Anthropology of the State

Anthropology of the State during Globalization

by Jason Antrosio

What’s happening with the anthropology of the state? It seemed that in the 1990s, anthropology was breaking from the ethnographic trilogy of one fieldworker, one village, one year, in order to connect ethnographic observation to the understanding of state, government, and nation. But just as the anthropology of the state was gaining traction, it was swamped by the prevalent idea that globalization rendered nation-states irrelevant. Only recently a historian colleague insisted that “the nation-state is going the way of the dodo bird.” In the present climate, an anthropology of the state can seem like an anachronistic historical exercise rather than one of political and intellectual relevance.

Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s chapter on “The Anthropology of the State in the Age of Globalization,” a re-working of an article that appeared in Current Anthropology is a call to renew anthropological investigation of the state. For Trouillot, we should be wary of seeing the state as something out there, or as equivalent to national government. Instead we need to be attuned to state effects:

If the state is a set of practices and processes and the effects they produce as much as a way to look at them, we need to track down these practices, processes, and effects whether or not they coalesce around the central sites of national governments. In the age of globalization state practices, functions and effects increasingly obtain in sites other than the national but that never fully bypass the national order. The challenge for anthropologists is to study these practices, functions and effects without prejudice about sites or forms of encounters. (2003:89)

Anthropology of the State vs. the Violence Counters

Although Trouillot’s essay has had influence within anthropology, the idea of tracing state effects as processes and practices, not necessarily confined to national government apparatus, seems to be even less heeded today. Jared Diamond’s recent violence tallies, in alliance with Steven Pinker’s statistical fetish, rely almost entirely on very simplistic distinctions between “state societies” and “non-state societies.” If you see a government, call it a state society and count the numbers. If you don’t–and for Jared Diamond on the Colbert Report this includes contemporary ranchers in Montana, people in Papua New Guinea, and urban neighborhoods in Washington, D.C.–call it a non-state or “traditional” society and equate it with lifeways prior to agriculture or prior to the state.

Perhaps in part because anthropology has not done enough to trace state effects, we have also said too little about such claims. The HAU Journal of Ethnographic Theory has a wonderful open-access issue on The G-Factor of Anthropology: Archaeologies of Kin(g)ship, but little direct connection to these popular-sphere debates. More surprisingly, even as the excellent anthropologies project aims at the public, the most recent issue on Anthropology & War has no mention of Pinker or Diamond. In both cases, a central message from anthropology, “that one cannot measure governmental power on a continuum” (Trouillot 2003:86) underpins excellent research but could be more directly engaged with debates external to anthropology.

Anthropology, State Government, and Market Inefficiency

Another area in which an anthropology of the state may matter is to counter prevailing ideas that states are by nature inefficient, markets by nature efficient. Anthropologists have often, with reason, been suspicious of state claims, and Trouillot draws on James Scott’s Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. However, as I argued in Anthropology and Government Planning, we need to be very careful that such suspicion does not validate narratives of political helplessness. A better understanding of state effects is necessary if we hope to coalesce around anthropologically-informed understandings of gun reform or immigration reform.

Anthropology, Consumers, and the State Isolation Effect

The first state effect Trouillot identifies, drawing on Nikos Poulantzas, is an “isolation effect” which “produces atomized, individualized citizens who all appear to be equal within a supposedly undifferentiated public sphere. . . . Thus the isolation effect separates individuals from the very social history that produced them as distinct individuals in the first place” (2003:89). This isolation effect is quite relevant to the kinds of consumer interactions Elizabeth Chin describes in Purchasing Power–the notion that all become equal in the consumer sphere.

The isolation effect also contributes to diminish responses which call for state intervention, in alliance with the ideas of government inefficiency mentioned above. So even though current average white-black wealth disparities are worse than when Chin wrote her book, worse than under either President Bush, the notion persists that this must be the result of individual choices (see Social Construction of Race, Conservative Goldmine). Or even if it is not just individual choice, the state is portrayed as powerless to address such issues: “The new construction of state powerlessness relative to private efficiency–which one must insist is a political choice–eases the transfer of jurisdiction and responsibilities” (2003:86). Indeed, it was striking that movements like Occupy Wall Street did not seem to directly address state projects.

Anthropology, the State, and the Citizen

In a powerful lecture at Hartwick College titled The Legacy of 19th Century Slave Emancipation for the Modern World, historian Thomas Holt drew attention to the 1793 Guadeloupe revolt of enslaved blacks. When confronted by soldiers and asked to identify themselves, the blacks replied “Citizens and friends!” (see Laurent Dubois’s A Colony of Citizens: Revolution & Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1804).

Holt challenged us to guard against new forms of slavery in our midst, and that to confront a vast informal economy, we need to reimagine our national spaces of citizenship. Indeed, it is most necessary, during a time when the idea of independent nation is revealed as no longer utopia, that we re-examine the notion of citizen, friend, and identification:

Government institutions and practices are to be studied, of course, and we can deplore that anthropology has not contributed enough to their study. However, anthropologists are best suited to study the state from below through ethnographies that center on the subject produced by state effects and processes. We may have to look for these processes and effects in sites less obvious than those of institutionalized politics and established bureaucracies. We may have to insist on encounters not immediately transparent, and we must further insist that our colleagues in other disciplines recognize their importance. We may indeed have to revert to the seemingly timeless banality of daily life. (Trouillot 2003:95)

Update #1: As I was writing this, was e-mailed a notice regarding the just-released issue of Anthropological Quarterly, Special Collection: Everyday Experiences of the State in the Margins: Memory, Belonging, Violence. An interesting and timely connection.

Update #2: See James C. Scott’s review of The World until Yesterday for an analysis of state effects and violence:

There is plenty of violence in the world of hunter-gatherers, though it is hardly illuminated by resorting to statistical comparisons between the mortality rates of a tiny tribal war in Kalimantan and the Battle of the Somme or the Holocaust. This violence, however, is almost entirely a state-effect. It simply cannot be understood historically from 4000 BC forward apart from the appetite of states for trade goods, slaves and precious ores, any more than the contemporary threat to remote indigenous groups can be understood apart from the appetite of capitalism and the modern state for rare minerals, hydroelectric sites, plantation crops and timber on the lands of these peoples.

As Alex Golub notes in Read James Scott’s review of Jared Diamond, this review echoes my own perspective and concerns in Jared Diamond, Science, Violence & the Facts.

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  • rumagin

    Nice discussion. No Karl Polanyi in there?

    • Thanks! Undoubtedly Polanyi would be an interesting inclusion, especially as a way of thinking through multiple state forms. My read of this was from the Trouillot chapter which is primarily “from Radcliffe-Brown to Abrams, from Gramsci to Poulantzas by way of Althusser” (2003:95).

      Why not Polanyi? Perhaps from fear of resuscitating the formalist-substantivist debate?

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  • John McCreery

    If I had the time, I would write a careful comparative review of Trouillot’s Global Transformations and David Kilcullen’s Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla (, which has a lot of intelligent and scary things to say about the limits and exercise of nation-state power in an evermore connected world in which critical systems in “littoral” (coastal) cities in particular are being overwhelmed by population growth, while at the same time they sit at the intersections of global trade, transport, finance, immigration and communication networks. The author is an Australian soldier as well as the holder of a doctorate in Anthropology.

  • Stephanie Hobbis

    How about anthropological inquiries into (state) bureaucracies? Hetherington’s (2011) Guerrilla Auditors or Graeber’s (2012) article in HAU on bureaucracies as structures of violence, among others.
    Also there is my own doctoral research (still very much in the making) on ‘Zones of Imagination in Local State Formation’ in the context of contemporary Solomon Islands. Self-promotion aside, thank you for the great overview, and the (so perceived) encouragement for my project!

    • Hi Stephanie, thank you for some great recommendations and definitely looking forward to your work-project!

  • John Postill

    Nice piece, Jason. Krohn-Hansen and Nustad (2005), in State Formations: Anthropological Perspectives, argue persuasively that we should disaggregate the state. In my own book Media and Nation-Building: How the Iban Became Malaysian (Postill 2006) I study precisely the effects of state policies, ideals, and interventions in the ‘nationalisation’ of an indigenous group in Sarawak, East Malaysia from the 1950s onwards, with special reference to media. Like you, I’m highly sceptical of the claim that the nation-state is going the way of the dodo bird, as your colleague put it. Recent waves of protest in Tunisia, Egypt, Spain, Turkey, etc, were primarily aimed at national governments, despite their transnational aspects.

    • John Postill

      PS. To clarify, Krohn-Hansen and Nustad say we should disaggregate the state as a conceptual category prone to being treated as a monolith.

  • QnsGambit

    I think it interesting that Anthropology as a field would so readily and uncritically borrow the Poli Sci “nation-state” as a unit of measure. In my mind and in my policy work, I have found the nation-state to be eminently useless analytically (although very useful rhetorically). That is to say, as soon as you try to define a State in terms of a nation, you get into perverse inconsistencies such as multiple States made of a single ethnic group or multiple ethnic groups in a single State.

    It seems to me that treating a State as simply the highest level of communal organization (the highest order rational actor, rather than the “globalized market”, which would be an irrational environmental actor akin to the climate) is far more consistent. This construct is far more illuminating to me as it captures the ability of a State to gain (and lose) allegiance of various groups that aggregate politically and economically to form it. Thus, an Iraqi or an Afghan is only an Iraqi or an Afghan to the extent that you are speaking of the geographic area or the groups that have accepted a role as a participant in the Afghan or Iraqi State government. A far more realistic, and analytically useful, assessment.

    It also limits the definition to the idea that a State is fundamentally an emergent entity that is composed of lower order human societies. Thus a State may through accretion gain members, or through fission lose members, who then may themselves emerge as a State.

    This also seems far more in line with Anthropology’s greatest competency, the fundamentals of humanity. The ability to illuminate the place of a State and its myriad of forms as products of human existence and function. Adhering to the nation-state or the political state as an object of study seems to me a fool’s errand. One doesn’t learn much about what’s written in a book by looking at its binding, paper, and type-set as those can change without altering the words inside.

  • Helga Vierich

    I don’t think anthropologists have paid enough attention to the interaction of state level governments and organized crime. Internal policing – including who may carry weapons and who may not, arises out of this interface.

    Almost all the boiling issues within every larger polity concern corruption. And this corruption is almost inevitably spins outward from the collision point of human greed with human folly: leading to fear of exposure or lose of position. Honey traps are a very old tactic, followed closely by assassination.

    It is thus that the interface slips over the margins of civil administration and turns the machinery of social control away from justice – and so, alas, makes legal, not just fraud, and greed, but threats of force. So, then, in every state system, at each level from municipal to empire, a whole population can begin to live under the gun.

    If I am mistaken, let this simple hypothesis be studied and debunked.

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