Prerequisites and pathways: How social categorization helps administrators determine moral worth

Isaac Dalke, Joss Greene

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Scholars have revealed how moral evaluation is woven into formal administrative processes. While research examining these dynamics tends to assume that a person’s naturalized identity (such as race and gender) precedes administrative processing, we argue that social categorization by administrators is the tacit precondition upon which further processing takes place. We make this argument by looking at a set of unusual cases: parole hearings where prisoners fall outside of, conflict with, or move between categories of gender, sexuality, race, and ability. We find that categorization acts as a prerequisite to moral evaluation. When administrators cannot easily categorize a prisoner, they resolve this uncertainty by denying parole. Yet, social categorization can also serve as a pathway to moral approval and administrative allocation. In certain situations, administrators encourage prisoners’ identification with a new social category as proof that they are deserving of parole. In both cases, successful administrative categorization occurs through a combination of what we call narrativization, or crafting a narrative around one’s identity that aligns with administrators’ presumptions, and authorization, or marshalling official evidence from prior classification moments to support identity claims. These insights extend our understanding of classification, moral evaluation, and the administrative reproduction of inequality.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)41-66
Number of pages26
JournalTheory and Society
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2024
Externally publishedYes


  • Administrative decision-making
  • Classification
  • Identity
  • Moral evaluation
  • Parole
  • Prisons

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science


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