- Lotta Björklund LarsenLotta Björklund LarsenUniversity of Exeter Business School
- and Karen BollKaren BollCopenhagen Business School - Centre for Public Organization, Value and Innovation (POVI)
Taxation is the collection by a revenue authority of levies, fees, or charges from residents, businesses, or other legal entities deemed taxable pursuant to laws and regulations. Taxation affects most people in the world within the confines of a nation, state, or region. Some people claim taxation is theft by the state, others claim that it is a moral action and duty, and a third view is that taxes are expenses that citizens incur in order to make claims on the state. Taxation is thus an area of contestation.
Taxpayers pay taxes on what they produce or transport, on their salaries and other income, and on their consumption. Taxation not only has a fiscal purpose, but can be used for resource allocation within society, for income redistribution, and for leveling economic stability to address issues of unemployment, prices, and economic growth. Research on taxation has been conducted in most social sciences. Legal scholars discuss changes to the law, economists emphasize taxation’s economic impact within the constraints of models, the accounting discipline addresses the organization and measurement of taxation, and behavioral economists and psychologists aim to predict human behavior in taxation experiments. While this research has extended the knowledge of fiscal practices, taxation has long been in dire need of a critical perspective on its human consequences, its social impact, and how it is culturally shaped. An emerging anthropology of taxation can address these issues.
The anthropology of taxation opens a host of interconnected issues at the nexus of states, markets, and citizenship. It focuses on money, work, and ownership; notions of fairness and honesty or avoidance and evasion; the politics of regulation and redistribution; and the balance between taking responsibility for oneself and for others, to name a few. Ethnographic studies of taxation can depict how various stakeholders in the tax arena shape and are shaped by taxation. And they can illustrate how subjects of taxation—residents, businesses, communities, and societies—through their view on and practices of taxation, negotiate their relation to the state and to other beneficiaries. Turning our attention to the collecting side, taxation provides a multifaceted arena for issues such as policymaking, governance, and digitalization. The role that tax advisers play, often advising taxpayers on curtailing tax, also suggests a complicated relation with society. Anthropologists can untangle and illustrate the relations taxation create between various stakeholders through notions of social contract, governance, fiscal citizenship, reciprocity, and redistribution.
- Applied Anthropology
- Sociocultural Anthropology
Most people in the world are affected by taxation, directly or indirectly and not just financially. We pay tax when we eat, work, consume, and live—even in motion we pay road tolls, car fees, and fuel taxes. Many taxes are opaque and unless taxpayers are explicitly looking for it, they might have no idea that part of what they pay when they purchase something is actually tax. In many countries, employers deduct income tax and social security fees from salaries prior to remunerating their employees, thus both obfuscating the actual amount of tax paid but also making employed citizens more compliant. In other countries, employees self-assess their income when estimating their taxes. In the United States, sales taxes are added to the price when making purchases and are thus a reminder that the federal state is taking its share. In many other countries, such tax is organized as a value-added tax (VAT) or goods and services tax (GST), and is often only found in the small print on the receipt. Taxation is a more or less mandatory transfer of valuables from taxpayers to their rulers—when taxpayers engage in the formal production, consumption, trading, and exchanges of goods and services. This payment of taxes on the part of the taxpayers is a central feature of taxation.
Taxation, however, is not just the humdrum of payments, administrative bureaucracy, or automated tax collection by computerized systems. It is also dependent on judgment, discretion, and even tense interactions in practice between taxpayers and tax collectors. Narratives about different forms of tax fraud or simple evasion—from small entrepreneurs to large business conglomerates—often reach the press and are readily discussed both publicly and privately. Multinationals are regularly accused of engaging in creative tax planning—supported by specialized tax advisers—when placing profits offshore and in tax havens (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development 2000; Palan et al. 2013). Moreover, the world of “informal labor” flourishes in the underground economy, where underpaid and unregistered workers are exploited (and/or exploit business opportunities) in a myriad of business constellations outside or at the margins of the formal economy. In some countries, the possibilities for citizens to hire cleaning and construction services off the record to clean houses, nanny children, or refurbish bathrooms are simply too attractive. Outright tax evasion, which is an illegal activity where a taxpayer deliberately evades paying taxes, and tax avoidance, which is a legal usage of the tax regime to one’s own advantage but maybe not in line with its intended usage, happen everywhere in society on a daily basis in different formats. Seen from this perspective, it is remarkable that tax authorities actually manage to uphold their tax basis and revenue to fund governmental spending (Braithwaite 2003).
An anthropological focus on taxation opens up a host of interconnected social issues: complicated relations between citizens, businesses, and the state; money, work, and ownership relations; notions of a just share for all; the politics of redistribution; and the balance between responsibility for the extended self and for society at large. Taxation thus provides a multifaceted lens into trends located at the nexus of state, market, and citizenship. Yet, it also concerns issues about social values such as trust, fairness, and good moral behavior. This makes taxation an extremely fascinating (and at times thrilling) topic for research. Anthropological research on taxes presents a focus directed at the very processes of developing, producing, assessing, justifying, and collecting the revenue—that we call taxation.
What Is Taxation?
Taxation involves state-sanctioned collection of levies, fees, or charges from residents, businesses, or other entities deemed legally residing within a jurisdiction. Irrespective of whether the ruler of such a jurisdiction is a chief, a king, or a democratic government, there is a cost for governing and serving people. But taxation serves other purposes than merely providing citizens with infrastructures, military, health, education, and other services. Taxation can be used to redistribute income to address problems of inequality in a given society; as a tool to stabilize the economy at large, affecting employment, prices, and economic growth; and as a way to encourage or discourage certain citizen and corporate behavior (Musgrave 1959). Taxing alcohol, cigarettes, and candy aims at reducing consumption of what are defined as unhealthy commodities, and subsidizing climate-friendly services or products encourages ecological consumption. These interventions have both social and cultural implications.
Because taxation is basically about taking, giving, and receiving, it forms a reciprocal relationship between citizenry and a tax collector such as a state. Taxpayers expect to get something in return if contributing, although not directly—as it would then be a market transaction—but in the foreseeable future or when in need. Taxes are repetitive exchanges that trigger specific expectations. In this sense, taxation can be said to be a “total social phenomenon,” which, according to Marcel Mauss, has three obligations: to give, to receive, and to give again (Mauss 2002 ). A reciprocal argument in taxation underscores that this relationship must perhaps be even more pertinent in states with high tax rates, for example, in the Nordic countries where a large part of the price of a private purchase, as well as personal income, is tax. This is contrary to the supposition of most economic research that the willingness to pay tax diminishes with the tax rate imposed (Allingham and Sandmo 1972). Empirical research shows that Swedes actually became more content with taxation from 1960 to 1980 despite the almost exponential increase in tax pressure during this period (Hadenius 1985) as public welfare expanded simultaneously.
Historical Origins of Taxation
What is deemed taxable has varied historically. Taxation probably precedes humanity’s earliest writings. Egyptian hieroglyphs document how land was surveyed and crops measured in order to be taxed (Carmona and Ezzamel 2020). Medieval Europeans were subject to taxes raised to fund their rulers’ military expeditions (Martin et al. 2009; cf. Schumpeter  1954). When money was scarce and not of much use in military expeditions, households and communities had to provide horses for transportation, cattle, grain, and even men as soldiers. But taxes also contributed to communal living organized by the ruler. In the historical kingdom of Dahomey, “taxes” could originate in various types of valuables—money, foodstuffs, cowries, and cattle (Herskovits 1952)—as all villagers had to bring taxes as “gifts” to the king. With the monetarization of societies and the increasing governance of people’s economic activities, taxes became increasingly payable with publicly issued money. Taxes, like money, link people to their communities (cf. Hart 2000).
More or less anything deemed valuable can be taxed: wages and salaries; corporate profits; commodities for consumption; traveling and transport; services; gifts, wealth, and inheritance; and property, houses, and land. History is also replete with ingenuous taxes. England introduced a tax on glass windows in 1696 and so did Sweden in 1743. Windows were deemed a luxury, they were difficult to hide, and they were an expression of status. They could, therefore, be taxed (Löwnertz 1983; Oates and Schwab 2015). But this tax also resulted in many “painted” windows on country estates and large city dwellings to show status yet avoid the payment of expensive taxes. What is subject to tax has to have an estimated value, such tax has to be unequivocally collectible, and perhaps even has to create a perception of redistribution.
Any tax needs someone to value and collect it. Throughout history there are many examples of taxing products aimed for markets, either at national borders or within the country. When markets can be erected and protected, it is easy to both control and collect a tax when people cross borders or enter a market. City walls were thus not only erected to protect cities from enemy attacks, but also with the purpose of taxing products sold on marketplaces.
In Dahomey, West Africa, people had to bring the tax they owed—the gifts as it were—directly to the ruler, yet more common was some sort of collector. In the early days of taxation, such tasks were given to bailiffs or other law enforcers. One example is the Sheriff of Nottingham who plays the role of the villain in the chronicles of Robin Hood. Literature and history are replete with such figures, people who show misanthropic qualities without concern for their fellow citizens, but who also become increasingly aware of the impact of tax that they collect. In colonial Cameroon, locally appointed chieftains were torn between collecting tax to sustain their position in society while held in contempt by peasants qua taxpayers who had to endure extortionate taxes (Guyer 1980).
Throughout the world, contemporary taxation usually depends on taxpayers’ income, such as private salaries, and corporate profits. But taxation is also embedded in many other social developments. In order to tax corporate profits, for example, businesses have to calculate corporate profits according to established rules and regulations. This means that taxation laws and practices have been closely codeveloped with the establishment of accounting standards (Lamb and Oats 2020). If tax subjects are to be treated equally, they have to manage and calculate what is taxable in the same manner. Likewise, the organization of government coincided with tax collection, and there is virtually no country that does not have a governmental department or public administration responsible for tax collection. Such tax administrations interpret tax laws and collect taxes due. Revenue authorities can be very independent but may also be subject to tax oversight and, in some unfortunate examples, these authorities may be corrupt (e.g., see Schueth 2012 on Georgia). The organization and responsibilities of a tax administration in relation to other governmental institutions have an impact on citizens’ trust in their government; tax administrations, after all, have a very direct link to citizens’ daily economy through VAT and other consumption taxes, a fact often forgotten from the consumers’ perspective. Surprisingly, the way taxation is organized affects perceptions of legitimacy rather than the actual construction of tax laws (Gribnau 2015). Indeed, taxation is located at the nexus of government, markets, and citizens’ relations.
Existing Research on Taxation
Because taxation is such a key social constituent, it has been researched extensively—although mostly outside the scope of anthropology. Researchers have suggested a multitude of reasons why taxpayers comply—or avoid doing so—and have come up with remedies for inappropriate externalities, and have thus participated in proposing new laws and policies. The vast majority of research on taxation has been done by legal scholars and economists, and the majority of remedies proposed, therefore, naturally go hand in hand with disciplinary perspectives: legal scholars propose amending existing tax laws while economists emphasize the need for economic incentives and sanctions (Allingham and Sandmo 1972). Other approaches to taxation include social interactions theory (Alm 2012; Fortin et al. 2007; Gordon 1989), economic psychology experiments (Kirchler 2007) and institutional (Steinmo 1996, 2018), or responsive regulation (J. Braithwaite 2003; V. Braithwaite 2007) theories.
Such research merits attention and praise, but it also shows that mainstream research on taxation is addressed narrowly and most often focused upon tax laws, revenue generation, or behavioral responses. There is a clear dominance of positivist research approaches where black letter law (legal rules not subject to dispute), statistics, and quantitative experiments are the dominant methods. In her article on philosophical research paradigms in taxation, Margaret McKerchar explains this positivist approach and contrasts it with the much less common interpretative approach to taxation research (McKerchar 2008, 2010). This latter approach proposes an understanding of taxation as cultural, institutional, and relational phenomena that carry with them social implications and dynamics. There have been two major research movements that have tackled these social aspects of taxation, which McKerchar describes from within the field of taxation: the critical perspective on taxation (Boden et al. 2010; Oats 2012) and the new fiscal sociology (Martin, Mehrotra, and Prasad 2009). While these two movements represent research outside the anthropological canon, it is, nonetheless, a source of inspiration for anthropologists interested in taxation, as these bodies of literature are interested in many of the same concerns as the anthropology of taxation and works with related methodologies.
A critical perspective on taxation has been developed within accounting where Lynne Oats and like-minded scholars have done a tremendous job of arguing that taxation is a broad social phenomenon that merits attention outside the legal, economic, and behavioral sciences (Boden et al. 2010; Oats 2012). Oats states: “tax is very much a social and institutional practice, and this needs to be recognized as such to a much greater extent” (Oats 2012, 5). Referring to legal and economic research, Oats continues: “Armchair theorizing is an important endeavor and not to be discouraged; however, a neglected aspect of tax scholarship is what actually happens in the real world when tax rules and regulations are put into play” (Oats 2012, 5). From an anthropological standpoint, it might seem natural to focus on what “happens in practice” in relation to taxation. Yet carving out this approach within the field of mainstream taxation research has been challenging because of the prevalence of quantitative, legal, and positivist research. Oats and colleagues advocate for more research based on fieldwork and interpretive analysis of taxation (Boden 2012; Gracia and Oats 2012; Wynter and Oats 2018, 2019).
The “new fiscal sociology” (Martin, Mehrotra, and Prasad 2009) looks at the effects of taxation on various social categories and at what fiscal practices are applied by any given state (Campbell 1993). The movement addresses three broad issues. First, it focuses on informal social institutions such as family, friendships, trust, work, and religion, thus underlining that taxation is part and parcel of social relationships. Second, it takes note of a country’s history and traditions. Third, it explicitly investigates the complex social interactions and institutional contexts that link state and society in ways that shape fiscal policies and their effects. In this line of critical research there are also studies that have a global and international approach to taxation questioning wealth, tax policies, and tax professionals’ misconduct from a more sociological point of view (Christensen and Seabrooke 2020; Harrington 2016, 2018; Seabrooke and Wigan 2018).
What we wish to convey by introducing these scholars is that from within the field of taxation there has been an increasing awareness of the need to broaden the view on taxation and especially address the questions of why people pay tax and how they are made to pay it. In relation to this literature, an anthropology of tax pushes “open doors” as there is already an interest here in what an anthropology of tax may contribute and a kindred body of research to play with. The anthropology of tax offers ethnographic methods and concepts that are grounded methodologically in taking people and their beliefs, practices, and engagements seriously.
Anthropological Studies of Tax and Taxation
There have been a number of studies at the intersection of anthropology and taxation that underline important aspects both of taxation per se, but also why taxation is a timely and important field of research for anthropological enquiries.
Much of the early anthropology of tax took place in Africa. Two seminal contributions are Jane Guyer’s (1980, 1992) work on public revenue in rural Nigeria and Janet Roitman’s (2005) study of “fiscal disobedience” in the Chad Basin, Cameroon. Guyer shows how processes of state democratization are linked to revenue collection, arguing that any studies of governance have to include taxation (Guyer 1992). Taxation is a comparative unifier across historical societies: “one common denominator from Rome to China, [is] that of tax” (Guyer 1992, 42, citing Wickham 1984, 36). The issue in her work is how establishing governance intersects with democratic representation. What stands out in the African experience is that the newly independent African states had to seek public consent prior to enforcing taxation, which is contrary to the historical experience. In a Foucauldian-inspired study, Roitman (2005) examines cultural relationships forged through taxation. She demonstrates that such relationships cannot be separated from the development of broader economic issues. The argument is that tax evasion and the development of the political terrain are both results of French colonization. Through the concept of “tax-price,” Roitman explains that Cameroonians were simultaneously forced to become both consumers and taxpayers. Taxation permeates the social dynamics in citizens’ relationship with those who rule them, how they are ruled, but also, more broadly, to the socioeconomic structure.
Concentrating on the efforts performed by the tax collecting authority in the Adamawa Province of Cameroon, José-Maria Muñoz (2010, 2011) demonstrates how this authority tried to create taxpayers from individuals and businesses. The preferred tax is on wealth, and since livestock makes up the lion’s share of people’s wealth, it is predominantly livestock that is subject to tax. What Muñoz underlines is that people’s views on taxation must be understood through a historical gaze of what has value. Taxes collected and taxes spent must be in accordance with those values in order to be seen as legitimate. Melville Herskovits’s (1952) contribution is somewhat overlooked, but in a study of several places in West Africa, he depicts tax collection as one of the main ingredients to shape social structures. The cost of ruling had to be collected from some sort of surplus among the governed people. Societies with more complex political organization have a “sharply differentiated system of taxation and public expenditure” (Herskovits 1952, 417). Herskovits argues that any ruler who wants to obtain legitimacy has to make sure that all contribute and that the “gifts” are spent in a way that accords with the cultural values in society. The king could either give “gifts” to a particular group or to all subjects to win loyalty, or he could spend lavishly in order to enhance his status.
Taxation does not need to be an individual responsibility. Ricardo Godoy (1986) shows how in the Bolivian and Peruvian Andes, the burden of taxation is shared through the ayllus, the social groupings, or communities known since the time of the conquistadors. Part of an ayllu’s collective responsibility lies in paying any tax debts, thereby protecting even the poorest families from eviction. Since the more affluent households bear a larger burden, the national tax system has been transformed into a progressive taxation of wealth. Godoy proposes that the state’s fiscal burden on people might even be the reason that ayllus are still in existence.
Moving away from studies in developing countries, a number of anthropologists have investigated taxation in wealthier nations. Gregory Rawlings (2003) emphasizes the role of fairness as a vital outcome for any functioning tax system in contemporary society. The Australian tax system that he studied at the beginning of this century was viewed as two tiered, favoring the wealthy, yet most citizens regarded compliance with the system as an important social responsibility. In order to sustain compliance, it was, therefore, of the utmost importance that authorities pursued fairness and retained control over income subject to tax. Measures were taken to restrict income from escaping to overseas tax havens or to places where taxes were lower. Not surprisingly, Rawlings’s overarching argument for fair taxation is that all citizens should pay their dues, and all citizens should be treated according to the same rules (Rawlings 2003). This tallies with the Swedish experience. Lotta Björklund Larsen argues that inherent in one of the world’s highest taxed countries, citizens see fairness as a main ingredient in dealing with the state, but also with fellow citizens (Björklund Larsen 2018). Paying a high proportion of tax on any purchase of services is acceptable if the public welfare meets social and economic expectations, not only what is given but also to whom this is given. Complying with taxes in a welfare state means that all should contribute according to laws and regulations. Citizens do not only have reciprocal demands on the state in exchange for having paid taxes, but they also have demands on fellow citizens. For the sake of fairness, all citizens need to be perceived as contributing by paying tax in order to receive welfare benefits. Lastly, looking at Argentina, Mireille Abelin (2012) describes how otherwise much-derided tax inspectors—based in Buenos Aires—improve their status by making sure that the wealthy also pay their share of tax. Invoking a shaming technique, el escrache (public harassment), which was first used by human rights organizations searching for disappeared victims during the military dictatorship in 1986–1987, Abelin underscores the importance of social inclusiveness via taxation. People who do not adhere to tax laws should be publicly identified for their lack of solidarity.
Keeping the focus on the work of tax authorities, that is, on the regulatory aspect of taxation, Björklund Larsen also conducted fieldwork at the Swedish Tax Agency. Following a group of tax analysts in their work, she revealed how established analysis methods provided contradictory results, and when such results in turn defy agency compliance strategies, the results are obfuscated in public. The agency thus applies diverse knowledge claims—legal, economic, cultural—to shape taxpayer behavior (Björklund Larsen 2017b). Karen Boll conducted extensive studies of tax inspectors’ work in Denmark. Her studies show the discretion used by tax inspectors when they reason about taxpayers’ tax evasion (Boll 2015), and the way that tax inspectors translate vastly different pieces of information into knowledge about specific practices of noncompliance in relation to taxation (Boll 2014b). Finally, her reserch focuses on how collaborative forms of tax regulation are emerging as a new regulatory approach to taxation (Boll 2016, 2018, 2019). Boll’s work is noteworthy as it explicitly defines tax compliance as a sociomaterial practice (in contrast to understanding it as a psychologically shaped behavior) and looks at the many interactions between tax inspectors and taxpayers.
Because taxation is seldom simply a national concern for one jurisdiction, but neither a total transnational phenomenon, the studies that see taxation in the intersection between the national level and the supranational level, and how taxes are shaped in such international fora are important. To address these concerns, Brenda Chalfin’s (2006) study focuses on global customs regimes. Through studies of the World Customs Administration, Chalfin argues that in customs there are partnerships between governments and multinational capital constructed in relations of subcontracting, outsourcing, and national branding. She connects this to the advancement of neoliberal economic agendas that provide a cover for shifts in the expression and location of state power on a global scale. Johanna Mugler (2018) questions the democratic content of taxation following the negotiations between tax experts, bureaucrats, and representatives of large corporations at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) forum. BEPS was an idea introduced to establish international consensual rules so that corporations would not engage in profit shifting between jurisdictions. Yet, contrary to the perception of the rule of market forces, Mugler argues that in a highly entangled tax community where no hierarchical order exists, there are shifting interests not only between the public and the private sectors, but also between different nations—and how their fiscal revenue would fare under a new regulatory scheme such as the BEPS strategy.
Lastly, a special issue of Social Analysis entitled “Beyond the Social Contract: An Anthropology of Tax” (Makovicky and Smith 2020) showcases an emerging community of anthropologists directly tackling various aspects of taxation. The contributions in this special issue depict geographical and societal communities around the world and center upon how citizens interpret and respond to state efforts to instill fiscal discipline. In so doing, these articles investigate and question the knee-jerk reflection of always connecting taxation to a social contract between citizens and states. For example, do taxpayers in the city of Cochabamba, Bolivia, selectively choose between various taxes and fees to social institutions that can make it possible for them to secure property rights and thus a livelihood somewhat independent from state interventions (Sheild Johansson 2020)? Likewise, do Ghanaians in Accra prefer to pay tithes to their church instead of paying state taxes (Kauppinen 2020)? Tithes are deemed more efficient—as they “pay off.” These alleged tax-avoiding strategies in two very different contexts could be depicted as a lack of trust in the state, but instead they seem to underscore the importance of paying attention to the history of state interventions. Ideological convictions are an obvious resource drawn upon both by members of an anticapitalist cooperative in Barcelona (Bäumer Escobar 2020) and in British libertarian campaigners’ interest in low taxes (Venkatesan 2020). The lack of trust in the tax authority in Istria, Croatia (Smith 2020), highlights that fundamental to the development of state-society relations is not just the construction and practice of fiscal systems, but also how such a system is projected onto society. Similarly, Romanian immigrants in London strive to become taxpayers in order to formalize their status by showing an entrepreneurial spirit that is valued in British society (Vicol 2020). Finally, looking beyond the social contract and focusing on the quantification and value of work, the study of the egalitarian Helsinki Timebank does not impress the Finnish tax authority; it aims to retain the right to impose so-called market values (Eräsaari 2020). These articles make for an impressive and well-developed argument that tax is so much more than a contractual relation, a social contract as it were, between citizens and their state. People’s engagement with taxes may, in many cases, rely on other communities that they feel a stronger attachment to, that treat them more fairly, and that recompense them for their contributions.
Looking at this broad field of anthropological studies of taxation, it is clear that there is no overall theoretical approach with which to view and analyze it. Rather, what is noticeable is that many different social science perspectives and theories are used. For example, several authors have used Foucault’s work in their analyses of taxation (Roitman 2005; Willmott 2017, 2019). Bourdieu’s research has been applied to analyze the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable tax practice (Gracia and Oats 2012). Mauss spurred a study of reciprocal relations among actors on the Swedish tax arena (Björklund Larsen 2018). Actor-network theory has been used to conceptualize tax compliance as a sociomaterial practice (Boll 2012, 2014a, 2014b) and it also inspired the study of the Swedish Tax Agency (Björklund Larsen 2017b). It is thus impossible to identify “one” theory in relation to taxation. Rather, the field is characterized by a synthesis of common theoretical tools and adages and is—for better or worse—a prisoner of contemporary ways of enhancing understanding of the social world. What anthropologists have in common is the ethnographic sensibility and the holistic approach that allow researchers to address tax as part and parcel of human life.
Furthering Tax as a Research Field within Anthropology
There have been several proposals for establishing tax as a specific research field within anthropology. In the article “Towards an Anthropology of Taxation,” Kevin Carrico (2013) asks how anthropology may contribute to an understanding of taxation, and he introduces Peter Sloterdijk and his (radical) views on taxation as a point of entry to push forward new thinking about taxation (for a discussion of Carrico’s proposal, see Anthony and Junichiro 2020). Paolo Silvestri (2015) engages in a similar endeavor; he sketched a research agenda at the intersection between anthropology, philosophy of law, politics, and economics. His aim is to push for a more human approach in tax issues. In addition to these endeavors, the special issue of Social Analysis on taxes also pushed for an anthropology of tax linking this to the concern for questioning the almost taken for granted link to the social contract (Makovicky and Smith 2020), but also connecting taxation to the anthropology of ethics as ethical dilemmas are closely related to decisions on taxation (Venkatesan 2020). The authors have argued for a fiscal anthropological approach in particular, paying attention to methods studying participants within the tax triangle—taxpayers, tax authorities, and tax advisers—ethnographically (Björklund Larsen 2013a, 2017a; Boll 2014a, 2014b).
All of these considerations point to the value of anthropologists studying taxation for two central reasons. On the one hand it can depict ethnographic practices among the actors in tax arenas and how they relate to each other and to regulators, while on the other hand it can engage critically with the disciplines that have traditionally measured, modeled, and shaped taxation (through lawmaking) and thus shaped our understanding of what is at stake for citizens and societies in relation to taxation. The anthropological perspective can challenge the existing taxation paradigm beyond simplistic explanations of attitudes and practices of taxation as a matter of class, ideological convictions, and so forth. This should be understood as a natural extension of these various attempts at forming a specific research field within anthropology. However, we hope that our endeavor here is broader than many of the existing attempts, as we do not seek to connect taxation to any specific theme, problem, organization, or ideological standpoint. Rather, we seek to showcase how anthropology—as a broad discipline—can fruitfully analyze taxation complexities and thereby generate novel insights into this key social phenomenon.
Researching taxation anthropologically poses challenges; in other words, it is taxing. Tax matters are simply difficult to get access to due to the legal protection of taxpayers, secrecy, and privacy concerns. Taxation is an area that few individuals and businesses are keen to discuss with researchers. When it concerns economic practices that might be illegitimate—due to tax evasion or avoidance—there are all sorts of reasons to hide certain behaviors or justify actors’ explanations. Research with revenue authorities can pose even more severe challenges due to privacy requirements in tax administration. Moreover, what complicates this situation is that many different actors engage in activities relating to taxation activities. This includes private individual taxpayers, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, professional tax directors in large corporations, bookkeepers in small enterprises, and professionals working with taxes, including highly educated and financially successful tax experts and advisers. All of these—often powerful—actors engage in practices relating to taxation and will often be the subject of any anthropology of taxation.
Taxation is also challenging to study as just thinking about the practices of taxation is difficult and/or boring to most people. It involves tedious paperwork with forms and templates and can be frightening due to its technicality. Taxation is “obscenely complex” (Clemens 1999). Working with your tax return, you need to be conscientious while coming to grips with legal instructions or engaging in complicated calculations. It is also simply difficult to understand transfer price agreements, conversions in a business from the financial report to tax assessment, and even individuals’ tax returns are sometimes difficult to understand. These are all practices that well-paid professionals engage in. Increasingly, taxation has also been digitalized, and studying taxation can be a prime example of the recurrent humdrum of bureaucratic and digitalized work. For these reasons, taxation is not something that is easily pinned down and accessed.
Privacy, technical language, and the bureaucratic nature of taxation prevent many researchers from engaging in this research topic. Yet, this bundle of challenges is also what makes taxation inherently “anthropological,” as we are dealing with another culture and another language (the language is bureaucratic) and a different view on society’s members (Björklund Larsen 2017a). This is why anthropologists should especially venture into this field. Taxation consists of different specific practices that can be studied in various places and times—if you are granted access and if you have the courage to engage in this seemingly closed and complex field. Therefore, any study of taxation requires consideration in relation to whom to study and where to study the issues in questions.
Whom and Where to Research: Exploring the Tax Triangle
When planning a study of taxation, it is useful to map which actors to focus on as any particular choice can lead a study of taxation in many different directions, posing and answering different questions. In the 21st century’s common understanding of taxation, there is often a focus on the “tax triangle” consisting of taxpayers, tax authorities, and tax advisers. Most taxation revolves around these three pivotal actors. Looking first at the taxpayers, this group primarily include individual citizens or a form of taxpaying business. Both individual citizens and businesses are usually subject to paying tax and can both be entry points for studying taxation. There are numerous studies that primarily focus on individual citizens (Björklund Larsen 2012, 2013b; Guano 2010; Rawlings 2003). Others portray taxpayers as specific civil society groups. Miranda Shield Johansson’s (2018) research focuses on the indigenous poor in Bolivia and their transformation into taxpayers in a new fiscal regime, and Kyle Willmott’s (2019) study focuses on the indigenous people in Canada and how fiscal information about this group turned them into new political subjects. The advantage of this focus on individual taxpayers—or groups of individual taxpayers—is that these are usually not overly secretive about their tax payments.
Focusing on analyzing taxpayers as a business is a less common approach. Yet, we must stress that all—from sole traders, small- and medium-sized enterprises, to large corporations—are supposed to pay tax and, therefore, merit attention as research objects. In this line of research, Rawlings (2012) followed compliance decisions in Australian small and medium-sized enterprises and showed that these manage and meet tax obligations through invoking wider ethical and moral values. Boll (2014a) investigated the role of bookkeepers in Danish small- and medium-sized businesses and their tax compliance practices, highlighting that their tax compliance practices consist of a sociomaterial assemblage. In a Russian context, Nancy Ries (1999) addressed Russian business people’s attitudes on corruption and the concealment of income (both corporate and personal) in order to avoid paying taxes. These studies focus on the tax compliance practices that shape taxation in a given business setting; they illustrate how taxation is managed in corporate settings.
A common focus in taxation research is the intersection between state and citizenry. This focus is inherent as it is connects the regulated with the regulator. Key researchers in these areas are Guyer (1980, 1992) and Roitman (2005). They both focus on fiscal relationships between the state and its citizens. Here citizenship is closely linked to the development of new fiscal relations. In a similar vein, Leah Gatt and Oliver Owen’s (2018) study of personal income tax reforms in Lagos, Nigeria, is equally relevant. These studies focus on the state, democratization, and citizenship on the one hand and on the taxation of individual taxpayers on the other hand. These studies highlight how taxation can fruitfully be used as an entry point to understand fundamental governance processes of citizens.
Moving on in relation to the actors in the tax triangle, tax authorities, as representatives of the state, are another key focal point. Most countries have a tax authority and investigating them can teach us about tax collection, tax inspection, and revenue generation in general. Several studies have focused on customs and VAT collection in underdeveloped countries (Cantens, Raballand, and Bilangna 2010; Chalfin 2006; Muñoz 2011, 2013). Other studies cast their attention on tax authorities and their activities in well-off countries (Boll 2014b; Boll and Rhodes 2015; Björklund Larsen 2017b, 2018; Gracia and Oats 2012; Tuck 2010), an approach which includes Steven Sampson’s (2019) work on the use of whistleblowing within tax administration. Important to mention is the classic study of the tax inspector and his professional relationships (Preston 1989). A more recent study proposes a so-called “T-shaped” tax inspector in the United Kingdom with an emphasis on tax inspectors’ different competencies (Tuck 2010). Wynter and Oats’ study of the work of “street level” Jamaican tax inspectors reminds us that tax collection does not only take place in offices (Wynter and Oats 2019). The focus on tax authorities can also be applied to certain collecting practices such as the so-called receipt lotteries found in more than thirty countries (Björklund Larsen, forthcoming; Shield Johansson 2020). The underlying idea is to formalize commercial purchases by encouraging consumers to ask for receipts that can be used as lottery tickets; a winning ticket may give rise to a cash reward or other sorts of prizes. Such studies focus on tax inspectors and tax authorities’ regulation, policies, and practices. These perspectives can teach us how tax inspectors and tax authorities operate and govern, and also how they regard themselves and the citizens they are supposed to serve.
As tax authorities are those who interpret the laws and thus regulate the tax field, research on offshore practices and tax havens is also relevant here. Naturally, tax authorities are less visible in research on tax havens, which are not havens for tax, but rather countries that offer little or no tax liability, making it possible to evade taxes. Gregory Rawlings’ (2004) research on tax havens in the Pacific shows how their rise were simultaneous results of applying British common law with new financial global markets. Rawlings continuous exploration of tax havens has also cast light on the often futile hunt for tax evaders. Although international organizations like the OECD aim to display themselves as vigorous fighters of tax havens, tax evaders are still thriving (Rawlings 2017) as there are manifold ways to move taxable assets from one jurisdiction to another. These are examples of globalization and underscore that studying tax provides an angle into contemporary societies.
Anthropological research underscores the various effects that changes to tax laws can have for vulnerable small nations. The Cayman Islands have attracted particular attention. The arrival of multinational corporations in these islands caused local agriculture and fishing to diminish as food consumption increasingly consisted of canned or other unhealthy varieties (Caulfield 1978). May Hen (2018) shows how the Caymanian identity changed relations between indigenous and expatriate residents on these islands as a result of the nation transforming into a tax haven. She argues that this is a continuous struggle (cf. Maurer 2000) connecting global stories of an antagonistic tax haven to local, indigenous stories of struggling for economic, political, and social autonomy.
The last actor in the tax triangle is the tax adviser. Some unscrupulous tax advisers redirect money to tax havens, others work within the confinement of the law. Regardless of where they work, these professionals are a powerful, elite group of knowledge experts who can significantly shape tax law and practices (Mulligan and Oats 2008, 2016). Mugler’s (2018) research on international tax policy negotiations broaden the scope to include interest organizations that have no explicit legal power yet have significant impact on shaping international tax policies. Research has also shown that a huge part of critical lobbying activities, counseling, and guidance has been promoted by tax advisers and professionals (Harrington 2018). Their roles on the local and global tax arena should not be overlooked and merit close attention.
For many of these researchers, taxation as such has perhaps not been their prime research interest. Rather, by studying indigenous people, state regulators, small- and medium-sized businesses, immigrant communities, and so forth, they have elicited taxation as it is part and parcel of their research subjects’ everyday lives. In a rather fascinating way, the theme of taxation, therefore, brings together anthropologists with vastly different interests to form a common research community centered on taxation.
Choosing whom to study leads to where to study. One simple strategy is to focus upon a specific fiscal jurisdiction—for instance, nation states such as Australia, Bolivia, Croatia, Denmark, and so forth (Boll 2014b; Rawlings 2003; Sheild Johansson 2020; Smith 2020), tax havens (Hooi Hen 2014; Maurer 2008), or communities within nation states (Bäumer Escobar 2020; Kauppinen 2020). Such fiscal jurisdictions can be a developed welfare society, an emerging economy in the Global South, or any local region. This approach calls for a certain geographical steadiness and is suited to a fieldwork that is locally based.
In contrast, another approach is to study taxation in international organizations (Chalfin 2006; Mugler 2018). Organizations such as the OECD, the European Union, the International Monetary Fund, and various professional accounting bodies have tremendous impact on how taxation is practiced around the globe, and this impact is increasing. These organizations and initiatives all provide a fertile ground for studying taxation globally and across national borders as discussions regarding climate, inequality, and global economy is proliferating.
Linked to the question of where to study taxation is the very mundane choice of selecting which locations should be used for data collection—if a researcher wishes to conduct a more classic ethnographic study of taxation—including, for instance, participant observation. The question then becomes where do I, as a researcher, situate myself physically if I want to study taxation? Should it be at a marketplace in Bolivia (Sheild Johansson 2018), at a global tax conference (Mugler 2018), at the custom administration at Cameroon’s borders (Muñoz 2010), taking part in tax raids in Denmark (Boll 2015), or in the offices of corporate tax directors in Silicon Valley (Mulligan and Oats 2016)? These are very different locations, but all sites where something in relation to taxation happens and where taxation can be studied via an ethnographic approach.
In brief, studying taxation requires thinking about whom to study, where to conduct the research, and on what aspects of tax and taxation. While this, of course, is a task to figure out in all disciplines, the task becomes the more pertinent in relation to taxation, as this is an elusive phenomenon that can be difficult to delimit.
The Future of Anthropology of Tax and Taxation
Anthropologists have just started to explore the fascinating area of taxation and much remains to be researched, both following the development of anthropological theory—and social science theory in general—but also because taxation has increasingly become a fundamental democratic issue that affects most people in the world. While taxation already today is imbued with mechanisms that are difficult to discern, taxation is also becoming ever more obscure in the increasingly digitalized and globalized world. What is being taxed, who decides what is taxed, and how it is practiced needs to be analyzed, made visible, and challenged. We suggest three areas but acknowledge the need to be vigilant to developments that might direct our attention elsewhere. This list can thus be easily expanded.
Taxation is, like the rest of society, subject to digitalization, both in the actual tax reporting and tax paying practice, but also in tax administrations’ relentless pursuit to detect evasion, avoidance, and fraud. Algorithmic calculations are plentiful in digitalization efforts, and although seemingly objective, they are replete with norms, biases, and subjectivities that shape society (cf. Lee and Björklund Larsen 2019). Technology providers are becoming increasingly relevant in the tax triangle. As tax administration and collection increasingly become digitalized, the role of tax technology providers has become increasingly central. And we have yet to understand their impact and what role they play. The usage of artificial intelligence in taxation challenges, as elsewhere in society, people’s democratic rights and integrity, and indeed human rights.
The publication of the so-called Paradise Papers and the Panama Papers and subsequent investigations, revealing hidden income in tax havens by wealthy taxpayers across the world, sparked an animated moral debate about taxation in society. Assessing taxpayers’ morale and how it can be influenced is a field within taxation studies that demands close attention. The multifaceted aspects suit the holistic anthropological approach better than most other sciences. Revealing such aspects could provide important insights that practitioners and lawmakers across the world could learn from.
Finally, the debates and practices on taxation in the Global South versus the Global North can provide lessons and insights that benefit both, while teaching anthropologists—and fellow citizens across the globe—more about people’s relation to the state. Ironically, taxation is an area where one of the richest countries in the world, the United States, is actually a very slow mover in its digitalization of taxes, while a developing country such as Nigeria moves fast forward. This makes taxation a transformative research area that urges us to change our common perception of who learns from whom.
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