How objects guide discretion and counteract stereotypes

What role do objects play in shaping people’s decisions? It turns out they matter quite a lot. My article reveals that material objects can counteract race- and class-based stereotypes.  I use a study of building inspectors in Chicago to demonstrate that material objects play a significant role in how people with discretion make decisions.  Objects can mediate, intervene, and disrupt how we typically think and act.

I shadowed city building inspectors in Chicago as they followed up on calls from tenants and concerned residents. Calls are frequently about potentially serious or harmful issues such as rats and bedbugs, mold, dangerous roofs, and collapsing walls.

During inspections, I watched as inspectors made critical decisions: do they record citations, evict tenants, fine property owners, or turn a blind eye and leave buildings to dilapidate or remain dangerous?  

There is a consensus across legal studies and the social sciences: frontline workers (a term that is interchangeable with street-level bureaucrats) make decisions that punish the poor.  A wealth of literature demonstrates that frontline workers – such as police officers and welfare workers – reproduce inequality and punish the poor, because they rely on categorizations of deservingness that stem from cultural stereotypes about who is responsible for their poverty, criminality, or low-status position.  

But my article shows the opposite: that building inspectors in Chicago assess code violations in minority and low-income neighborhoods as less problematic than those in buildings owned by resourced property owners.

Specifically, building inspectors use assessments of dilapidated and dangerous material conditions – such as broken windows and abandoned buildings – to infer intentional disregard, a process I term malign neglect, on the part of resourced property owners like professional landlords. And they show compassion towards homeowners in low-income communities of color and assess similar conditions as excusable and understandable, which I call defensible disrepair.

These counterintuitive findings are explained by the material objects that mediate how frontline workers make assessments.  I demonstrate that material objects – from vacant lots and broken windows to luxury amenities – can disrupt or change the assessments that street-level bureaucrats make. 

The article thus recasts concerns at the heart of socio-legal studies – policing, discretion, regulation, and enforcement – through a focus on materiality.

Although a substantial segment of frontline workers rely on objects to make decisions, the relationship between materiality and work is undertheorized.  My article fills this gap, demonstrating that material objects interrupt or mediate bias.  Indeed, material objects can change discrimination into compassion in communities of color and change empathy into disdain in white neighborhoods. 

My findings matter beyond the case of building inspectors and code enforcement. There has been much recent media attention to discrimination in city violations, tickets, and policing.  To these concerns, my article urges us to sharpen our analytic lens to the ways in which aspects of the social world – material, sensory, or otherwise – can mediate, intervene, and disrupt how regulatory actors think, act, and refrain from reproducing racial inequality.   

There is a lot more we should understand about code enforcement, however. My book, Stacked Decks: Building Inspectors and the Reproduction of Urban Inequality, goes beyond the findings of the article to trace what happens after inspectors make their surprising decisions. For that work, I sat in on housing court in Chicago where cases about building violations are heard and I used statistical analysis of housing market data to unpack the ramifications of uneven code enforcement in the city. 

What I found was concerning. A lack of regulation amid a for-profit housing market, for example, means that professional landlords pass on financial penalties to tenants by increasing rents. Higher rents contribute to the lack of affordable housing, and price out low-income tenants, often relegating them to unsafe housing conditions. What’s more, acts of compassion toward low-income homeowners of color do not always help because this does little to prevent dangerous conditions. The alternative – that property owners make repairs – is a source of increased indebtedness for low-income homeowners. Ultimately, inspectors’ hands are tied. The current system of code enforcement fails to protect those to whom inspectors show compassion.

In all, my research shines a light on the critical role of housing conditions in the city and the failure of the current systems that American cities use to ensure safe and decent housing for all. Without a system that really ensures repairs get done without prompting rent hikes or debt, our current legal and municipal systems are ill-equipped to prevent deadly fires, displacement, and fair access to safe and affordable housing.   

By Robin Bartram

Robin Bartram is an assistant professor of sociology at Tulane University. Her research focuses on housing, physical conditions, and environmental injustice. Her latest book project investigates how cities plan for aging housing.


Robin Bartram. 2021. “Cracks in broken windows: How objects shape professional evaluationAmerican Journal of Sociology. 126(4): 759–794.

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