Bureaucracies and the people within them

Over at the Anthropology & Environment Society’s “Engagement” blog, Janis Alcorn has a pretty fascinating post about some of the social inner-workings of large bureaucracies.  In this case, USAID–an organization that she has 25 years of experience working with.  The post starts off with a quote from an interview with Andrew Mathews, who argues that bureaucracies function by “bleaching out local context and coming up with big simplifications.”  Alcorn disagrees:

I would counter by positing that good bureaucracies do not bleach out local context. Instead, they create big, simplified umbrellas that cloak the complex, dynamic range of local circumstances and thereby give the staff of government bureaucracies the space to address local circumstances despite changes in political direction.

Later in the post, Alcorn brings up one aspect of USAID’s bureaucracy that resonates a bit with some of the things I saw in my own fieldwork.  She writes:

I entered USAID during the transition from President Reagan to President George H.W. Bush.  There was a flurry of activity creating documents for “transition teams.” In effect, those documents served as ideologically-aligned, simplified umbrellas that shielded the professional, non-ideological work of the agency.

This shielding of ideological/political work is really fascinating, and it reminds me of a few cases I encountered while doing fieldwork, in which certain organizations were used as a sort of “scientific” or “objective” screen to cover over individual members’ political desires and perspectives.  I’m not sure how I am going to write about this at this point–it’s something I need to hash out a bit more as I look through my notes and interviews.  For the most part, what I am highlighting is pretty different from what Alcorn discusses in her post, but there is one consistent theme: the often overt contradictions and differences between ORGANIZATIONS and the real PEOPLE that populate (and run) those organizations.

In some of the organizations that I encountered, the members themselves were very active, often opinionated participants in local communities, and they certainly had their own personal ideas about development and conservation.  The discourse of the organizations, however, stuck to a more neutral position, often employing a lot of language about “science” to explain goals, ideals, and missions.  When I asked a key member of one of these organizations what sort of development vision her group had, she told me there was no vision; it all depended on what the people of the community wanted.  That was the official answer: it’s all for the people.  In other situations, it was pretty clear that she had her ideas and politics, and was doing what she could to make them happen.  This was not the only case in which the organization played it neutral while the members did not.

Within the organizational landscape, however, there were plenty that were overtly activist and political.  Some of these groups had no reservations about stating what they wanted, loud and clear.  Other, more middle of the road groups may have agreed with the radical organizations, at least to a certain degree, but this was often hidden, at least in formal channels.  In person, it was all pretty clear–which is something that made the stated goals of some of the groups all the more contradictory.  But what was really striking was that these contradictions didn’t seem to be a big problem.  It was always interesting to look at the structure and public face of these organizations,on the one hand, while sitting down and talking to the real people who staffed and founded those organizations, on the other.  The differences between the stridently non-ideological narratives of the organization were quite striking when compared with the obviously political–and sometimes personal–ideas and desires expressed by the staff.  Alcorn’s use idea of “simplified umbrellas” that create room for these sorts of machinations seems pretty useful, but in my case I think the organizations were the umbrellas that created room


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

7 thoughts on “Bureaucracies and the people within them

  1. Anthropologists need to read history.

    This phenomenon can be traced back at least a millenium to the nature of Chinese bureaucracy. With a large land mass and a diverse population to govern, officials were sent out of their home provinces (to avoid temptation to serve their own local interests) and were therefore dependent on the local elites for the “lay of the land.” Policies emanating from the imperial center would be adapted for local circumstances…of course, in ways that substantially benefited local elites as well as the subjects there. Local elites were also connected in national social networks to officials through a number of means–including of course, family members also in government service. When the state was strong, the exploitation of subjects by local elites was somewhat controlled; when the state was weak, the elites had more autonomy.

    Ethnologically, to compare the interaction between the local and the national bureaucracies, we have to turn to histories of state societies other than those of the industrialized and post-industrial west. I remember that several decades ago, anthropologists often felt more at home in the AAS than the AAA because of the need to understand history and to work closely with historians. James Watson was one anthropologist whose work with historians produced interesting and important work. With globalization and the encorporation of indigenous groups within state societies, the need to address the nature of the state has grown. With it, it’s time to get back to the sorts of cooperative projects that were taking place between historians and anthropologists.

  2. @ledwyer:

    “With it, it’s time to get back to the sorts of cooperative projects that were taking place between historians and anthropologists.”

    ya, i definitely agree with you there.

  3. Thanks for this, Ryan. My observation doesn’t contradict what you report here, but it may complement what appears to be first a functionalist account of bureaucracy followed by the standard anthropological contrast between organizations and the people who work in them. this is to say that we (people in general and anthropologists in particular) overstate the monolithic character of bureaucracies when seen from the outside. On the inside they are teeming with division and conflict.

    Alcorn’s reference to the transition from Reagan to Bush Snr reminded me of the even more seismic shift in PNG during 1972-73 when I took part in a UNDP/World Bank team commissioned to come up with a development strategy for the country’s independence. PNG was a colonial territory governed by Australia at the time, but two big events were anticipated when we arrived — the likely election of Gough Whitlam’s Labour party after more than two decades of Liberal/Country party rule and PNG’s election for the transition to self-government.

    The situation was highly controversial. there were three separatist insurrections at the time, including Bougainville where CRA’s copper mine was a scandalous rip-off and the company was fomenting rebellion much as Union Miniere did in the Congo at independence. We proposed renegotiation of the treaty to secure more revenue for the new state and were opposed strongly by the World Bank, the Department of External Territories and the colonial government. Two of our team of four resigned rather than watch their consultancy careers go up in smoke.

    But in every bureacracy there were individuals eyeing their chances to benefit from the anticipated double political earthquake and ready to undermine their superiors with the hope of promotion if they backed th ewinning side. It turned out that the Commonwealth Treasury was a powerful ally, since they wanted to end the drain on Australian taxpayers of three interest groups: colonial civil servants, trading houses and dairy/rice farmers who were dumping subsidized food in PNG at public expense. Whitlam was indeed elected and broke up the Coutnry Party’s monopoly of External Territories. But the biggest change was that Michael Somare’s Pangu party won the PNG self-government election on the basis of a summary of our interim development report.

    This experience, more than any other, tought me how dynamic and fragmented bureaucratic politics are, in sharp contrast with a tendency to attribute monlithic powers to “neoliberalism” or “capitalism”. despite a show od coordinated hostility from th epowers we confronted at first, it was possible for a couple of us to run a heterodox programme past them with some unexpected alliances. Maybe this too is a recommendation for anthropologists to be more open to history.

  4. This is a very useful observation. I’ve experienced exactly this in development contexts. Though I agree that it’s a bit ahistorical. There’s nothing particularly unique about this to modern institutions. Medieval church went through exactly the same cycles of local/central tensions and negotiations of ideology (and its many progenitors continue dealing with the same themes).

    But I’d say that there’s also the opposite effect of individuals’ conservationism (meaning conservation of established practices) dampening ideological perturbations coming from the top. This is why pedagogical reforms in education have been almost impossible. In my work, I’ve seen teachers negotiating new policies and saying “you know what, what we’re doing really counts as policy X”.

  5. I think that James Scott book “Seeing Like a State” has a lot to do with this discussion. People working in bureaucracies necessarily “see” with the abstractions, typically those expressed through numbers, and on paper (or computer screens). In large part this is because bureaucracies, whether in Ancient China or today, are institutions designed to create programs which are larger than any one human can “see.” on their own. This basic observation that bureaucracies necessarily simplify should be self-evident.

    Now I do agree that some bureaucracies can develop habits of “seeing” that are better than other habits, as Alcorn asserts. Likewise, they may have more or less internal strife, as Keith Hart describes in Papua New Guinea. But, irrespective of how much local context a bureaucracy may bleach out, or whatever their internal fights, bleach they do. Otherwise they cannot see the abstract problem which, by their very nature, they seek to address.

    “Day by day, the peasants make the economists sigh, the politicians sweat, and the strategists swear, defeating their plans and prophecies all over the world—Moscow and Washington, Peking and Delhi, Cuba and Algeria, the Congo and Vietnam” (Shanin 1966:5).

  6. http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n10/pooja-bhatia/whats-next-locusts
    —Donors didn’t deliver on their promises. The joint commission faltered and then foundered. As for the money, some of the most breathtaking facts in Katz’s book come from ledgers kept by the likes of the UN Office of the Special Envoy. They merit amplification and repetition, if only to counter the persistent notion that Haiti has wasted billions of dollars in aid. There were never any billions in aid to Haiti, let alone its government; not much money has gone to Haiti’s government since the United States withdrew its support of Jean Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier in 1986.

    Much of the $8.4 billion pledged at the March 2010 conference was never intended to arrive: donors regularly announce inflated pledges at aid conferences. A billion of it was no more than creative accounting, being previously promised debt relief. And most of what did arrive didn’t really arrive, at least not in Haiti: it went to firms and institutions at home, ‘a stimulus programme for donor countries themselves’. Among the main beneficiaries were the US military and so-called Beltway bandits, American private contractors who chase down aid money: ‘A cheque billed as US aid to Haiti,’ Katz writes, ‘is far more likely to make the half-mile walk from Treasury to the headquarters of Chemonics International, a for-profit development agency.’—

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