[Sugarman] Friday's session on the State

Keith Breckenridge keith at breckenridge.org.za
Wed May 7 18:52:49 SAST 2014

Theorising State Practices in Urban Governance in/ from Cities of the South

facilitated by Claire Benit-Gbaffou, Sarah Charlton, Anne Pitcher

09 May 2014

*Structure of the session*

Introduction by facilitators

Presentation of the key questions

Contextualisation in the South

Facilitators brief presentation of own research

*Key Questions*

1) Theoretical Challenges to understanding the Post-Colonial State

To begin we borrow from Akhil Gupta: "How come post colonial states with
'the will to improve' (that is from Li) are 'failing' to do so (Gupta) in
significant ways, or at least have outcomes that often are complex,
unexpected or contradictory?" Theories of the post colonial state tend to
either view the state with deep suspicion (alliance with business elites
and interests; machinery with an unsound desire to control, tendencies to
capture resources and use violence in illegitimate ways), or with a degree
of confidence (welfare or developmental state, constructing strong
bureaucracies and organisations, rising democratic accountability). This
theoretical bifurcation distracts us from conceptualizing the state as the
outcome and also the instigator of a more multi-faceted, complex and mixed
set of intentions, strategies, and results – many of which are what is
experienced in particular in urban politics and in residents’ everyday

2) De-centering the State

The forces of urbanization, transnational networks of power, and the growth
of International non-governmental organisations and international financial
institutions, or what Ferguson has termed "horizontal contemporaries to the
state" have de-centered and de-territorialized the post-colonial state in
fundamental ways. Emerging theories, especially from anthropology, present
a more porous and de-centered state, one that is in constant construction
through the daily engagements of states and citizens  (state-in-society,
the state from its margins, porous bureaucracies). But also, the agents,
functions, and organization of "the state" vary dramatically across space.
How do we conceptualize and differentiate states across and within
different urban spaces, for example, or frame their variegated encounters
with activists?

Key readings

Those marked with * are essential


Auyero, Javier. “‘From the Client’s Point(s) of View’: How Poor People
Perceive and Evaluate Political Clientelism.” Theory and Society 28, no. 2
(April 1, 1999): 297–334.

Challenges our normative understanding of clientelism - in a tradition of
Urban Latin American studies, by exploring ‘the clients points of view’.
does not negate the domination clients are under, but unpacks their agency.
Also illustrates the various understandings of the state and society within
the same ‘community’ according to the individual relation to the ‘broker’
or local patron – how these relations shape people’s understandings of the
state and of social agency.

Bahre and Lecocq

Bähre, E. and Lecocq, B. (2007). The Drama of Development: The Skirmishes
Behind High Modernist Schemes in Africa. African Studies. Vol 66, Issue 1.
Special Issue: The Drama of Development

Bähre and Lecocq’s article is an introduction to a special issue of African
Studies. They argue that the contributions in the special issue reveal the
limits of state power (in various African contexts) but more importantly
the variations in outcomes at the intersection of development, community
and the state. Deviating from Scott and aligning more with their
interpretation of Li they posit that ‘confusion, chaos and uncertainty’ are
typical characteristics of development: the ‘skirmishes’ between state and
community in the development terrain have different outcomes, some of these
can be violent, some are predominantly negative for recipients, others
positively transforming or life-enhancing. A close examination of
particular situations is therefore needed to move beyond the domination/
resistance/ compliance paradigm, to understand better how the interface is

*Chatterjee, chapter 3

Chatterjee, Partha. The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular
Politics in Most of the World. Columbia University Press, 2004, "Chapter 3
The Politics of the Governed."

Posits the concept of ‘political society’ (as opposed to civil society, the
minority of full right bearing citizens) as a mode of governmentality of
‘the majority of the world’ – residents whose life is shaped to some extent
by informality (in access to housing, services, economic activities).
Political society is grounded in a democratic society where the mass of the
poor (and informal) can use their political right to vote as a means to
precariously frame some temporary access to state resources (mostly through
arrangements with local bureaucrats and politicians).

*Goh and Bunnell

Goh, Daniel P.S., and Tim Bunnell. “Recentering Southeast Asian Cities:
Recentering Southeast Asian Cities.” International Journal of Urban and
Regional Research 37, no. 3 (May 2013): 825–33.

This is an 8 page intro to a symposium on SE Asian Cities in IJURR. Goh and
Bunnell's main point is that much research on cities in Asia and elsewhere
has been dominated by "metrocentricity"or rather, a focus on global cities
as opposed to focusing on less prominent or so-called "secondary" cities.
The tendency to focus on megacities in Asia has taken place because they
are the most globally connected and therefore have characteristics that
invite comparisons with the West. But this has come at a cost. There is a
tendency in the literature to juxtapose the wealthy areas to the slums;
formal to informal; to trade off the influence of transnational capital or
the developmental state versus grassroots activism in the slums.   With the
spread of administrative decentralization, however, it is now more
important to focus on a variety of cities because as political authority
fragments so does the ability to exercise agency.  Decentered cities
contain or enclose popular politics, reproducing a fragmentation among
social movements that mirrors the diversity of urban space.

*Gupta’s intro of Red Tape / paper on corruption

Gupta, Akhil. “Blurred Boundaries: The Discourse of Corruption, the Culture
of Politics, and the Imagined State.” American Ethnologist 22, no. 2 (May
1, 1995): 375–402.

Poses the question from the paradox of seeing well intentioned bureaucrats
and politicians committed to development, with increasing resources and
capacity to act; and yet the persistence of mass poverty, inequality and
structural violence in India. In the introduction Gupta starts theorising
on the ‘systematic arbitrariness of bureaucratic outcomes in its provision
of care’, contesting a foucauldian view of the state bureaucracy as
‘rationalised power in a disciplinary society’; producing ‘bare lives’
(agamden) where structural violence done to the poor on an everyday basis
becomes an accepted condition.


Li, Tania Murray. “Beyond ‘the State’ and Failed Schemes.” American
Anthropologist 107, no. 3 (2005): 383–94.

Takes seriously the ‘will to improve’ in developmental states, questions
the ‘failure’ of developmental schemes (a la scott) and proposes to study
what these schemes ‘do’ rather than analyse them in terms of failure.

Michelle Ann Miller

Miller, Michelle Ann. “Decentralizing Indonesian City Spaces as New
‘Centers’: Decentralizing Indonesian City Spaces as New ‘centers.’”
International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 37, no. 3 (May 2013):

Miller argues against two contrasting claims in the literature: first, the
argument that Indonesian cities are just mimicking the West and second that
there is an "Asian model" with specific features that are distinguishable
from those of the West. She concedes that urban forms such as gated
communities, shopping malls, and a penchant for urban planning may have
arisen in the West, but Indonesian also borrow from each other and rely on
transnational models that may come from the Middle East, from Islam, etc.
These multiple influences make cities in Indonesia a hodgepodge of
different multiscalar, many layered urban forms with their own tensions and
contradictions. Significant among these is decentralization which has on
the one hand granted more autonomy to different actors at the local level
but also opened up a grey area of opportunities with regard to the exercise
of political authority and produced highly unneven urban spaces across the
country. One sees dramatic decline in one region versus high level branding
of world class cities in another.


Robins, S. (2003). Whose Modernity? Indigenous Modernities and Land Claims
after Apartheid. Development and Change. 34(2): 265-258

Robins’ first point is that contrary to a typical post-development
critique, state initiated development interventions can be appropriated and
transformed in complex ways which constitute neither rejection nor
straightforward acceptance of them by intended recipients. The second point
is a challenge to Ferguson, arguing that undertaking development is an
uncertain and precarious project for states as it can fail and undermine
authority. The state and its development projects are not as powerful as
often assumed, and peoples’ responses can be more powerful or have more
agency than assumed.  The empirical work he draws on is SA rural.


Roy, Ananya (2009) “Why India Cannot Plan Its Cities: Informality,
Insurgence, and the Idiom of Urbanization” Planning Theory, 8:1, 76-87.

Studies informality as a creation of the state and exposes states’ own
‘informal practices’. Posits these state informal practices as intentional
(state engaged in a neoliberal/ accumulation or speculative project on
urban land in particular), but states that this use of informality
(‘un-mapping’, opaque information) might well render the state unable to
plan and to eventually govern.

Von Holdt

Von Holdt, Karl. “South Africa: The Transition to Violent Democracy.”
Review of African Political Economy 40, no. 138 (2013): 589–604.

Looks at the paradox of a SA nascent democracy, with state institutions
expressing rupture with the apartheid past, and yet increasingly resorting
to violence to regulate access to resources. Uses rational theory
literature (North et al) to explain factionalism, instability and recourse
to intra-state violence for shifting elites to maintain or access to rents.
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