The Ethnography of the State. Special Emphasis on the Analytical Category of Resistance

Essay, 2013

7 Pages, Grade: 65


How does an ethnography of the state look like? Put special emphasis on the analytical category of resistance.

Ethnographies of the state have undergone increased scrutiny over recent years. There are several reasons for that: Weber’s famous definition of the state as the ‘human community successfully claiming the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory’ has been contested by state-deniers such as Radcliffe-Brown (1940/2006) or later ‘fetishists’ including Abrams (1988) and Taussig (1992). They acknowledged the need to pin down the state in practices of everyday life rather than as an abstract ‘fetishised’ unity. Most recently, heightened influence of globalised companies ('corporate turn', Kapferer, 2005), NGOs and transnational organisations such as the IMF and the world bank (Trouillot, 2001) dispersed centres of sovereignty even further. Following historical developments, the study of the state has come full turn from Hobbes’s ‘Leviathan’ to Foucault’s ‘capillaries’. I will briefly mention several different ethnographic analytics that can help to still trace the state and its effects in this multi-dimensional context – introducing notions of institutions, culture and history as locations for state power – before I focus on the study of a seemingly non-state political expression: resistance. I examine Abu-Lughod’s (1990) mighty claim that where we find resistance, there is power (i.e. the state) with the help of ethnographic case studies from Egypt (Ali, 1996), Botswana (Comaroff, 1985), Malaysia (Scott, 1989), India (Nandy, 1983) and Turkey (Navaro-Yashin, 2002).

Weber (1918) very clearly marked the realm of the state in a dichotomy of violence and reason. According to him, the state-power is concerned with the ‘legitimate’ (and considerate) use of violence within a given territory. Inherent in this definition is the creation of (geographical) boundaries vis-à-vis a wilderness and the constant effort to fight ‘savages’ both within (criminals, lawless) and external to it (borders). Radcliffe-Brown (1940/2006) with his outlook on acephalos states in the African context critiques this rigid definition from a one might say relational perspective. Instead of a unitary state as an entity above human individuals, he observes the collection of human beings connected in complex systems of relational roles. An entity-state does not exist in the phenomenal world “it is a fiction of the philosopher”. Abrams (1988) and Taussig (1992) both go even further in their critical evaluation of what the state is (and how one might be able to observe it). Abrams claims that the state is not merely masked behind a façade but rather the mask itself. The state – in its unitary sense – prevents us from seeing political practice as it is. It much more comes into being as a structuration within political practice, as an implicit construct – as a social rather than material fact. The task of the present-day anthropologist is to demystify this mask by studying the institutions (administrative, juridical, educational) and their effects. Taussig (1992) follows a similar path denouncing the state as – in a Marxist sense – a fetishism. When we take into account those theorists of the early new anthropology of the state, the ethnographic approach towards the state crystalises around everyday practices, effects and institutions – still centred around the concept of the ‘state’(-institution), challenging and ‘unmasking it’.

In the second wave of theorising, this focus on the everyday was kept. Its localisation, however, changed according to historical developments. Hansen and Stepputat (2006) claim the necessity for a new conceptualisation of sovereignty still highly linked to the (nation) state, but ‘rhizomised’. Rather than a focus on the Weberian sovereignty-by-law, this new kind of ‘legitimate power’ is dispersed in ‘informal’ and ‘outsourced’ forms rather than merely emerging from the (earlier) centre of power. The new ‘rhizomes of power’ include transnational corporations, NGOs, supranational institutions such as the IMF and the world bank, international communities and transnational ethnic groups. This ‘official’ new sovereigns are further challenged by ‘informal’ influences of pirates, bandits, war lords, Mafiosi or private semi-state actors such as the Peruvian gamonales Poole (2004) analyses. In addition to those informal sovereigns, Hansen and Stepputat describe ‘outsourced’ sovereigns in the sense of companies and NGOs fulfilling government functionalities such as health care or security. Going back to colonial times, when the ‘East India Company’ managed the British expansion, this is what Harvey (2004) calls the ‘new imperialism’. Kapferer (2005) introduces the idea of the ‘corporate turn’ to describe this increasing influence of what he calls ‘oligarchic companies’. Configuring the population mainly as ‘consumers’, state and corporates are converging towards non-territorial oligarchic endeavour. Particular in the realm of global finances, this new challenge is articulated (Sassen, 2001; see also 'Aramco case' in Mitchell, 1991). The state does however not disappear in this setup as Hansen and Stepputat (2006) argue. Not only is it still responsible for regulatory practices – as holey as they might be – even in the seemingly boundless financial sphere, power is still limited by territory – think about the financial hubs of London, New York and Singapore. Particularly events such as 9/11 and the subsequent wars and ‘security mechanisms’ also clearly demonstrate the state’s ‘old power’ of violence and ‘totalising warfare’. Important to note is also that what is infamously labelled ‘globalisation’ – flows of people, capital and ideas – is not even (Trouillot, 2001). Globality is fragmented – with a strong focus on the North-West – and polarised leaving out ‘areas of exception’ (Hansen & Stepputat, 2009). Where does this ‘paradox’ leave us in ‘pinning the state down ethnographically’? It should be clear that the state with its unchallenged authority within a marked territory is increasingly scrutinised. The contemporary state is not ready made and out there – much rather we can observe ‘state’ (and state-like) processes in the interplay of traditional state authorities (administration, institutions, army) and local or transnational actors such as corporations, NGOs, transnational institutions as well as criminals and bandits. The state has to be studied in its practices throughout and across societies. This shifts the focus away from institutions towards conceptualisations of margins, frontiers, borderlands, immigration and a general ‘outside’ on multiple levels.


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The Ethnography of the State. Special Emphasis on the Analytical Category of Resistance
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Johannes Lenhard (Author), 2013, The Ethnography of the State. Special Emphasis on the Analytical Category of Resistance, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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