New Directions for the Ethnographic Study of Bureaucracies: Tactics, Affects, and Ethics


Virtual Edition 2022 Bureaucracy and Tactics

By Monika Lemke

This online feature takes inspiration from the common experience of dealing with bureaucracy: whether experiencing bureaucracy as a part of an organization or as its client, it never seems to actually function the way it should.

Wondering at bureaucratic malfunction (e.g. Herzfeld 1992) has become a fairly familiar entry point into ethnographic explorations of the subject. As David Graeber (2012) notes, “Bureaucracies public and private appear—for whatever historical reasons—to be organized in such a way as to guarantee that a significant proportion of actors will not be able to perform their tasks as expected” (207). Actual bureaucracies often present as irrational, inefficient, and contrary, apparently at odds with the vessel for impersonal authority represented by the Weberian ideal type.

Several now-classic ethnographic studies of bureaucracy corroborate the complexities of bureaucracy’s failures, such as Matthew Hull’s work (2008, 2010, 2012), Andrew S. Mathews’ work (2005, 2011), and Akhil Gupta’s Red Tape (2012). Additionally, these studies show how engagements with bureaucracy constitute some of people’s most intimate and substantial encounters with states and state actors, which take place upon an expansive terrain of relations.  “Bureaucracies are among the most consciously materialized of social collectives — painstakingly fabricated in the layouts of offices, the writings of functionaries, the stampings of clerks, the movement of files—because they are designed to unify and control individuals conceived as either naturally independent and refractory or entangled in other collectivities” (Hull 2012, 129). Both in terms of the consequential presence of these organizations in people’s everyday lives and in the way that their complexity requires deep affinity with them, bureaucratic organizations tend to require particular kinds of expertise, social, emotional, and technical, to skillfully navigate them.

Following Colin Hoag’s (2011) observation that “Bureaucracies are always at some level opaque, inscrutable, and illogical to both ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ alike” (82), in curating this collection, I approach bureaucracy as a system whose abstruseness provides opportunities for people to exploit, subvert, and create within its structures. Bureaucracy’s edifice, which enables its authority to persevere through workaday crises, such as systemic backlogs of unfiled paperwork, manifold errors, vacant posts, ambiguous authority, and decaying infrastructure, can also be fecund territory for bureaucrats and clients alike to use their knowledge of the system to advance their own goals. As the pieces in this collection demonstrate, people find ways to intervene in various ways by maneuvering within the porousness of bureaucratic systems and exploiting the informalities within them.

Conceptualizing these interventions through Michel de Certeau’s sense of “tactics,” this feature highlights how people move creatively within bureaucratic culture, often as a rejoinder to its structural violence: its delays, barriers, irrational demands, oversights, dehumanizing abstractions, unspoken judgements, and lack of accountability. Through tactics, people “play on and engage with the terrain organized by the law of a foreign power” (de Certeau 1984, 37).

Although “tactical” agency falls short of being revolutionary, tactics arise to meet the everyday sense of necessity experienced by those who are subjugated by states and institutions. In contrast to the “strategy” of states and institutions, which organize this terrain, tactical agency is “the art of the weak” (38). Tactics are mobile, improvisational, and pragmatic, produced from the limited the possibilities of the moment, “combat at close quarters”, and an absence of power (38). They can take the form of quiet subversion or deception, such as an under-the-radar “hack,” but they may also be audacious as well, even assuming a guerilla-like quality.

Ethnography, anthropology’s signature mode of inquiry, is uniquely configured to appreciate tactics as an aspect of bureaucratic culture and interactions. As de Certeau muses, the people who mobilize tactical agency are the “[u]nrecognized producers, poets of their own affairs, trailblazers in the jungles of functionalist reality” (34). Following these actors enables researchers to trace “indeterminate trajectories” that are apparently meaningless, “since they do not cohere with the constructed, written, and prefabricated space through which they move” (34). Following this inquiry into bureaucratic culture reveals previously underappreciated “battles or games between the strong and the weak, and with the “actions” which remain possible for the latter” (34).

Ethnography’s capacity to be attuned to the human experience in bureaucracy moves beyond abstract engagements with bureaucracy’s power and enables researchers to explore how people build practices and knowledge around its logics, structures, and social milieux. As Colin Hoag (2011) writes in his review of the field for PoLAR, ethnographic research into the work of bureaucrats “includes a recognition of the situated, material dimensions of bureaucratic knowledge, an attention to the ways that time and indeterminacy texture bureaucratic encounters, and the use of alternative methodologies” (81). In this feature, I speak with Colin to on themes of his 2011 review as well as the durable ethical and conceptual issues around researching bureaucracies ethnographically in light of their structural violence.

The pieces in this collection build upon these themes and suggest that bureaucratic subjects are not exactly the docile and generic subjects abstractly posited by political theories of the modern state, although the way states’ alien logics and structures organize the  collective actions of its members. In my interview with Andrea Ballestero for this collection, we revisit her 2012 PoLAR article on its 10-year anniversary. We discuss how the core ethos of the article celebrates the palpable boldness of her collaborators, a water management NGO in Costa Rica. These NGO workers used the cracks in the system as they constructed and conducted their own organizational audit, acknowledging the process’ irrationality with laughter and innovative redefinition. Through their work, the audit was transformed into a space to stage a different representation of their work to themselves and the NGO funders’, a foundation for building a different picture of water management.

Likewise, in my interview with Kregg Hetherington, we discuss his recent book, The Government of Beans: Regulating Life in the Age of Monocrops (2020), which grounds understanding of bureaucracy’s craft from the positions of his activist-bureaucrat research subjects. In a gambit to nudge the world in a direction where the soy monoculture is not so devastating, these bureaucrats work within the anemic regulatory infrastructure around Paraguay’s soy monocrop and pursue opportunities to wield its authority in an “as if something were possible”-type fashion. These contributions showcase imaginative responses by research participants and researchers alike to bureaucracy’s so-called “iron cage.”

This collection offers other contributions on the creativity of people who leverage their bureaucratic subjectivity toward their goals within broader social arrangements. Erica Weiss’ autoethnographic piece, which pivots from her 2016 PoLAR article, recounts her sometimes comical experience of being coached by a friend into presenting an appropriate bureaucratic subjectivity as she sought Israeli citizenship. My interview with Julia Kowalski draws upon her 2018 PoLAR article about how workers at a domestic violence counselling NGO in Rajasthan, India creatively navigate multiple bureaucratic constraints. Their work, specifically regarding when and how to advise clients about appropriate avenues of bureaucratic action, engages the counsellors and staff in everyday contestations of gendered norms about domestic life. Michal Kravel-Tovi’s piece, which builds on her previous dramaturgical analyses of Jewish conversion rituals in Israel, highlights how conversion teachers balance allegiances to their students and to rabbinic judges, who expect conversion teachers to perform an ad hoc surveillance role in the process. These contributions illustrate how people seize upon cracks in institutional edifices to direct bureaucratic power in a particular direction.

A “tactical” view of bureaucracy implicates the intimacy of biopolitical regulation. Kalpana Jha’s piece, in which she shares her experience of the rapid transformation of India-Nepal border in the face of Covid-19 emergency, reflects how bordering citizens relate to and internalize the imperative to close the historically open border. Julia Leser’s piece on police officers in a German vice squad reflects how street-level bureaucrats comprise the state’s sensorial apparatus. As officers define a boundary against the world of vice they police, they collectively construct a sensory milieu which projects judgements about unacceptable forms of life. These pieces, and others in the collection, also signal new directions for ethnographic investigations into the phenomenological dimensions of bureaucratic encounters, the affective and the sensorial.

As a whole, this collection highlights the sense of perspicacity that bureaucratic culture requires. The contributions establish that bureaucracy, as humdrum and unremarkable as it may seem, constitutes a rich field of relations that test the creativity and imagination of its subjects. From my discussion with contributors, I came away with the sense that it is well worth exploring how people cope with, as David Graeber (2012) put it, the “lopsided structures of the imagination” (105) imposed upon the powerless by bureaucracy’s narrow forms of human relations. In total, what this collection on the topic of bureaucracy reveals how its anthropological study continues to generate unexpected, even invigorating, insights.

Monika Lemke is a doctoral candidate in Department of Socio-Legal Studies at York University, Canada. She is working towards the completion of her doctoral dissertation, entitled ‘The strip search, sight unseen: A sensori-legal study of the search of persons at the Toronto Police Service’, with the aim of assessing how Canadian constitutional and criminal law impacts the practicalities of police work. Her research interests focus on everyday legal performance, policing, embodiment and the senses, and the theorization of power, but also on emergent approaches to the study of law and bureaucracy.

Works Cited

Ballestero, Andrea. 2012. “Transparency Short-Circuited: Laughter and Numbers in Costa Rican Water Politics.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 35(2): 223–241.

De Certeau, Michel. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Graeber, David. 2012. “Dead Zones of the Imagination: On Violence, Bureaucracy, and Interpretive Labor. The 2006 Malinowski Memorial Lecture.” HAU Journal of Ethnographic Theory 2(2): 105–128.

Gupta, Akhil. 2012. Red Tape: Bureaucracy, Structural Violence, and Poverty in India. Durham: Duke University Press.

Herzfeld, Michael. 1992. The Social Production of Indifference: Exploring the Symbolic Roots of Western Bureaucracy. Milton: Taylor & Francis Group.

Hetherington, Kregg. 2020. The Government of Beans: Regulating Life in the Age of Monocrops. Durham: Duke University Press.

Hoag, Colin. 2011. “Assembling Partial Perspectives: Thoughts on the Anthropology of Bureaucracy.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 34(1): 81–94.

Hull, Matthew. 2008. “Ruled by Records: The Appropriation of Land and the Misappropriation of Lists in Islamabad.” American Ethnologist 35(4): 501–18.

—. 2010. “Documents and bureaucracy.” Annual Review of Anthropology 41: 251–67.

—. 2012. Government of Paper: The Materiality of Bureaucracy in Urban Pakistan. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kravel-Tovi, Michal. 2018. “Shouldering the Weight of the State: Religious Zionist Citizenship, National Responsibility, and Jewish Conversion in Israel.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 41(S1): 35-50.

Kowalski, Julia. 2018. “Bureaucratizing Sensitivity: Documents and Expertise in North Indian Antiviolence Counseling.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 41(1): 108–123.

Mathews, Andrew S. 2005. “Power/knowledge, Power/ignorance: Forest Fires and the State in Mexico.” Human Ecology 33(6): 795–820.

—. 2011. Instituting Nature: Authority, Expertise, and Power in Mexican Forests. Instituting Nature: Authority, Expertise, and Power in Mexican Forests. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Weiss, Erica. 2016. “Best Practices for Besting the Bureaucracy: Avoiding Military Service in Israel.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 39(1):19–33.

Further Reading

Bernstein, Anya, and Elizabeth Mertz. 2011. “Introduction: Bureaucracy: Ethnography of the State in Everyday Life.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 34(1): 6–10.

Cabot, Heath. 2012. “The Governance of Things: Documenting Limbo in the Greek Asylum Procedure.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 35(1): 11–29.

Gil Everaert, Isabel. 2021. “Inhabiting the Meanwhile: Rebuilding Home and Restoring Predictability in a Space of Waiting.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 47(19): 4327–4343.

Hahonou, Eric Komlavi. 2019. “Emotions as Method: Obtrusiveness and Participant Observation in Public Bureaucracies.” Critique of Anthropology 39(2): 188–204.

Lo, Christian. 2021. When Politics Meets Bureaucracy: Rules, Norms, Conformity and Cheating. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Mathur, Nayanika. 2015. Paper Tiger: Law, Bureaucracy and the Developmental State in Himalayan India. Cambridge University Press.

—. 2012. “Transparent-Making Documents and the Crisis of Implementation: A Rural Employment Law and Development Bureaucracy in India.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 35(2): 167–185.

Verheul, Susanne. 2020. “‘Rotten Row Is Rotten to the Core’: The Material and Sensory Politics of Harare’s Magistrates’ Courts after 2000.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 43(2): 262–279.

Westbrook, David A, and Mark Maguire. 2020. Getting through Security: Counterterrorism, Bureaucracy, and a Sense of the Modern. Routledge.

Wissink, L.M. 2021. “Making Populations for Deportation: Bureaucratic Knowledge Practices Inside a European Deportation Unit.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 44(2): 256–270.

Zacka, Bernardo. 2017. When the State Meets the Street: Public Service and Moral Agency. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Zelnick, Jennifer A. “2021. Suspicious Citizenship, Bureaucratic Coordination, and the Deportation of Cambodian American Refugees.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 44(2): 271–286.

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