Organizations tasked with allocating limited resources face obvious distributive dilemmas. Allocative rules – when applied universally – seek to limit the discretion of organizational members and mitigate disparate treatment. Yet, particularistic needs often warrant exceptions to such rules and accept unequal treatment in the interest of equity. I argue that organizational members engage in a form of boundary work, which I call discretion work, to manage discretionary boundaries around the application of allocative rules versus exceptions. Discretion work functions through semi-institutionalized ‘rules of exceptionalism,’ which involve continual boundary-testing. Relying on ethnographic fieldwork at a French social service organization, enriched by interviews with service providers, I identify three types of discretion work – procedural, symbolic, and evaluative – which govern how, for whom, and for what purpose allocative decisions are made. The article contributes to institutional perspectives on inequality by a) articulating the micro-practices that (re)produce inequitable resource allocation at the bottom of the social ladder, and b) theorizing the often overlooked distinction between principles of equity and equality.


Nevena M. Radoynovska. 2018. Working within Discretionary Boundaries: Allocative Rules, Exceptions, and the Micro-Foundations of Inequ(al)ity, Organization Studies, 39(9): 1277–1298.