Norms in the Margins and Margins of the Norm

The Social Construction of Illegality


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Abstracts Panel 1

Panel organizer: Kedron Thomas (Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, Washington University in St. Louis, USA) 

The Ethics of Illegality

In line with the general notion put forward in the conference abstract that criminalized activities are often accompanied by “the production of ethical categories” and “ethical justifications,” this panel examines modes of ethical reasoning employed by people engaged in criminalized practices and by states in their efforts to justify and publicize the criminalization of particular practices.  The papers examine such ethical claims made by citizens and states in light of the everyday moral worlds in which people engaged in criminalized behavior live their lives.  What are the codes of ethics and moral orientations that structure illegal practices?  When and how is participation in criminalized activities understood to form part of what it means to live a “moral life” (Kleinman 2006)?
The panel analyzes the “ethics of illegality” (Roitman 2006) in another sense as well.  From the perspective of people involved in criminalized forms of work, networks of exchange, and ways of life, the act of defying state authority may be seen as an “ethical” practice in and of itself.  Especially in places where authoritative claims to rule of law have facilitated the marginalization of certain groups, the extraction of resources, and even violence (Nader and Mattei 2009), or where state bureaucracies are otherwise felt to produce injustice and make life more difficult for citizens, belonging to a criminal organization, ignoring the law and its demands, or positioning oneself at the margins of the legal-bureaucratic landscape are sometimes experienced as forms of resistance, protest, or struggle (Herzfeld 2004). The papers presented here thus analyze how illegal activities mediate state-citizen relations in terms of both the processes of ethical reasoning that attenuate the framing of particular activities as criminal and those that call into question the moral authority of the state and its legal institutions.


  • John Osburg (University of Rochester, USA)
    The Hidden Rules of Officialdom: Elite Social Networks and the Moral Economy of Corruption in Contemporary China

    Drawing from my own ethnographic material as well as several published "confessions" of corrupt officials in China, this paper illustrates how state officials often justify and frame their own "corrupt" activities as a way of meeting ethical obligations to members of their social and professional networks. In China these norms are often referred to in unofficial discourse as "the hidden rules of officialdom" (guanchangde qian guize). I argue that the ubiquity of corruption in China thus can be understood as the result of the dominance of these "hidden rules"--the norms and ethics of officials' local social worlds-- over norms enshrined in law. From an official’s perspective, corruption often involves serving these personal “mini-publics” (xiaogong) at the expense of the abstract public good. In fact, officials are often able to use their positions in state bureaucracies to appropriate state resources and manipulate the law for the benefit of their social networks. Given this understanding of corruption as embedded in local social worlds, I argue against conceptualizing corruption in China as merely a transaction in power for money.  My research with entrepreneurs and their official patrons demonstrates that winning the favor and patronage of a corrupt official requires more than simple bribery; it often involves elaborate forms of courtship which seek to transform relationships of mere interest into ones embedded in the norms and ethics of kinship.
  • Laurens Bakker (Radboud University, The Netherlands)
    Illegality for the General Good? Social Responsibility among Regional Militias in Indonesia

    Indonesian society is frequently characterized as one in which legality is the popular ideal, but in which illegal practices have a major role in managing the economy, government and in the lives of the millions of ordinary citizens.  An influential national elite still de facto controls the nation, while the government apparatus has a reputation – though not always deserved - for being more interested in their own wallets than in good governance. Civil society watchdogs focusing on governmental malpractices are generally limited in their influence, yet Indonesia also has seen a mushrooming of local, mostly ethnic, organizations styled after established semi-gangster organizations, yet operating along civil society lines. They offer protection to the poor, work against corrupt government officials and resort to violence where they find this necessary. As such, these groups need to finely balance their activities.
    In this paper, I analyze the resulting situation through a conceptual triangle consisting of “civil society,” “discourses of legality” and “bossism” in order to come to grips with the ethics of these groups’ operations. My aim in doing so is to come to an understanding of how established and effective violent, criminal, and otherwise illegal methods are being restyled through an overhaul as (less-effective) civil society organizations into legitimate yet effective practices. I seek to come to grips with the notion of ‘illegality’ as it governs these groups and their operations. Is the legal-illegal dichotomy as defined by law a valid tool here, or do we need a more specific approach that takes in more practical notions of justice, power and security (e.g. Abraham and Van Schendel 2005; Sen 2009)? And, if this is the case, how should such a notion be conceptualized? 
  • Kedron Thomas (Washington University in St. Louis, USA)
    The Ethics of Informal Enterprise: Security, the State, and Indigenous Citizenship in Guatemala

    In this paper, I draw on ethnographic fieldwork with indigenous Maya men who own small-scale clothing workshops in highland Guatemala to analyze law, ethics, and the everyday practice of entrepreneurship in the post-conflict era.  Maya men who produce fashionable shirts, sweaters, sweatshirts, and other non-traditional garments for Guatemala’s domestic market generally belong to the informal economy.  They avoid paying taxes, hide their businesses from state authorities, and often appropriate trademarked, global fashion brands in ways that violate national and international intellectual property law.  I examine how such practices are talked about among clothing producers and their neighbors, drawing out the local normative frameworks, which sometimes align with and sometimes challenge formal state law, that distinguish between socially legitimate and illegitimate activities.  I find that ethical discourses and business practices are shaped at the local level by processes of class differentiation as indigenous clothing manufacturers with higher levels of education and access to capital interact with state and private institutions that promote a modernist vision of citizenship and social progress and encourage formal market participation.  At the same time, how Maya clothing manufacturers think about their relationship to the state and formal law reflects a deep sense of mistrust cultivated during the armed conflict and reinforced today amidst mounting insecurities that include rising violent crime rates and legal impunity for violent crime.  I find that normative models and business practices evident among highland manufacturers parochialize official portraits of progress, business ethics, and security promoted in national policy agendas and international law.
  • Steffen Jensen (Rehabilitation and Research Center for Torture Victims, Denmark)
    Sacrificial Violence asPerformance in a Manila Fraternity

    This presentation explores the function of sacrificial violence in Greek-letter Fraternities that have migrated from universities to resettlement sites on the border of Metro Manila. Theoretically, the presentation draws on Michael Taussig’s analysis of defacement and Maurice Bloch’s analysis of ritual. Empirically, the presentation draws on ethnographic material collected in 2009 and 2010. The paper argues that the sacrificial violence, made illegal by law, becomes a way in which marginalised young men negotiate serious doubts about their future and exclusion from the global and gendered economy of exchange. The entrance into fraternities enables a different form of inclusion into historically significant and affective masculine spaces beyond the resettlement site. These rituals and the belonging they promise are caught between mythical and socio-economic realities in which the latter emerges dominant.
  • Delila Amir (Tel-Aviv University, Israel)
    The Legality of Prostitution and Illegality of Abortion in Israel: Law, Normativity, and Strategies of Silencing

Discussant: Rivke Jaffe (University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands)

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