Trusting the State? Law, Bureaucracies and Politics

International Research Seminar

University of Liège

28 and 29 September 2023

Organisers: Sophie Andreetta (University of Liège) and Flávio Eiró (University of Groningen)

Deadline for abstracts: May 1, 2023


Call for presentations

Anthropologists of the state have highlighted citizens and noncitizens’ complex and multifaceted representations of the State, and their relationships shaped by these imaginations. Recent studies of bureaucracies ‘at work’ contend that the state can be experienced (often simultaneously) as a provider of goods and a punitive force, warm and cold, intimate and to be feared (Koster 2014). In West Africa, public institutions – including the courts – are largely perceived as corrupt and/or inefficient (Blundo & Le Meur 2009), but they are still regularly mobilised by citizens hoping to benefit from the symbolic authority conveyed by the State (Andreetta 2020). Migrants experience the symbolic, and sometimes, physical violence of the State from the moment that they cross European borders (Alpes 2017; Bosworth 2016; Spire 2008), but they still expect asylum and immigration bureaucracies to fairly assess their claims (Schwenken 2013; Andreetta 2022). Recipients of anti-poverty in Brazil understand bureaucratic complexity and frontline workers erratic decision-making as a source of bureaucratic insecurity that threatens their survival, prompting immediate strategies to counter avoid falling on the wrong side of these bureaucrats (Eiró 2019). Frustrated promises made ‘by the state’ can result in deep mistrust towards it, as residents see such actions as betrayals (Koster 2019; Salmi 2019). Public servants can simultaneously be critical of the State and their own working conditions; using public office and resources to serve their own interest, and at the same time trying to uphold certain values of standards associated with the public good (Bear & Mathur 2015; Lambert 2022). In highly politicised contexts, the rule of law, humanitarian principles and democratic values are amongst the standards that public servants are trying to stay loyal to (Andreetta 2022; Saglam 2022; Kolloch 2022; Verheul 2013). Despite numerous occasions of frustration and despondency, the state continues to generate, among many, feelings of hope, as the only one who can eventually respond to certain needs and aspirations (Jansen 2012).


Building on these works, this workshop aims to further explore how trust in the state and its institutions is constructed, enacted or contested. To do that, we connect and combine three entry points through which state-citizen interactions have been considered so far: politics, bureaucracies, and the law.

Studies of law, bureaucracies and politics have indeed often been conducted within separate fields. Bureaucracies were considered apolitical and belonged to the study of the state and public policies rather than legal implementation. Judicial activity, on the other hand, has mainly been examined by socio-legal scholars and considered to have little impact on policy changes and administrative practices. Recently, scholars in social and political sciences have insisted on the growing intertwining of law, bureaucracies and politics at various scales and in different contexts. Some have shown how political alignment can affect bureaucratic performance (Fiva et al. 2021; Carpenter and Gong 2016). When civil servants support the government in power, they are more likely to enjoy their jobs (Piotrowska 2022), to invest extra effort (Gouthier & Rhein 2011), and to be proud of their work (Esteve & Schuster 2019). In research on frontline work, politics has appeared through the question of how public agents navigate competing demands from factions of the state or society (Blundo 2014; Hamani 2014). Finally, professionals responsible for implementing public policies experience transformations in the political landscape first-hand and are deeply affected by political realignments, especially when there is little political consensus over the direction of policy (Andreetta & Kolloch 2022; Eiró 2022). At the same time, political scientists have referred to the increased mobilisation of high courts in the political game as the medicalisation of politics (Hirshl 2008). At a global scale, constitutional courts have been pushing for laws and policy reforms to be amended, using fundamental rights principles as arguments (Stroh & Heyl 2013). Building on more ethnographic approaches, social scientists have analysed the various ways in which political pressure or injunctions ‘from above’ could affect the judiciary’s daily work (Gallez & Rubbers 2015; Verheul 2013).

These studies help highlight new forms of interference between law, bureaucracies, and politics – and both the challenges and the opportunities that these dynamics allow for. They also show how within this intertwinement, the state, as an ideal and as a set of rules and institutions, is the object of various loyalties, contestations, and frustrations. As these strategies of enacting and resisting different facets of the state are embodied in interactions between civil servants, as well as between them and (non)citizens, looking at the different moments they happen, and the actors involved in them are an important field of studies to understand the directions states take even before noticeable institutional or regime changes.

From uncertain relationships with frontline workers, public servants and even judges, trust in the state emerges as a central issue in the relations between the state and citizens and users of public policies (Tummers and Bekkers 2014; Rothstein and Theorell 2008; Davidovitz and Cohen 2022). This workshop/panel aims to explore the place of trust and mistrust in interactions with, or perceptions of the state in various contexts. (Non)citizens may have different understandings of which institutional actions are perceived as being part of the state, a representation of what the state embodies or should embody for them, and which actions are seen as exceptional or motivated by personal interest or result of extra-state power. Much can be drawn from the different ways people perceive and experience state institutions, and the feelings of mistrust that derive from them.

Contributions could address the following questions:

  • How do (non)citizens make use of public services when they do not trust the state; and how is public servants’ work impacted in contexts where the state is not to be trusted?
  • Is trust different depending on which institutions/bureaucracies people turn to? What can we learn from people’s idea(l)s and representations of ‘the state’ and its institutions?
  • How do mistrust and hope coexist in relations towards the state, especially for marginalised groups?
  • In contexts where public servants are not always considered as acting ‘state-like’, how do their actions affect the way citizens see the state?
  • How do frontline workers and public servants deal with political uncertainty and volatility in their work? How do they try to uphold democratic standards/trustworthiness?

Abstracts (maximum 350 words) can be submitted to the event organisers until May 1, 2023 ( and Authors will be informed of the decision within 2 weeks of the submission deadline.

Limited financial support will be available for those who cannot cover their own expenses. Once abstracts are selected, authors will be notified of the possibilities and procedures to apply for funding.

About the organisers

This event is hosted at the Faculty of Social Sciences of the University of Liège. 

  • Sophie Andreetta is an anthropologist and FRS-FNRS Research Fellow at the University of Liège.
  • Flávio Eiró is a sociologist and Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Arts of the University of Groningen.

Organizing comitee

  • Sophie Andreetta (ULiège)
  • Flavio Eiro (University of Groeningen)
  • Joël Noret (Université Libre de Bruxelles)
  • Benjamin Rubbers (ULiège)


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Andreetta, Sophie and Annalena Kolloch. « Politicised Bureaucrats: Conflicting Loyalties, Professionalism and the Law in the Making of Public Services. » International Journal of Law in Context 18, no. 3 (2022): 279–287.

Andreetta, Sophie. « Failing, writing, litigating: Daily practices of resistance in Belgian welfare bureaucracies. » International Journal of Law in Context 18, no. 3 (2022): 317–332.

Andreetta, Sophie. “The Symbolic Power of the State: Inheritance Disputes and Litigants’ Judicial Trajectories in Cotonou”, PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 43, no.1 (2020): 5–20.

Bear, Laura, and Nayanika Mathur. « Remaking the public good: a new anthropology of bureaucracy. » The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 33 (2015): 18–34.

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Blundo, Giorgio. « Seeing Like a State Agent: The Ethnography of Reform in Senegal’s Forestry Services. » In States at Work: Dynamics of African Bureaucracies, edited by T. Bierschenk and J-P. Olivier de Sardan, 69-90. Leiden: Brill, 2014.

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Carpenter, Jeffrey, and Erick Gong. Motivating agents: How much does the mission matter? Journal of Labor Economics 34, no. 1 (2016): 211–236.

Eiró, Flávio. « The Vicious Cycle in the Bolsa Família Program’s Implementation: Discretionality and the Challenge of Social Rights Consolidation in Brazil. » Qualitative Sociology 42 (2019): 385–409.

Eiró, Flávio. « Translating politics into policy implementation: Welfare frontline workers in polarised Brazil. » International Journal of Law in Context 18, no. 3 (2022): 303–316.

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Kolloch, Annalena. « Magistrates Marching in the Streets: Making and Debating Judicial Independence and the Rule of Law in Benin. » International Journal of Law in Context 18, no. 3 (2022): 347–363.

Koster, Martijn. « Betrayal in the City: The State as a Treacherous Partner. » City & Society 31 (2019): 436–440.

Koster, Martijn. « Fear and Intimacy: Citizenship in a Recife Slum, Brazil. » Ethnos 79, no. 2 (2014): 215–237.

Lambert, Laura. « Changing the Administration from Within: Criticism and Compliance by Junior Bureaucrats in Niger’s Refugee Directorate. »International Journal of Law in Context 18, no. 3 (2022): 333–346.

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Saglam, Erol. « Bureaucracies under Authoritarian Pressure: Legal Destabilisation, Politicisation and Bureaucratic Subjectivities in Contemporary Turkey. » International Journal of Law in Context 18, no. 3 (2022): 288–302.

Salmi, Jelena. « From Third-Class to World-Class Citizens: Claiming Belonging, Countering Betrayal in the Margins of Ahmedabad. » City & Society 31, no. 2 (2019): 392–412.

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