Selling Informal Politics

I used this slide for a class and presentation last week. Informal politics as a root cause of a host of societal problems. You could call that ‘topic imperialism’: seeing (and presenting) my own research field as vital, not-to-be-missed, of-key-importance to understand the world – or at least a host of things. Given the challenges to secure research funding, every (social) scientist needs to engage in some over-estimation of the importance of his or her research topic, and I guess I am no stranger to that either.

But still. I felt there were some good reasons to engage in some topic-boosting. With a group of collegues working on informal politics in the middle east, Caribbean and Asia I had organised a – in my admittedly biased opinion – nice mini-symposium at the Dutch Academy of Science with the (dutch) title ‘Elections as barter: Citizenship in Patronage Democracies’. The title had not drawn the crowds. The coordinator had send me a worried note one week beforehand, saying that she had only had 30 registered attendees. She suggested that we postponed the meeting to next year and select a broader theme, ‘something to do with corruption’. Some last minute emailing and organising ensued, which saved the symposium but did not fill the big hall we had.

Which, I guess, was to be expected. There is something about informal politics that is decidedly un-sexy. A lot of that has to do with language: words like Patronage, Clientelism or even ‘verkiezingen as ruilhandel’ (i.e. election as barter) do not really woo the crowds. Ironically, the stories that we tell about the wheelings and dealings of politicians and their friends usually do fascinate people, but I find it difficult to convey these fascinating aspects in a title or even a short description. These terms to describe informal politics sound jargonic, as if you need to be an insider to understand it. And there is something exotic, ‘something-of-countries-far-away’ about it, which also makes informal politics a topic for the informed insider. Indeed we had a nice audience of people who had clearly been dealing with aspects of informal politics in one way or the other.

But how to convey the relevance of the topic to policy-makers, donors, politicians etc who start to work on topics like ‘good governance’, democratization, corruption, rule of law? Or those who have to (or choose to) work on these topics from the confinement of their office buildings? The reports that such professionals produce usually have an obligatory reference to ‘clientelistic politics’ or suchlike. But that behaviour is usually described as a deviation, as something that a few deviant, selfish individuals engage in to the detriment of the system. The challenge is not to think about how to stop such miscreants, but rather the challenge is that, in many contexts, informality is the system. And that system shapes the outcomes you get in a wide range of fields. So I will continue to use this slide, and will continue to try to convey these relations with informal politics. But I do hope I will be able to find better, more appealing words, and come up with better seminar titles.

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