For a dialectical and ethnographic approach to stateness
Thomas Bierschenk (Johannes Gutenberg-Universität)
Paper short abstract:
I will argue for a dialectical approach to stateness which epistemologically takes the agency of state employees serious, and which does not measure real stateness against an idealized version of European states.
Paper long abstract:
Since the late 1990s, an anthropology of the contemporary state has emerged as a distinct subfield within the discipline. Contributions to this area of study, however, have been produced largely within networks distinguished and, in some cases, divided by regional orientations, thematic choices, theoretical inspirations, and political or moral standpoints. In my contribution, I will argue for three perspectives: First, anthropologists of the state should take a dialectical approach to the state and recognize its double face: as a force for oppression and exclusion as well as for liberation and inclusion. Second, while much of the anthropology of the state is mainly interested in the margins, and not the institutional core of the state, I propose that we should not forget public services and their actors ('bureaucrats'), with their respective agency, as objects worthy of ethnographic study. Anthropologists should not only be interested in what it means to 'see like a state', but particularly also what is it like to 'see like a state-agent'. Thirdly, a category that carries particularly powerful implications regarding the perceived legitimacy and normativity of particular states is that of 'the South'. States of the (European or Global) South should not be studied in their perceived 'otherness', but for what they reveal about states in general, in a spirit of reciprocal comparison where it is not one variant (e.g. an - often idealized -- version of the Northern state) which sets the model for all the others.
Anthropologies of the state: critical interventions, new directions [Roundtable]