[URBANTH-L] REV: Thakur on Das & Poole eds., _Anthropology in the Margins of the State_

Angela Jancius acjanciu at cc.ysu.edu
Wed Feb 9 14:19:36 EST 2005

[Book Review x-posted from the ARD]

Das, Veena and Deborah Poole (eds.)
2004 Anthropology in the Margins of the State. Santa Fe, New Mexico: School
of American Research Press.

Reviewed 08 Feb 2005 by Manish Kumar Thakur <mt at unigoa.ac.in>
Department of Sociology, Goa University, Goa, India

ABSTRACT:    Wide-ranging analyses of groups on the edges of state power
probe the everyday functioning of the modern state as embedded in practices,
places and languages. Drawing on fieldwork in the Chad Basin, Colombia,
Guatemala, India, Peru, Sierra Leone, South Africa, and Sri Lanka, the
contributions disrupt the conventional notion that the state as a political
organization becomes weakened along its territorial or social margins.

 Historically speaking, political anthropologists have been late in covering
the ethnography of the modern state. For long, they have been preoccupied
with how order is maintained in the so-called stateless societies. By
contrast, this book embodies the recent ethnographic shift to the
documentary practices of the modern state and their forms and falsifications
as played out in the everyday encounters of modern citizens. Moving beyond
the usual platitudes of 'frustrated', 'incomplete', or 'failed' states, it
views the failures of state-building as necessarily constitutive of the
state as a theoretical or political object. While formulating three
interrelated concepts of margins along the space-power grid, the editors
assert that an anthropology of the state is about transgressing formal
models bestowed to us by political philosophy. For them, margins not only
underscore crucial aspects of everyday state function but also are a
necessary entailment. Evidently, in their rendition, such margins are no
longer sites of disorder where the state has been unable to impose its
     In their conceptualization, margins are peripheral natural containers
for people inadequately socialized under law. In this sense, an
understanding of margins entails coming to terms with processes through
which states transform unruly subjects into lawful citizens. Secondly,
margins refer to issues of tangibility of the state; that is, how the state
is experienced as well as undone in the daily practices of its citizens. It
includes the unstated assumptions of citizenship and involves state
practices such as the use of identity documents and checkpoints that may
unsettle the identity and rights of fringe communities. Lastly, margins can
be seen as 'a space between bodies, law and discipline' (p. 10). After all,
the sovereign power exercised by the state is not only about territories but
also about bodies.
     Viewed thus, margins provide an interesting vantage point from which to
observe the production of categories of pathology. Very often, their
production is parasitical, and therefore, margins are sites 'that do not so
much lie outside the state but rather, like rivers, run through its body'
(p. 13). In other words, the editors impart much methodological weight to
practices through which these subjects/citizens learn the gap between
membership and belonging. For them, it is futile to look for the pedagogic
aspects of the state in school textbooks.
     Within this framework, Deborah Poole's 'Between Threat and Guarantee:
Justice and Community in the Margins of the Peruvian State' examines how
peasants engage with the state in their quest for justice. Though quite
arbitrary, justice, as embodied in the flow of paperwork, acts as an
ephemeral link to the central authority. The effective absence of state
authority combined with the natural marginality of indigenous groups in Peru
restrains Poole from either celebrating marginality, or according canonical
status to resistance. Rather than seeing agency primarily in acts of
resistance, she focuses on everyday peasant life to unpack the ways in which
the conceptual state boundaries are extended and remade in securing survival
or justice.
     Drawing on her fieldwork in the highland province of Chumbivilcas, in
the department of Cuzco, she further probes the privatization of justice.
The workings of the everyday state clearly reveal that margins are not
simply peripheral spaces: local worlds and the state are not binary
opposites. Notwithstanding the unequal relations between the two, central
authority remains an overwhelming, though distant, presence. At the same
time, the law is also close at hand as Peruvian peasants invest their desire
for justice. Interestingly, the state remains the ultimate referee for the
Peruvian peasants even when the absence of the state and its procedures
frustrates their hopes and aspirations.
     Poole's account challenges not only the discreet spaces of local and
national life but also the conceptualization of nation-state as a
centralized administrative and political community whose density decreases
as one moves from the administrative center. The accepted understanding of
development tells us that state building has been about the need to
progressively incorporate marginalized territories and populations into the
modern center of the state. In this dated view, the margins represent a zone
of instability and danger precisely because they lie outside both the
control and territory of the national state, and were expected to be
cannibalized and modernized over time.
     In a similar vein, Janet Roitman's 'The Reconstitution of State Power
in the Chad Basin' documents how the marginalized youth deal with the
regulatory processes of the state in a region that offers a lucrative market
for drugs, small arms, contraband, and mercenaries, and has been devastated
by wars, drought, and other economic disasters. These youths exhibit a
different mode of sociality; their everyday concerns are different from
those imagined in the rational bureaucratic apparatus of the state.
Arguably, a different notion of justice or common good animates activities
that take place on the margins of the state. This probably explains the
parallel growth of both the efficacy of state infrastructure and the
intensity of unregulated activities.
     Nelson's contribution is an account of the post-war illusory and
trickster-like quality of the Guatemalan state. He demonstrates the
mechanisms through which counter-insurgency images of a two-faced Indian are
used to defend military incursions into indigenous areas as well as for
resettling indigenous communities into hamlets. Expectedly, central
authority is both feared and desired in Guatemala.
     Pradeep Jeganathan, in his 'Checkpoint: Anthropology, Identity and the
State', accounts for the location of violence in the Sri Lankan capital.
According to him, 'violence is only visible in the cusp of things, at the
moment of its emergence as violation before its normalization and
relegitimation' (p.70). For him, violence can be part of the very legibility
of power, and violent practices can also be produced as a legitimate mode of
the exercise of power.
     Veena Das dwells on the authority of the state in the context of
anti-Sikh riots in Delhi (India) in her essay 'The Signature of the State:
The Paradox of Illegibility'. She shows how claims to sovereignty are not
always made and sustained through law. In her view, the state is neither a
purely rational bureaucratic organization nor simply a fetish, but a form of
regulation that oscillates between rational and magical modes of being. Even
as structures of rules and regulations are embodied in law as well as
institutions for its implementation, legal systems are not a sign of state
sovereignty. Nor does the law always facilitate institution of a state's
disciplinary regime. While enabling citizens to seek certain rights, the law
as a resource is also represented and performed in modes of rumor, gossip,
and mockery. Since the legal recourse is equally fraught with danger and
uncertainty, we need to shift our gaze from the obvious places where power
is expected to reside, to the margins and recesses of everyday life where
such infelicities become observable.
     Victoria Sanford's 'Contesting Displacement in Colombia: Citizenship
and State Sovereignty at the Margins' highlights the reassertion of
citizenship and human rights of those rendered homeless by civil war. A
final postscript by Talal Asad concurs with the editors in reiterating that
neither state nor its margins are fixed objects.
     By analyzing the changing forms and reach of the modern state in three
regions characterized by state reforms and violence -- Africa, Latin
America, and South Asia -- the contributors make us aware that the modern
state does not always possess the firmness that many assume to be essential
to its functioning. The authors offer ethnographic vignettes on how people
perceive and experience the agency of the state. More importantly, they
attempt to explain complex processes through which state practices at the
margins shape the state itself. By asking 'who is of, and not of, the state'
(..), the contributors extend anthropology's traditional scope where
spatially identifiable communities were the prime focus. Put together, they
challenge the conventional wisdom where margins were imagined to exist
separate from national culture and polity, where peasants fleetingly engage
with institutions of the state. Their encounters with the state are
generally cast in the territorializing language of the modern nation-state,
and thus, margins are often located at the outer edge of the said social and
territorial unit 'where occasional incursions are made in the form of
schools, sanitary posts and the occasional development project' (p.37).
      Anthropology in the Margins of the State emphasizes mobile, tangible,
and embodied spaces though which the power of the state is felt. Indeed,
centers and margins are differentially constituted in relation to varied
experiences and perceptions of power and, thus, are not fixed entities.
Though a difficult text to read, students of politics and cultural
anthropology will find it theoretically engaging.

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