'Those People [May Yet Be] a Kind of Solution' Late Imperial Thoughts on the Humanization of Officialdom

13 Pages Posted: 19 Dec 2018

See all articles by David A. Westbrook

David A. Westbrook

University at Buffalo Law School

Mark Maguire

National University of Ireland, Maynooth (NUI Maynooth)

Date Written: November 30, 2018


A less familiar view of "power" is emerging from our inquiries into high level bureaucracies and other settings of social influence, conducted largely under the auspices of the Global Foresight Project based at Stockholm University under the leadership of Christina Garsten. Rather than assuming the existence of power and concerning ourselves with mechanisms for its temperance, we have been studying power as expressed in various "present situations" by public or private officials whose offices are believed to be more or less legitimate if hardly infallible.

In diverse settings increasingly studied by ethnographers, plausible (and desirable or objectionable) futures are brought into the present by being mapped or otherwise represented. The future made present is also performative and in that sense subjective. We speak of "anticipatory knowledge," of things that organizations come to know about that which, somewhat bewilderingly, has yet to come to be. The future is thus made tractable, or at least made to appear to be tractable, in important present situations such the Bank of England, Google, the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund, the World Economic Forum ("Davos"), air security worldwide, and elsewhere. From these and other conversations, more nuanced understandings of how officials think in time, and hence official power itself, emerge. By exploring a few concerns of officials, i.e., those who wield power over modern life, we find power both quantitatively less and qualitatively different from what is often assumed. Concerns include knowledge/uncertainty; jurisdictions/competition; the public and other audiences; and the socialization/path dependency imposed by the passage of time.

If this depiction fairly portrays some important aspects of our world, then a different posture for the academic concerned with power appears to be in order, at least in some circumstances. What would constitute responsible power? Rather than revisiting the tropes of liberalism or indulge an anarchic conservatism, the paper proposes a teleological approach, both sympathetic and critical, to the work of bureaucratic institutions as they attempt to confront the future and thereby shape our worlds.

Keywords: Bureaucracy, Weber, Garsten, Organizational Theory, Anthropology, Ethnography, Global Foresight, Future, Planning

Suggested Citation

Westbrook, David A. and Maguire, Mark, 'Those People [May Yet Be] a Kind of Solution' Late Imperial Thoughts on the Humanization of Officialdom (November 30, 2018). Buffalo Law Review Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3293982

David A. Westbrook (Contact Author)

University at Buffalo Law School ( email )

School of Law
528 O'Brian Hall
Buffalo, NY 14260-1100
United States

Mark Maguire

National University of Ireland, Maynooth (NUI Maynooth)

2nd Floor
Iontas Building
Maynooth, County Kildare W23 F2H6

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