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Novices in bureaucratic regimes

Learning to be a claimant in the United Kingdom

Michelle Obeid

This article tracks the learning experiences of a refugee mother in negotiating her housing rights during her first months of settlement in the United Kingdom. New migrants often experience bureaucracy as “novices” in unfamiliar legal and bureaucratic regimes. By contrast to common depictions of bureaucracies as predominant sites of disenchantment and frustration, I attend ethnographically to the ways in which novice claimants come to trust and value bureaucratic encounters as productive spaces that reveal to them the vocabulary of legitimacy as they learn to inhabit official categories and forge bureaucratic personhoods. I suggest an understanding of migrants’ previous knowledge of non-Western bureaucratic regimes shapes their experiences of ambiguity in bureaucracy.