Book review: Discretion and the Quest for Controlled Freedom

Date01 March 2021
Published date01 March 2021
Subject MatterBook reviews
T. Evans and P. Hupe (eds.), Discretion and the Quest for Controlled Freedom, 2020, Cham, Switzerland:
Springer, 437 pages, ISBN 978-3-0301-9565-6 (hardback).
Reviewed by: Jed Meers ,University of York, UK
DOI: 10.1177/1388262720984801
Although initially somewhat of a ‘cult interest’, especially among legal scholars, the study of
‘discretion’ now boasts a substantial literature stretching across most social science disciplines.
Scholarly attention has ebbed and flowed. The enduring nature of the questions posted in HLA
Hart’s essay on discretion – thought to be lost, but unearthed and published in 2013
testament to the longstanding, seemingly evergreen, nature of debates on the use, role and exercise
of discretion. As Evans and Hupe note in their introduction to the edited-collection Discretion and
the Quest for Controlled Freedom, we are back in a flow: ‘currently, discretion is re-emerging as
an area of study’ (p. 3).
Current efforts to summarise this literature are limited to either detailed monographs or edited
collections examining discretion in a particular field, such as law or social security, or those that
demonstrate the enduring valu e of a particular thinker’s work acr oss disciplines, such as the
voluminous literature examining Lipsky’s Street-Level Bureaucracy. This book is instead an
ambitious attempt to draw together contributions from across a range of disciplines to provide a
‘review’ of the ‘theoretical lens’ through which discretion is approached.
With 25 contributors drawn from across public health, economics, politics, social policy, social
work, philosophy, law and more, each providing a lucid conceptual account of discretion, the book
both achieves this intimidating task and demonstrates the value of pollinating across disciplines.
The book is divided into four sections, each with a useful introduction by Hupe and Evans that
reads as both an overview of what follows and a drawing together of common themes. The first
deals with ‘discretion in context’ and contains five chapters focusing on empirical contexts for
discretionary decision-making. They cover the surveillance state, the welfare state, welfare rights
in Britain, discretion as empowerment (its use in the delivery of ‘activating’ welfare reform
programmes) and its use in blame avoidance (focusing on Government conferral of discretion).
The chapters on empowerment, the welfare state and welfare rights are likely to be of most interest
to readers of this Journal, in particular Brodkin’s impressive - and mercifully concise and user-
friendly - overview of the ‘politics of discretion’ in welfare bureaucracies.
The next two sections deal with ‘perspectives’ and ‘governance’ respectively. The former pro-
vides an account of discretion from legal, economic, psychological, sociological and critical per-
spectives.None of these contributionsare stand-alone literaturereviews. They either provide a robust
criticism of currentapproaches from the relevant perspective and advocate for a differenttack (as in
arguing for a greater ‘socio-legal’spirit in the legal study of discretion by Mascini, oraddressing the
management of discretion in economics by Wolfson), or are effectively case studies using an
approach adopted by the author rooted within that same perspective (as in the chapters from
1. H.L.A Hart, Discretion (2013) 127(2) Harvard Law Review, 652-665.
Book reviews 93

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