Unbounding Bureaucracies: A Conversation with Matthew S. Hull

Photo by Charanjeet Dhiman on Unsplash.

This post builds on the research article “Corporations and States: A Customer-Service Corporation inside the Punjab State Police” by Matthew S. Hull, which was published in the November 2022 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

Matthew S. Hull's article on the effects of bringing a corporate call center into the bureaucratic operations of the Punjab police offers a new perspective on the boundary thinking that has infused much anthropological work on the nature of the state. He advocates unthinking the state/non-state divide through his ethnographic work on the 181 Helpline, a non-emergency number introduced in Punjab to facilitate women's access to the police, and Ziqitza, the company contracted to staff the helpline. Hull invites readers to consider the metaphor of microbiota—of organisms within organisms—as an alternative to the language of limits and boundaries in the study of state bureaucracies. In a graduate or advanced undergraduate seminar, Hull's article might be read alongside other recent works on policing (see, e.g., Jauregui 2016, Martin 2018, Katzenstein 2020 and contributors) or as a complement to theoretical texts on bureaucracy and the state (e.g., Weber 1968, Mitchell 1991).

In the author interview below, Hull elaborates on why and how anthropologists might rethink the metaphor of the state/non-state boundary and offers ethnographic and methodological reflections on his research within a police bureaucracy.

Isabel M. Salovaara: I wanted to start with the question of boundaries. You begin the article with a discussion of the ways in which even a focus on the porosity of state/non-state boundaries may limit anthropologists’ analytic range when it comes to novel configurations such as the corporate-run police helpline you describe. Yet there were moments in your ethnographic account when boundaries between the police and corporation seemed paramount. I am thinking, for instance, of the inability of police to directly access or alter information in Ziqitza’s database, or of the manner in which the Ziqitza case managers ‘closed’ and referred the ‘Not Satisfied’ cases to higher levels of the police bureaucracy proper, marking the limit of the corporation’s intervention. Are there certain ways in which boundary thinking might remain analytically useful even as anthropologists ask questions about the content and effects of such ‘public-private partnerships’? Or ought we to resist the pull of this perhaps overly familiar metaphor?

Matthew S. Hull: Let me first thank you, Isabel, for these thought-provoking questions and for arranging our exchange. I’d like to be clear that attention to the state/non-state boundary has been very fruitful, both the political theory work of Timothy Mitchell and a few decades of anthropological work. Much of my earlier work on paper documents was focused on the relation between the state and the non-state. For example, I showed that certain genres of documents construct and mediate the relationship between state actions and the actions of those who do not work for the state. But the state/non-state boundary is only one of many divisions or relations we need to understand. And it is ultimately too beholden to early modern political thinking. Of course, it’s also rooted in important, contemporary concerns about the privatization of key public goods. But as you so gracefully put it, we “ought to resist the pull of this” metaphor.

I am not sure if the state/non-state framing was ever a good way to think about political order in many places. But today, the institutional heterogeneity of governance institutions and their configurations require a more medieval orientation to politics, more rock-paper-scissors, focused on how governing institutions have different capacities to shape other institutions and different handles for being shaped themselves. When the difference between state and non-state per se matters, it’s what other differences ride along on this one, and those need to be empirically investigated rather than assumed. The example you raise, of the differential database access of Ziqitza and district police shows this: it is not a state/non-state boundary that matters really; it’s that this boundary enabled the system’s creators to differentiate database access. There is nothing about the state/non-state difference that prevented them from configuring the system to give equal access to all. In fact, central police officials did have full access to all the information in the database, even if this access was mediated by Ziqitza. If we think less in terms of formal political status (state/non-state), what we have is the distinction of three organizational entities based on differential access to information. On the other hand, if we are looking at the capacity of politicians and police to influence the actions of 181 staff, the state/non-state boundary was crucial—because 181 staff were employed by Ziqitza and could not be fired (or transferred) by state actors. Resisting the pull of the boundary metaphor helps us see other configurations of relations and make fewer assumptions about what a state/non-state boundary is doing when we encounter it.

IMS: Your alternative to boundary thinking about the state lies in the metaphor of an organism’s microbiome–the “internal others” (767) that help regulate our bodily processes and environmental interactions. I was wondering if you might elaborate on what inspired this metaphor. More broadly, what potentials and pitfalls do you see in crafting contemporary social science theories from natural science metaphors?

MSH: This is a question I have gotten a lot in my presentations of this argument in talks. As I said in my reply to the last question, much of my work has been focused on the relation between the state and the non-state. But in dealing with the 181 arrangement, I found myself frustrated by trying to conceptualize this as only, or even mainly, a matter of state/non-state relations—just so many things going on within the police, provoked by the actions of this corporation. In using a social theory, we tend to focus on concepts and arguments, but metaphors or analogies are often key to what they do—and the boundary metaphor has had a lot of staying power. Also, if one just points out, “well, it’s more complicated than that in this way and that way,” a prevailing metaphor won’t budge. One has to have an alternative, a compact way of encapsulating, comprehending, and communicating a configuration of actors, relations, whatever. This was my train of thinking that led me to look for an alternative metaphor.

For all the reasons I was looking for another metaphor, we have to treat metaphors with great care. And, as you suggest, natural science metaphors have particular risks. Can one apply a biological metaphor without naturalizing the phenomena? Our first concern with naturalizing something is that it’s portrayed as normal or mechanistically determined, but that is not the way many natural scientists see the unfolding of natural processes, even when they see natural outcomes related to deep regularities. Also concerning is that a natural metaphor can suggest that something occurs beyond human intentions or without human-mediated semiosis. Within anthropology, of course, naturalization has often come in the form of functionalism—in fact the two are often conflated—especially in characterizing comprehensive orders, like society or the state. There were the structural functionalists and behind them figures like Durkheim, Spencer, perhaps even Hobbes. I think there is actually a lot more functionalism around today than we notice—for example, in the arguments about states getting stronger or weaker.

That said, I think it is important to consider not just the natural science character of a metaphor but what dynamics and structures of relations it implies. My colleague Liz Roberts has asked me, what might it do to think of this metaphor coming from the life sciences rather than the natural sciences? The concept of the microbiome—and even more, microbiota, the name for the entities that constitute it—emphasizes heterogeneous actors intensely interacting in highly contingent ways, with a variety of positive and negative effects, depending on which kind of entity you side with. It keeps the recognition of differences between a governing entity (a human) and other actors, but it pluralizes relations across this difference. Although the microbiome is a natural metaphor, it is pitched against much of what social scientists usually associate with nature, much like Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome, a new natural metaphor to replace an old one, the tree.

“The concept of the microbiome—and even more, microbiota, the name for the entities that constitute it—emphasizes heterogeneous actors intensely interacting in highly contingent ways, with a variety of positive and negative effects, depending on which kind of entity you side with. It keeps the recognition of differences between a governing entity (a human) and other actors, but it pluralizes relations across this difference.”

IMS: Turning to some of your ethnographic insights in this piece, I wanted to ask about the ways in which caste-class positioning intersected with the strongly gendered dynamics you observed in the contrasts and interactions between the call center and the police. You note briefly that, even with the flexibility to add new types of complaints, caste crimes remained absent from the Ziqitza database. It also seems that caste and religion were not considered markers of ‘vulnerability’ in the gradually expanding list of groups to which the hotline was especially meant to cater. You suggest that the absence of the caste crimes classification may reflect the shared “status” (776) of the call center workers and police. Could you elaborate further on the ways caste and class background shaped this institutional arrangement and its outcomes?

MSH: I wasn’t able to understand how, if at all, caste figured in the interactions between the call center and police, beyond the fact that everyone seemed to be higher caste, though even that was impossible to confirm. The role of class, at least in terms of education was a little clearer. The fact that case coordinators were more highly educated than the lower-level policemen they dealt with bolstered their authority, though it also seemed to fuel resentment among the police. In conversations between callers and call-takers, the call-takers’ education (as manifest in accent, style of speech, vocabulary, and so forth) shaped their stance toward callers as one of reassuring, competent authority.

The role of caste in the original purposes of 181 and its operations is more complicated, and something I don’t understand well. None of the police officials who had been part of the establishment of 181 could explain why children, elderly, and non-resident Indians (NRIs) were added to women (the original target of 181) as vulnerable populations—or why NRIs were considered vulnerable (they are often very wealthy) or why lower caste groups were not included. So-called Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Classes (legal designations) make up probably around sixty percent of Punjab’s population. But they are not well-represented in the police. So, my unsatisfying suggestion in the article that the exclusion of caste-status from the identification of vulnerability and the lack of complaints classified as caste crimes reflected the upper-caste perspectives of the architects and operators of this system.

During my ethnography with call takers and case coordinators, I never encountered a caller or complaint record that brought up caste. Analysis of database complaint records confirms the rarity of caste in the text of complaints written by call takers, but it is hard to know what to make of this from the institutionally-situated ethnography I did. In one set of complaint records from 2013 including 11,830 complaints, only 27 mentioned caste as part of the complaint. A few involved conflicts over inter-caste marriages and a few others involved physical attacks, which complaints records attributed to “low caste” or “SC caste” status. The majority of complaint records that mentioned caste referred to speech acts, accusations of using, in the most common formulas, “abusive language about her [or his] caste,” and “passing casteist remarks.” All of these actions, including the purely verbal ones, are potentially offenses under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989. But in every case I examined, even when the caste dimension was central, the narrative focus of the complaint was on the generic form of the offense, such as “attack,” “abuse & bad language,” “police misbehavior,” and so forth. It seems unlikely that callers wouldn’t have called these a “caste offense” as they are known in English. But from the database record alone, I can’t say for sure.

IMS: In this article, you argue that “what kind of bureaucracy states recruit” to share in their work–in this case, an ambulance-monitoring company rather than a direct-service provider–strongly shapes the resultant formation. I was wondering if you could take this insight in a methodological direction and speak to the significance of type-difference for undertaking ethnographic studies in bureaucratic contexts. How were issues of access, rapport, and other foundational aspects of conducting ethnographic research different within the Punjab Police compared to other bureaucracies you have studied? Do you have any advice for junior ethnographers or others interested in pursuing ethnographic work on or in police bureaucracies?

MSH: You make a great point with that question. Access and methods vary quite a lot with different types of bureaucratic organizations and the different activities they perform. My access to the 181-Punjab police arrangement and my access to the urban planning bureaucracy in Islamabad (CDA) for my earlier work came about very differently, in ways that are directly related to what each arrangement did. The CDA is a sprawling, multi-division, bureaucracy with a vast number of different kinds of engagements with people: fixing water hookups; government housing allocation; commercial licenses, construction permits, and so forth. And the CDA mostly doesn’t deal with sensitive matters—with perhaps the exception of mosque regulation. Correspondingly, my access to the CDA arena was likewise multiple and varied. I first visited a CDA office with a friend who had some business with a landscape architect there—I was surprised to find he was happy to chat with me too. After that, I started walking through what were then open gates to the complex and turning up in various offices, talking with heads of divisions, and then the people working under them. The 181-Punjab Police is an entirely different kind of organization, at least at the center where my ethnography focused. Obviously, it’s a highly centralized arrangement, and it deals with some of the most sensitive matters of government. I couldn’t even walk near the entrances to the headquarters in Chandigarh without being accosted by well-armed guards asking questions about why I was there.

As I note in a footnote in the article, my access came through the Punjab Deputy Chief minister’s desire for the Indian School of Business to do a positive evaluation of the 181 arrangement, to publicize it as a successful good-governance project ahead of the 2014 election. My access was also promoted by the senior police officer who had initiated the project and was very proud of it. If 181 had been a controversial mess, I doubt I could have even found out where the call center was located! I think that ethnographers of states are perhaps like investigative reporters in this respect: both get insights and materials because someone has a desire to get them out. That said, we shouldn’t ignore the role of hospitality, generosity, and friendship.

Lastly, of course, in both projects my being a white American, and affiliated with well-known U.S. universities, was a major factor. Part of that was that officials saw me as outside the political and personal networks that they were concerned about. Punjab police and 181 staff were much more forthcoming when I began to talk with them without Indian School of Business researchers with me. Of course, this same dynamic works the other way for ethnographers working in their own countries.

One general piece of advice to ethnographers seeking access to police: consider carefully what level or branch of a police organization (and other bureaucracies) to look for an opening. It is tempting to go to the top to get a kind of wide license—and sometimes, for example, for my police call center project, it was necessary. However, permission from the top can make subordinates wary, and you will often find mid-level officers have the power to grant the access you might be looking for—and might be more interested in engaging with you. Also, I think in most places government employees, not only police but most bureaucrats, feel maligned for what they consider important work. Ethnographers will often find, as I did, that government servants are eager to talk with them, as they are surprised that someone recognizes the significance of their work and wants to understand it. But from the experiences of other ethnographers of police I know, the paths to accessing police bureaucracies have been varied, even idiosyncratic, depending on particular circumstances and how a particular ethnographer fits into them. I am continually impressed by the way anthropologists manage to gain access to sites you would expect to be closed to them. There is so much terrific ethnographic work on police that I would not have thought possible.


Jauregui, Beatrice. 2016. Provisional Authority: Police, Order, and Security in India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Katzenstein, Jessica. 2020. “Introduction: Policing and Labor.” Exertions.

Martin, Jeffrey T. 2018. “Police and Policing.” Annual Review of Anthropology 47, no. 1: 133–48.

Mitchell, Timothy. 1991. “The Limits of the State: Beyond Statist Approaches and Their Critics.” American Political Science Review 85, no. 1: 77–96.

Weber, Max. 1968. “Bureaucracy.” In Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, edited by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich, 956–1005. New York: Bedminster Press.