Living Bureaucracies, Temporality, Complicity, Diversity: A Conversation with Colin Hoag

By Colin Hoag and Monika Lemke

Virtual Edition 2022 Bureaucracy and Tactics

Colin Hoag is known for his contributions to the ethnographic exploration of the everyday workings of the state, with articles appearing in PoLAR. In “The Magic of the Populace: An Ethnography of Illegibility in the South African Immigration Bureaucracy,” Hoag addresses the question of what state bureaucrats say about the alleged ‘illegibility’ of the state. His 2011 commentary piece in PoLAR, “Assembling Partial Perspectives: Thoughts on the Anthropology of Bureaucracy”, appears as part of the Issue’s Symposium on Bureaucracy: The Ethnography of the State in Everyday Life. In the piece, Hoag provides an assiduous survey of “the policy-practice problematic” sub-topic and stakes out a core ethical commitment embedded in the research: expecting better from the bureaucracies that people depend on.

On the heels of the publication of Hoag’s new book, The Fluvial Imagination: On Lesotho’s Water-Export Economy (2022), this conversation engages persistent themes Hoag has identified in ethnographic approaches to researching bureaucracy, and the unique ethical quandaries posed by engaging this context.

Monika Lemke:  Thanks for joining me on this call today. My survey of your work brought me to your Oxford Bibliographies (2019) entry on “Bureaucracy.” It immediately stood out to me that bureaucracy tends to be associated with delays in service delivery and overwrought procedural protocols. As you’d framed it, bureaucracy evokes criticisms of socialism, the state, and modernity. You also wrote that bureaucracy represents an ideal of state-enforced equality before the law that is in endless deferral. I want to ask you about how you came by both of those insights, the broad criticism of bureaucracy, and the idea that bureaucracy is tethered to equality.

Colin Hoag:  Thanks for the question, for reading my work, and for inviting me to talk with you here.

I think your question gets to the heart of why bureaucracy is interesting to anybody. In a way, bureaucracy is overdetermined in our world. It’s overdetermined—in the United States of America, at least—in that it has been positioned as the antithesis to liberal democracy, on account of the Cold War. Now, I am no fan of bureaucracy; I understand bureaucracy as constituting at some level an infringement upon the human possibility of freedom. By its nature, it is coercive, and regulatory, and standardizing in all the ways that are anathema to anybody’s sense of freedom, I understand that very well. And yet, I think we should be critical of everyday language about bureaucracy, because is really hemmed in by the Cold War discourse on capitalist liberal democracy as an antidote to, and at war with, a socialist, communist, or Soviet state. For a lot of Americans, probably Canadians, too, and many others, bureaucracy is emblematic of “that other side” of the Cold War. I think it [the political culture around bureaucracy] just kind of lingers, it’s hard to think outside of it.

But then the funny thing about bureaucracy is that it also purports to have this intense concern for the quality of the individual, which is to say that each individual is supposed to be appreciated and treated by the bureaucracy equally as any other individual. And then on top of that, the bureaucracy is specifically charged with assigning individuality in many cases to that person, right? By issuing identity documentation and ensuring that they are given all the things that they’re entitled to as a citizen of a country or as a resident of a country. So, there are two competing forces: one that constrains the individual and one that recognizes the individual as an equal among equals. This conflict plays out in discourse about bureaucracy, and even in its enactment. It complicates the way that we appreciate bureaucrats—or the way even that we approach bureaucracy within our own institutions, as academics or wherever. I feel like those competing visions of bureaucracy are always close at hand, and their contradictions threaten to derail any kind of collective enterprise to organize bureaucracies differently.

Monika Lemke:  Thank you. There’s something I would like to follow up on about when you spoke about the infringement of freedom: bureaucracy’s coercive quality. In the Oxford Bibliographies entry, you traced a rough genealogy of bureaucracy as a subject for anthropologists. Basically, only by the mid-1990s was it recognized as an aspect of governmental institutions and NGOs that affects subaltern people, not just like this Western-centric concept. With the shift, there grew a recognition of the diversity of bureaucratic institutions, and the richness of their everyday dimensions. I’m interested in your thoughts about how you’ve navigated this politics of humanizing the bureaucracy as an ethnographer.

Colin Hoag:  Yeah. So, there are a couple things there. First, I’ll say that one of the things that’s been really nice about the way that the anthropology of bureaucracy has bloomed in the past decade or so is how scholars have identified bureaucracy as operating outside of institutions. Previously, bureaucracy was understood as a descriptive term for governmental delays and paperwork, or alternatively as a practice that one found happening within institutions that were called “bureaucracies”:  places where people called “bureaucrats” worked. You could go follow a bureaucrat out of the office, but they were still a bureaucrat, tethered to the institution where bureaucracy actually happens. Nowadays it’s much more the case, thankfully, that bureaucracy is understood to live outside of the institution—it inhabits us and inhabits the world in all sorts of ways. All kinds of people “do bureaucratic things,” as Don Brenneis et al (1994) put it. That’s useful, I think, to envision bureaucracies not located within bureaucracies, but as a practice that happens all over the place, and that we, too, get charged with doing bureaucratic work to manage our own affairs in all sorts of ways. There’s a great piece by Damani Partridge (2008), for example, that describes how German women in Berlin in the post-1989 period effectively charged themselves with a role as “street bureaucrats” (riffing off of Lipsky’s (1967) “street-level bureaucrats”) in their relationships with black men who were not citizens and at risk of deportation. It’s a great example of bureaucracy living outside the halls of bureaucracy.

To get to your question, though, if you take bureaucracy as being a set of practices that are diffused throughout society, then everybody’s a bureaucrat at some moments, and so bureaucracy risks losing some of its moral charge. I’ll give one odd example from my own ethnographic field research at the South African Department of Home Affairs that comes to mind. I was mistaken as a bureaucrat by the clients of the bureaucracy on a few occasions, and it was really unsettling for me. I was doing ethnographic work at a residence permitting office, and people would ask me questions about their applications on the assumption that I was a permitting official. I had become pretty knowledgeable about the process, and I was happy to provide the information, but it was unsettling to be pulled out of my “researcher” position in this moment of misrecognition. This happened on another, more unsettling occasion while observing immigration enforcement officers. I’m still trying to make sense of it honestly.

It was almost like I was interpellated as a bureaucrat—sort of in the reverse way that Althusser describes, when a person being hailed on the street by the police officer is hailed as a subject of the state. He calls it a 180-degree physical transformation or something like that, where the person all of the sudden recognizes themselves as the subject to which this officer is referring. They become subject of the state in that way. I started to wonder what does it mean to be interpellated “as the state”? Ethnographic research leads us to understand bureaucrats as full persons, and anthropologists inhabit their position as we do with any other type of person, risking that we might slip into becoming a bureaucrat.

At some level, from an apolitical anthropological orientation, we might say, that’s just what anthropology is: we simply report on things that happen in the world, whatever they look like. But there are politics to inhabiting the position of a bureaucrat who is an agent of the state. Given that they are now framed and understood as whole persons, we inevitably become sympathetic to them. Some of those bureaucrats that I was spending time with—a few in particular—were friends of mine in a manner of speaking. We didn’t hang out outside of the bureaucracy, but I really appreciated them. They liked me, I liked them, we learned from each other. Yet, they were part of this big machine that limited the freedom of migrants in South Africa often capriciously, and which was an incubator for xenophobia within South African society. To the extent that anthropology and its methods of immersive ethnography personalize the subjects of our research, there’s a serious ethical question that I hope anthropologists of bureaucracy will be clear-eyed about. On the other hand, Julia Hornberger (2019) wrote an essay called “Complicity” in Writing the World of Policing, a volume edited by Didier Fassin, that is really smart. She doesn’t use the term “interpellated” as I have, but it’s related to her use of “complicity.” She describes how she was also mistaken for police during her ethnographic research with police officers in Johannesburg. For her, these ethnographic insights that one gains about the richness and texture of people’s lives within powerful institutions are precisely what are needed to counteract state power. In a sense, it’s an affirmation of Laura Nader’s (1972) “studying up”, and I’m sympathetic to Hornberger’s argument. I also recognize that from that experience of mine, it can be really difficult and it gives me pause.

Monika Lemke:  I want to learn more about what was difficult about that.

Colin Hoag:  Right, well, let me describe another scene in that research involving immigration enforcement officials at the Department of Home Affairs in Johannesburg. These officers had recently arrested for deportation a group of about 20 people that were migrants from Zimbabwe. This is in 2008-9, which was a time of serious, large-scale migrations of people from Zimbabwe into South Africa because the political situation there was bad and the economy had tanked. There was an aggressive effort to deport Zimbabweans without papers back to Zimbabwe, as well as moments of xenophobic violence toward them and others. A guy that I was spending a lot of time with, he led me over to this room where these people were sitting, and he needed to use the restroom. He asked me to stand by the door and keep an eye on the people in the room. I don’t know, what was the matter with me exactly, but I couldn’t protest quickly enough, and he already left. Then I just was kind of frozen there, not knowing what to do, and certainly not wanting to man the door, as though I were a police officer. I can recall looking over at this room of people who, at that moment, had hailed me as a police officer. They understood me to be a police officer, no matter the fact that I was not. By doing this ethnographic field research here, I was being asked to man the door by this guy who I had to spend a lot of time with, who I had been inevitably humanizing. I had merged with him at some level. I just left the door, walked away, but it shook me because maybe because I felt like I hadn’t been prepared for it—I hadn’t been asked to contemplate the possibility that I could be asked to man a door to a room of deportees, that wasn’t something I signed up for. I guess it forced me to confront that:  the fact that, during this research, I was not just tasked with envisioning these bureaucrats as people, which they are, but also that I was, in the course of it inhabiting the position of a police officer, both materially in terms of being asked to man the door of this room, but also conceptually.

In the course of doing ethnography, you’re just bound to find the personhood in people, and that’s one of the great redemptive qualities of anthropology. You really are asked to be open to people and to contemplate all the things that you don’t know about those people. You work as hard as you can to imagine the world from their position, and to reckon with them, to document what they think and feel and how they represent themselves. That is the great strength of ethnography, but it’s also very unsettling when working with powerful people. It raises questions about the political import of an anthropology of bureaucracy. The politics of the world we’re in are such that I worry it is not a time to be humanizing people whose work might contribute to the dehumanization of a whole other class of people. That’s what I’m trying to say.

Monika Lemke: As you’re narrating your story, it seems to me that the generic aspect of the bureaucrat was turned against you, because suddenly, boom, you’re interpellated as the bureaucrat. As the theory goes, this is a form of power that is effective because it prizes generic subjectivity. Once you know the role, once you know the policies and whatever else, anyone can do it. It seems like they needed someone to man the door, they needed someone to, you give a passive look to the inmates and maintain those very direct hierarchical relations of power for the moment that he’s in the bathroom. And you’re brought into the role to be that human but generic subject.

Colin Hoag:  Yes, that’s right. The ethnography of bureaucracy is really interesting in the way that it kind of works against something that Hannah Arendt (1963) recognized, which is this rule by nobody. I’m a big fan of that concept, but her account renders bureaucrats as kind of robotic, automatons, right—in the sense that we only learn about the deferral of their personality rather than of their personality? Those Nazi bureaucrats she described were taking bureaucracy at its word, which is, as Weber (1968) would like it: without anger or fondness. They were dispassionate bureaucrats who were just doing what bureaucracy ordered them to do, irrespective of how they felt about something. Arendt saw clearly how that was a tool for genocide, for massive state violence, the dehumanization of a populace via the dehumanization of the bureaucrat—he or she would do any manner of things, no matter how horrific. So, the anthropology of bureaucracies, at some level, really overturns the applecart by humanizing the bureaucrat. Suddenly, the bureaucrat is a whole person who has loves and desires and fears. We see them in their full personhood and yet, the political value of that is circumspect: where are our political allegiances as anthropologists? With bureaucrats or with the subjects of their bureaucratic work?

I’ll emphasize that I’m ambivalent about this, because bureaucrats are all sorts of people. There are the Nuremberg Trial bureaucrats, and there are police, of course. But many bureaucrats that anthropologists choose to study are the least powerful people within the bureaucracy, and sometimes they can be very much allied with the clients (or targets) of the bureaucracy. After all, as we discussed above, all sorts of people “do bureaucratic things” in the course of their daily lives, including anthropologists. So, I don’t want to argue that there should be nothing called the anthropology of bureaucracy. That’s not what I mean. But just that there are some kinds of bureaucratic work that pose serious challenges for an anthropology of bureaucracy with a clarity of moral purpose.

Monika Lemke:  I wanted to ask you about a general comment you’d made about the previous research on bureaucracy in your journal article “Dereliction at the South African Department of Home Affairs: Time for the anthropology of bureaucracy” (2014). You had noted that much of the previous research on bureaucracy focused on how informal bureaucratic norms and practices are critical to achieving formal goals. I want to ask you about how you saw that dynamic playing out in your field research.

Colin Hoag:  This article reflects the fact that, first of all, it was the first research project I’d ever done. And so I didn’t really know where to look for literature, or I wasn’t oriented in any way. Casting about, I found that actually, at that time, there still hadn’t been that much written on bureaucracy within anthropology. A lot of the literature came out of like public administration, and sociology—and particular kinds of sociology, too. It was old-school sociology, from a time when people were really interested in organizations and industry and this kind of thing. I think that the literature really guided my hand in that sense, first, because it was all I had. I hadn’t come in reading a bunch of other stuff that was in competition with that old, sociological material. But also, there just wasn’t a lot of anthropology or other, critical stuff out there for me to work with apart from some exceptions.

One of the big takeaways of that literature is that while there are these sometimes very elaborate sets of rules and regulations that guide behavior, a lot of the work that an office requires is actually the informal stuff. It just happens to be the case that they can’t write all the rules to guide every darn thing that ever happens within it. The informal stuff is what makes those formal rules possible. With that, all of the gaps in the formal rules become significant, because they’re filled in with informal stuff. Sometimes those gaps in the formal rules are strategic, I would imagine, anyways, not being in the room with the planners while they’re writing those rules. They’re strategic, because the authors know that they need actual people with minds and bodies and sensitivity for the different kinds of situations they find themselves in to make that rule possible. Maybe they don’t want to write down the informal rules, too. So that’s how I came to be interested in the formal-informal issue.

But then, to your question, the reason that I kept on with thinking about it is because anybody who goes and talks with people who are bureaucrats (or bureaucratically-minded) finds that this informal stuff is what constitutes the life of a bureaucracy. A bureaucracy is just a whole bunch of people doing really mundane, everyday things and finding ways to make do, whether “making do” is simply getting to the end of the day or to get to lunch, or if it’s to rise up within the organization and become the Chief of Staff. That’s just what the bureaucracy is all about. It’s a bunch of people. It’s a world, it’s a social world. If you’re an ethnographer, then those are just the things that you’re going to end up writing down, because that’s your task as an ethnographer—to render a world in the hopes of clarifying it somehow. And that’s what I found at this immigration bureaucracy that I was studying in Johannesburg. It was a rich, rich world, like every world, right? I mean, you walk into the CVS, and boom, you’re in a world. That was what I felt intensely. At that organization, I really wanted to just describe it well, really get down all those nitty gritty details that the concept of “informality” points to.

Monika Lemke:  That makes great sense to me. So, you took that survey of the literature and that contrast between formal rules and the informal rule in the everyday as something that may have been sociologically interesting, because that’s the dominant tenor in the literature on bureaucracy, but here you are emplaced saying, let’s see what’s going on first, before applying the rule schema on top of it.

Colin Hoag:  Yeah, I think that’s fair. You know, a lot of that old style organizational sociology and public administration literature is really interested in the question of how to get workers to do things. They had a lot of collaborations across industry, and sociology or public administration, which is still the case today, but especially back in the day. Those people, Chester Barnard (1947) and those like him, were interested in the applied question of how to get people in large, sprawling organizations to follow rules and be productive. One thing they learned is that if you try to enforce the rules too much, then the rules don’t work. The rules must be, at some level, not enforced. An overly enforced rule will destroy itself. It can’t exist, or nothing works. So that shifted my attention. It is funny to reflect on this, I’ll note, because now the bureaucracy literature is so much bigger and richer today. There’s a whole bunch of other stuff going on. But 10-15 years ago, there really wasn’t that much. The organizational sociology people tipped me in a direction, but then of course I proceeded as an ethnographer: trying to forget everything, and just ask what’s going on here? Who does what, when and what do they think about it? And how do they talk? And where’s the refrigerator? Who goes on lunch when? How’s the office organized and stuff like that.

Monika Lemke:  While we’re on the subject of your 2014 article in Critique of Anthropology, I really want to pick your brain about time. The way you put it in your article, it seems that time not only textures what is possible in bureaucratic encounters, but that the asymmetry of power between the client and the bureaucrat is exemplified in their relationship to time. As such, the bureaucratic office orients people towards a future, specifically one with a glimmer of hope, given that bureaucracy often attracts a paradoxical investment in the bureaucracy. In your work, you captured this by referring to clients’ vacillation between patience and impatience.

Colin Hoag:  So, that paper came out of thinking about how a lot of the people coming to these permitting offices and refugee reception offices were not actually being issued decisions on their applications. For the most part, when people were engaged with this bureaucracy it was through waiting. I saw very few people get their paperwork; everybody was basically waiting the whole time. If you look at the everyday life of the bureaucracy without a whole bunch of assumptions, what you see is people waiting all the time and very hopeful, and the bureaucrats for that matter to were oftentimes trying to convince people that things were in the works, continually rerouting their impatience into patience, continually shifting them toward thinking about the future when they would actually get these permits that they’re waiting for. I thought that was just really interesting, just to unearth on its own.

Then, I read this book by Hirokazu Miyazaki(2004), Method of Hope, where he’s interested in the similar thing, which is this prospective orientation of gift-giving. He showed that an important part of exchange is prospective rather than retrospective. People are always looking prospectively because the gift is always on its way. You give something to somebody, and then you’re waiting for a return, which is then going to be a spark another round of waiting. I felt like that was really useful for me to think about how those permits were working there at the Department of Home Affairs: people were constantly being rerouted into a position of waiting. There were formal mechanisms that I describe in the piece, such as something called a Form 20 permit, which extended a residence permit while the applicant’s paperwork was being processed. This was basically a case where the state recognized that things had really gone wrong, and they needed to fix this person’s situation while they waited for this permit. By issuing the Form 20 permit, the applicant would be reoriented toward the future, extending this waiting period longer and longer.

That piece was just my effort to capture the everyday life of the place, which is that it’s all about time. It’s all about hope, in spite of the trope about delays in everyday discourse. The few things that had been written about time and bureaucracy were all about owning time—that the state-controlled people by controlling time. I get that aspect, but in this case, it seemed more accurate to say that the state was reorienting people toward the future, rather than controlling time. It wasn’t a well-oiled machine strategically capturing people’s time. Instead, it continually pushed people to look forward to that moment in the future when they would be served with their permit. I guess that I liked that approach a bit more because it devolves that question of agency from the institution, which was clearly not well-oiled, but also because it captures the everyday life, the real energy of the place that you find when you walk into the building, and when you walk behind the counter. When you talk to people, it’s more of a hopeful place than you would think.

Monika Lemke:  Yeah, I was so interested about that. I think it was because I felt resistant when I was reading it that. I wondered, “Is this really hopeful?” You’re sitting there, you’re watching time pass. I am curious to hear from you because if I was in your position, I would look at this scene and be cynical and demoralized because stuff wasn’t happening.

Colin Hoag:  Right? I was definitely cynical. And that is accurate. I mean, it’s pretty dark, right? I don’t mean “hopeful” in an optimistic kind of way. I suppose it’s hopeful in the sense of Lauren Berlant’s “cruel optimism.” But as a matter of qualitative description, people inhabiting the place are, by and large, organized by hope. Even again, if they’re not optimistic about, because they really, really need this permit: if they don’t get it, they might have to leave the country, or they might be deported, or they might lose their job. It’s high-stakes stuff. The prevailing condition of the place is hope, however. I think that perspective opens up some possibilities for questions of agency, the agency of the institution, or the malevolence of the institution. It shows how power can operate through hope as opposed to operating through authoritarian dictates from above.

Monika Lemke:  That is so interesting. Thank you. More generally, thanks for the entire conversation today. It was a pleasure speaking with you about your research and your reflections about the trajectory of anthropological research on bureaucracies.

Colin Hoag is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Smith College with research interests that include bureaucracy, capitalism, the Compositae, migration, rangeland ecology, Sylvia Plath, and water. His first book, The Fluvial Imagination: On Lesotho’s Water-Export Economy, is forthcoming with University of California Press.

Further Readings

Arendt, Hannah. 1963. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. London: Faber and Faber.

Barnard, Chester I. 1947. The Functions of the Executive. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Brenneis, Don, Cris Shore, and Susan Wright. 2005. “Getting the Measure of Academia: Universities and the Politics of Accountability.” Anthropology in Action 12(1): 1–10.

Hoag, Colin “Bureaucracy”. In Oxford Bibliographies Online. URL:

—. 2014. “Dereliction at the South African Department of Home Affairs: Time for the Anthropology of Bureaucracy.” Critique of Anthropology 34(4 : 410–428.

Hornberger, Julia. 2019. “Complicity: Becoming the Police (South Africa).” In Writing the World of Policing: the Difference Ethnography Makes, edited by Didier Fassin, pp. 42–61. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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

Miyazaki, Hirokazu. 2004. The Method of Hope: Anthropology, Philosophy, and Fijian Knowledge. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Nader, Laura. 1974.  “Up the Anthropologist: Perspectives Gained from Studying Up.” In Reinventing Anthropology, edited by Dell H. Hymes, pp. 284-311. New York: Vintage Books.

Partridge, Damani J. 2008. “We Were Dancing in the Club, not on the Berlin Wall: Black Bodies, Street Bureaucrats, and Exclusionary Incorporation into the New Europe.” Cultural Anthropology 23(4): 660–687.

Weber, Max. 1968. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. London: Unwin University Books.

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