Accountability, bureaucracy, and “due diligence” as necessary ethnographic projects


I’m grateful for Strong’s post calling attention to David Graeber’s recent Malinowski Lecture on bureaucracy and power. These issues have been much on my mind in recent months.

Some personal background: One of the challenges (and very occasionally, pleasures) of working at a small college is that faculty members are often given administrative tasks that transcend the usual chairing of departments and programs. Where I teach, most of the top administrative officers are working academics, a situation that sets a tone for the rest of the faculty. Since 1998, I have been involved in a large building project that by 2012 will have encompassed the construction of three major buildings–two faculty office buildings and a new college library–and the remaking of a core part of the campus. I share chairing duties with the College Librarian, but in reality my co-chair and I have little latitude to make key decisions. Most of the time, we herd cats and serve as institutional memory for a multi-million dollar project that, when completed, will have taken nearly 15 years from initial conceptualization to the ritual cutting of the last ribbon.

For an anthropologist, architecture and site-planning are a real-world test of social analysis–it is, as they say, where the rubber meets the road. Architecture on college and university campuses is inevitably a form of social engineering, with all the possibilities (and delusions) that this entails. But even the most laudable goals–e.g, “creating a lively environment that facilitates teaching and learning”–must be weighed against such factors as cost, aesthetics, building codes, and unknown but presumably radical changes in IT in the coming decades. Fortunately, we’ve been working with a team of gifted architects with considerable experience in how buildings and people interact.

So where’s the anthropology in this? To design and construct buildings today is to wrestle with all the contradictions of modernity–in particular, what is often called the “irrationality of rationality” as manifested in risk-management, “accountability,” “due diligence,” and bureaucratic proceduralism.

Here I refer not to the college bureaucracy, which is minimal, but to the various and vast regulatory regimes that one deals with to build anything in America today.

In his Malinowski Lecture, Graeber leaps from a consideration of bureaucratic obtuseness, where his observations are right on target, to power and “structural violence.” Without questioning the importance of structural violence, I would insist that it is peripheral to a discussion of bureaucracy as such. Structural violence doesn’t need bureaucracy (although it often uses bureaucracy) and bureaucracy isn’t invariably in the service of structural violence. Where bureaucracy is concerned, in fact, invoking power doesn’t explain anything because power is what needs to be explained. (Was it Marshall Sahlins who quipped, “Power is the new functionalism”?)

Consider an example that arises directly from Graeber’s talk. He mentions that access to many college libraries is limited to patrons with proper IDs. Failure to abide by the ID-only rule may evoke violence in the form of physical expulsion by campus security personnel. One might conclude that this exclusionary policy exists to separate the faculty, staff, and students of elite institutions from contact with social undesirables, however defined. There is doubtless some truth in this. But from the institution’s perspective, failure to provide adequate security makes the institution vulnerable to post hoc claims that it “failed to demonstrate due diligence” should something unfortunate–rape or homicide, say–occur on its premises. The institution may therefore feel compelled to err on the side of caution in matters of library security even if the objective risks are small.

Far more common (if less obvious to ordinary building patrons) are expensive efforts to meet or exceed other kinds of safety codes. The driving force behind these may be less the absolute risk of injury in the event of a fire, say, than it is the extraordinary financial disaster that could befall the institution if a tragic accident could plausibly be attributed to a failure of due diligence.

This sounds like an observation about American’s tort crisis, but I see the tort issue as a symptom rather than a cause. Deeper historical factors include the collapse of broadly held theodicies that can account for misfortune, the rise of an instrumental rationalism focused on control and the calculation of what Giddens calls “risk profiles,” and, closely related to the latter, the growing pervasiveness of rhetorics of accountability. (BTW, for a lively history of the notion of risk, I recommend Peter L. Bernstein’s Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk.)

So who’s wielding power here? Is it the state lording it over the private sector? Is it the general public forcing institutions and businesses to honor the greater good? Is it (barely) middle-class code enforcers busting the chops of the wealthy? Clearly, simplistic notions of power don’t do justice to the complexity of the phenomenon.

The only anthropological work with which I’m familiar that gets close to this ubiquitous element of modernity is the literature on “audit culture,” mostly coming out of the UK and focused on increasing “accountability” in higher education, a movement that is growing in the US as well. (See this and this from Inside Higher Education.) Audit culture is linked to Thatcherite politics, but it is easy to find similar demands for accountability coming out of the progressive end of the political spectrum.

So I find myself in agreement with David Graeber that this is an under-analyzed set of issues in anthropology. To do justice to it, however, we must dial back our current and, to my mind, deeply problematic commitment to power as an explanatory concept, in favor of a more open-ended consideration of how bureaucracy works to create, mobilize, redirect, and confound power through logics and rhetorics of accountability, risk management, and the like.

I welcome suggestions from readers about recent work that grapples with facets of this broad issue in case I’m missing critical pieces of the puzzle, which is entirely possible.

Next time: Some thoughts on how risk-management, code compliance, and accountability play out in planning and architecture.

7 thoughts on “Accountability, bureaucracy, and “due diligence” as necessary ethnographic projects

  1. Structural violence doesn’t need bureaucracy (although it often uses bureaucracy) and bureaucracy isn’t invariably in the service of structural violence.

    I don’t hear Graeber as arguing either of those positions. He says that violence “invariably tend[s] to create the kinds of willful blindness we normally associate with bureaucratic procedures. To put it crudely: it is not so much that bureaucratic procedures are inherently stupid, or even that they tend to produce behavior that they themselves define as stupid, but rather, that are invariably ways of managing social situations that are already stupid because they are founded on structural violence.”

    So it may often be that bureaucracy is trying to clean up, mitigate, or work around problems created by the situation of structural violence, rather than being directly in its service.

  2. It’s true that Graeber doesn’t make an explicit, universal link between bureaucracy and structural violence. But his juxtaposition of a trenchant discussion of bureaucracy and a consideration of policing (among other things) implies that there is a connection. It’s a case of guilt by association.

    Graeber might have made a couple of important points, though. For instance, the purpose of all the paperwork associated with Medicaid certification is to establish that people who avail themselves of certain kinds of state assistance have no personal resources on which to draw. Admittedly, in a just society, everyone would have reasonable access to basic medical and end-of-life care regardless of their economic situation. I certainly won’t defend the US status quo, which is inconsistent with civilization as I understand it. But _given_ the US status quo, the certification process is intended to enforce a reasonable standard. Likewise the tussle over power of attorney, which is ostensibly organized to insure that elderly or disabled people aren’t exploited by others. None of that justifies the terrible way Graeber was treated during a period of personal and family vulnerability. But what’s the alternative? Should banks and other agencies deal casually with a legal process that essentially alienates from someone key aspects of human agency? Of course not. In a world of strangers, as they say, standards of accountability must be met.

    So his story, with which I identify completely, is a tragic one that must be understood with reference to a sui generis logic unique to bureaucratic order. And that logic is scarcely on the map of anthropology.

  3. It’s true that Graeber doesn’t make an explicit, universal link between bureaucracy and structural violence.

    Oh, I think he does. It’s just that the link is in the opposite causal direction from that implied by “[s]tructural violence doesn’t need bureaucracy” — I think Graeber would say rather that bureaucracy needs structural violence — and isn’t negated by the observation that “bureaucracy isn’t invariably in the service of structural violence.” (So few things are invariably anything.)

    But given the US status quo, the certification process is intended to enforce a reasonable standard.

    The US status quo isn’t something an anarchist is likely to take as given!

    The word “enforce” is an interesting one here. This summer I was in a panic because the Republicans decided that all Medicaid patients must produce documentation of citizenship, and my ex-lover and dearest friend, who has been in a nursing home for five years, had no documents. (She has multiple sclerosis, and has lost the use of all her limbs except her left arm and left thumb.)

    So I was facing the distinct possibility that at some point after I exhausted my savings, sheriff’s marshals would cart Marsha out of the nursing home and dump her in the street to die. It wouldn’t happen because the nurses wanted her to die (but if they objected, they’d be fired and/or removed by force), it wouldn’t happen because the nursing home’s bookkeepers wanted her to die (but if they didn’t send a bill, they’d be fired), it wouldn’t happen because the marshals wanted her to die (but …).

    Now as it happens, not even Republicans really want to dump old ladies out into the street to die. The Virginia state bureaucracy was busy promulgating rules that would blunt the effect of the federal rules by ignoring some of the more draconian provisions when the federal bureaucracy decided that the law didn’t actually mean what it said, and that anyone already on Medicare didn’t need to produce documentation.

    So no dead old folks. The stupidity — the enforcement — is now mostly limited to children.

    Clearly the folks who passed that law felt no need to do Graeber’s “constant
    and often subtle work of interpretation, of endlessly imagining others’ points of view.” There may be reasons for that stupidity other than structural violence; but the structural violence is certainly there.

  4. Two observations: first, “a more open-ended consideration of how bureaucracy works to create, mobilize, redirect, and confound power through logics and rhetorics of accountability, risk management, and the like” sounds like it might
    end up creating, mobilizing, redirecting, and confounding explanation rather than, you know, coming up with a good explanation of anything.

    Second, could the statement that,
    “None of that justifies the terrible way Graeber was treated during a period of personal and family vulnerability”–that is, legitimate system, bad people–be an example of the utopian practice that Graeber is himself criticizing? (“what I have come to think of as the defining feature of a utopian form of practice, in that, on discovering this, those maintaining the system conclude that the problem is not with the system itself but with the inadequacy of the human beings involved”)?

  5. An aside:

    A large, ethnographically-based literature on bureaucracy, policing, and law enforcement has been accumulating steadily since the 1950s. Its present disciplinary location is primarily in the spheres of “public administration” and “criminal justice,” but this appears to be changing rapidly in response to our present convergence of historical forces. In any case, Lipsky’s 1980 “Street Level Bureaucracy”is a classic, and useful to the issues under discussion here.

    Also (a bit of self-promotion), if anyone is interested in a review of the “policing” themes of this literature in light of their relevance to a project of cultural anthropology, I have attempted to supply such as chapter two of my dissertation, “Keeping the Peace in a Changing Regime: Police Work in Taiwan” (2006, U of Chicago).

  6. Seth has hoisted me on my own petard, but his wit takes out some of the sting. That said, the phrase \”create, mobilize, redirect, and confound\” intentionally emphasized the ambiguity of–and here I reference one of the most important social theorists of our era, Aretha Franklin–who\’s zoomin\’ whom. Each of us can think of bureaucratic riddles in which procedures produce effects opposite to those presumably intended by the state or whatever powerful group the bureaucracy represents. Why is it that each new layer of formalized process ostensibly designed to insure \”transparency\” and \”due process\” seems to promote even more anxiety about motives and fairness?

    At this point I\’m steering away from highly charged domains like policing and health care because they\’re freighted with such high stakes that they make it hard to understand underlying social processes. (If I were looking for brilliant assessments of the way bureaucratic logic shapes modern police work, I need go no farther than my own department: my colleague Bob Jackall\’s latest book, _Street Stories: The World of Police Detectives_, is as good as contemporary ethnography gets–and it\’s a lot better written than most.) But if and when I decide to go down that road, I\’m happy to give Jeff M\’s new book a close examination.

  7. A thought and a question.

    The thought: I agree that power is overrated as an explanation. This is a term very much in need of the process articulated by Suzanne Langer that Geertz describes in “Thick Description”; an idea has been taken up as a panacea and inflated to such dimensions that it is now like the Wizard of Oz, very much in need of critics who will look behind the veil and discover the levers and their operators. It may have been Michael Fischer’s CA essay (recommended by Chris Kelty) where I saw this; but a good starting point might be to do what Weber does, treat power as an effect, i.e., the likelihood that people will obey an order or follow a rule, then look concretely at the factors that effect that likelihood.

    The question: Has anyone read Michael Herzfeld’s The Social Production of Indifference ? I haven’t yet. Would anyone recommend it?

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