In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Bureaucracy

  • Introduction
  • Journals
  • Methods: Studying Up, Down, and Sideways

Anthropology Bureaucracy
Colin Hoag
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 February 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0208


The term "bureaucracy" refers broadly to administration and official procedure in states, corporations, and other complex organizations. However, the term has a much more complicated set of connotations related to delays and overwrought procedural protocols, emanating from critiques of socialism, the state, and modernity. The figure of the bureaucrat stands at the center of discourse about bureaucracy: at once listless and nefarious, the bureaucrat embodies the inscrutability and absurdity of modern institutional power: impersonal, ubiquitous, and charged with executing law and regulation dispassionately. Bureaucracy represents an ideal of state-enforced equality before the law that is in endless deferral. Anthropologists are well placed to sort through these contradictions and how they manifest in the everyday life of clients, bureaucrats, and others who engage with bureaucracy. The study of bureaucracy has a shallow scholarly history in the discipline of anthropology relative to sociology and political science. For much of the 20th century, bureaucracy was seen as strictly a “Western” phenomenon and therefore outside the purview of anthropologists, who tended to focus on “non-Western” phenomena in other parts of the world. This disciplinary territoriality began to shift in the mid-1990s, and anthropologists increasingly turned an eye toward the everyday life of organizations, including the documents, protocols, and forms of sociality that configure it. This shift was a result of several intellectual currents, notably anthropologists’ interest in understanding how the lives of the subaltern peoples they study are shaped by political institutions and projects. These include the state—a crucial site for the development of the anthropology of bureaucracy—but also humanitarian aid organizations and environmental conservation programs. As anthropologists began asking questions about bureaucrats as ethnographic subjects rather than merely executors of official policy, a greater sensibility for the signs and affective qualities of bureaucratic life opened up new insights into the diversity of positions within bureaucratic institutions, as well as the many kinds of bureaucratic work subsumed under the category of “bureaucracy.” Anthropologists of bureaucracy today train their focus on research funding committees, meetings in corporate board rooms, the aesthetic form of paperwork stamped by civil servants at municipal planning offices, the protocols of environmental impact assessments, interactions between asylum applicants and immigration officials, and beyond.


Contributions to the anthropology of bureaucracy can be found in a number of general anthropology journals, including American Anthropologist, American Ethnologist, Cultural Anthropology, and the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. However, PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review has been a leading forum. Because of the long-standing role played by anthropologists working in corporate, policy, and other applied settings, journals such as Human Organization and Anthropology of Work Review have also served as important sites for this scholarship. Though not listed here owing to space limitations, journals in the fields of geography, migration studies, public administration, and sociology also publish on topics relevant to anthropologists of bureaucracy.

  • American Anthropologist. 1888–.

    The flagship journal of the American Anthropological Association, issued quarterly and peer-reviewed. American Anthropologist publishes scholarship from all four fields of anthropology in the USA, including socio-cultural, linguistic, archaeological, and physical, however it has published important work in political anthropology.

  • American Ethnologist. 1974–.

    A quarterly, peer-reviewed, flagship journal in anthropology dedicated to advancing the study of diverse topics through ethnographically informed approaches. The journal has consistently published research on states, institutions, and other relevant topics over its lifetime.

  • Anthropology of Work Review. 1980–.

    A semiannual, peer-reviewed journal published by the Society for the Anthropology of Work (SAW) of the American Anthropological Association. The journal publishes academic and applied scholarship on topics broadly relating to the culture and organization of human work.

  • Cultural Anthropology. 1986–.

    Known for its cutting-edge approach to theory, this quarterly, peer-reviewed journal has published ethnographically grounded research on bureaucracy in relation to state-making, humanitarian aid, archives, colonial administration, and documents.

  • Human Organization. 1941–.

    A quarterly, peer-reviewed journal of the Society for Applied Anthropology. The journal publishes original research articles as well those describing innovative methodological approaches, which apply anthropological insights to understand and solve contemporary social problems. Human Organization has consistently published on topics relating to bureaucratic institutions during its history, including corporations and state administration.

  • Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 1848–.

    Published by the oldest anthropological organization in the world, this quarterly, peer-reviewed general anthropology journal has featured important work in political anthropology on bureaucracy, meetings, institutions, organizations, knowledge production, and other topics relevant to anthropologists of bureaucracy.

  • PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review. 1974–.

    A semiannual, peer-reviewed journal produced by the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology. An important forum for anthropological scholarship on bureaucracy and related topics, including contributions from scholars in interdisciplinary legal studies fields who use ethnographic approaches.

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