Anthropology of Bureaucratic Practices

Already during the early stages of my research on African Christianity in the mid-1990s, I started to develop an interest in an important empirical dimension to this topic, which, with very rare exceptions, has been neglected by previous scholars working in this field, namely church bureaucracy. In my book Spirits and Letters: Reading, Writing and Charisma in African Christianity (Oxford: Berghahn) and several subsequent articles, I have dealt with different aspects of this topic, for example, the role of church secretaries, agenda and report-writing in the religious realm, as well as the use of church registers, denominational identity cards and church constitutions.

My work in this field has started out from the observation that anthropologists have long tended to regard the ‘formalism‘ of formally organized institutions as a structural given that lies beyond human agency, when it is in fact constantly being made and remade through what Karl Weick (1979) has called ‘organizing practices‘. Bureaucracy as ‘formal organization‘ must therefore be seen as a precarious and ambiguous process  revolving around the social construction, maintenance and re-construction of ‘formalized‘ organizational realities (see also Rottenburg 1995).

Against this backdrop, my research has aimed at making ‘thick descriptions‘ of bureaucratic practices among African Christians, most particularly those who are conventionally assumed to reject bureaucratic procedures emphatically, namely members of Pentecostal-charismatic churches. For instance, as regards the Spirit Apostolic Church in southern Zambia, I have demonstrated that the bureaucratic aspects of this Church are accommodated to local conceptions of religious power. Since positions of authority depend here on ascriptions of spiritual capability, this accommodation creates a configuration in which bureaucratic procedures are conflated with discourses and practices of a Pentecostal-charismatic type.Thus, what emerges is a ‘bureaucracy in the Pentecostal-charismatic mode‘.

This finding contrasts with longstanding positions in social theory which, following Weber, are based on the idea of an essential dichotomy between "charisma" and "institution". One of the theoretical arguments I have made in this context is that categorical distinctions that have been developed for application in diachronic studies of religious phenomena are often employed unreflectively in synchronic analyses. Weber‘s suggestion that charisma "cannot remain stable, but becomes either traditionalized or rationalized, or a combination of both" (1968: 54) has been highly influential in the social sciences. For many scholars it has in fact provided a research programme: in their analyses, the study of charisma is more or less equated with the examination of processes of charismatic routinization. Here, charismatic authority is treated as a phenomenon that is always on the verge of obliteration; institutionalization, on the other hand, is what it all unavoidably leads to. Yet, given the idea of an antagonism with an inevitable transition from one to the other – from charismatic to traditional or rational-legal types of authority – the (synchronic) existence of features ascribed to the category ‘institution‘ in a particular ‘charismatic‘ setting in many studies is almost mechanically interpreted as an indication of the routinization of charisma. Some inquiries, for example, already take the mere existence of writing in a ‘charismatic‘ setting as evidence that this setting is beginning to be affected by a process of institutionalization. The question of how writings are actually used in this empirical setting then seems to require no further elucidation in this approach. In the final analysis this transposition of diachronic categories into synchronic settings therefore produces a problematic categorical asymmetry in which ‘institution‘ appears always to outweigh ‘charisma‘.                

Besides bureaucratic practices in the religious realm, I have also looked at colonial bureaucracies in southern Africa, for example, exploring the difficulties faced by colonial administrators to verify the identity of their colonial subjects in the face of strategies to evade registration through the changing of personal names. Also, based on archival research in Zambia (formerly Northern Rhodesia), my research has addressed the question of how formal schooling influenced local people‘s understandings of the conventions and purposes of (administrative) reading and writing. In doing so, I have not only paid attention to the material dimensions of reading and writing, but also made a contribution to the wider study of ‘literacy practices‘ in the field of bureaucracy.