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Thomas Bierschenk and Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan

Anthropology is a latecomer to the study of bureaucracy. Nonetheless, the anthropological study of organizations—of which bureaucracies are a subtype, as larger organizations are always bureaucratically organized—was initiated by anthropologists as early as the 1920s. Since the 2010s, the anthropology of bureaucracy has slowly consolidated into a discernible subfield of the discipline. It brings to the study of public administrations a double added value: (a) a specific concern for the informal aspects of bureaucracy, (b) the emic views of bureaucratic actors and their pragmatic contexts, based on long-term immersion in the research field, as well as (c) a non-Eurocentric, global comparative perspective. Anthropologists have focused on bureaucratic actors (“bureaucrats”), the discursive, relational, and material contexts in which they work, the public policies they are supposed to implement or to comply with, and their interactions with the outside world, in particular ordinary citizens (“clients”). A foundational theorem of the anthropological study of bureaucracies has been that you cannot understand organizations on the basis of their official structures alone: the actual workings of an organization are largely based on informal practices and practical rules; there is always a gap between organizational norms and “real” practices; large-scale organizations are heterogeneous phenomena; and conflicts, negotiations, alliances, and power relations are their core components. Thus, one of the major methodological achievements of the anthropology of bureaucracy has been to focus on the dialectics of formal organization and real practices, official regulations, and informal norms in organizations “at work.”


Spontaneous, so-called emergent groups often arise in response to emergencies, disasters, and crises where citizens and relief workers find that pre-established norms of behavior, roles, and practices come into flux because of the severity and uncertainty of the situation. The scholarship on emergent groups dates to 1950s sociological theory on emergence and convergence, whereas contemporary research forms part of the wider disaster scholarship field. Emergent groups have been conceptualized and theorized from various angles, ranging from discussions around their effectiveness, to their possibilities as channels for the positive forces of citizen’s altruism, as well as to more skeptical accounts detailing the challenges emergent groups may pose for established emergency management organizations in relief situations. Scarce scholarly attention, however, is paid to the role of emergent groups when it comes to empowering marginalized and vulnerable communities. The few empirical studies that exist suggest linkages between active participation in emergent groups and empowerment of otherwise marginalized communities, as shown in an ethnographic study of the work of Occupy Sandy that emerged in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy that struck New York City in 2012. Although more systematic research is warranted, such empirical examples show potential in terms of shifting emergency and disaster management toward more inclusionary, participatory, and empowering practices. As low-income communities, often of color, experience the increasingly harsh effects of climate change, important issues to ponder are inclusion, participation, and empowerment.