Call for papers: Screen-level bureaucracy

Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association
Washington, D.C., November 29 – December 3, 2017

Screen-level Bureaucracy: Organizational Encounters in the Digitized and Automated World

Organizer: Kelly McKowen, Princeton University
Abstracts are due to by April 7

The traditional image of the encounter between an individual and a bureaucratic organization involves at least two actors meeting physically across a desk or a table. As a growing share of private and public organizations embrace digitization, automation, and artificial intelligence, however, this image has become in many cases a poor representation of how people actually meet and experience bureaucracy. From banks and businesses to schools and welfare offices, many of the organizations people interact with present themselves less through physical, built spaces and more via the computer-, tablet-, and mobile phone-mediated artifacts of the digital world. In turn, the experience of bureaucracy, which previous ethnographic and qualitative scholarship has shown be a significant space of political claim-making and the formation of shared ideas about the self, society, and the economy, is undergoing dramatic shifts.

Tracking these shifts and their impacts in different parts of the world represents a significant opportunity for anthropologists to play a central role in answering some of the critical questions that will shape scholarship on bureaucratic organizations moving forward. These questions include: How does digitization of the bureaucratic exterior affect transparency and trust between organizations and their users? How do different technologies of contact—e.g. web portals, teleconferencing, long-distance learning, robo-advising, etc.—distribute, delimit, or eliminate discretion, power, and agency at the street-level? Which spaces of contact and modes of claim-making have been opened and closed by the burgeoning virtual presence of different organizations? How do digital documents and templates affect the abilities of users and bureaucracies to communicate with—and understand—one another? And how do varying mixes of virtual and physical bureaucratic experience impact the ways people understand the nature of the state, the corporation, the trade union, etc.?

This panel invites papers which engage any aspect of the virtual and/or automated relationship between individuals and bureaucratic organizations. If you are interested, please send a title and abstract of no more than 250 words to by April 7, 2017. Selected panelists will be notified shortly thereafter.

Kelly McKowen
PhD Candidate, Anthropology
Princeton University