Documents and Bureaucracy

Posted: 8 Oct 2012

See all articles by Matthew S. Hull

Matthew S. Hull

University of Michigan at Ann Arbor

Date Written: October 2012


This review surveys anthropological and other social research on bureaucratic documents. The fundamental insight of this literature is that documents are not simply instruments of bureaucratic organizations, but rather are constitutive of bureaucratic rules, ideologies, knowledge, practices, subjectivities, objects, outcomes, even the organizations themselves. It explores the reasons why documents have been late to come under ethnographic scrutiny and the implications for our theoretical understandings of organizations and methods for studying them. The review argues for the great value of the study of paper-mediated documentation to the study of electronic forms, but it also highlights the risk of an exclusive focus on paper, making anthropology marginal to the study of core bureaucratic practices in the manner of earlier anthropology.

Suggested Citation

Hull, Matthew S., Documents and Bureaucracy (October 2012). Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 41, pp. 251-267, 2012, Available at SSRN: or

Matthew S. Hull (Contact Author)

University of Michigan at Ann Arbor ( email )

500 S. State Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48109
United States

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