Plenary session II – Bureaucratic Closings – Bureaucratic Openings

Organised by:
Thomas Kirsch (Universität Konstanz)

Miia Halme-Tuomisaari (Helsinki Collegium For Advanced Studies, Finnland)
Matthew Hull (University of Michigan, USA)
Colin Hoag (Smith College, USA)

Montag, 30.09., 09.00-10.30 Uhr

It is only in the recent past that anthropologists have begun to acknowledge through increasing research activities that examining bureaucracy is pivotal to gaining a thorough understanding of the contemporary world, and this not just with a view to what has been called ‘centers of calculation’ but also with regard to the effects of bureaucratic regimes on marginalized populations. By studying bureaucratic practices ethnographically, this emerging research tradition has overcome the previously dominating disparaging attitude of many anthropologists towards bureaucracy (cf. David Beetham’s dictum that bureaucracy is something “we all love to hate”), in doing so opening up new avenues of innovative research.

As it stands now, there is widespread consensus among academics of different theoretical orientation that bureaucracy plays an important role in establishing and maintaining power, and that there is also a sense in which bureaucracy – the Herrschaft of the bureau –itself constitutes a distinct mode of exerting power, for example by subsuming the lived realities of those who are administered under its own logic. What is much less clear, however, is the question of the relationship between bureaucracy and processes of social negotiation. On the one hand, one finds the argument that that certain features of bureaucracy, such as its materiality, its emphasis on inscription, normalizing categorization and formal procedurality, have restrictive effects on what can be socially negotiated, even to the point of entirely inhibiting negotiability. On the other hand, recent ethnographic research has examined the ways in which bureaucratic practices interweave formal and informal registers of interaction, thus opening up space for creative processes of sense-making, socially negotiated constructions of reality and discretionary decisions by street-level bureaucrats.

This plenary session explores and compares these two perspectives in order to come to an empirical and conceptual assessment of bureaucratic (non)-negotiability. It does so by drawing on ethnographic case studies from different regions of the world and applying different theoretical approaches in their analysis.