Issue 20.3, August 2005

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Essay Excerpt

Reexamining Max Weber’s analysis of bureaucracies (1976) and followingMary Douglas’s description of institutions (1986), Michael Herzfeld (1992) hasproposed a vivid perspective on the culture of European states and more specificallyon their “social production of indifference.” The question he wants to answer is thefollowing: “Howdoes it come about that in societies justly famed for their hospitalityand warmth, we often encounter the pettiest form of bureaucratic indifferenceto human needs and suffering?” (1992:1). Exploring a distinct but complementarydomain in political anthropology,my purpose here is to unveil the ethic of contemporarystates when it comes to the moral evaluation of difference. This evaluationis anything but indifferent: it is full of passion and norms, of feelings and stereotypes.Strong beliefs and deep prejudices are expressed about the legitimacy andutility of certain categories of individuals, about their culture and their future, andabout their obligations and their rights. The question I want to address, therefore,is why, in societies hostile to immigrants and lacking in concern for undesirableothers, there remains a sense of common humanity collectively expressed throughattention paid to human needs and suffering?

From "Compassion and Repression: The Moral Economy of Immigration Policies in France" by Didier Fassin