Crafting the State: An Interview with José Ciro Martínez and Omar Sirri

Bakers making khubz ‘arabi in Amman. © José Ciro Martínez

This post builds on the research article “Bureaucraft: Statemakers in Amman and Baghdad” by José Ciro Martínez and Omar Sirri, which was published in the August 2023 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

In their article, “Bureaucraft: Statemakers in Amman and Baghdad,” José Ciro Martínez and Omar Sirri explore how the state comes into being through the skilled practices of those people implementing policy on the ground. Through an “unlike comparison” of bakers and soldiers, they invite readers to look beyond the bureaucratic sphere in any conventional sense. Instead, they turn their view towards wider bureaucratic assemblages. Developing the concept of bureaucraft, Martínez and Sirri draw attention to the role of technique and skill in making the state. In this interview, they reflect on their research trajectory, collaborative process, as well as on analytical, methodological, and political implications of their research.


Steffen Hornemann: What I find particularly intriguing about the article is your evocative writing on the embodied, sensory labor undertaken by both soldiers in Baghdad and bakers in Amman. The vivid descriptions of bakers navigating variable conditions when working with dough and of soldiers finely attuned to subtle cues at checkpoints offer a unique lens into the intersection of craft and state policies. As we delve deeper into your work, I’m curious about your research trajectory. Could you shed light on your initial research questions and how you came to recognize the role of craft in state-making?

Omar Sirri: For most of the last two decades, security checkpoints have structured mobility in and around Baghdad. Emplaced by U.S. occupying forces, and soon thereafter populated and operated by Iraqi security forces, these checkpoints very quickly became sites of derision. Most Baghdadis have long mocked and lamented these installations as ineffective at engendering physical security—years of urban violence and instability as their convincing evidence. Foregrounding this condemnation, my research sought to determine why checkpoints are maintained when virtually everyone insists they fail at providing that which they purport to instill.

In order to figure out why these architectures persist in the face of perpetual security breakdown, I examined how they operate—what the personnel manning them do, what exactly comprised their routines. In so doing, I learned that as much as their practices—scrutinizing, stopping, questioning, searching, releasing—were acerbically condemned as amounting to nothing, these personnel slowly accrued acumen vital for effecting the entity Baghdadis so often pillory: the state. I came to observe that many of the security men at the checkpoint, over time and through exhausting shifts and stints, came to learn ways of seeing and knowing, refining their gaze and tack through acquired astuteness.

José Ciro Martínez: A reading of the bakery is perhaps more amenable to the prism of the craft than the checkpoint. But I can’t say I came to the fieldwork with any tangible interest in thinking about technique, skill or dexterity. Unlike Omar, I was interested in an iteration of state power that did seem to work. In contrast to many public schools, hospitals and utilities, the Jordanian government’s bread subsidy transpires with an astounding regularity and effectiveness. I wondered why this was the case. Yet inevitably, like Omar, I was taken to the subsidy’s routine operations, what exactly the people and things that made bread not only available but appetizing were doing, how this welfare program functioned when so few others do. It took me some time to get to craft, and it was only with Omar that I got there. The baker and the soldier seem to have so little in common. As we spent more time discussing our respective research in Amman and Baghdad, sussing out the gradations of our habits and routines during fieldwork, the aptitudes and competencies of our interlocutors quickly came to the fore.

SH: In foregrounding aspects of the body, skill, and craft, you compellingly redirect our focus from desk-bound and paper-pushing bureaucrats to those people involved in implementing policies on the ground. What is at stake, analytically and politically, in this shift in perspective? How does your intervention challenge or extend notions of the state as top-down, and as relying on abstraction and simplification? Furthermore, in characterizing bakers and soldiers as “ambiguous functionaries” (406), I am curious how you think about their relation to people working within the more conventional bureaucratic sphere. How do your interlocutors navigate this ambiguity?

JCM: Analytically, I am hopeful that the piece complicates the roles and routines of bureaucrats, whether traditionally or more broadly conceived. Frequently dismissed as overeager paper pushers, time spent amongst both bakers and those charged with regulating their labors made evident that simply following instructions or enacting regulations never came close to capturing what was going on. Instead, such modes of labor resist simplification into deductive principles. Comparing Amman and Baghdad allowed us to make the point that if the environments and situations in which bureaucrats operate are so different, distinctive and complex, formal procedures and codified techniques are usually impractical, if not entirely useless.

Politically, and this is perhaps one of James Scott’s (1998) less appreciated points: formal abstractions such as the state are always, to a rather large extent, parasitic on the dexterities, knowledges, and agencies of the people and things that work to compose them. Without these exertions and alliances, the state effect does not transpire, the abstraction fails to take hold. Examining them more closely is not just intended to point out the details and intricacies of the state’s always repeating manufacture, its performative nature. It is also meant to open up points for tactical subversion.

OS: Studies of securitization, especially in and of ‘conflict zones,’ are so often dominated by the actions of elites, the decisions they take. The exercise of this authority no doubt matters. But I am trying to offer a different starting point. Jumping off from the street helps us learn a bit more about how power forms through the quotidian, in turn informing the constitution of apparent structures that govern. This article offers a close look at the labors and exertions of our interlocutors. This focus helps reveal how their own discernment in decision making matters for the shaping of rule at ground level. Here, I suspect, is where ambiguity functions. Put differently, one way of thinking about relations across ‘bureaucratic spheres’ is digging into how the ‘conventional’ is implemented. Simple directives cannot work to produce authority without discretions sensed as momentarily necessary by those doing the work. I think this holds true across the gamut of bureaucracies.

Vehicles passing through a security checkpoint in Baghdad. © Omar Sirri

SH: By positioning bakers and soldiers in a “bureaucratic assemblage,” you highlight their vital role within complex systems producing public goods. These systems not only comprise bakers, soldiers, and paper-pushing bureaucrats. You write, for instance, how “subsidized bread is composed of a wide array of people, processes, and things” (393), such as the supply chains of flour as well as changing weather conditions. Could you expand on the analytical work that the concept of “assemblage” does? How exactly do you conceive of assemblages and agency within these assemblages in the context of bureaucracy and state-making? The idea of “bureaucratic assemblages” also poses the questions of boundaries—where do they begin and end, what is included, and what is excluded? And what assumptions are at play in this categorization?

JCM and OS: We find the term useful not because of what it identifies but because of the questions and possibilities it opens up. The paper foregrounds the varied gatherings and forces that come together to produce public goods. How and where do they begin and end? We suppose it depends. But without this term ‘assemblage,’ we find little room for examining how human agency deflects, diverts, or attaches itself to other kinds of energies helping make the work of bureaucracy possible. This framing allows us not only to expand what we think of as bureaucratic work, but also to explore the state as an amalgam of forms and practices that require certain collaborations and knowledges to take hold. The state may seem as if it is some axiomatic institution governing at a distance. That is in part because up close and personal governance practices appear as rote, mindless even—but they are far more shrewd. Craft helps make the state appear as an unquestionable reality rather than the tenuous effect that it is.

SH: We already talked about how, in connecting state-making and craft, you center the embodied, sensory labor of those producing public goods on the ground. What methodological implications does your intervention have for the ethnographic study of bureaucracy and state-making?

JCM and OS: Bakers and soldiers are not bureaucrats in any conventional sense. This critique has been proffered of our piece, indeed while we were drafting it, from both friends and anonymous reviewers alike. This provocation is generative; for even if obvious, the claim has little to say about the fact that our bakers and soldiers remain enactors of bureaucracy. These functionaries still help us glean insight into how bureaucratic assemblages operate, and what they help produce. By examining the bakery and the checkpoint ethnographically, we see how these sites are implementers of public authority, of governing rules made in and by ministries and other state institutions, with the apparent aim of offering two very different provisions—sustenance and security.

In the interest of brevity, we offer two implications: First, by taking an expansive approach to the study of bureaucracy—to look at and for bureaucracy elsewhere—we learn the ways in which craft helps bureaucracy work. Second, and we state this explicitly in the article, governmental iterations of bureaucracy are foremost about enacting public authority, about making the state (390). To study bureaucracy ethnographically means studying the ways in which the state comes to be, even if and when ‘the state’ might not be one’s primary interest. Foci may be on any number of things and non-things—artifacts, actions, affects. But perhaps, ultimately, bureaucratic assemblages matter most of all because they function like a set of trusses on which the structural edifice of the state appears to rest.

Bread displayed at an Ammani bakery. © José Ciro Martínez

SH: You develop your argument based on individual fieldwork and an “unlike comparison” (406) between the labor of bakers in Amman and security checkpoint personnel in Baghdad. Could you share more about your collaboration, what brought you together on this unlike comparison, and what your collaborative process, during analysis and writing, looked like?

OS: This article is the second on which José Ciro and I have collaborated. The first, nearly four years ago now, considered how bakeries and checkpoints were infrastructural and were in turn generative of affective attachments that helped effect the state (Martínez and Sirri 2020a). When it was published, we together reflected on the piece and how it came about (Martínez and Sirri 2020b). I insisted, then, that my desire for thinking and writing together was driven by my fieldwork, a belief that a less-than-intuitive collaboration might better capture the ‘texture and richness’ of what I was seeing and experiencing in Baghdad. I hope these two pieces have borne that out.

José Ciro and I read and write together—critically engaging texts, determining where we sit in relation to them, and slowly blueprinting our own. Our email threads are long, the drafts are in the many tens. We comment on each other’s ethnographies, finding our way by editing, reflecting, and re-writing. Debates on punctuation bring laughs, especially around the commas I often insist are superfluous. The process is time-intensive and arduous—and a joy. José Ciro is a rigorous reader, brilliant thinker, and stunning writer. This work, for me, is and always will be a great source of pride.

JCM: I maintain my attachment to certain very necessary commas, but can only echo Omar’s generous reflections and thank him for his kind words. I’d add that I find our collaboration is fueled by an embrace of incongruities. We don’t always agree. Our readerly predilections seldom coincide. As is obvious, the places we study are rather different, as are the practices and political situations we try to unpack. Rather than an obstacle to working together, the cacophony somehow becomes melodious—at least on occasion. It takes time. It requires serious effort and sincere engagement. But it is always fulfilling and never dull. As in Hisham Matar’s (2024) most recent novel, My Friends, our time together is also necessarily inflected with just the right dosages of “endearment and mockery.” Intellectual gratification, too, of course. And a fair share of fun.

SH: Finally, with both of you having a background in political science, what has brought you to anthropology in your research and, particularly, in this article? How do you navigate interdisciplinarity and disciplinary boundaries in your research and careers?

OS: What has brought us to anthropology is a set of questions and debates centered around the study of bureaucracy and what ethnography helps to illuminate. Ethnographies of the state remain rich in anthropology, and we aim to contribute to that tradition. As for disciplinary boundaries vis-à-vis research and careers, this challenge remains immense in both political science and anthropology. I am not convinced, despite our concerted efforts here and elsewhere, that we are legible to The Gatekeepers in either discipline. In political science, ethnography is still burgeoning—a positive trend, to be sure. But what counts as ethnography remains unclear. That scholars can claim ‘ethnographic sensibility’ with undercooked language skills and a cursory commitment to any serious form of participant observation still baffles and disquiets me. I do not mean we should ring the ethnography police. Rather, if we are going to take up forms of knowledge production that colleagues further afield and adiscipline have honed, we owe it to them, to ourselves, to our interlocutors, to learn from those scholars and engage their works and methods. Doing so, in turn, may open up greater interdisciplinary conversation and increased opportunities for our works to be shared—just as Cultural Anthropology has offered us here.

JCM: I can’t say I have much to offer in the way of career advice. I came to anthropology because I thought it asked better, more enriching questions than the vast majority of what I see in political science. I am also convinced that, as a discipline, it offers more fulfilling ways to engage the people, during that misnomer of an experience called fieldwork, with whom we spend so much time and for whom we care deeply. That said, disciplinary boundaries are there precisely to discipline. Perhaps we would all be better served by being less invested in such modes of policing. Or perhaps political science needs some delinquents to take over the central tower, in the vein hope that we could watch over our collective efforts better than the current guards.


Martínez, José Ciro, and Omar Sirri. 2020a. “Of Bakeries and Checkpoints: Stately Affects in Amman and Baghdad.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 38, no. 5: 849–66.

Martínez, José Ciro, and Omar Sirri. 2020b. “‘Of Bakeries and Checkpoints: Stately Affects in Amman and Baghdad’ (New Texts Out Now).” Jadaliyya, April 27.

Matar, Hisham. 2024. My Friends: A Novel. New York: Random House.

Scott, James C. 1998. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press.