Being Like a State

In 2015, PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review introduced a new feature, Emergent Conversations. Although not yet in the journal, the concerns addressed here are nonetheless shaping the discussions in the field. The third installment is Being Like a State, which is based on a panel of the same name that took place at the 2014 American Anthropological Association Meetings.

An excerpt of the conversation is below, with the full article available to download.Adobe_PDF_file_icon_32x32

Being Like a State | by Joshua Clark, Miia Halme-Tuomisaari, and Tess Lea

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


If the state was once regarded as the province of disciplines other than anthropology, those days are now firmly behind us. Much recent work demonstrates that anthropological modes of analysis and methods offer unique perspectives on how states are constituted and experienced as “real” by those who they govern. Yet it remains the case that considerably less is known about the lived experience of state-ness from the perspective of those for whom “the state” overlaps with the self. This was the starting point for the panel, “Being Like a State,” organized by Joshua Clark and Miia Halme-Tuomisaari for the 2014 Annual Meetings of the American Anthropological Association (AAA).

Panelists presented ethnographic material offering insights into the cognitive and affective worlds of public functionaries. In particular, the panel sought to consider, on one hand, how and to what extent these functionaries internalize “the state,” and on the other, how they infuse state structures and practice with their own subjectivities, values, and beliefs. Panelists also discussed contradictions that “being the state” may create for their ethnographic interlocutors: the tedium of tasks versus the gravity of missions; moments of identification and belonging versus rejection and disavowal; and the exercise of individual discretion and influence versus feelings of powerlessness and hierarchical oppression, to name a few. How do such contradictions affect public functionaries’ understandings of themselves as “self” and “other” in relation to “the state” and its projects?

The organizers of “Being Like a State” invited Tess Lea to serve as the panel’s discussant, recognizing her work – Bureaucrats and Bleeding Hearts (2008) in particular – as a notable contribution to the ethnographic investigation of many of the questions posed. The bulk of this reflection is an adaptation of Lea’s comments, which she delivered in response to the five papers presented at the December 5, 2014 panel.[1] Those who are interested may also access the panelists’ full abstracts, which are featured in the full version of this conversation. If readers feel that they are “coming into the middle of the conversation,” we hope that this will serve as an invitation to join in, or to pursue, some of the open-ended threads and provocations captured here.

Synopsis of Being Like a State

Many common themes bound the papers that comprised “Being Like a State.” Not least of these was the presenters’ focus on European Union or human rights initiatives, sometimes both at once. The papers also brought a shared concern with method and the question of what a researcher must do over that elusive ethnographic whole when she is left with only fragments. But above all, the panel spoke to the complex oscillations between anonymity and subjecthood and between structure and agency, concerns with which anyone dealing with ethnographies of the state must grapple.

The session began with Elif Babül’s “Dramas of Statehood: Protocol, Cynicism, and Bureaucratic Intimacy in Human Rights Training in Turkey.”  In this paper, Babül discussed performances of state-ness among variously positioned Turkish officials undertaking human rights training, being congratulated for completing training modules, or conversing between sessions. As the Turkish officials learn what is required for the country to be embraced by the European Union, they also learn how to enact the state.

In Miia Halme-Tuomisaari’s “‘The State is One’: Performing ‘Statehood’ for UN Human Rights Monitoring Bodies,” it is anonymity and loss of personhood that put official state delegates to the UN at their ceremonial best. The fantasy sustained here is that human rights monitoring can indeed be done through carefully crafted, grand representations in which material considerations – the roles of multinational corporations, other international regulatory arrangements, competing authority structures, and, Lea added, the military-industrial complex – have no role to play in the decision-making of states. These are rituals of audit and oversight that entail acceptance of the idea that the state is the body standing in the way of fulfilling humanity. Committed individualism through wordsmithing is the proffered remedy.

Joshua Clark’s paper considered the contours of state “internalization” of international human rights commitments by examining Costa Rican policymakers. Clark is concerned to re-people the state, to again explore processes of self-socialization, but this time through charting how those charged with instantiating human rights obligations undertook their work, and how their tactics and rationales altered with their own altered emotional states. Lea considered this deeply important, saying that while it is a simple matter to insist that the thing we call the state is both spectral and deeply human, it is another to account for how affect and embodiment actually make a difference.

Clark’s paper showed that the true believers, or the already-convinced, in Costa Rican state institutions initially see their task in quasi-evangelical terms: they must coax conviction from their less-committed colleagues. Later they come to see such emotional convictions as a weakness: they want impersonal processes to take the place of individual arduousness, arguing that otherwise the state’s human rights obligations will always be personality dependent.

Greg Feldman’s paper approached the relation between mundanity and spectacle, personal investment and impersonal rule, by taking panel attendees to the streets where undercover officers in an unnamed city hone in on a Europe-wide human trafficking ring. These policemen operate in the grey zone, using semi- to clearly-illegal actions to prosecute their own form of justice. Operating in the breach does not make them saints, and Feldman did not suggest that heroic actions disentangled them from a wider system of state policing that upholds the very economic inequalities that perpetuate clandestine migrations in the first place. Rather, his paper attended to the space between structure and affect with which the panel’s other papers also grappled. Lea identified this as Feldman’s explicit analytical problem: how do we reconcile accounts of structural inequality with phenomenology’s demand that we attend to intersubjectivity, to understand the enabling conditions for joint political action? Without this reconciliation, our accounts of inequality will be stocked with automatons with no possibility for a breach.

Framed in this way, operating in the breach becomes an important ethnographic site in which to view the stitching of impersonal organizational edict and structured inequalities being combated, worked with, subverted and maintained, all at once. As Feldman argued of his case study, the curious part is how “the people whom the state endows with the power of violence are also the ones conducting ethical actions in the space of appearance.”

Police partners collectivize interventions, which see them acting in their own terms and at their own risk. And, as other papers showed, the space of discretion is also the face of the state. Arguably, the state depends on such enactments and the distribution of liability that goes with them. If things go pear shaped, it is on the police officers’ heads: they are acting with limited authority to maximize their authority after all. Yet case closures and the pursuit of intelligence requires that these corners be cut, that the norms be subverted. It raises the question: if working in the breach is constitutive, is it then a tacit norm? And, is the spectacular “nab” the sublime moment that justifies the dull routines of watching, waiting, and tracking down mundane details? They make up the in-between of undercover cops’ long hours, similar to the work of bureaucrats preparing for the spectacle of the UN meetings.

Finally, Valerie Lambert’s contribution took attendees inside an institution headquartered not far from the site of the AAA meetings: the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). More specifically, Lambert examined the workings of the BIA’s Branch of Acknowledgment and Research (now the Office of Federal Acknowledgment), in which anthropologists, historians, and genealogists evaluate petitions of groups applying for federal acknowledgment as Indian tribes. The BIA is unique among federal agencies in that 90% of its employees are Indians. In their work to apply the federal criteria by which Indian tribes are recognized as such, we encounter what Lea called an “inter-structural heartland” in which localness and sovereignty are re-read through the prism of refusal.

Together, the five ethnographically rich papers that comprised the panel offer suggestive analytical and methodological lessons for deepening anthropology’s engagement with the constitutive social, cognitive, ethical, and affective fabrics of state-ness. As one audience member pointed out, these lessons may in fact extend to analyses of other types of corporate entities as well. One clear example is the private corporation, which over a century ago F.W. Maitland paired with the state as two species of a shared genus (cited in Bashkow 2014:301). Recent analyses of the legal, regulatory, and political effects of transferences of beliefs, characteristics, actions, and commitments between both types of corporate “persons” and their corporeal constituents indeed seems fruitful grounds for comparative analysis (e.g., Benson and Kirsch 2014; Bose 2010; Clark 2014; Tucker 2014). What broader lessons might we learn by juxtaposing the metaphors, imagery, and practices through which each is personified and personally enacted? We hope that future research will advance these and other lines of inquiry explored by the panel “Being Like a State,” and that this contribution to Emergent Conversations will be just that.


Bashkow, Ira. 2014. Afterword: What Kind of a Person is the Corporation? PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 37(2):296-307.

Benson, Peter, and Stuart Kirsch, eds. 2014. Symposium on “Imagining Corporate Personhood.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 37(2).

Bose, Purnima. 2010.  General Electric, Corporate Personhood, and the Emergence of the Professional Manager. In Cultural Critique and the Global Corporation. Purnima Bose and Laura E. Lyons, eds. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Clark, Joshua. 2014. Smoking Discouraged: Some Observations on Sociality and Measured Authority at the United Nations. Allegra Lab: Anthropology, Law, Art & World (online). Posted November 26.

Halme-Tuomisaari, Miia. 2013. Contested Representations: Exploring China’s State Report. Journal of Legal Anthropology 1(3):333-359.

Jackall, Robert. 1988. Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lea, Tess. 2008. Bureaucrats and Bleeding Hearts: Indigenous Health in Northern Australia. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press.

Lipsky, Michael. 1980. Street-Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Manning, Peter K., and John Van Maanen, eds. 1978. Policing: A View from the Street. Santa Monica, CA: Goodyear Publishing.

Simpson, Audra. 2014. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life across the Borders of Settler States. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Sloterdijk, Peter. 1983. Critique of Cynical Reason. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Taussig, Michael. 1999. Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Tucker, Anne. 2014. A Bad Investment: Recognizing Religious Rights of Corporations. Huffington Post (online). Posted March 20.

Van Maanen, John. 1972. ‘Pledging the Police’: A Study of Selected Aspects of Recruit Socialization in a Large, Urban Police Department. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation. University of California, Irvine.


[1] Six papers originally comprised the panel. Unfortunately, unforeseeable circumstances prevented one scheduled panelist, Niels Nagelhus Schia, from traveling to the AAA meetings.

Recommended Citation

Clark, Joshua, Miia Halme-Tuomisaari, and Tess Lea. Being Like a State. Emergent Conversation. PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review Online, 10 May 2015

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