Bureaucratization as Abstraction

Its formal and abstract character has always characterized bureaucracy. The process of rationalization, just like the establishment of impersonal rules, is inherent to bureaucracy, and a great part of Weber’s analysis focuses on the spirit of impersonality proper to formalism.15 The argument is well known: formalism alone makes formal equality of treatment possible by enabling us to free ourselves from personal considerations. Laws, rules, norms, and codifications also provide us with the possibility of predicting life and overcoming resistances more easily: this is also why bureaucracy, as a mode of governing human beings, rests largely on such laws and norms. Weber does not use the argument of abstraction as such and yet, what are laws, rules, norms, and codifications, if not the product of operations of abstraction? This interpretation, faithfully couched in the consistent vocabulary and modes of argument deployed by Weber, is not often developed in studies on bureaucracy and bureaucratization which tend to focus on rationalization and formalism only.

The work of Arthur Stinchcombe certainly is an exception in this respect.16 Stinchcombe reflects on bureaucracy as a set of formalities, tools, and modes of action that are effective so long as certain conditions are respected. His analysis of bureaucratic formalization as the development of an abstraction of burgeoning data shows a process that makes it possible to govern social action without having to go back to the original data. He points out that this development essentially consists in making things easier: when things and behaviors are formalized, there is no need to keep having to go “behind” them, to understand what underlies them, in order to act and to govern. It is this principle of formalization as abstraction that ensures social flexibility, the ability to respond to problems, and ultimately the day to day running of the government. In Stinchcombe’s deeply Weberian interpretation, formalities are not the expression or the cause of rigid practices but a “vector of adaptations.”

On the other hand, works inspired by the sociology of quantification, by critical sociology, by the theory of conventions and of regulation, or by political philosophy and the philosophy of science have made abstraction and formalization a key aspect of their arguments. In these works, abstraction is understood as a mental representation of real life, and not a reproduction of reality. It is rooted into, and emerges from the details of everyday life, while also being the product of a process of elaboration. The famous words of Alfred North Whitehead, “We think in generalities, but we live in details” are often quoted in this context, by Stinchcombe among others, who transforms it for the purposes of his own argument into “We think in abstraction but live in details”17 (on abstraction, see Bonditti in this volume). These works take the opposite view to analyses that consider formalities as rituals, as the absence of rationality or even as unambiguous instruments of control and discipline. Instead, Stinchcombe and his peers focus on the modes and meaning of the processes of abstraction.

Laurent Thevenot, for example, speaks about the way a power, of whatever kind, needs to “give form” to the relations it seeks to govern; in his view, “power in forms” and “investment in form” are central features of the social order.18 In particular, he shows that “formalized information” constitutes “forms of knowledge that can be abstracted from things, persons, and situations,” and can thus become general and go into cir- culation.19 Luc Boltanski sets out from the—commonplace—perception that reality is constructed, then highlights the original uncertainties on the qualifications and questions of knowledge to suggest that formats, rules, and tests enable us to organize reality.20 Together, Thevenot and

Boltanski emphasize the tensions that spring from this very process of abstraction, an operation that equates different things and marks a rise in the level of generality.21 These authors—and the same could be said of Alain Desrosieres or Theodore Porter in the sociology of quantification, or Francois Fourquet in the historical sociology of accountancy— analyze the process whereby information is grasped in terms of coding and abstraction.22 They show that economic aggregates impose a single form on heterogeneous data and behaviors, making it difficult to know what they are supposedly measuring, and even more tricky to define the macroeconomic phenomena they reflect and link them to economic realities. Following a quite different tradition, they meet Michel de Certeau who suggested that abstraction as a process can only reduce everything: the heterogeneous, the bricolages, and the straddling of different repertoires—and not reproduce the multiple.23

Yet, however rich and subtle they may be, these studies do not really analyze bureaucracy as such. They are mainly devoted to the analysis of quantification, of management, and of the world of business or of economic production. Here, i propose to combine these works and the different intellectual traditions they rely on, and to read neoliberal bureaucratization as a process ofabstraction aimed at bringing a complex reality within general and formal categories, norms, and rules as they emerge from a way ofthinking that rationalizes society and the government ofgoods, human beings, and territories on the basis of market and managerial big enterprise mechanisms.24

These formalities are abstractions since they are avowedly not reality itself, but an elaboration, a mental representation of real life. Although stemming from a particular world (the market with its competitional logic, and large- scale industrial and managerial companies), the abstractions I consider in these pages are deemed to be universal and, therefore, to be relevant for life in society as a whole. This way of thinking needs to be further analyzed if we are to understand what is specific to neoliberal bureaucracy and its abstractions.

As abstraction is a way of “knowing things from their destination,”25 we need to grasp this “destination” if we are to understand the nature of bureaucracy. With this in mind, abstraction needs to be analyzed from the perspective of the processes through which it comes about—how, and under what conditions, it becomes effective. Even more importantly, we need to emphasize the concrete historical problems that the process of abstraction, or the set of abstractions, was meant to solve.26 This is the (classic) question of “genealogy” if put in foucauldian terms, and of “the social conditions of genesis” if put in weberian.

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