The Power of Boring Things QOTD: Espeland on Bureaucracy

I am in the middle of reading Wendy Espeland’s (1998) fantastic The Struggle for Water: Politics, Rationality, and Identity in the American Southwest, which chronicles fights over the Orme dam within the Federal government and between the government and the Yavapai Indians. During the legislative run-up to the project, a new law was passed which required environmental impact assessments. In the story of what happens next, Espeland offers the following insight about bureaucratic power:

One of bureaucracies’ most effective, least appreciated weapons is its tedious technical reports. Like frigid February elections in Chicago, these fat volumes dissuade all but the most faithful. Yet for partisans and scholars alike, careful scrutiny of bureaucratic documents is a necessary, and often rewarding, exercise. (109-110)

I’m reminded of Susan Leigh Star’s reference to “The Society of People Interested in Boring Things“. Power is a funny and hard-to-define thing, but I really like the idea of tedium as a bureaucratic weapon.

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2 Comments

  1. Andrew

     /  February 10, 2011

    hey dan, great blog and thanks for answering that email with questions about grad school a while back. anyways, it seems to me that espeland’s usage of “tedium as bureaucratic power” can be applied equally well to the financial instruments used by wall street firms, in which they hired “quants” fresh out of places like MIT and Princeton to make intentionally complex algorithms and what not for calculating whatever – all to scare away the suspicious layman and also perhaps the regulator or two.

  2. I might throw in here, that the ability to produce long and dull reports is not the only tool in the bureaucrats arsenal. Equally (in)efficient is the ability to form committees, set up commissions, undertake scoping exercises, tender research plans, co-ordinate across government (which requires multiple agreements) and best of all, long term consultation in the name of inclusiveness.

    All of these can effectively stop, hamper or kill legislative moves, as long as they stay within the law (which the policy makers have usually helped draft). Of course, some might argue that if less well-off countries had a functioning civil service, it would prevent the from implementing policies formulated in haste, under pressure or through bribery. I would agree with such a view.

    That said, wealthy governments can still be rushed into legislation and regulation through bribery and close relations with industry. As Devaney’s 2008 reports (many many pages) on the glamorously named ‘Minerals Management Service’ found: “sexual relationships with prohibited sources cannot, by definition, be arms-length.”

    Hey, even bureaucrats can be fun, even if it only happens on page two hundred and something…