Matthew Hull and ethnographies of the state

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Katherine Verdery. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau3.3.022


Matthew Hull and ethnographies of the state

Katherine VERDERY, City University of New York

Comment on HULL, Matthew. 2012. Government of paper: The materiality of bureaucracy in urban Pakistan. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Beginning in the 1990s, increasing numbers of anthropologists began offering ethnographies of “the state”—not to imply that we had never done so before (consider, to mention just two examples, Fallers 1965 and Nadel 1942), but the numbers now have increased substantially. They include, for instance, works by John Borneman on Germany (1992), Julia Elyachar on Egypt (2005), Akhil Gupta on India (2012), Gail Kligman on Romania (1998), and Yael Navaro-Yashin on Turkey (2002). Although the theoretical influences informing these works vary, in my view a prime enabler of ethnographies of the state has been the influence of Foucault, with his emphasis on practices and the “microphysics of power,” as opposed to the institutional or organizational emphases typical of the more usual studies of the state in political science or sociology.

In this company, Matthew Hull’s book is absolutely original, and unquestionably pathbreaking in our discipline. With the help of tools provided by actor-network theory and semiotic anthropology, he finds his way ethnographically into the Pakistani state through its bureaucratic practices, most particularly those of documentation. Emphasizing the materiality of these practices and of the signs through which they work, he is able to make a number of counterintuitive arguments about Pakistan’s bureaucracy that illuminate the state in unexpected ways. For instance, instead of arguing that specific sociologically defined coalitions of actors come together in pursuit of compensation claims for expropriated land, he suggests that it is instead the written instruments of compensation—the lists of people to be compensated, the maps and diagrams of the urbanization plan, et cetera—that mobilize networks around them. In a brilliant argument about how files are circulated and with what effects, he shows that despite an ideology of transparency and accountability, bureaucrats systematically diffuse responsibility across the organization, thereby helping to make it a collective agent. The file emerges from this as a vital actor, its vitality residing in “its ability to support the formation of an authoritative voice of government, to allow individuals to escape responsibility, and to facilitate individual and small group enterprise within the larger organization” (Hull 2012: 160). And arguing against the view that documentation is inevitably about increasing government control, he reveals how in the expropriation of land and the building of mosques, documents turn against the bureaucracy and subject it to their own rule through the coalitions and manipulations they mobilize.

Each of these arguments serves an analytic deconstruction of state power, decomposing it into graphic artifacts formed by pen, paper, stamps, and signatures. This makes the state eminently susceptible to ethnographic treatment—through participating in office routines, tracking the movement of files among officials, analyzing the language of the comments in a file, and so on. When we thought of the state as an organization claiming a monopoly on the legitimate exercise of force in a territory it controls, gaining ethnographic purchase on it seemed impossible. Not any more.

Let me think further with this book in two ways. First, a question: how much of the productivity of Hull’s theoretical approach is specific to Pakistan, whose history (along with India’s) seems to have endowed it with an inordinately heavy reliance on paper? He offers an intriguing argument about the British East India Company as the origin of the intense documentary practices he witnessed. Is there something about former British colonies—or even former colonies in general—that thickens these practices in ways unusual for other ethnographic sites? How might different colonial powers (Dutch, French, Spanish, British, Portuguese) have created different matrices of governmental signification? Do the ones like the Dutch and the British that began as trading companies (obsessed with the problem of trust among economic agents) have documentary regimes that distinguish them from the others, and with what effects in the present?

Whatever the answer to that question, Hull’s work across the divisions among precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial gives his methods great utility for historical analysis. And even though he himself is less interested in looking for continuities of colonial practices after colonialism than in examining how those practices operate in new ways in the postcolony, he gives us excellent means for exploring the former. One of the most fascinating questions concerning social transformation is how even “revolutionary” movements often end up reproducing some of the structures and problems of the order they replace, or, on a more modest scale, how the alternation in power of political parties representing very different principles does not produce chaos in government. Thinking about those questions through the materiality of documentary practices would provide some unusual answers.

Second, despite my earlier question, I have found Hull’s framework helpful for thinking about an entirely different case: the archive of the Romanian secret police, or Securitate. In my research in this archive, I have learned about the forces that fragmented the organization into multiple directorates, each with its corps of agents, divided by county and district; factionalism in the organization was rampant. Aggravating these divisions was the rule of compartmentalization that all intelligence services use to maintain the secrecy of officers’ identities and work practices. This rule dictated that agents from one branch not deal directly with agents from another, to reduce the possibility that someone’s identity would be discovered. officers of one department could get data or information from another department only by going through their chiefs. Any divulging of their own activity and its results to colleagues from other departments was drastically sanctioned. in support of compartmentalization, the labor process of surveillance was broken down into shadowing targets, censoring correspondence, eavesdropping, transcribing overheard conversations, installing surveillance devices, and so on. As a result, in any one location certain members of the organization were disguised from each other. A very few senior officers were in a position to know who all the operatives were and what they were doing. This had consequences for organizational unity, further undermined by the factionalism and backbiting that made careers unstable.

Following Hull, i have suggested that the circulation of the material files was the principal instrument of the organization’s cohesion (see Verdery 2014: 68). Files traveled from the hands of the case officer up the hierarchy, accumulating marginal notes from various superiors on the way, and came back down with the superiors’ observations and instructions. Their trajectory materialized among various levels of the securitate a conversation that would never or rarely happen in person. Thus, the regular circulation of files unified the securitate as an organization and constituted it as a collective actor rather than as isolated individuals writing reports. The trajectories of files also marked off the organization’s boundaries, for they rarely went outside it into other parts of the communist bureaucracy.

Lacking not only a corpus of files as large as Hull’s but also the kind of information he gathered by talking with bureaucrats about their work and watching their behavior, i cannot follow his lead further. without it, however, i would have been mystified at how such an organization hung together at all. i remain in his debt for teaching me how important is the sheer materiality of files. indeed, since 1989 they have been mobilizing around themselves new coalitions of actors, as the former victims of communist repression use them in pursuit of “transitional justice” to identify the former officers and informers who did people harm (see Verdery 2012)—a pursuit deeply in need of the subtlety of Hull’s analysis. If the test of a theoretical approach is its fruitfulness for handling different kinds of cases, then the use I have been able to make of Matthew Hull’s work suggests that it should have far-reaching impact on ethnographies of the state.


Borneman, John. 1992. Belonging in the two Berlins: Kin, state, nation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Elyachar, Julia. 2005. Markets of dispossession: NGOs, economic development, and the state in Cairo. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Fallers, Lloyd A. 1965. Bantu bureaucracy: A century of political evolution among the Basoga of Uganda. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gupta, Akhil. 2012. Red tape: Bureaucracy, structural violence, and poverty in India. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Hull, Matthew S. 2012. Government of paper: The materiality of bureaucracy in urban Pakistan. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kligman, Gail. 1998. The politics of duplicity: Controlling reproduction in Ceau§escu’s Romania. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Nadel, S. F. 1942. A black Byzantium: The kingdom of Nupe in Nigeria. London: Oxford University Press.

Navaro-Yashin, Yael. 2002. Faces of the state: Secularism and public life in Turkey. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Verdery, Katherine. 2012. “Postsocialist cleansing in Eastern Europe: Purity and danger in transitional justice.” In Socialism challenged, socialism vanquished: China and Eastern Europe compared, 1989–2009, edited by Nina Bandelj and Dorothy J. Solinger, 63–82. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

———. 2014. Secrets and truths: Ethnography in the archive of Romania’s Secret Police. Budapest: Central European University Press.



Katherine Verdery
Department of Anthropology
City University of New York Graduate Center
365Fifth Ave, New York, NY 10016, USA