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Reviewed by:
  • The Social Production of Indifference: Exploring the Symbolic Roots of Western Bureaucracy
  • Dimitra Gefou-Madianou
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...


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