Informal Institutions in Bureaucratic Setting: The Case of a South Sulawesian Office (A Proposal)


This study aims to explore how informal institutions are juxtaposed against and interact with the state bureaucracy in order to gain a clearer understanding of how these informal institutions affect local bureaucratic practice. It will focus on an office in South Sulawesi.

The proposed study will examine the construction of meanings and values in everyday life, including attitudes and practices considered ideals by informal institution to which these bureaucratic actors are tied. It will aim to identify the actors (or group of actors) involved, and how they are organized; the types of inter-actor relations that inform what is considered legitimate among bureaucrats, and how their actions diverge from what is considered legitimate by other groups, whether or not such actions defy officially stated mandates.

These explorations will establish how these bureaucratic actors shape, renegotiate and act on their norms/ideals, and how they perceive, and act upon, policy (Yanov 2000; Yanov et al. 2006). By doing so, it should be possible to ‘explore particular expression[s] of corruption and [their] meanings for local officials and other stakeholders’, instead of simply assuming that the illegal practices of the local bureaucracy are a reflection of the ‘entrenched corruption’ that occurs at all levels of Indonesian bureaucracy (Ford and Lyons 2011: 119; Aspinall and van Klinken 2011). In short, as suggested by Aspinall and van Klinken (2011b: 6), ‘by looking at both the broad patterns and micro processes of state illegality, [it should be possible] to describe and understand the state as it is, not as we believe it should be’.



Many observers view illegal practices of bureaucrats as a reflection of ‘personal interests’, a concept often invoked in discussions on government practice in Indonesia. However, the applicability of this phrase needs to be further investigated. This study will employ the concept of licit/illicitness (Abraham and van Schendel 2005) to look at state practices within and across different administrative levels, in order to explore bureaucratic actions beyond the limit of political authority of state law that shapes what is ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’. It will investigate the ways in which the social authority of non-state (local) social groupings determines whether actions are considered ‘licit’ or ‘illicit’. In conjunction to the (il)licit/(il)legal axis, this study will use the concept of ‘informal institution’ that will help to explain the state as an arena where different actors enact ‘socially shared rules, usually unwritten, that are created, communicated, and enforced outside of officially sanctioned channels’. (Helmke and Levitsky 2006: 5-6)

The propose study starts from the premise that the dysfunctions of bureaucracy at national and local level requires more than a legal approach if we are to understand them. Local bureaucratic practices, including illegal ones, are embedded within various local institutions and contexts that greatly influence their evolution and continuation. In order to analyze the effects of informal institutions on formal decision making and policy implementation, it is necessary to understand participants’ actions as socially motivated and enacted, rather than simply the products of ‘personal interest’. This approach accepts that while local bureaucrats are probably well aware of the official meaning of corruption and its implications, many continue to submit to alternative rules embedded within local informal institutions, such as patron-client and kinship.



The tendency of bureaucrats to make use of the state resources other than for their legal mandates has long been a public spectacle in Indonesia. These spectacles tend to agree with ethnographic accounts of how local elites practiced politics in South Sulawesi throughout the twentieth century, when patron-client ties were very much alive and the elite employed different kinds of aspirations, attitudes, and symbols to attract clients and to claim and defend a higher rank among patrons. For example, most scholars studying politics and society in South Sulawesi during the twentieth century agreed that one of the primary functions of wedding rituals was the validation of claims to high social status (e.g. Millar 1984 and Pelras 2000, on the Bugis; and Chabot 1996, on the Makassar).

Patron-client relationship is only one type of informal (non-state) institution affecting bureaucratic functions. In studies on project implementation, the state is often describes as an arena of struggle between actors or alliances that cut across bureaucratic-societal lines as the individuals try to gain political authority and access to resources. Informal institutions can even create conflict within the state itself, through the conscious and concerted work of various actors to privilege certain groups and exclude others, through legal and illegal mechanisms (Aspinall and van Klinken 2011). State illegalities in the local level may also reflect the failure on the part of national government planning. Studies of Masyarakat Terasing resettlement projects, for instance, show that project officials have to delegate some authority to local elites in distributing houses built for the project in order to identify enough people willing to live in them, although they are not part of the project beneficiaries (see for example Tania Murray Li 2005, 1999; Anna L Tsing 2005). This implies an effort on the part of local authorities to put the best face on an unsuccessful project, a necessary measure to gain trust from superiors while ensuring loyalty of supporters. But it also suggests an incompatibility of a national program with local conditions, which can be found elsewhere, such as the case of migrant workers process in acquiring legal documents in Riau (Ford and Lyons 2011). In short, there is more at stake than simply ‘bureaucratic leakages’ in an ideal process of policy formation and implementation.



Decentralization has wrought numerous changes in local governance, bringing new practices from the centre and at the same time providing wider opportunities for local reinterpretation of formal state mandates, most notably through the imposition of new legal levies or illegal payments (Hadiz 2010: 37). These changes demand case studies that locate bureaucracies within their local social and cultural settings and focus on actual practice rather than ideal types (van Schendel and Abrahams 2005: 6). Such cases help us to the rethink about the clear-cut distinction between ‘state’ and ‘society’, or ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ which dominated past research in Indonesia (Nordholt and van Klinken 2007: 8). The proposed study of a government agency in South Sulawesi will help fill the gap.

Very few studies exist on the reasons (besides self-enrichment) which lie behind state illegal practices. In the proposed study I will use Aspinall and van Klinken (2011a) as stepping-stone to explore the illegal practice of local bureaucracy as this it is one of the few works that steps back from an a priori judgment of the motives that lie behind the criminal acts of bureaucrats. Moreover, the authors acknowledge that ‘illegality by state officials often also serves useful functions for large groups of ordinary citizens, thus not only for those who are cut special deals at the expense of others […] As a result, such illegality is often viewed as entirely legitimate by large sectors of society’ (Aspinall and van Klinken 2011b :3).

The extent to which local institutions such as kinship and patron-client ties affect the bureaucracy is discussed in several studies carried out in South Sulawesi. Pelras (2000) and Ammarell (2000) describe how the arrangement of patron-client ties changed following the intensification of the influence of the modern economy, bureaucracy, and technology in South Sulawesi. Millar’s study on Bugis weddings demonstrates how the traditional elites adopted modern schooling and Islamic teachings and symbols as a means to negotiate higher social rank. Gibson (2005, 2007) traces how local actors make use of traditional symbolic knowledge, manifested in rituals and myths in an attempt to integrate European bureaucratic mechanisms into their traditional power system, albeit sometimes unsuccessfully. However, none of these studies focuses on the bureaucracy as their main object of study. They provide us with vivid pictures of local non-state institutions, but less so of how they actually work in bureaucratic settings.

One study of contemporary bureaucracy in South Sulawesi by Andi Faisal Bakti (2007) demonstrates how a patron, a bupati, used his bureaucratic position to enforce his claims in traditional patron-client and kinship relationships by allocating important posts in the kabupaten office to close kinsmen and clients. However, he provides no explanation on why such ‘patrimonial’ relations survive and continue to underpin a model of ‘aristocratic elite rule’. Similar shortcomings are found in Michael Buehler’s (2010) study of the continued dominance of oligarchic local elites since decentralization. Both studies lack description of day-to-day life of bureaucrats, by which one may identify construction of their ideals. These include expectations appropriate to actors according to ‘social location’; how these constructions are reproduced and maintained in everyday settings; and how established relationships and/or hierarchies are interact within bureaucratic settings – in short, how informal institutions actually affect the bureaucracy.[1] This study will explore these shortcomings and attempt to establish a better framework of understanding.



This study will employ an ‘interpretive methods’ approach to identify and analyze shared values and meanings within an epistemic community. This type of analysis focuses on ‘meanings’, a category that includes values, feelings and beliefs. These meanings, which constitute a frame of reference for different communities or groups, are reflected in policy products. Each interpretive community communicates its values implicitly because they are considered too mundane or universal and can be automatically understood and accepted by all parties. Therefore, attention must also be paid to how meanings are communicated and interpreted by different groups (Yanov 2000; Yanov 2006).

The beliefs, values, and assumptions that underlie the explicit ideological commitments that produce policies and actions can be best unpacked through careful ethnographic description and analysis (Schmidt 2006: 302). This requires site-based study, including day-to-day ethnographic participant observation, in order to identify power relations, specific practices, lifestyle, and natural language usage (Brewer 2001; Antlov 1993). It will require investigating life histories of people involved, in order to establish their educational backgrounds and personal motivations (Cole and Knowles 2001). In addition, this ethnographic account requires anticipating discrepancies between officially stated policy and statements on the one hand, and what actually happens on the other, and why that is so.

Data will be arranged following Yanov’s interpretive analysis methods, in order to identify rules/expectations and key actors (among groups of actors), as well as norms/values that underpin those expectation. This will provide the profile of key informal institution(s) (actors, rules, norms), and how they affect the policy making and implementation.




Work plan

The first year will be spent constructing a robust research design and methodology. I will explore studies, among others, on informal institution, state (il)legality and (il)licitness, public policy processes, and ethnographic methodology and methods.

The second year will be spent doing fieldwork. The first month of the fieldwork will be a preparation stage during which I negotiate access, by developing familiarity with members of the host organization. The next nine months will be devoted to data gathering through (a) participant observation, attending meetings, workshops, conference as well as day-to-day activities of selected bureaucrats over a period of eleven months; (b) collecting textual data, including policy products, news, statistics, etc; and (c) unstructured interviews.

The final two months of field research will conclude with semi-structured and structured interviews to identify wider context (social/economic/politics); life histories to identify backgrounds of actors and rules of institutions and to construct the background of the rules/actors/norms that have developed. I shall attempt to identify points of debates among key actors/groups, and how informal institution works affecting the office. Together with previous findings and analysis, these data will be used to analyze how local informal institutions works, and how they affect the policy making and implementations.

The third-fourth year will be spent for further analysis, fill up ‘missing’ data, writing up thesis as well as other requirements.


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Ammarell Gene. 2008[2000]. Navigasi Bugis, Hasanuddin University Press, Makassar (tr. Bugis Navigation)

Aspinall and van Klinken. 2011a. The State and Illegality in Indonesia, KITLV Press, Leiden

Aspinall and van Klinken . 2011b. ‘Introduction’ (in Aspinall and van Klinken (2011) The State and Illegality in Indonesia, KITLV Press, Leiden)

Bakti, Andi Faisal. 2007. ‘Family Rule in Wajo, South Sulawesi,’ (in  Schulte-Nordholt and van Klinken, Renegotiating Boundaries, Local Politics Post-Suharto Indonesia, KITLV Press, Leiden)

Brewer, John D.. 2000. Ethnography: Understanding Social Research, Open University Press

Buehler, Michael. 2010. ‘Decentralisation and local democracy in Indonesia: the marginalization of public sphere’, in Aspinall and Mietzner, Problems of Democratisation in Indonesia: Elections, Institutions and Society, ISEAS Publishing, Singapore.

Chabot, Hendrik Th.. 1996. Kinship, Status, and Gender in South Celebes, KITLV Press, Leiden

Chavance, Bernard. 2008. ‘Formal and informal institutional change: the experience of postsocialist transformation’, The European Journal of Comparative Economics, Vol. 5(1), pp. 55-71.

Cole and Knowles. 2001. Live in Context, the Art of Life History Research , AltaMira Press, Walnut Creek, CA

Dick and Mulholland. 2011. ‘The state as marketplace: slush funds and intra-elite rivalry’ (in Aspinall and van Klinken (eds.), The State and Illegality in Indonesia, KITLV Press, Leiden)

Ford, Michelle and Lenore Lyons. 2011. ‘Travelling the aspal route: grey labour migration through an Indonesian border town,’ (in Aspinall and van Klinken (eds.), The State and Illegality in Indonesia, KITLV Press, Leiden)

Gibson, Thomas. 2009[2005]. Kuasa Raja Syeikh dan Ambtenaar: Pengetahuan Simbolik dan Kekuasaan Tradisional Makassar 1300-2000, Ininnawa, Makassar (tr. And the Sun Pursue the Moon: Symbolic Knowledge and Traditional Authority among the Makassar, University Of Hawai’i Press)

Gibson, Thomas. 2007. Islamic Narrative and Traditional Authority, Routledge.

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Hadiz, Vedi R.. 2010. Localising power in post-authoritarian Indonesia: A Southeast Asia perspective, Stanford University Press, Stanford.

Hadiz, Vedi R. and Daniel Dhakidae (eds). 2005. Social Science and Power in Indonesia, Equinox, Jakarta-Singapore

Hidayat, Syarif. 2007. ‘‘Shadow State’? business and politics in the province of Banten”, in Schulte-Nordholt and van Klinken, Renegotiating Boundaries, Local Politics Post-Suharto Indonesia, KITLV Press, Leiden

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Li, Tania Murray. 1999. Compromising Power: Development, culture, and rule in Indonesia, Cultural Anthropology vol. 14(3). Pp. 295-322.

Li, Tania Murray. 2005. Beyond ‘the State’ and Failed Schemes, American Anthropologist, vol. 107(3), pp. 383-94.

McCarthy, John F. 2007. ‘Sold down the river; renegotiating public power over nature in Central Kalimantan in Schulte-Nordholt and van Klinken, Renegotiating Boundaries, Local Politics Post-Suharto Indonesia, KITLV Press, Leiden

Millar, Susan. 2009 [1989]. Perkawinan Bugis, Ininnawa, Makassar (tr. Bugis Weddings, Ritual of Social Location in Modern Indonesia, Monographs No.29, Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies, Univeristy of California at Barkeley)

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Schmidt, Ronald Sr.. 2006. ‘Value-Critical Policy Analysis: The Case of Language Policy in US’,  dalam Dvora Yanov & Schea-Schwartz, Interpretation and Method, Empirical Research Method and Interpretive Turn, M.E. Sharpe, Inc., New York

Schulte-Nordholt, Henk. and Gerry van Klinken (eds). 2007. Renegotiating Boundaries: Local Politics in Post-Suharto Indonesia, KITLV Press, Leiden.

Tsing, Anna. 2005. Friction, an Ethnography of Global Connection, Princeton University Press.


Van Klinken and Aspinall. 2011. “Building relations: corruption, competition and cooperation in the construction industry”, in Aspinall and van Klinken (eds.), The State and Illegality in Indonesia, KITLV Press, Leiden

Van Schendel, Willem. 2005. “Spaces of Engagement: How borderland, illegal flows, and territorial states interlock”, in Abraham and van Schendel (eds), Illicit Flows and Criminal Things: State, Borders and Other Side of Globalization, Indiana University Press, Indianapolis/Bloomington

Yanov, Dvora. 2000. Conducting Interpretive Policy Analysis, Sage Publications.

Yanov, Dvora. 2006. Interpretive and Method: Empirical Research Methods and the Interpretive Turn, New York & London, M.E. Sharpe.



[1] Among the studies better demonstrating how local informal institutions work and affecting formal bureaucracies, see van Klinken and Aspinal (2011) on government sponsored construction projects in Aceh, Ford and Lyons (2011) on an immigration office in Tanjung Pinang, Kepulauan Riau; McCarthy (2007) on timber administration in Central Kalimantan, and Hidayat (2007) on public policy making by the provincial government in Banten.


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