The Awakening of a Bureaucratic Rube: Cultivating Strategic Compliance

By Erica Weiss

Virtual Edition 2022 Bureaucracy and Tactics


In my article “Best Practices for Besting the Bureaucracy: Avoiding Military Service in Israel,” I considered the practice of evading the mandatory military draft in Israel (Weiss 2016).  Not formal conscientious objection, but the undercover kind, wherein people try to wiggle their way out of military service without attracting too much attention to themselves.  The young folks that I worked with did not see this as shirking their duty, but as an ethical evasion of the control of the state and a refusal to participate in the violence of the Israeli military.  The article itself describes the way a kind of street-level expertise or knowledge has been created and shared regarding the most efficient and painless ways to be released from military service.  These “best practices” for military avoidance were collectively assembled by military recruits who have previously encountered the bureaucracy, and sought to assist younger recruits in their efforts to be released.  The article considered the ways clients return the gaze of the state through their own surveillance and knowledge production, and in doing so flip the script on bureaucratic control.

At the time that I was writing this article, I was personally facing my own struggle with a different Israeli bureaucracy, the Ministry of the Interior.  In 2013, I got a tenure track job at Tel Aviv University, and shortly after I began the arduous five-year process of trying to obtain Israeli citizenship based on my marriage to an Israeli citizen.  The process was grueling.  It started at the Ministry of the Interior in Tel Aviv.  The area for non-citizens was a stereotype of an imperious and punishing bureaucracy.  There was no air conditioning and few places to sit.  Foreign workers and non-Jewish immigrants waited, standing, for hours without knowing if someone would see them or when, reluctant to go out to the bathroom or to get water for fear of not being let back in or missing their turn.  The only way to get information regarding procedure was to interrupt one of the bureaucrats already dealing with clients, or to catch one on their way to the bathroom or to get coffee (both of these methods would get you a dressing down that you would remember for a long time).  The interactions were extremely hostile and suspicious. The bureaucrat I needed to see held few and odd hours, and often I would arrive to find a note on the door stating that she would not be in that day, without giving information regarding her return.  The bureaucrats had extremely broad discretion that they seemed to use in arbitrary and sometimes punitive ways.

As if being a new professor, worrying about getting tenure, teaching new classes in a language I wasn’t fluent in, and trying to make friends with new colleagues, wasn’t stressful enough.  At work one day, I was commiserating with a new friend of mine about my experience.  She was just my age, also an anthropologist, also interested in political anthropology, also an immigrant in Israel.  But, while I had arrived from the United States, my friend came from the former Soviet Union, an area that is today Belarus.  She listened to my story and shook her head.  “No. . . Listen to me, you should not be going there by yourself.  I’m sorry, but they see you and they have no reason to help you.  You need to go with someone more. . . important, I’m sorry.  What about Micky’s father? [my partner’s father, a man of significant presence and little patience for anyone outside the family.]  You should not go there by yourself.”  [1]

My friend quickly became by bureaucracy mentor.  She began to coach me in my interactions with the bureaucracy.  After a visit to the Ministry together with my partner, I recalled the interaction, this time in the city of Petah Tikva.  During the meeting, the bureaucrat interviewed us together and separately in order to determine if the marriage is “real” or “fictitious.”  We were required to bring extensive documentary evidence of our relationship, including pictures with my partner’s family and on vacation.  The questions designed to determine the authenticity of a relationship were, as will be no surprise to the anthropological reader, culturally specific and highly normative with regard to how a real, romantic marriage is actually practiced and demonstrated.  The early interviews often did not go well.  They would ask us separately what was the last present my partner (a cis man) bought me (a cis woman).  My partner and I do not exchange presents regularly, and neither of us could remember a single gift.  “We’re just not the type of people that exchange gifts with each other,” I pleaded.  The bureaucrat was incredulous.  Flowers then?  I didn’t get any flowers.  Why did we not have children yet, we had been married for five years?  Well, the timing is just not right, I explained.  I just started a new job, and also not all couples have children, and we are still discussing things, I told her.  It was all very suspicious to her, and we spent a long time trying to convince her to extend my visa.

“I really don’t understand!  Why didn’t you just tell her you are trying to have children?!”  Now it was my friends turn to be incredulous.  “Did you think you were going to educate her about feminism?  What were you thinking?  Why is this so difficult for you? . . .  And they will ask you about the presents next time as well, I’m sure.  Just go before the appointment and get a cheap bracelet from the mall, and wear it to the interview.  You don’t need to leave your heart on the table.”

My friend could not wrap her mind around my (Idiotic! Inexplicable!) insistence on revealing my private life and the details of my intimate relationship to this state bureaucrat who I had never met.  Honestly, it didn’t occur to me that there was another option.  I began to understand from our conversations that my sincerity and transparency while dealing with these bureaucrats was a major obstacle to my own goals.  Similarly, these conversations caused me to ask myself why I felt compelled to go head to head with the Israeli state.  It was quite easy to understand the type of relationship they were prepared to recognize, why did I insist that they would see and acknowledge the “real” me?  Was I really looking for meaningful acceptance from the state of Israel? Or from any state for that matter?

In the 2016 PoLAR article, I wrote about techniques to evade bureaucratic control, but what I was learning from my friend was somewhat different (Weiss 2016).  It wasn’t what to do or say, but a subjectivity, an attitude or stance towards bureaucracy.  I was learning to be compliant in order to be uncompliant.  I was learning to detach my self-understanding from my bureaucratic identity.  Tomas Matza (2009) wrote about how radio shows in post-Soviet Russia educate listeners in neo-liberal subjectivities and values like individualism and entrepreneurism.  I was going through some kind of reversed process like that, cultivating a compliant, passive, and generic self-presentation to advance my self-interest under conditions of state surveillance.

So. . .

I got flowers on my birthday last month.  We’re trying to have kids.  Ma’am, I’m definitely not going to tell you that the US government cannot actually confirm that I have never been married before because the US has a far more decentralized system of governance which can be traced back to the colonial origins and the unsettled tension between states’ rights and federal control.  Instead, I’m going to say, yes, here is the affidavit witnessed by the US embassy.  So many stamps and signatures on it!  Wow, that seal is shiny and official looking.[2]

I found this re-educational experience very surprising.  Extinguishing reverence for the government was not a lesson I thought I had needed.  In my American upbringing, there was no love lost on the government.  I was warned about rampant overreach.  I was taught by my parents never to talk to the police.  Once, the police came to school and wanted to finger print kids “for their own safety” in case they get lost or kidnapped.  Maybe when hell freezes over, said my parents and the parents of all my friends.  But, I realized that all of this suspicion was focused around one single technique of resisting, which was keeping the state at arms-length and refusing cooperation.  I had no other coping mechanism apart from saying “You can’t ask me that!”  But the American libertarian approach, being based completely on avoidance, had, I realized, given the state disproportionate power in my mind.  Just as the sacred must be kept at a distance, in this case it was the distance itself that created unintentional veneration.  When the American libertarian script failed, and I was forced into close proximity with the thing I had so feared and vilified, it did not occur to me to abandon the norm of Protestant sincerity, revealing everything, holding nothing back (Keane 2002).

But my friend, first in the Soviet Union, and later in Israel, had experiences with bureaucracy and government surveillance and scrutiny that cannot be held at arms-length.  Her up-close view of bureaucracy had taught her different lessons.  For one, she saw what Philip Abrams (2006 [1977]) also understood, that the state, as such, does not exist, but is a system of bureaucracies often functioning at cross-purposes and without a unified coherence of intent.  She learned to see the state bureaucracy as something you can avoid from close proximity, so long as you maintain a certain congenial opacity and apathetic compliance.  Eugene Raikhel (2009) contrasts the subjectivities of patients of a state-run alcohol treatment hospital in Russia with those in a private hospital modeled on the American twelve-step process.  Those in the American rehab program spoke freely and at length about their struggles with alcohol and emotional difficulties.  But, it was quite different in the state-run facility: “Many of the hospital’s patients had spent significant portions of their lives in prison and assumed towards me a posture that was at once formally deferential and firmly unforthcoming” (212).  Indeed, this contrast could be applied to my own shift in posture.

My lessons in becoming “formally deferential and firmly unforthcoming” in practicing polite illegibility, the subjectivity of life in the panopticon, were not met with the antagonism that I had expected.  (Surely, the state would fight being denied access to my true self!)  If anything, it was welcomed.  It dawned on me that my ideological commitment to the spirit of Israel’s discriminatory immigration law (resisting is a kind of commitment) was far greater than that of the bureaucrat I dealt with.  Once I began change my approach, from a rebellious teen seeking parental acceptance to my best imitation of a seasoned Soviet subject, I found that my bureaucrat was quite pleased with my evolution.  Getting the required forms and answers made her job quick, easy, and conflict-free, leaving her time for a coffee break between appointments without the headache of debating the nuances of state policy.

My lesson was, I believe, more profound than the obvious pragmatic implications of strategic compliance.  There were also ethical parameters, such as where one should invest ethical efforts and seek acceptance.  My original subjectivity, in addition to making my life difficult, was unintentionally positioning the state as a default moral authority, when it had never earned such a place.  Strategic compliance allowed for opacity at close range, and also, more significantly, for moral differentiation from the state and my bureaucratic identity.

Erica Weiss is an assistant professor at Tel Aviv University.  She researches liberalism and its discontents as well as religious approaches to peace and coexistence.


[1]  I am reconstructing this conversation from memory.  It made a big impression on me at the time, and I remember well the order in which she said things, but I am not sure about her exact wording.

[2]  Marnie Thompson (2012) notes the special power of stamps, signatures and official forms, as the visible attachment to power, to get bureaucracy working, aside from the content of the document.

Works Cited

Abrams, Philip. 2006 [1977]. “Notes on the Difficulty of Studying the State.” In Anthropology of the State, edited by Aradhana Sharma and Akhil Gupta, 112-130. Oxford:  Blackwell.

Keane, Webb. 2002. “Sincerity,” Modernity,” and the Protestants.” Cultural Anthropology 17(1):  65-92.

Matza, Tomas. 2009. “Moscow’s Echo: Technologies of the Self, Publics, and Politics on the Russian Talk show.” Cultural Anthropology 24(3): 489-522.

Raikhel, Eugene. 2009.  “Institutional Encounters: Identification and Anonymity in Russian Addiction Treatment (and Ethnography).” In Being There: The Fieldwork Encounter and the Making of Truth, edited by John Borneman and Abdellah Hammoudi, 201-236. Berkeley:  University of California Press.

Robbins, Joel. 2017. “Keeping God’s Distance: Sacrifice, Possession, and the Problem of Religious Mediation.” American Ethnologist 44(3):  464-475.

Thomson, Marnie Jane. 2012. “Black Boxes of Bureaucracy: Transparency and Opacity in the Resettlement Process of Congolese Refugees.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 35(2): 186-205.

Weiss, Erica. 2016. “Best Practices for Besting the Bureaucracy: Avoiding Military Service in Israel.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 39(S1): 19-33.

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