Norms in the Margins and Margins of the Norm

The Social Construction of Illegality


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Abstracts Panel 10

Panel organizers: Giorgio Blundo (EHESS, Marseille, France) and Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan (LASDEL, Niamey, Niger)

Beyond Corruption. Practical Norms in Public Services Delivery

One area of consensus in the huge literature on African states, governments, and public services is the significant divergence between the official norms that govern these institutions and the actual behavior of their employees.
There is no doubt that in any social institution, in any country and at any time, divergences exist between norms and practices. However, the scope and form of these divergences vary considerably depending on the context. In the case of public sector jobs in Africa, this divergence is particularly sharp and becomes manifest in a variety of forms.
For many reasons, corruption has been undoubtedly the most frequent guiding notion for studying empirically informal practices of civil servants: corruption is obviously “breaking” the rules of bureaucracies, ignoring the law of the state, and departing away from the official norms civil servants are supposed to comply with. For the social sciences, the word “corruption” is little more than an entry point to the study of informal practices, which are against the law from a legal point of view.
But this does not mean that African civil servants behave in a complete absence of rules and regulations, or that corrupt practices are merely a matter of the ‘law of the market’ or simple power relations. On the contrary, everyday corruption is a social activity which is regulated de facto and in accordance with complex rules, and is tightly controlled by a series of tacit codes which differ significantly from public codes and official or legal norms. This is also true of other non-corrupt informal practices of civil servants.
Corruption is embedded in the day-to-day routine of civil servants to such an extent that it often becomes difficult to distinguish between corrupted practices and the everyday informal practices through which the civil service operates.
But, of course, African civil servants sometimes follow official norms and behave partly in conformity with bureaucratic rules. The acknowledgement of competence, merit-based promotions, legal-rational logics, deference to professional ethics, and respect of procedures are not uncommon, even if they are exceptions, or are mixed with opportunistic strategies. We must keep in mind that, as far as logics of action among civil servants are concerned, pluralism, code switching and straddling are the rule.
In order to understand more acutely how civil servants ‘play’ between formal practices and informal ones, the concept of ‘practical norms’ may help. Informal practices of civil servants are structured and regulated. When informal practices lead individuals away from following official norms, they are following other norms. We call them practical norms. Practical norms are informal regulations, tacit or latent, underlying actors’ practices when they don’t follow official norms. They help to understand why and how informal practices converge and are not anarchic.
Practical norms always coexist with official norms. So, the informal practices of civil servants in Africa are not the product of a lack but of an excess of norms. Of course, practical norms are not formalized, they are not even necessarily conscious, and are scarcely expressed as such by social actors: they are more often than not automatic and routine, existing in a vein more implicit than explicit.   
When the practices of public officials in Africa do not follow official norms, they do not necessarily follow social norms (traditional) either. Practical norms, in the public sphere, should not be confused with social norms, in the private sphere, even if some links of course do exist. Practical norms are truly informal because they are absent from the public discourse and absent from official moral rhetoric and teaching. They informally regulate practices that diverge from both official and social norms.
 Practical norms can never be separated from official norms: we should always remember that civil servants ‘play’ between official norms and practical norms, according to contexts, personal options, and the type of interactions. Practical norms are resources for actors as well as constraints.
Many combinations of practical norms and official ones are to be found in Africa, from complementarity or substitution to antagonism. In the bureaucratic world we are interested with, three types can be distinguished:
(1) Sometimes practical norms are not so far away from official norms, and derive from the room for interpretation that surrounds official norms. These are adaptive practical norms.
(2) Sometimes practical norms contravene and disobey official norms. These are breaking practical norms. Many type of corruption are a case in point.
(3) Sometimes practical norms oppose official norms, and present themselves as counter norms. These are rebel practical norms.
The panel will consider every type of practical norms, taking as a departure point the embeddedness of corrupted transactions in daily practices of civil servants


  • Alena Ledeneva (University College London, UK)
    From the Economy of Favours to the Economy of Kickbacks: the Case of Russian Sistema

    Given the importance of informal ways of getting things done in the post-Soviet transition in Russia and globally, research into the field of practical norms has been slow to develop. Some of the reasons are of pragmatic nature. In studying informal institutions, networks and practices, the researcher often encounters methodological challenges, pressures to work cross discipline, as well as unwelcoming attitudes of respondents. But there are also conceptual puzzles of integrating the informal dimension into disciplinary research, as well as moral resistance to find out inconvenient facts about the functionality of grey areas for politics, economy and society. This paper delves into the grey area of unwritten rules followed by Russian bureaucrats, their open secrets and the ways in which they relate to the practices of kickbacks. It offers some nuanced accounts of the workings of Russian bureaucracy and poses questions for prospective comparative research of practical norms.
  • Richard Crook (IDS, University of Sussex, UK)
    The State and the Norms of Local Justice in Ghana: Hybridity, Legitimacy and Popular Values

    Much of the current policy discourse on access to justice advocates giving priority to more ‘non-state’ and ‘customary’ forms of justice on the grounds that state justice is too formal, inaccessible and alien to local cultures. Empirical research into how state or state-supported dispute settlement institutions in Ghana actually work in practice challenges these arguments. The Magistrate’s Courts, the District Offices of the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ) and the land dispute committees of the neo-traditional Customary Land Secretariats (CLSs) were compared, focusing on the kinds of codes, procedures and remedies these institutions used. It was found that the Magistrate’s Courts and the CHRAJ were in fact quite successful in providing justice which was congruent with popular beliefs about fairness, and their procedures were sufficiently informal to reflect local culture. The neo-traditional CLSs were in practice more formal and hierarchical, less congruent with popular values, and less likely to be seen as impartial.
  • Mohamed Mebtoul (Université Es-Sénia, Algérie)
    Déconstruction des normes professionnelles et discours de "victimisation" des acteurs de la santé (Algérie)

    La question des normes professionnelles dans le champ de la santé est appréhendée ici à partir des logiques déployées par les gestionnaires de la santé et les agents paramédicaux à partir au cours de leur pratique quotidienne. Il s'agit de montrer  que le mode de régulation vertical et administré du système de soins officiel, ne prive pas le personnel de santé d'atouts pour élaborer son "propre espace de jeu" (De Certeau, 1990). La question pourrait être formulée ainsi : quels sens va -t-il attribuer  a ses actions quotidiennes dans un système professionnel fragile où l'hégémonie de la règle administrative marque profondément le fonctionnement des hôpitaux (circulaires, notes de service, etc.). Cette face visible du système de soins occulte en réalité le "jeu entre les normes" (Baldner, Gillard, 1996) à l'origine d'une pluralité de logiques sociales déployées par les acteurs de la santé.
  • Emmanuel Kasongo Mungongo (Université de Kinshasa, Kinshasa, DRC) & Tom De Herdt (Antwerp University, Antwerp, Belgium)
    La gratuité de l'enseignement primaire : attentes et revers de la médaille

    The DRC government implemented its policy to declare school fees illegal in all primary schools from 2010-11 onwards. This policy was well in line with its constitutional commitments, it drew on the international community’s engagement to reach the education-related MDGs by 2015 and it was pushed forward by the drive to present policy results at the upcoming elections of November 2012. Yet the system of school fees is at the heart of a complex concatenation of different modes of governance with deep historical roots and, above all, partially autonomous from the central-level state. We study how different stakeholders play with instead of by the new rules of the game, by exploiting gaps and ambiguities left within the legal system and its articulation with other modes of governance. A closer comparison of practices in two educational provinces also allows to scrutinize whether and how this playing with the rules is in turn reflecting the locally specific experience acquired during three decades of underfunding and political and administrative turmoil. In the end, it is not sure whether the policy of declaring school fees illegal is not even deepening the problems it was meant to solve.
  • Thomas Cantens (World Customs Organization & Centre Norbert Elias EHESS, Marseille, France)
    Is « Fuel Money » a Custom? Official Rules and Normal Practices in African Customs Administrations

    The international trade in goods is an important source of enrichment in Africa, both for individuals - importers but also public servants, legally and sometimes illegally - and States, considered as institutions managing a budget within which the customs revenue share is between 30% and 70%.
    The governance of these material flows relies on the powerful ideological framework of the equivalence between trade, development and peace. This governance is embodied by a set of legal standards that deploy the taxation and security functions of the states. As these standards regulate transnational exchanges, administrative practices are designed and developed in international institutions and public aid agencies and promoted in Africa by the "experts" of these institutions. These administrative norms are designed to fit with the business practices of the so-called developed country, which are also highly standardized and formalized.
    In most African countries, there is informality in the sense of a set of practices that do not observe the required forms of administration and commerce. This informality and the orders that structure it are the subject of this proposal. Informality goes beyond the notions of corruption or inefficiency because it captures not isolated practices but the agency between:
    (i) informal practices of public servants, embedded both in their relations with importers and in their internal relations which forms shape also the relations with users,
    (ii) informal practices of importers, in their transnational dimension (relations with diasporas and bankers, producers, warehouses managers of export countries) and in their national dimension (the creation of an economic elite) which is sometimes very local (importers’ tontines or the stranglehold of natives of a region on one kind of commodities flow),
    (iii) and the formality of international and national standards that give meaning to informality on two levels, first as a mirror definition (standards define the border between formality and informality), second at the ideological level (informality is not excluded from the liberal ideology which also supports the standards, promoting the ideas of less state intrusion, more individual entrepreneurship and full freedom of trade).
    Informality related to transnational circulation of commodities is structured by strong social practices and the relations between officials, importers and intermediaries which regulate the circulation of wealth and the value of goods, thanks to taxation which is the main technical form of governance in Africa in this area.

Discussant: Giorgio Blundo (EHESS, Marseille, France)

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