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

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:

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

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

This leads to several questions:

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.

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

What can you do with an army of bureaucrats?

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

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).

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.

Do we need an anthropology of the state?

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.

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.

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.

Foucault, Michel. 1979. Discipline and punish : the birth of the prison. New York: Vintage Books.

Gupta, Akhil. 1995. “Blurred Boundaries: The Discourse of Corruption, the Culture of Politics, and the Imagined State.” American Ethnologist 22 (2): 375–402.

Gupta, Akhil, and James Ferguson. 1992. “Beyond `Culture’: Space, Identity, and the Politics of Difference.” Cultural Anthropology 7 (1): 6–23.

Mahtani, Shibani, and Theodora Yu. 2022. “Beijing’s Handpicked Candidate for Hong Kong Signals Tighter Control.” Washington Post, April 8, 2022.

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

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.

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.

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.

Timur, Safak, and Ben Hubbard. 2022. “Turkey Transfers Khashoggi Murder Trial to Saudi Arabia.” The New York Times, April 7, 2022, sec. World.

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

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.