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📘 Book Title States At Work
👤 Book Authorhomas Bierschenk
🖨️ Total Pages454
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🌐 LanguageEnglish
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States at Work – Dynamics of African Bureaucracies

Edited by Thomas Bierschenk – Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan


This book aims to contribute to the academic debates on processes of state-building in Africa and, among development practitioners, on the role of the state in development, by underpinning these debates with a much firmer empirical grounding than is often the case in the existing literature.

It analyses the ‘real’ workings of states and public bureaucracies in different African countries. A second, related objective is to define the public services of the Global South, and in particular Africa, as a legitimate and productive object of anthropological enquiry.

We argue that an anthropological contribution to the study of the state needs to be based on the discipline’s defining strength, i.e. ethnography, on a recognition that African states, like other states, are made up of bureaucracies and public employees, and that their basic, banal, routinized day-to-day functioning, practices and strategies warrant the interest of anthropologists as much as warlords, smugglers and witchdoctors.

 A third objective is to develop a more intensive dialogue in the context of the study of the state between anthropology and other disciplines, and show that anthropologists, in particular, need to engage the sociology of organization and bureaucracy in the North, while the latter would profit from taking the results of the ethnographies of states in the Global South into account.

Despite the abundant academic literature on African states, little empirical attention has been devoted to actual ‘state apparatuses’ (in the sense of Althusser 1970/1976).2 Recent anthropological investigations of the state describe how the ‘idea’ of the state spreads in the social fabric or explore the state’s margins or interstices.

As for political science, it is rich in studies that highlight the dysfunctions of African public services, but mainly emphasizes deviations from the official norms inspired by Western bureaucratic models. These deviations are frequently explained in terms of concepts such as clientelism and neopatrimonialism, and often with a culturalist bent (this is further developed in the next chapter).3

Breaking with these approaches, this book focuses on the daily functioning of state services: how public servants spend their time, how teachers are being trained and socialized into their jobs, how judges, policemen and teachers define their role in society, how they see their future and how they negotiate all of the conflicting demands made of them, by their clients, their relatives and superiors and the outside agencies that have increasingly defined a role for themselves in disciplining African public servants according to their own norms. Our book shares this focus with a number of studies that have been published over the past decade.

Indeed, although African states and bureaucracies were a long-neglected field of research, despite some programmatic calls for more research, various empirical studies have been undertaken on this subject in recent years, many of which adopt the same perspective as the authors of this book (see Bierschenk and Olivier de Sardan, chapter Research paradigm, in this volume).

In this book, we explore the mundane practices of state-making from three key, inter-related points of entry: first, the ethnography of public servants (bureaucratic cultures and practical norms, operational routines in offices, career patterns and modes of appointment etc.);

second, the delivery of public services and goods (how bureaucrats themselves perceive and deliver the goods and services for which their departments have a responsibility and how they construct their everyday relationships with service users); and third, the accumulation of public administration

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