Bureaucratic Intimacies: Translating Human Rights in Turkey. By Elif Babül. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2017.

Reviewed by, Thomas Bierschenk, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz

One indication of the quality of a scholarly study is surely the extent to which it passes the test of time. Babül’s study of how universal human rights discourses are translated into local contexts in European Union training courses for Turkish government officials passes this test with flying colors. Even five years after its publication, this book is well worth reading. Babül shows how human rights principles are negotiated in these trainings. She demonstrates how, on the one hand, this leads to human rights discourses being anchored in Turkish statehood as a technology of governance, while on the other, the political sting is taken out of them. This, in turn, does not prevent these principles from being politicized in other ways by the participants of the trainings and other Turkish state actors.

This short summary, however, hardly does justice to the author, for the individual chapters of this book each represent independent contributions on different, albeit overlapping, topics. What all chapters have in common is that arguments are constructed out of dense ethnographic material. Bucking a contemporary trend in anthropology and beyond – that of employing a decidedly loose use of the term ethnography and using selected ‘vignettes’ to merely illustrate points of view which have been previously pre-formulated in the literature – Babül’s study is a model of thick description in which she plays out the full potential of the ethnography of global processes. Without undue reverence for big names, her references to literature are subordinated to the primacy of the empirical, guided by a pronounced ethnographic sensibility, with a fine ear for what is said and unsaid as well as a keen eye for bodily practices. Babül’s empirical focus is on ordinary people – state actors and development actors – while maintaining the same analytical, methodological, and normative distance from all of them and taking them equally seriously and respecting their experiential knowledge. She does not evaluate actors from a theoretically derived central perspective. Rather, with great sensitivity to her own positionality, she interprets social action and actors’ talk in a classical anthropological manner, i.e. situating them in the social and historical contexts in which they take place. Her attention is particularly directed to the paradoxes and ambiguities of global processes and their articulation with the local, the dilemmas of the actors, and the unintended side effects of their entanglements. For all her in-depth knowledge of the literature, she employs remarkably little jargon in this elegantly written book.

The book is divided into five chapters, in addition to the very strong introduction and the (somewhat weak, see below) conclusions. The first two chapters deal with the Turkish state bureaucracy as a heterogeneous social field, its official and practical professional norms, its well-rehearsed bureaucratic ethos, and its transformation through the accession process – in a complex interface with international experts. The latter are themselves deeply steeped in cultural habits and professional dispositions which cannot simply be mapped onto a ‘European project’ conceived as, and presenting itself as, homogeneous. The result is complex power negotiations between different actors, not least between the Turkish state bureaucracy and civil society. These chapters constitute profound contributions on the contradictory processes of global social engineering, on the anthropology of the state as an object and instrument of transnational governance, and on the real-life practices of the state and the international actors involved in these processes.

Chapters 3 through 5 address the pedagogical setting of human rights trainings, with brilliant contributions on the sociology of adult education, translation (for instance, between the state language and the development language), and the interrelated enactment of statehood and performance of the global in these trainings. Again, each of these chapters represents a distinct and substantial contribution to the chosen topic.

This book presents the reader with an illuminating insider’s perspective on the reality of Turkey’s EU accession process in the 2000s and on the ambivalences and contradictions of Turkish statehood in the 21st century. Another mark of the quality of an ethnographic study, however, is whether it speaks to readers who are not primarily interested in the case under discussion. This book passes that test brilliantly; it is an empirically deeply grounded study of global social engineering with high recognition value also for a reader more at home in other regions of the world. It is remarkable how many of the issues Babül raises speak (often indirectly and in a different terminology) to other strands of discussion, for example discussions in the older field of anthropology of development and on new approaches in political science, especially those relating to Africa. For reasons of space, I cannot elaborate on these multiple thematic, conceptual, and methodological overlaps here; it is unfortunate, however, and the book’s only weakness, that Babül explicitly draws these connections only selectively, and only ever en passant. The dense ethnographic descriptions and interpretations elaborated directly from the empirical material are the strength of the book. However, in the final chapter the author could have been bolder and detached herself more from the case in hand. In this sense, she undersells her remarkable study, as it were, thereby risking not receiving the attention her analyses deserve beyond U.S.-dominated and Anglophone scholarly discourses. Babül’s study thus implicitly reminds us that the anthropology of the state and of global social engineering is still faced with the urgent, and as yet unsolved, task of bringing different research traditions and expertise on different regions into a fruitful dialogue.

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