Stockholm university

Renita ThedvallHead of department, Associate Professor

About me

Renita Thedvall is Associate Professor in Social Anthropology. Her research is based in the field of policy and organizational anthropology, with special focus on the anthropology of bureaucracy. She has a particular interest in the way policies are shaped and presented in the form of models, indicators, and standards, and how these aspects are understood and performed. Her research projects have centred on employment policy, working life, and social issues. She has conducted field studies in the EU and Fairtrade International, and in municipal social service offices and preschools, where she has studied EU bureaucrats, standards setters, social workers’ and preschool teachers’ work developing, and struggling to understand, implement, and perform policies. As a part of her research, she also investigates meetings both as ethnographic objects and as sites of ethnographic inquiry. Together with Jen Sandler, she has explored this topic through an edited volume, Meeting Ethnography. Meetings as Key Technologies of Contemporary Governance, Development and Resistance (2017, Routledge).

Research projects


A selection from Stockholm University publication database

  • Blend Gaps through Papers and Meetings? Collaboration between the Social Services and Jobcentres

    2019. Renita Thedvall. Social Inclusion 7 (1), 218-227


    The policy word collaboration is a political buzzword omnipresent within human service organisations in Sweden and other countries. Collaboration stands for services working together toward a common goal. It is understood as the solution for a multitude of problems, putting the client at the centre and involving the services needed for making them financially self-sufficient. Public service collaboration assumes gaps between entities, whether they are organisations or professionals holding a particular kind of knowledge or available resources. Gaps are seen as omissions and pitfalls in activities which should be removed. My thesis is that putting the gap at the centre reveals not only the disjuncture of the gaps but also the productiveness of the gap in collaborative projects between organisations. The article demonstrates how documents and meetings work both as makers and blenders of gaps between social services and jobcentres. If gaps are productive spaces, what does it denote for collaboration between organisations? The article is placed ethnographically in documents and meetings set to enable collaboration between social workers and job coaches. I will focus on the gap, the space between documents and organisations, as productive spaces in collaborative projects.

    Read more about Blend Gaps through Papers and Meetings? Collaboration between the Social Services and Jobcentres
  • Fast Childcare in Public Preschools

    2019. Renita Thedvall.


    Fast Childcare in Public Preschools presents an ethnographic examination of the implementation of fast-policy management models and the efforts of teachers to use these to improve their work organization, and the frictions this brings. Using examples from Swedish public preschools, the book focuses on essential areas of the Lean management model in particular, bringing to life concepts relating to the care and education of children. The book draws on international childcare policy and public reforms, exploring the assignments that preschools are set and argues that separating the pedagogical and the organizational as suggested by proponents of management models is not possible.

    This book considers Jamie Peck and Nik Theodore’s work on ‘fast policy’ and ‘model power’ and analyzes the tensions between the easy-to-use and difficult-to-use in management models. The model form of Lean’s management model rendered it difficult to align with existing childcare policy, pedagogical models, and the organization of a preschool. The book explores the utopian dimension of a modern project in pursuit of efficiency and speed in relation to the Lean model and the preschool teachers’ work, by asking, ‘what are the wider societal implications of the Lean project in preschools?’

    Fast Childcare in Public Preschools will be of great interest to cultural anthropologists, qualitative sociologists and political scientists, and organizational researchers interested in the anthropology of policy.

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  • Plans for Altering Work

    2018. Renita Thedvall. Anthropologica 60 (1), 236-245


    The focus of this article is Lean management action-plan documents and the type of knowledge and values they project when used in Swedish public preschools. The Lean model, also called the Toyota model, originated in the car industry. Two key features of the model were eliminating waste and ensuring that there was a system for continuous improvements in the work processes to render them as efficient as possible. The article explores the absurdities of transplanting a scientific management model and planning from the car industry to preschool, where rigid planning is not conducive to flexibility or the urgent meeting of human needs.

    Read more about Plans for Altering Work
  • Affective atmospheres of hope

    2017. Renita Thedvall. Journal of Organizational Ethnography 6 (2), 87-99


    Purpose - The purpose of this paper is to argue that we need to take seriously what affective atmosphere means in public reform. Particular emphasis is put on understanding the mechanisms of hope (Brunsson, 2006) through affective atmosphere (Anderson, 2009) in regards to a management model training course.

    Design/methodology/approach - Ethnographically, the paper is placed in a Lean coach training course, led by two consultants, in the public care services in a municipality in Sweden. The participants were set to learn the language and techniques of the Lean management model during the course of three training days.

    Findings - Using affective atmosphere as a theoretical window for how to understand how participants become enthusiastic about public reform, the author puts forward that the enthusiastic, affective atmosphere created in the training room demanded the ingredients of consultants and the mechanism of hope at play. The consultants' fashioning of the course contributed to the affective atmosphere. But what also triggered the affective atmosphere in the room was the participants' way of responding, which was much more accidental and founded in the Lean model itself, promising smooth flows and rational organization, and the participants' ability to keep mechanisms of hope active.

    Originality/value - Fotaki et al. (2017) point out that affect has only recently started to be integrated and explored in critical organization studies. Michels and Steyaert (2017) emphasise that affective atmosphere has rarely been used by organization theorists. This is an attempt to contribute to this literature by arguing for the fruitfulness of understanding the mechanisms of hope through affective atmosphere in regards to public management reform. The author also calls attention to the need for ethnographic fieldwork when examining affective atmospheres.

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  • Makeshift Work in a Changing Labour Market

    2015. .

    Book (ed)

    In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, people who had never before had cause to worry about losing their jobs entered the ranks of the unemployed for the first time. In Sweden, the welfare state has been radically challenged and mass unemployment has become a reality in what used to be viewed as a model case for a full employment society. With an emphasis on Sweden in the context of transnational regulatory change, Makeshift Workin a Changing Labour Market discusses how the market mediates employment and moves on to explore the ways in which employees adjust to a new labour market. Focusing on the legibility,measurability and responsibility of jobseekers, the expert contributors of this book bring together an analysis of activation policy andnew ways of organizing the mediation of work, with implications for the individual jobseeker. Students and researchers of labour market policy, the organization of markets and work and society both in Sweden and abroad will find this book to be of interest. Policy-makers will find the empirical examples of policy processes among employees an extremely useful and insightful tool.

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  • Managing Administrative Reform through Language Work. Implementing Lean in Swedish Public Sector Organisations

    2015. Kristina Tamm Hallström, Renita Thedvall. Scandinavian Journal of Public Administration 19 (2), 89-108


    The paper accounts for the early implementation of Lean in two Swedish public sector organisations justifying Lean as a remedy for the negative consequences of New Public Management (NPM). But is Lean radically different, or rather yet another NPM reform? We use a social constructivist approach and focus on the role of language in influencing employees’ minds and subjective perceptions, and thereby mobilising new patterns of governance. The concept of ‘language work’, comprising three organisational levels, is suggested for analysing the meaning and consequences of the Lean efforts studied. The analysis reveals that the first level of Lean language work largely mirrors typical NPM ideals, including entrepreneurship, empowerment and customer orientation. In contrast, there are more salient differences at the second level about labels used for organisational classifications having both empowering and disempowering effects on categorised people. At the third level of analysis targeting the day-to-day practice, we see a return of NPM performance measurement–oriented practices and their (often-unintended) consequences discussed in research on NPM reforms, although they surface in somewhat new ways, including communicative symbols and other linguistic expressions. The main contribution lies in the conceptualisation of language work widening the scope of the constitutive role of language to include the levels of political programmes and technologies of government as well as organisational classifications.

    Read more about Managing Administrative Reform through Language Work. Implementing Lean in Swedish Public Sector Organisations
  • Managing preschool the Lean way

    2015. Renita Thedvall. Social Anthropology 23 (1), 42-52


    The management model Lean, originating from the car industry, has in recent years spread like wildfire in the public sector. One important component in the model is to set targets that are measurable to show results, visualising how taxpayers' money is used. The article examines how Swedish public-sector preschool staff handle evaluative techniques in the form of numbers and colours within the Lean model. The article shows their eagerness to comply with the ethics of evaluation, while at the same time resisting what they understand as hard-core statistics by, for example, introducing monitoring that includes feelings and experiences.

    Read more about Managing preschool the Lean way
  • Negotiating impartial indicators

    2012. Renita Thedvall. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 18 (2), 311-329


    Over the last twenty years, statistics and indicators have come to be closely associated with the notion of transparency. The argument is based on a view that indicators make policy outcomes transparent, as objectively revealed in statistical diagrams and tables. Indicators are, however, politically and culturally loaded. This becomes especially evident in an international organization such as the European Union (EU). The article shows that the production of EU statistics is characterized by a practice of transparency wherein EU bureaucrats must handle two seemingly incompatible logics. There is bureaucratic logic, which refers to the indicators that are seen as representing reality objective and politically neutral. Running parallel is the logic of cultural intimacy, in which the material that is made transparent is based upon what an EU member state wants to keep to itself and not reveal to the entire EU. This practice enables the quest for politically neutral indicators to live on, while at the same time providing room for politically and culturally negotiated indicators.

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Show all publications by Renita Thedvall at Stockholm University