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  • Deepening the Anthropology of Bureaucracy
  • Josiah Heyman
Akhil Gupta, Red Tape: Bureaucracy, Structural Violence, and Poverty in India. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012. 384 pp.
Kregg Hetherington, Guerrilla Auditors: The Politics of Transparency in Neoliberal Paraguay. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011. 312 pp.
Matthew S. Hull, Government of Paper: The Materiality of Bureaucracy in Urban Pakistan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012. 320 pp.

The anthropology of bureaucracy is undergoing a deepening and maturing process with these excellent books. Clearly, the topic of bureaucracy has undergone extensive study in other fields, and we might wonder why anthropology even should have aspirations to add some distinctive contributions (as opposed to attending to bureaucracies when we do studies of other topics, which we have long done). There are three main ways that anthropology might contribute to this shared domain of scholarly and activist inquiry. We can examine bureaucracies in the deep history of unequal and centralized societies. We can examine bureaucracies in comparative perspective, with attention to similarities and differences across cultural, social, and political contexts. And we can offer rich fieldwork-based information on the workings of actual bureaucracies, the lives and thoughts of bureaucrats, and their public counterparts, material often missing from the more formal work done in other fields (there are, of course, exceptions). Within this third category fit the three books reviewed here. [End Page 1269]

What does the ethnographic inquiry add that more institutional or formal studies miss? The fundamental hope is that elements of the unrevealed, non-formal processes of bureaucratic activity can be linked to wider social questions in ways that genuinely add understandings that cannot otherwise be obtained, and in fact might be mystified by the official self-presentation of bureaucracies and other actors (e.g., Heyman 1995:263–265). For example, Hull’s book has rich accounts in linguistic and sociocultural terms of the writing of bureaucratic documents, their travels among organizational offices, and the various inscriptions (signatures, dates, instructions) put on them by officials; Hetherington has a related if less fully developed account. Hull in particular demonstrates how the fine details of travels and the inscription of documents are a core body of evidence needed to decode how social actors and contexts penetrate state bureaucracies, and yet also a societally constitutive process and body of material items shaping society. Enacting or avoiding action by accretion of markings then becomes a crucial moment that both is a productive social force in its own right and yet also an entry point for existing social influences. My early formulation mentioned above, useful as it was for setting an agenda, tended to place social power as outside and above bureaucratic activity, and called for the internal study of bureaucracy as a prism on what I assumed was a pre-existing set of power relations. These books advance two themes. One is how bureaucracy, with its peculiar social, cultural, and linguistic life is itself a constitutive site as well as an expression of social formation. The other is attending to two domains at once, ones that are not separate except in their naming: social power inside bureaucracies and social power outside of them. Some studies or parts of studies examine the former, and some the latter; but they are of course in constant interplay in what Norman Long (1992) has usefully called “interface” situations, pointing to the presence of meaningful action frameworks (agency) on both sides of the public-organization encounter.

Red Tape: Bureaucracy, Structural Violence, and Poverty in India in particular pivots on this interconnection between the internal processes of state bureaucracy and wide societal processes. Gupta asks why India, with a rapidly growing economy and a government plus NGOs that actively conduct poverty alleviation programs, continues to have vast, extremely poor, and socially marginalized populations. He frames this as a question in the production of structural violence, supported by a impressively clear and thoughtful review of the strengths and weaknesses of that term.1 There are, [End Page 1270] of course, many causes, but an important one is widespread patterns of failure in resource and service delivery, despite significant and apparently genuine commitments. These failures emerge out of fragmentation and arbitrariness in bureaucratic work, so...


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