Ryan Schram's Anthrocyclopaedia

Anthropology presentations and learning resources

User Tools

Site Tools

View page as slide show

The politics of scale

The politics of scale

Ryan Schram
ANTH 2700: Key debates in anthropology
Social Sciences Building 410 (A02)
Week of April 11, 2022 (Week 8)

Slides available at http://anthro.rschram.org/2700/2022/8

Main reading: Gupta and Ferguson (1992); Gupta (1995)

Other reading: Verdery (1999)

States of mind

Why is it that the most influential world-pictures are made up of little puzzle pieces?

Here are examples of headlines from the “World” sections of major newspapers:

  • “India approves booster shots…” (Singh 2022)
  • “Finland seizes artwork shipments…” (Bowley 2022)
  • “Turkey transfers Khashoggi Murder trial…” (Timur and Hubbard 2022)
  • “U.S. says it secretly removed malware…” (Conger and Sanger 2022)

And when they don’t use country names as a grammatical agent, they use a synedoche—a part that stands in for the whole:

  • “The Pentagon says Russia fired the missiles…” (Schmitt 2022)
  • “Inside Biden’s $5.8 trillion wish list. The White House’s latest budget proposal enumerates its biggest policy priorities.” (Sorkin et al. 2022)
  • “Beijing’s handpicked candidate for Hong Kong signals tighter control” (Mahtani and Yu 2022)

A global system of territorial states is the fabric of our lives

This leads to several questions:

  • How did we get here?
  • What does it mean for our social existence as members of various communities?
  • Why does everyone take this for granted?
  • Is there an alternative?

This week and after break we will discuss ways to approach these questions.

Ancient states and the contemporary system of states

There are two senses of the concept of the state, one general and one more specific and contemporary.

The first sense of state is associated with an evolutionary schema of types: States are more complex than other forms like hereditary leadership.

The second sense applies to the emergence of a system of territorial units that each have exclusive sovereignty over their territories and their people.

The concept of the state derives from a belief in a great divide in history

The concept of the state itself is associated with a tradition in European thought of conceiving of history as a series of distinct eras, each representing a step forward in progress toward a better system.

  • Ferdinand Tönnies (Tönnies [1887] 1957)
    • Gemeinschaft (community): a system based on personal relationships
    • Gesellschaft (society): a system incorporating a large population and organized in terms of categories of people, rather than person-to-person ties
  • Henry Maine (Maine [1861] 1963, 163–65)
    • status (inherited position or membership in a group)
    • contract (voluntary agreement between two people)

Max Weber, rationality, the state, and modernity

While Durkheim and Marx also have their own theories of states, they aren’t that original. The most influential theorist of the contemporary state as a type is Max Weber, for whom it is crucially linked to his idea of modernity.

Weber looks at society from the ground up, in terms of patterns of social action.

Forms of social action can be more or less rational, and can be rational in different ways. Social actions can be motivated by

  • Tradition: This is the way it has always been done
  • Emotion: This action expresses how I feel personally
  • Value-rationality (Wertrationalität)
  • Instrumental rationality (Zweckrationalität)

What can you do with an army of bureaucrats?

Weber argues that all social forms will gradually become more and more rational over time.

  • An institution based on tradition or value-rationality will develop within itself a capacity to administer itself.
  • It will develop a bureaucratic organization within itself.
    • A bureaucracy is a system of offices governed by explicit rules, procedures, and policies.
    • Because bureaucracies are rationally planned, the role of individual occupant of an office is merely to do a job, to follow rules.
    • Bureaucracies are powerful. When a body of people can administer their own affairs using a permanent structure of offices, who needs a ruler?

A state is a central bureaucratic authority. It is defined as the organization that has a “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force” (Weber [1921] 1946, 78).

  • As legislator, regulator, and enforcer of the law, the state is an adminstration of administrations.

The limits of a theory of the modern state

Weber’s concept of the so-called “modern” state is based on certain assumptions, and thus will always leave some questions unanswered.

  • It assumes that we can speak of a single state within a single territory, as if it exists in isolation.
    • Most states today originate in the 20th century era of decolonization, and enter an existing international economic and political order.
  • The Weberian state is primarily interested in why a single state bureaucracy is seen as legitimate form of rule. Is state power the only or the most important way that people are ruled?
    • For instance, while each state is nominally independent, it often depends on foreign ideological models to legitimate its political power. This could be seen as another kind of ideological power over how people think.
  • Insofar as Weber’s idea of the state is based on his theory of rationalization of social action, it leads to another linear scale of progress, which is ethnocentric.
    • The establishment of a bureacratic state anywhere is never simply the evolution of a new, bigger, and more rational form of order; it is always also the displacement of alternative forms of polity.
    • When we ignore these forms of government and focus on rational decision making, then we assume that alternatives are failures or errors.

Do we need an anthropology of the state?

  • Anthropology does not assume that is a universal concept of the state that applies everywhere; it assumes that everything is different.
  • Anthropologists look beyond the formal, explicit rules and policies. Weber assumes that informal practices and tacit knowledge about getting things done are merely vestiges of older modes of social action.
  • Unlike Weber, who assumes that an organization can be so rational that it is culture-free, anthropologists always assume that people cooperate because they share a common worldview through their socialization. State bureaucracies have a culture and express cultural ideas (e.g. Gupta 1995, 376).

The illusion of the state

Where is the state? An anthropologist would however not assume that there is a single unitary state, floating above society. State power is a lot of different people doing a lot of different things

They are acting as if there is a single state, occupying a permanent position outside of social life.

  • Weber’s view of power is that it is ability for someone to get someone else do something they would not otherwise do.
    • A bureaucracy has power because, Weber assumes, someone makes a decision, and the whole organization acts.
  • An alternative idea of power comes from Michel Foucault. For Foucault, power is a force that flows through and connects people, and thus is held by no one in particular.
    • Foucault reinterprets Jeremy Bentham’s idea for a perfect prison, a Panopticon (Foucault 1979, 200–202).

References and further reading

Bowley, Graham. 2022. “Finland Seizes Artwork Shipments Suspected of Violating E.U. Sanctions on Russia.” The New York Times, April 7, 2022, sec. World. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/07/world/europe/finland-russia-art-sanctions.html.

Conger, Kate, and David E. Sanger. 2022. “U.S. Says It Secretly Removed Malware Worldwide, Pre-Empting Russian Cyberattacks.” The New York Times, April 6, 2022, sec. U.S. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/06/us/politics/us-russia-malware-cyberattacks.html.

Foucault, Michel. 1979. Discipline and punish : the birth of the prison. New York: Vintage Books. http://archive.org/details/disciplinepunish0000fouc.

Gupta, Akhil. 1995. “Blurred Boundaries: The Discourse of Corruption, the Culture of Politics, and the Imagined State.” American Ethnologist 22 (2): 375–402. https://doi.org/10.1525/ae.1995.22.2.02a00090.

Gupta, Akhil, and James Ferguson. 1992. “Beyond `Culture’: Space, Identity, and the Politics of Difference.” Cultural Anthropology 7 (1): 6–23. https://doi.org/10.1525/can.1992.7.1.02a00020.

Mahtani, Shibani, and Theodora Yu. 2022. “Beijing’s Handpicked Candidate for Hong Kong Signals Tighter Control.” Washington Post, April 8, 2022. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/04/08/hong-kong-chief-executive-beijing-china/.

Maine, Henry Sumner. (1861) 1963. Ancient law; its connection with the early history of society and its relation to modern ideas. Boston: Beacon Press. http://archive.org/details/ancientlawitscon0000main_u5e5.

Schmitt, Eric. 2022. “The Pentagon Says Russia Fired the Missiles That Hit Kramatorsk Station, Killing at Least 50 People.” The New York Times, April 8, 2022, sec. World. https://www.nytimes.com/live/2022/04/08/world/ukraine-russia-war-news.

Singh, Karan Deep. 2022. “India Approves Booster Shots for People Between the Ages of 18 and 60, but They Won’t Be Free.” The New York Times, April 8, 2022, sec. World. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/08/world/india-covid-booster-shots.html.

Sorkin, Andrew Ross, Jason Karaian, Stephen Gandel, Michael J. de la Merced, Lauren Hirsch, and Ephrat Livni. 2022. “Inside Biden’s $5.8 Trillion Wish List.” The New York Times, March 29, 2022, sec. Business. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/29/business/dealbook/biden-budget-policy.html.

Timur, Safak, and Ben Hubbard. 2022. “Turkey Transfers Khashoggi Murder Trial to Saudi Arabia.” The New York Times, April 7, 2022, sec. World. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/07/world/middleeast/khashoggi-murder-trial-turkey-saudi-arabia.html.

Tönnies, Ferdinand. (1887) 1957. Community and society [Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft]. Translated by Charles P. Loomis. New York: Harper & Row. http://archive.org/details/communitysociety00tnrich.

Verdery, Katherine. 1999. “Giving proper burial, reconfiguring space and time.” In The political lives of dead bodies: reburial and postsocialist change, 95–112. New York: Columbia University Press.

Weber, Max. (1921) 1946. “Politics as a Vocation.” In From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, edited by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, 77–128. New York: Oxford University Press.

2700/2022/8.txt · Last modified: 2022/04/10 21:34 by Ryan Schram (admin)