De Yan (LSE) - 2022-23 Students

The best bureaucrat knows how to act. An ethnographic research on ‘Chinese formalism’ in bureaucratic institutions

Much existing social research has attempted to analyse non-western societies through formal institutions like codified law and government. However, the bulk of ethnography has focused on street-level, service- oriented institutions, thus neglecting cross-hierarchy studies and time-series studies. My proposed research would conduct participant observation across different levels of institutions as well as different stages in the bureaucratic process. I intend to examine the phenomenon of ‘Chinese formalism’ (xing shi zhu yi), a term that refers to bureaucratic behaviours that pursue forms rather than effects.

My proposed research can contribute to the existing literature in anthropology by exploring the hierarchy, and temporality in bureaucracy. First, studying how formalism is created and spread across different levels and departments of bureaucracy can help improve our understanding of the internal management and discipline mechanisms of formal institutions. In particular, such an examination can reveal the various ways in which mid-level and street-level officials negotiate the forms and contents of bureaucratic work. 

Second, by looking at the changes in bureaucratic spaces over time , this project hopes to reveal speculative and hypocritical behaviour among mid and high-level bureaucrats. In specific, I intend to examine how bureaucrats adjust the decorations and spatial arrangements of their offices to stay in line with the taste of party leaders. Such an examination can help us understand the role of formality in bureaucratic politics.

Third, by examining how formal events and documents are staged and contested, this project hopes to demonstrate that the appearance of incompetence among mid-level bureaucrats is often carefully planned and performed. In contrast to the depiction of bureaucracy as a site of simplification and delays, this project can reveal the complex and speedy coordination process among mid-level bureaucrats in displaying collective strategic ignorance.

Primary supervisor: Dr Hans Steinmüller, LSE
Secondary supervisor: Dr Mukulika Banerjee, LSE

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