The New Public Good: Affects and Techniques of flexible Bureaucracies

23 March 2012 - 24 March 2012

CRASSH, Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, Cambridge CB3 9DT


Dr Nayanika Mathur (Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge)
Dr Laura Bear (Anthropology, LSE)

Conference summary

The study of bureaucracy has long suffered from relative academic neglect due to its dismissal as a disenchanted Weberian iron cage. Recent anthropological work has brought attention to the increasing bureaucratisation of the world (e.g. Graeber 2006) and our collective submergence into ‘audit cultures’ (Strathern 2000), while ethnographies have shown the affective, intimate faces of specific bureaucracies (Navaro-Yashin 2007, Stoler 2009, Bear 2007). In making bureaucratic formations and their reconfigurations on the premise of 'new public goods' a subject of academic investigation, this conference will draw attention to a largely neglected but central feature of modernity. Bringing together leading social scientists working on and around the theme of bureaucracy, straddling regions and organisational forms, it is envisaged that this conference will be the first of its kind to draw attention to the unanalysed global trend of what we term ‘flexible bureaucracies.’
Specifically, this conference asks what exactly is new about newly declared public goods such as transparency, accountability, devolution of power, efficiency, the offering-up of ‘choice’, the introduction of new technologies or the raising of measurable happiness? How do they manifest themselves through transformations in mundane administrative technologies? What sorts of affectivities are engendered by them? What, indeed, are the unintended consequences of the profoundly political and moral alterations in the practice of rule that are being introduced in the name of new public goods? For instance, what is the impact of the utilisation of biometric ids by the Indian state in its disbursement of welfare provisions to the urban poor? Does this sophisticated technological fix render the state transparent, does it allow for faultless identification of wholly individualised subjects? What forms of changes are wrought – pragmatically and affectively – by the replacement of ‘traditional’ modes of bureaucratic identification of the poor (such as documents) with new high-tech identificatory techniques?
This conference shall creatively bring together academics working on a diversity of bureaucratic structures ranging from large public sector undertakings (PSUs) and development bureaucracies in South Asia, higher educational and local government reforms in the UK, health organisations in Australia and hospitals in the Netherlands, large multinational corporations such as Microsoft or oil companies, worker co-operatives in Argentina, human rights organisations in southern Africa, to customs offices in Ghana. Theoretical interventions on the penetration of neo-liberal political rationalities and technologies of governance as well as the gendering and insidious violence of bureaucratic organisations will be brought into conversation with ethnographic accounts of the quotidian practices of bureaucracies. The conference aims to be inter-disciplinary. It will draw in anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers, cultural theorists, historians, and gender specialists. It will be transnational in its orientation not only by including researchers who work in different parts of the world but also in its very foundational act of identifying a common theme that crosscuts diverse regions: the alterations being effected in variegated bureaucratic formations via new and contested definitions of the public good.



Supported by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CRASSH), the Division of Social Anthropology (William Wyse Fund), University of Cambridge, and LSE. 

Accommodation for non-paper giving delegates

We are unable to arrange accommodation, however, the following websites may be of help.

Visit Cambridge
Cambridge Rooms

University of Cambridge accommodation webpage

NB. CRASSH is not able to help with the booking of accommodation.


Administrative assistance: Helga Brandt (Conference Programme Manager, CRASSH)


Friday, 23 March


9.00 - 9.30


9.30 - 12.00

Plenary Panel: Debating the New Public Goods

Laura Bear (LSE): Making the New Public Good: Publicity, Friendship and Public-Private Partnerships on the Hooghly River

Brenda Chalfin (Florida): 'The Right(s) to Shit': Public Toilets and the Infrastructure of Bare Life on Ghana's Urban Periphery

Akhil Gupta (UCLA): Biopolitics, Infrastructure, and Public Goods

Matthew Hull (Michigan): Paper, Databases and the Ontology of Land Holdings in South Asia

Chair: Harri Englund (Cambridge)

12.00 - 13.00 


13.00 - 15.00 

Panel 2: Ambiguity, Transparency and Information

    Gemma John (Manchester): The Flexible Person, Transparency and the Making and Unmaking of Bureaucracy in Scotland

    Nayanika Mathur (Cambridge): Transparent-making Documents and the Crisis of Unimplementability:  a rural employment law and bureaucracy in Himalayan India

    Prashant Sharma (LSE): The Right To Information Act in India: Bureaucratic Resistance Revisited

    Discussant: Sian Lazar (Cambridge)

    15.00 - 15.30 


    15.30 - 17.30

    Panel 3: Corruption as Ethical Governance

      William Gould (Leeds): "That venerable and wonderful Institution dustooree”: Custom, daalii and influence in the bureaucracy of late colonial/early independent north India

      Hannah Brown (LSHTM): Moral Practice, ‘Public Goods’ and ‘Managerial Goods’ Among Health Managers in Western Kenya

      Paula Haas (Cambridge): Does Too Much Transparency Lead to Opacity? A study of corruption in Inner Mongolia

      Discussant: Akhil Gupta (UCLA)


      Saturday, 24 March


      9.30 - 12.00

      Panel 4: Measures of Performance: Efficiency and Flexibility

        Stefan Dorondel and Mihai Popa (Max Planck): Bureaucratic Flexibility and the Translation of Neo-liberal Policies: moralities and public welfare in rural Romania

        Olaf Zenker (Bern): Failure by Numbers? Settlement statistics as indicators of state performance in South African land restitution

        Ayaz Qureishi (SOAS): The Marketisation of HIV?AIDS Governance: vertical health programming, public private partnerships and bureaucratic cultures in Pakistan

        Noa Leuchter (Ben-Gurion University of the Negev): Along Efficient Lines: negotiating state authority in an Israeli state-bureaucracy

        Discussant: Brenda Chalfin (Florida)

        12.00 - 13.00 


        13.00 - 15.30

        Panel 5: The Public Good and Privatising Ethics

          David Bholat (Newcastle University): Re-working the 'Northern' in the Rock

          Fiona McConnell (Cambridge): Professionalising the Exiled Tibetan Bureaucracy in India

          Jennifer Telesca (NYU): Consensus for Whom? Public goods governing marine life in the Atlantic

          Trevor Stack (Aberdeen): Shifts in the rationale of government in Mexico

          Discussant: Matthew Hull (Michigan)

          15.30 - 16.00 


          16.00 - 18.30

          Panel 6: Citizenship: Material and Affective Exchanges

            Umut Yildrim (Sabanci University Istanbul): The Affective Beyond of Bureaucracy: accessing aid in Diyarbakir

            Alexandra Schwell (Wien): Actually We Don’t Have Terrorists in Poland: how the EU shapes bureaucratic constructions of security

            Manpreet Janeja (Copenhagen/University of Cambridge): School Meals as Flexible Bureaucracies in East London

            Anna Tuckett (LSE):  Learning to play the game: migrants’ everyday encounters with Italian immigration bureaucracy in Bologna

            Discussant: Liana Chua (Brunel)