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Outgoing Postdoc Spotlight: Bernardo Zacka

Jun 27 2017
Sara Button

Is “faceless” the first word you pair with “bureaucrat”? You’re not alone. But outgoing EIS postdoc Bernardo Zacka wants to change that. “We often talk about political institutions like the state as if we decide on policies and then enact them. It’s almost as if when we interact with the state, we interact with the text of the law,” he says. But that hasn’t squared with Zacka’s experience. “[The state] is all mediated by people. Giving you a check--or not. Arresting you--or not.”

And that’s what his focus has been for the last few years as he’s researched what happens when we put these intermediaries back into the picture. How does it change policy implementation and related moral judgments? What should the state do vs. how should policy be implemented? Zacka spent much of his time as a postdoctoral fellow here finishing a manuscript about that work, which included a stint as a receptionist at an urban anti-poverty agency. Harvard University Press will publish his book, When the State Meets the Street: Public Service and Moral Agency, this fall.

Though Zacka didn’t always study ethics formally (he started in electrical engineering and computer science), he had a long-held interest in ethics and political theory. Examining what values people profess while having competing interests and how individuals deal with those choices fascinated him. “And they should deal with them,” he says.

Besides completing his manuscript during his fellowship at EIS, Zacka began researching a new project on architecture and political theory. He just finished teaching a class on Architecture in Space and Politics, an attempt to converge architectural theory with normative political theory and the sociology of environment. He and his students looked beyond monuments to everyday residential and commercial architecture and considered how elements like balconies or partitions are deployed, and how space is not a neutral background but rather “constitutive of the interpersonal relations we have.” In other words, studying “architecture as a political agent.”

The teaching of ethics is important to Zacka for two reasons. “At the end of the day, the students we’ll be teaching aren’t going to be professional philosophers, they’ll be decision-makers in institutions,” he says. “There’s something about the messiness of moral reflection in a real world context that’s important to put on the table, but if you don’t start thinking about that, a lot of the moral guidance you get from abstract theories will be ineffectual in real life.” Secondly, Zacka believes it’s important not only to learn about what people do, but to learn from them, which is why he prizes strong ethnographic work.

His term at Stanford is ending, but Zacka will continue the research begun here; he’ll return to Christ College, Cambridge for a year as a Junior Research Fellow before starting a tenure-track position at MIT in 2018.


SARA BUTTON is a freelance writer, editor, and educator based in Menlo Park. She has an MFA in Writing from the University of Pittsburgh.