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.