CfP POLLEN20 – Blurred Boundaries and their Political Ecologies: Parties, patronage and bureaucratic practice

Third Biennial Conference of the Political Ecology Network (POLLEN 20)
Contested Natures: Power, Possibility, Prefiguration
Brighton, United Kingdom
24-26 June 2020

Session organizers

Please send abstracts of up to 250 words to Elsie Lewison, Rebecca McMillan and Zach Anderson at and by November 19, 2019.

Session description

Over the past decade, political ecology has seen increasingly nuanced theoretical and methodological engagements with the state. From the proliferation of work on neoliberal environments to theorizations of the state as a socio-environmental relation and more recent explorations of authoritarian and populist trends in environmental governance, political ecologists have responded enthusiastically to calls to de-fetishize the state and build on political geography’s attention to scale, territory, and power. More recently, we also find growing interest in anthropological approaches to the state, particularly in its everyday, bureaucratic forms.

Yet, although party politics and bureaucratic practices that “blur” the line between state and non-state actors appear frequently in ethnographic descriptions of natural resource management and socio-ecological struggles, they are rarely foregrounded in political ecological analysis. Attention to such dynamics is more common in work on violent environments, rentier states and regimes of dispossession. However, as Robbins highlighted almost two decades ago, bureaucratic transgressions often follow systems of “normalized rules” that structure everyday state practice and ecological relations. At the same time, neoliberal reforms that subcontract governance activities to community groups, the private sector, and unelected consultants and technical advisors have further blurred state-non-state and public-private boundaries in bureaucratic spaces (while generally being exempted from the label of ‘corruption’). Attention to everyday practices in these spaces is essential for political ecologists concerned with possibilities for more democratic, anti-capitalist, socio-natural relations because it is often through people’s mundane encounters with bureaucracy that the state becomes socially effective or ‘powerful’ and that political subjectivities are (re)produced or transformed.

In this paper session we are interested in exploring how (post)neoliberal environmental governance is disrupted, reproduced, and reworked through its articulation with the political logics of networked or clientelist relations and the blurring of public-private boundaries in spaces of bureaucratic practice. Key questions include:

  • How do pre-existing patron/client networks and forms of rule map onto or subvert neoliberal environmental governance reforms (e.g. commodification, marketization, privatization, decentralization)? And how are geometries of power along such lines as class, caste, race, ethnicity, and gender reshaped through this articulation?
  • How has the participatory turn in (post)neoliberal environmental governance reinforced or undermined patron-client relations? Has participation worked to uproot practices that may be seen as “corrupt” or to further entrench existing power imbalances within and beyond the state?
  • What forms of political subjectivity emerge at the intersection of neoliberalism and other logics of rule?
  • How are environmental governance practices understood (e.g. as public/private or illegitimate/legitimate/corrupt), by whom, and with what effects?
  • In what ways do efforts to eradicate corruption and patronage politics serve to underwrite or reproduce, or alternatively, disrupt or undermine the legitimacy of state and non-state actors? What do these efforts mean for democratic accountability?


Bear, L. & Mathur, N. (2015). Introduction: Remaking the Public Good: A New Anthropology of Bureaucracy. The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology, 33(1).

Corbridge, S., Williams, G., Srivastava, M., & Véron, R. (2005). Seeing the state: Governance and governmentality in India (Vol. 10). Cambridge University Press.

Gupta, A. (2012). Red Tape: Bureaucracy, Structural Violence, and Poverty in India. Durham and London: Duke University Press

Gupta, A. (1995). Blurred boundaries: the discourse of corruption, the culture of politics, and the imagined state. American ethnologist22(2), 375-402.

Harris, L. M. (2017). Political ecologies of the state: Recent interventions and questions going forward. Political Geography58(May), 90-92.

Loftus, A. (2018). Political ecology II: Whither the state?. Progress in Human Geography, 0309132518803421.

Lund, C. (2006). Twilight Institutions: Public authority and local politics in Africa. Development and Change, 37(4), 685-705.

Muir, S. & Gupta, A. (2018). Rethinking the Anthropology of Corruption: An Introduction to Supplement 18. Current Anthropology, 59(suppl. 18), S4-S15.

Omeje, K. (Ed.). (2013). Extractive economies and conflicts in the global south: Multi-regional perspectives on rentier politics. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd..

Robbins, P. (2008). The state in political ecology: A postcard to political geography from the field. The SAGE handbook of political geography, 205-218.

Robbins, P. (2000). The rotten institution: corruption in natural resource management. Political Geography, 19(4), 423-443.

Robertson, M. (2015). Political ecology and the state. The Routledge handbook of political ecology, 457.

Watts, M. (2001). Petro-violence: community, extraction, and political ecology of a mythic commodity. Violent environments, 189-212.

Williams, A., & Le Billon, P. (Eds.). (2017). Corruption, natural resources and development: From resource curse to political ecology. Edward Elgar Publishing.

CfP POLLEN 20 – Papers, procedures, and plants: Expanding the political ecology of bureaucracy

Session organizers

Scott Freeman (American University) and Raquel Machaqueiro (George Washington University). Please, send your abstract (250 words) by October 25 to Scott Freeman ( and Raquel Machaqueiro (

Session description

Interdisciplinary political ecology has exposed environmental conservation efforts as a domain in which multiple conceptualizations of space, time, and nature intersect and are forged (Neumann 1998; Hughes 2005; West 2006). The institutions involved in these intersections are broad and varied: states, multi-laterals, non-governmental actors, grassroots organizations and combinations therein all contribute to the broad effects of conservation practice. What unites much of conservation practice, regardless of the organizations involved, is the negotiation and continuous deployment of bureaucracy.

In this panel, we interrogate the bureaucratic practices within conservation, and the social worlds that are produced as a result. Bureaucracies do not neutrally encounter an objective world, but interpret and create, defining problems and making them amenable to bureaucratic intervention (Barnett and Finnemore 2004). Accordingly, bureaucracies are machines for the production of documents, inscriptions which are then used to stabilize particular problematizations and interpretations of the world (Gupta 2012, Hull 2012). Such practices produce their own authority through regularity and repetition that may include the mundane filing of forms, ticking of boxes, or writing of formulaic reports according to standardized templates (Feldman 2008). In doing so, bureaucracies respond to calls for transparency, audit, or fiscal discipline, but may simultaneously produce social exclusion and precarity (Bear and Mathur 2015, Hetherington 2011). Rather than producing visibility, they may propagate secrecy and ignorances about the world (Weber 1973, Sanders and West 2003).

As bureaucracy comes to bare on conservation practice, new forms of environmental governance emerge and new social realms are produced. The needs of populations and their environmental problems are defined through environmental regulatory regimes (Goldman 2001). Yet the implementation of conservation through states is rarely monolithic. Environmental projects and policies are often faced with the “mundane set of everyday failures by local government” (Brockington 2007: 845), whose practices illuminate the inherent contradictory nature of state bureaucracies (Neumann 2001). In examining environmental bureaucracy, even the role of policy is limited, as bureaucratic forms like the project become far more important for implementers (Li 2016).

This panel explores both the many facets of bureaucracy and the conflicts, contestations, and negotiations that occur as bureaucratic governance unfolds. We hope to examine the way in which documents as well as soils and forests become sites for negotiation, and how practitioners as well as beneficiaries navigate projects. We are equally intrigued by the ways that time and space are forged through bureaucratic practices. In particular, we will address the following questions:

  • What kinds of powers, possibilities, and prefigurations are produced by bureaucracy within environmental conservation?
  • What types of ignorance, injustices, and irrationalities are produced by environmental bureaucracies?
  • What is the role of bureaucracy in the construction of “successful” environmental interventions?
  • How are space and time produced through the demands of documentation and measurement of conservation projects?
  • How are bureaucracies negotiated from within and outside of conservation organizations?

Papers may also address:

  • Bureaucratic expert knowledge (and its deployment)
  • Participation/enrollment of different stakeholders (practitioners, donors, local authorities, beneficiaries) in bureaucratic procedures
  • Forms of power/authority produced by bureaucratic procedures (including funding)
  • Intersection of bureaucracies and the role of market-based instruments in environmental governance
  • Audits and measurement in conservation practice


Barnett, Michael, and Martha Finnemore. 2004. Rules for the World – International Organizations in Global Politics. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Bear, Laura, and Nayanika Mathur. 2015. Introduction: Remaking the Public Good: A New Anthropology of Bureaucracy. The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 33(1).

Brockington, Dan. 2007. “Forests, Community Conservation, and Local Government Performance: The Village Forest Reserves of Tanzania.” Society & Natural Resources 20 (9): 835–48.

Feldman, Ilana. 2008. Governing Gaza – Bureaucracy, Authority, and the Work of Rule, 1917-1967. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Ferguson, James. 1994. The Anti-Politics Machine – “Development”, Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

Goldman, Michael. 2001. “Constructing an Environmental State: Eco-Governmentality and Other Transnational Practices of a ‘Green’ World Bank.” Social Problems 48 (4): 499–523.

Gupta, Akhil. 2012. Red Tape: Bureaucracy, Structural Violence, and Poverty in India. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Hetherington, Kregg. 2011.Guerrilla Auditors: The Politics of Transparency in Neoliberal Paraguay. Durham: Duke University Press.

Hughes, David McDermott. 2005. “Third Nature: Making Space and Time in the Great Limpopo Conservation Area.” Cultural Anthropology 20 (2): 157–84.

Hull, Matthew S. 2012. Government of Paper – The Materiality of Bureaucracy in Urban Pakistan. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.

Li, Tania Murray. 2016. “Governing Rural Indonesia: Convergence on the Project System.” Critical Policy Studies 10 (1): 79–94.

Neumann, Roderick P. 2001. Africa’s ‘Last Wilderness’: Reordering Space for Political and Economic Control in Colonial Tanzania. Africa 71(04): 641–665.

Neumann, Roderick P. 1998. Imposing Wilderness: Struggles Over Livelihood and Nature Preservation in Africa. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.

Weber, Max. 1946. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Gerth and Mills. New York: Oxford University Press.

West, Harry G., and Todd Sanders. 2003. Transparency and Conspiracy: Ethnographies of Suspicion in the New World Order. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

West, Paige. 2006. Conservation Is Our Government Now – The Politics of Ecology in Papua New Guinea. Durham and London: Duke University Press.