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  • The Social Production of Indifference: Exploring the Symbolic Roots of Western Bureaucracy
Michael Herzfeld , The Social Production of Indifference: Exploring the Symbolic Roots of Western Bureaucracy. New York: Berg. 1991. Pp. 217. $29.95 cloth; Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1993. Pp. 224. $12.95 paperback.

This concise and provocative book sheds light on the symbolic practices of bureaucracy, a field that has been largely ignored by anthropological research and that constitutes an important aspect of everyday life in modern societies. Herzfeld's focus is on the social phenomenon of indifference, by which he means "the rejection of common humanity . . . [and] the denial of identity, of selfhood" (p. 1), thus implying that it is the "state" or the "state bureaucracy" that transforms persons into "humorless automatons" as soon as they are placed behind a desk. They lose their identity, they become non-humans, and they reject those who do not match their little boxes. This kind of indifference and the sharp boundaries it erects between "us—insiders" and "them—outsiders" is what interests Herzfeld.

His main purpose is twofold: (1) to present a case for the similarities between "bureaucratically regulated" societies and the "societies traditionally studied by anthropologists" by claiming that the former are no more "rational" or less "symbolic" than the latter (p. i), thus avoiding easy contrasts between the rational as opposed to the symbolic, (2) to examine the common grounds of state bureaucracy and nationalism. By analyzing these two seemingly different hypotheses and by treating them dialectically, refracting one through the lens of the other, The Social Production of Indifference richly demonstrates the power of sophisticated anthropological investigation to uncover the role of society in shaping contemporary social forces.

With respect to the first hypothesis, Herzfeld suggests that it is not possible to understand national bureaucracies unless they are analyzed within the same framework as local level values—i.e., of identity and responsibility. The essential enigma then arises:

How does it come about that repression at every level from that of the totalitarian state to the petty tyrant behind a desk can call upon the same idiom of representation, the same broad definition of the person, the same evocative symbols, as those enshrined in the most indisputably democratic practice?

(p. 2)

The answer Herzfeld gives to this question, and through which he enters into his second hypothesis, is that the roots of the rational modern bureaucracy are found in a premodern, non-centralized cosmology. The state bureaucracy rhetoric is full of popular, locally based metaphors of "blood," "kinship," "birth," "patriline," "motherland," and "fate" that are transformed into an objective [End Page 137] reality so as to give a cultural basis and authenticity to the nation-state and to justify its rigid taxonomies of pollution and exclusion. This transformation, Herzfeld argues, is nothing but an "alchemical conversion of popular dross into official gold" (p. 66); furthermore, it is critical to the construction of fixed, national identities as well as to the "unambiguous category of the 'foreigner.'" He asserts, in short, that indifference is socially created by state bureaucracy through the usage of popular symbolic representations. Thus he shows that the boundary between bureaucracy and nationalism is not very sharp.

Herzfeld's theoretical starting point is Weber, although he criticizes him for linking bureaucracy to the development of rational-legal society. Unlike Weber, he chooses not to focus on the macroscopic and the historical aspects of bureaucracy. Instead, Herzfeld adopts and expands Mary Douglas's fruitful work on pollution. Also, by using the work of Kapferer and Handelman he demonstrates how bureaucratic categorizations exclude—and thereby only serve to reinforce—nationalism and racism. In his attempt to explain the evils of bureaucracy, he adopts from Weber the concept of "secular theodicy." What Herzfeld means by this term is "the idiom of grumbling against the state" (p. 127), which people use in order to justify their humiliation by the bureaucrats. This idiom resembles the one used by bureaucrats in the production of social indifference. For, although bureaucracy was established to secure accountability, in reality it creates the opposite: indifference. Moreover, bureaucrats never admit their fault; there is always someone else to blame, someone else who is responsible, usually a person in a higher position. This vicious circle leads clients to believe in and to respond to bureaucracy as something unavoidable and fatal. They cease being interested in examining and understanding the terms in which bureaucracy is felt to be necessary. Rather, through the use of national stereotypes, they simply become accustomed to conformity and obedience, thereby encouraging a discourse of inclusion and exclusion. In this manner, Herzfeld counters Durkheim's separation of the sacred from the profane, preferring instead to treat state-bureaucracy as "directly analogous to the ritual system of a religion" (p. 10).

Herzfeld's ethnographic evidence is presented in studies from Southern Europe and the Mediterranean, although he claims to go beyond this by introducing a more general analytical perspective by unraveling "the West." More particularly, he draws material from Greece, a country exhibiting sharply contrasting stereotypes between "Europe" and "the Orient." This contrast leads Herzfeld to pose the question of the two opposed images that modern Greece exhibits: "a spectacular hospitality and intensely personal social interaction," on the one hand, and complaints about "the indifference and hostility of bureaucrats" on the other (40). The answer seems to lie in the construction of identities and the drawing of boundaries—in other words, in the ways of classifying the world, of relating to those classifications, and even in the ways of manipulating them. While these similarities between the character of Greek hospitality and the relations involved in the exchange between bureaucrats and clients may be striking at the symbolic and the rhetorical levels, a focus on social relations [End Page 138] would have revealed a more complex and historically labile portrait of the specific nature of identities and boundaries.

Herzfeld argues that the study of bureaucracy must attend to rhetoric and that "bureaucratic procedure typically objectifies society as a model made out of language" (p. 62). He focuses, therefore, on the symbolic roots of bureaucracy, challenging explanations of "bureaucratic indifference as the more or less automatic outcome of bureaucratic structures" (p. 159). However, he does not deal with the historical and cultural patterns of bureaucracy. As I have already mentioned, most of his ethnographic examples come from a specific area that reflects the conceptual boundaries separating the West and the East. As Herzfeld himself puts it: "the location," as well as "the experience of the tension between these two models of identity, makes it [Greece] an ideal place in which to study the meaning of rationality in civic life" (p. 132). On the one hand, there is the historically formed passive "fatalism" of the "Orient," on the other the action-oriented individualism of "the West." For modern Greek society, the term "Western" epitomizes the identity crisis that modern Greeks are experiencing. For, in order to become European one has in various ways to become bureaucratic "in as much as Europe is seen as the home of reason" (p. 67). This is reflected in the dichotomy between Hellene and Romios, which transcends the difference between "traditional" and "modern" and which Herzfeld has analyzed earlier in Anthropology through the Looking-Glass (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987). Yet, given Herzfeld's focus on the Greek case, it is not clear to what extent the roots of bureaucratic indifference and its evils lie in historically and culturally specific institutions.

In his chapter "Retrospective Fatalities," Herzfeld discusses Greek bureaucracy, drawing attention to the issues of fate, inheritance, and therefore predictability of personal or group character, as well as the symbolism of writing. These "Greek" characteristics, Herzfeld argues, are associated with the production both of inline graphic (fear of responsibility, p. 143) and of indifference. Having had lifelong, first-hand experience with Greek bureaucracy, I can only agree with Herzfeld's analysis. Many Greeks may attest to the anxiety evoked by the popular expression (which kept coming to my mind while reading this book), inline graphic (I will wrap you up in a sheet of paper), by which bureaucrats often threaten their unsuspecting clients. Nonetheless, within a political culture in which "legal evasions appear as one tool among others within the general allocative game" (Constantine Tsoucalas, "'Enlightened' Concepts in the 'Dark': Power and Freedom, Politics and Society," JMGS 9 [1991]:18), "tiny windows" inline graphic can often be cracked open to resist such bureaucratic rigidity and stereotypes.

Herzfeld's analysis crosses significant theoretical domains in the study of symbolic power and the "bureaucratic management of identity," which, as he shows in his present work, parallels in many respects the construction of personal, social, and national identities. His book is an intriguing, imaginative essay in cultural criticism and a theoretical contribution to the anthropological study of the social phenomenon of indifference. It will be very valuable to [End Page 139] anthropologists and other social scientists, specialists in modern Greek and European studies, and students interested in bureaucracy, social conflict, and social control, as well as critical anthropological theory. [End Page 140]

Dimitra Gefou-Madianou
Panteion University

Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3265
Print ISSN
0738-1727
Launched on MUSE
1997-05-01
Open Access
No
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