Messy bureaucracies

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Akhil Gupta. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau3.3.028

Messy bureaucracies

Akhil GUPTA, University of California, Los Angeles

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

In Government of paper, Matthew Hull has given us one of the most finely grained, ethnographically rich analyses of the role of material artifacts in the working of states. His focus on files, maps, the parchi and the petition, and lists and land records, is a sorely needed addition to the ethnographic record. As a linguistic anthropologist, he is uniquely positioned to reflect on the linguistic properties of such documents; as a broadly-trained sociocultural anthropologist, he is able to tease out the social and political implications of how these inscriptions function in the social world, what they enable people to do, and how their materiality limits their possible uses and their possible users.

This book also sets up very interesting comparative possibilities for research about the state in South Asia. For example, although Hull’s concerns are not identical to those raised in my recent book on Indian bureaucracy, Red tape (2012), it is interesting to read both books to ask the question of how much difference the postcolonial histories of India and Pakistan have made to their respective bureaucracies. On the one hand, the continuities exhibited by the two bureaucracies in the wake of colonial rule are truly astonishing. It has been more than sixty years since the subcontinent achieved Independence. In that time, a minirevolution has taken place in organizing and running offices. Handwriting was first replaced by typewritten documents, and then computers substituted typewriters. Techniques of filing moved from tying bundles of paper within a cardboard cover secured by tape and stored horizontally, to papers being stored in tabbed folders open on one side and stored vertically in filing cabinets, to electronic files being stored on computers and backed up in the cloud and on hard drives. Government bureaucracies in all three countries in British India (Pakistan,

India, and Bangladesh) have displayed a stubborn attachment to colonial practices, including forms filled out in triplicate, files tied with ribbons, the design of office space, the hierarchies of bureaucratic offices, et cetera. I emphasize “government bureaucracies” in the previous sentence because the bureaucracies found in private corporations have moved their office practices to resemble businesses in the global North. Few managers in corporations, even customer-facing ones, would run an office like Zaffar Khan’s (that Hull describes so vividly), where several, unrelated, groups of clients were being entertained simultaneously. Hull and I were writing our books at the same time and we produced very similar descriptions of office practices in bureaucracies separated by national boundaries and by sixty years of postcolonial governance. This coincidence has less to do with us as observers, and more with the fact that the offices themselves resemble each other. A photograph by Jan Banning from his exhibition and subsequent book, Bureaucratics (2008), graces the cover of Red tape. What is interesting to me is the number of lay people who have told me that photograph looks exactly like the office where they had recently gone to do a task involving a government agency. That it was in a different state and in a different bureaucracy seemed not to matter; and I am sure that when people in the subcontinent read Hull’s wonderfully evocative descriptions of the CDA, they will have a sense of déjà vu.

There is another interesting comparative project that is suggested by Government of paper, which Hull emphasizes in particular in his chapter on land and lists. That has to do with the fact that documents sometimes have an “oblique relation” with “that about which they speak” (Hull 2012: 246). In their efforts to close this gap between documents and their referents, government officials either resort to more elaborate “safeguards” against corruption, or to a reliance on “unofficial,” and informal processes that constitute a rejection of documents altogether (Hull 2012: 246–47). In my own work, I found that lower-level state officials would supplement government procedures with practices of their own invention that were neither authorized nor standardized.

There are two main questions raised by this focus on the gap between documents and their referents. First, is this intrinsic to forms of classification in all bureaucracies, as the unruly empirical world is brought into conformity with a prefabricated system of categories that can be fitted into forms, and ordered into tables and charts? Second, is there a reason to believe that this gap is larger in colonial and postcolonial societies than it is in the global North? And, if the answer is “yes,” why is that the case? A corollary to these questions is whether the increased distance that documents have from the world they reference promotes corruption.

Bureaucratic order is built on classifying, recording, filing, and retrieving information, following predictable rules and patterns for doing so, and reaching decisions that are justified by processes and norms of decision-making, including the conditions in which a decision can be revisited, challenged, or reversed. “Modern” bureaucracies are technologies of governmentality, in that they operate on populations and not on individuals. Weber’s famous distinction between patrimonial and modern bureaucracies is precisely that the latter operate by abstract rules rather than making decisions on each individual case according to “its own merits.”

However, any technology of governmentality has to rely on categories and classifications that abstract from the complex, messy, lived realities on the ground. This necessitates either that life is conformed to the categories, or that the classifi-catory system is adjusted to better reflect the diversity found on the ground. This is no less a problem for bureaucracies in the global North than it is for bureaucracies in Pakistan and India.

If one looks at welfare bureaucracies in the United States, for example, one finds that the persistent lack of conformity between bureaucratic ideals embedded in government agencies and programs of a patriarchal, heterosexual, and nuclear family, that grow out of idealized representations of family found among white, middle-class and upper-class bureaucrats and politicians, and the lived realities of poor, urban families, creates serious problems for both the programs and for the families concerned. When the ineffectiveness of these programs is questioned, the response is almost always to blame the victim for corruption (the rhetoric of “welfare queens”) or mismanagement of the self (people who become lazy because of entitlements, hence the need to move from welfare to workfare). Rarely questioned is the construction of families, relationships, and responsibility that is implicit in the categories that determine eligibility, or assumed by the types of interventions proposed. The reason why this point is important is that ethnographies of bureaucracy in the global South have to struggle with the assumption in the minds of their readers that such bureaucracies “work well” or “normally” in the global North, but that there is something that prevents them from functioning in the same way in the global south. At several points in his book, Hull struggles to neutralize this powerfully exceptionalizing or exoticizing bias against which any ethnography of bureaucracy in the Third World must struggle.

In the colonial and postcolonial context, one could argue that the gap between the classificatory order of bureaucracy and the world that such an order refers to, is both greater and different. It is greater because hegemonic projects in capitalist societies in the West have more intensively remade those societies so that they better correspond to what exists in the government of paper. There is a recursive relation between government systems of classification and the social world in which those systems are implemented. To the extent that governments in the West have forged more pervasive systems of surveillance and control in their own nation-states, and exercise more effective hegemony over their own populations, it is due to the fact that they have brought their societies into greater conformity with their systems of classification and enumeration, with their corresponding forms of gov-ernmentality. Mass media, mass schooling, and nationalism have all contributed to reducing the heterogeneity of customary practices that might have posed problems for the legal and ideological order.

The colonial context was different for two reasons. First, the legal, bureaucratic, and ideological superstructure was often imported from the West, and therefore the gap between its categories and classifications, and the colonial social world, was greater. (Thus, for example, the penal code in all British colonies is remarkably similar: a cheater in India is called “420” because that is the section of the penal code which applies to that offence; in Nigeria, scams are called “419 scams” for the penal code that applies to them.) An enormous chasm existed between the social world implicit in colonial laws and bureaucratic rules and the real world inhabited by subaltern populations in the colonies.

Hull’s attention to colonial rule is salutary, as it shows that the struggle to narrow this gap occupied the East India Company for two and a half centuries and the colonial government for the rest of its rule in the subcontinent. The Company’s solution, which was also the British government’s, was to make officers document exactly what they were doing in increasing detail, so that discrepancies between what they said they did and what they recorded could be more easily found. If anything, this trend has increased after Independence, with the result that government officials, even lower-level ones, and even those occupying offices that have no colonial history, that is, offices that have been created after Independence, have to complete a mountain of paperwork for even the most trivial tasks. Financial outlays in particular are subject to reporting requirements that drown the officers in a sea of paperwork. Increasing processualism does not necessarily diminish corruption and can even help to augment it. Because the “paperwork” is never complete, bribes can be extracted by senior officials for “overlooking” the mistakes of junior officers under their control. And what happens on the ground becomes irrelevant as long as the paperwork is in order, and as long as it is internally consistent. In the case of the bureaucracies that I studied, the task of government then became not to bring about measurable change in the lives of people for whom development projects were run but to ensure that procedures were followed to the letter. The tenuous relation between the world described in documents and the world in which projects were being carried out did not bother officials, because their object became observing procedure correctly, and not the condition of the intended beneficiary of those procedures.

The second reason why the colonial context was different was that the project of capitalist hegemony was weakly pursued and unevenly instituted. For example, after the Great Indian Mutiny of 1857, British colonial rulers thought it better to leave native institutions intact as long as they supported British overlordship, rather than try to remake wholescale Indian society in the idiom of the “modern” West. From the biographies of the officials of the Indian Civil Service (ICS), it is clear that colonial officials tried to patch the gap between their rules and processes and the social world that they were supposed to administer, by relying on clever native assistants. These assistants “translated” incommensurable idioms of procedure and justice in both directions and achieved the results that their colonial officers desired, while also carving out a space for their own enrichment and social status in the local community. Colonial government was only possible under these conditions: officers who left the dirty business of “implementation” to people who knew local customs and practices. In other words, it relied on officials to look the other way as their assistants went about the messy business of translating from one idiom to another, using the force of the colonial authority to threaten, cajole, and bribe local leaders into conformity. However, no effort was made to commensurate existing modes and models of governance and legitimacy to colonial ones. Colonial rule thus operated at a distance from the structures of meaning and action of their subjects, particularly their subaltern subjects (by contrast, the distance of colonists from middle-class Indian subjects was much smaller, and the project of commen-suration more successful).

Postcolonial states in the subcontinent, therefore, have had the enormous task of negotiating this gap between the rules and regulations governing their operations and the realities of life outside the walls of their offices. This gap was wider in the colonized areas, because those societies did not undergo the rigorous bureau-cratization that societies in the global North underwent, and the result was much greater social and cultural heterogeneity. Moreover, that heterogeneity had a long and complex history, and was deeply sedimented, and thus not easily washed away, or wished away.

Hull gives us the example of how even state bureaucracies in Pakistan have to cope with different systems of land measurement that come from different logics of governance. The Lands Directorate uses the revenue record, whose genealogy lies in the Mughal and British colonial system. The Lands Directorate records land holdings in terms of units of acres, one-eighth acres, and 30.25 square yards (2012: 177). The Planning Wing uses survey maps using metric units and organized by sectors (2012: 177). When a decision has to be made about the sale or seizure of a property, it has to be located on these two different, uncommensurated, maps.

Furthermore, if one considers different areas of the subcontinent, one finds differences not only in units of measurement but also in types of ownership structures, classifications of soil quality (hence assessments of the value of land), and types of tenancy. Uniform administrative categories thus have to face a bewildering array of heterogeneous systems of classification. Administrative logics are not elastic enough to allow for negotiation with that heterogeneous formation. Thus, it is left for officials, particularly lower-level officials, to engage in processes of translation that others before them did for colonial bureaucracies.

The only way to paper over the gap between official procedure and local reality is to resort to ad hoc measures that translate one idiom to another without ever making them commensurate. This is why one gets a bewildering array of unofficial technologies of rule that mimic official ones. As Hull points out, people who live in slums on public land cannot be given “official” water and electricity connections, because that would in effect “regularize” the slums (give them official recognition). Instead, officials at these bureaucracies secretly authorize underlings to release water and look the other way when slum dwellers make illegal electrical connections. Such connections are neither authorized nor legal, yet they exist everywhere— they are an integral part of postcolonial governance structures (what Partha Chatterjee [2006] calls “political society”). Everyone benefits by keeping such connections tenuous: government officials make money through bribes, politicians keep clients who need protection from the police and other officials, and middle-class urban dwellers profit from the proximity of cheap laborers to clean their homes and look after their children. The only people who lose are the slum dwellers, who are forced to occupy a shadowy zone of precarity, between the “rule of law” and the reality of life (Boo 2012; Rao 2013).


Banning, Jan. 2008. Bureaucratics. Portland, OR: Nazraeli Press.

Boo, Katherine. 2012. Behind the beautiful forevers: Life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity. New York: Random House.

Chatterjee, Partha. 2006. The politics of the governed: Reflections on popular politics in most of the world. New York: Columbia University 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.

Rao, Ursula. 2013. “Tolerated encroachment: Resettlement policies and the negotiation of the licit/illicit divide in an Indian metropolis.” Cultural Anthropology 28 (4): 760–79.



Akhil Gupta
Professor, Department of Anthropology
Director, Center for India and South Asia (CISA)
University of California, Los Angeles
341 Haines Hall, Box 951553
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1553, USA