Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration


Guiding Topic of the Academic Year 2014/2015

With its new focal point in the Institute for Advanced Study Konstanz, the Center of Excellence intends to bring together a variety of disciplinary perspectives regarding the phenomenon of bureaucracy. Both conceptually and empirically, the theme is located at the juncture of the Center’s first three research fields—“Identification and Identity Politics,” “Practices of Knowledge and Non-Knowledge,” and “The Cultural Modeling of Hierarchy and Violence.” In their internal procedures and external relationships, bureaucracies produce asymmetries of knowledge.

They generate gray zones between knowledge on the one hand, structural and intended non-knowledge on the other hand—between transparency and opacity. They offer a classical example of how hierarchies are modeled, relations grounded in power and violence institutionalized and—to speak cynically—perfected, but also of how such hierarchies and relations are ended, transformed, or continued in modified form. In addition, through processes such as standardization, classification, and individualization that are activated according to context and infrastructural possibility, bureaucracies dispose over a large arsenal of mechanisms for identifying social agents and groups of such agents, as well as depth of penetration.

Research projects can concretely orientate themselves around three progressively more intensely focused topics in particular:

  1. Images of Bureaucracy,
  2. Bureaucracy and Violence; and
  3. Renaissance of Public Bureaucracies?

Where the first theme’s basic focus is on social-ontological and epistemological questions that also have space for a multilayered critique of bureaucracy, the second invites historical and conceptual exploration of the repeatedly asserted and criticized positive connection between bureaucracy and (both physical and structural) violence. The third theme offers a framework for explicitly normative considerations that reconstruct public bureaucratic processes and explore the possibilities inherent in their claim and mandate to serve the common good.

1. Images of Bureaucracy

As bureaucracy theory has developed, a broad range of paradigms has become apparent. Bureaucracies can be considered the nonpolitical tool of a legitimate Herrschaftsverband—an “authoritative group” (W. Wilson, M. Weber); the precondition for responsible governmental action (C. J. Friedrich); an integrative authority (L. v. Stein, Philip Selznick); a tool for control (Z. Bauman, G. Agamben); a mechanism for personality deformation (R. K. Merton) or for relief from decision-making (H. A. Simon); a locus for the unfolding of various leadership styles and orientations for action (A. Downs); “organized chaos” (Cohen, March, & Olsen); an arena for competition for power (G. T. Allison) or battles about budget maximization (W. Niskanen); something either essentially adaptable and reformable (R. Mayntz; F. W. Scharpf) or sclerotic and reform-resistant (M. Crozier). Such often subsurface concepts, images, and imputations, frequently having an impact on daily life in their pre-theoretical form, can be encountered in both polemical and apologetic variants. They structure discourse about bureaucracy and the self-images of bureaucrats. And they collaborate in engendering what Alfred Weber termed the “suggestive strength” of bureaucratic apparatuses.

Historically their areas of deployment are tied to concrete practical, medial, and theoretical (e.g. legal-dogmatic) contexts running against the impression of a stable inventory of images without a temporal-spatial index. At this point, a set of interlinking questions emerges: Which elementary argumentative figures, aesthetic arrangements, patterns of narrative process, and “absolute” metaphors can be seen to be at work within which historical and geographical contexts when our central concern is describing and criticizing bureaucratic processes, or else initiating, structuring, or legitimizing them? How can we shift both commonly held and theoretical ideas of unity into ideas of process? And, correspondingly, how can we reconstruct bureaucratic processes in their full plurality and materiality? Crucially, doing so means being able to reconstruct, in equal measure, programs of action that are illuminating in a political-science framework, together with material substrates holding interest for cultural and media theorists: forms of architecture, documents, and technologies of writing. How are processes of formalization and informalization, de-politicization or neutralization and politicization, intertwined? What forms of interplay between ethnographic approaches and discursive and institutional analysis more oriented towards structure are methodologically valid and practicable (J. Heyman, E. Schatz, C. Shore)?

2. Bureaucracy and Violence

The classical reflections on bureaucracy by Alfred and Max Weber, but also by Robert Merton, have examined the formation of individuals into officials or bureaucrats as a process with violent dimensions; they have described the processes of deformation and depersonalization unfolding in bureaucratic institutions. Especially in response to some publications in the field of ethnology, the question of the linkage between bureaucracy and structural and physical violence has reemerged and led to considerable controversy; in our thematic framework, the issues at work here invite exploration.

This is particularly the case with A. Gupta’s central argument: that we should understand structural forms of violence in Indian bureaucracies not as effects of a highly pervasive state but rather as reflecting a fragmentation of state institutions—a fragmentation furnishing persons operating on street level with corresponding discretionary space and options for situative dominance. Gupta likewise again examines the question of how closely condensed forms of violence in bureaucratic processes should be conceptually and factually aligned with direct physical attacks. His reasons for doing so are complex: not only are modern forms of bureaucracy that are totalizing in their ideological claims based on a threat of permanent, direct violence, having already produced unprecedented excesses of such violence (Z. Bauman; H. Arendt); but beyond this, even in present humanitarian interventions, the pacifying, violence-abating impact of bureaucratic processes is often a matter for basic debate (L. Goetschel/T. Hagmann; E.C. Dunn); and furthermore, violent events tend to develop in the wake of tolerated or deliberate bureaucratic blindness.

3. A Renaissance of Public Bureaucracies?

Ethnologists often emphasize how many “Western” ideas of bureaucracy and corresponding practices make their way into local contexts, depoliticizing and discrediting established forms of conflict settlement, deliberation, and participation (J. Ferguson). But in other disciplinary milieus, a tide change has been discernable for some years in the assessment of the form and accomplishment of genuine public bureaucracies. Buried since the mid-1970s under what in the broadest sense we can term a neo-liberal wave, the characteristics of a public administrative sphere of action, and with it the contours of formalized, law-bound administrative processes, are now encountering far more sympathy (J. Clarke; P. du Gay). In opposition to sometimes internationally dominant “new public management,” they are again being placed on a normative agenda (the rubrics here being “post-bureaucracy” on the one hand, “new Weberianism,” on the other hand) and empirically reconstructed: this in a manner avoiding premature determination of the analysis through topoi from the field of bureaucracy-critique.

Meanwhile exhaustively studies of damage inflicted by entrepreneurial subjects located outside all sectorial borders, especially as presented in M. Foucault-inspired studies of governmentality, have deciphered the expectations of flexibility and individual initiative on the part of contemporary social regimes as subtle techniques of power (U. Bröckling, C. Bartmann). In a cultural-theory framework as well, such studies have prepared the way for formulating normative and analytic alternatives to these omnipresent social techniques; and to endow seemingly outmoded oppositions such as public/private, formal/informal, central/peripheral—oppositions that have been overcome in modern Western societies on a practical level—with sharper counters: to reactivate them conceptually in our contemporary context, possible under altered normative premises (see for instance B.G. Peters’ very much appellatively intended Reclaiming the Center).

Within this oppositional field, there are many examples of a normative privileging of one or the other side: it is a long-known if remarkable fact that given the same quality, provision of traditionally public services is often judged more positively when the provider is private rather than public (S. Van de Walle). The cultural theory of J. Lotman, which has been reintroduced into the debate in Konstanz in particular, draws an essential portion of its originality from the development of an asymmetric opposition between stable center and labile (hence highly innovative) peripheries.

And the British social anthropologist K. Hart was one of the first theorists to proceed in terms of a guiding formal/informal opposition in his study of informal urban African economies. The associative chains gathering around this distinction from the early 1970s soon pointed in an entirely unexpected direction. In the Cold War’s context, what was intended as a non-exclusive juxtaposition of formal bureaucracy and informal popular self-organizations was converted into a confrontation between state socialism and the free market; it would then live on, in the course of a “neo-liberalization” of semantic inventories, as an opposition between state and market—with the market side in a sense inheriting and assimilating the positive associations of informal economies.

Against this backdrop, it is striking that in many places public bureaucracies have been regaining esteem, their absence—for instance in Southern Europe—regretted in public debates. Even the European Union bureaucracy has found a public intellectual as spokesman in Robert Menasse, whose recent essay “Der europäische Landbote” announces a (sympathetic) ethnography of European officialdom while also laying out the possible implications for theories of democracy of such a reevaluation. Public bureaucracies, say in the form of so-called independent agencies, are also incorporated as custodians of a “negative public” into P. Rosanvallon’s new approach to democratic legitimacy; just as, in general, the above-mentioned idea of bureaucrats as “technicians” evidently has little correspondence with bureaucrat’s present self-image in the democratic West. For example, the British officials responsible for drawing up laws see themselves as—thinkers (E. C. Page).

Accompanying Programme


Bureaucratics. In Ämtern und Würden
photo exibition by Jan Banning
1 Mai–29 June 2014, Konstanz

with accompanying lecture series

refer to overview