the contradictions and tensions that arise on the ground, and to respond to these challenges with appropriate political and analytical tools.

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