Corruption Lab on Ethics, Accountability, and the Rule of Law

Sylvia Tidey - Corruption and Cultural Intimacy: Client – Civil Servant Interactions in Eastern Indonesian Bureaucracy

Thursday, February 20, 2020
12:30-2pm, Hotel A

Sylvia Tidey, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, presents:

In the eastern Indonesian city of Kupang, which once received the dishonor of being named Indonesia’s most corrupt city by Transparency International, the knowledge that one has to pay to obtain much–coveted civil service positions is a well–known public secret (rahasia umum). To some extent, secrecy is imperative to the successful functioning of the state: Without a certain degree of cultural intimate practical knowledge to lubricate the rusty machinations of bureaucracy state apparatuses run less smoothly. Yet, how does one navigate the space between public secret and intimate knowledge when one knows what not to know but lacks the knowhow to productively and artfully do so? By drawing on ethnographic cases of client–civil servant interactions, I tease out some aspects of the cultural intimacy, performative competencies, and mutual complicity that characterize the poetics of corruption. In doing so, I contrast the opaque character of public secrets with the emphasis on transparency that has become so central to the project of anticorruption, and ask how successful efforts depending on transparency can be when public secrets thrive on the deceptiveness of appearances? 

Sylvia Tidey is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Global Studies Program at the University of Virginia. Her two research projects on civil service corruption and LGBT-related care in Indonesia interrogate how the normative dimensions of globally circulating ideologies of improvement interact with the ethical complexities of everyday life.