Guest Post: The Role of Assemblage Theory in Rethinking Anticorruption Reform

Today’s guest post is from Grant Walton, a Fellow at the Development Policy Centre at Australia National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy, and the Chair of ANU’s Transnational Research Institute on Corruption.

For more than twenty years, international donors have advocated and supported anticorruption reform programs in developing countries. While supporters of these efforts can point to some demonstrable successes (see, for example, here and here), many skeptics have questioned the effectiveness of such interventions. Indeed, the harshest critics echo Barney Warf’s assessment that many anticorruption reforms “amount to little more than hollow rhetoric, the punishment of a few sacrificial lambs, and little substantive change.”

In response to these criticisms, some academics have started to reassess the assumptions that have guided donor-supported anticorruption efforts, including how corruption and the responses to it are conceptualized. One of the most innovative strands of this burgeoning literature draws on a framework called “assemblage theory.”

This framework, devised by the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, is complex, but to boil it down, assemblage theory attempts to describe the world by focusing on the fluid non-hierarchical relationships that form between humans, ideas, and objects. Assemblages come together at crucial moments (to design a policy for example) and then disperse. Rather than examining the role of different groups or institutions, assemblage theorists focus on the way people, ideas, and objects are connected across time and space, and how these connections help shape events, ideas, and policies.

An increasing number of scholars now draw on assemblage theory to understand the complex world of policymaking, which is rarely a linear process, and involves humans, ideas and objects that stretch across the globe. And, as I highlight in a recent article, anticorruption scholarship in particular has drawn on assemblage theory to reimagine the effectiveness of anticorruption reforms in two ways:

  • First, assemblage theory has shown how donor support links local anticorruption efforts to a much larger transnational “anticorruption assemblage,” or what Steven Sampson calls an “anticorruption industry”—an assortment, as Sampson puts it, of “knowledge, people, money and symbols” that are connected to a global landscape of professionalized “policies, regulations, initiatives, conventions, training courses, monitoring activities and programmes.” For example, Martinez and Cooper argue that donor support of NGOs in Guatemala and El Salvador has connected previously locally oriented organizations to a transnational anticorruption assemblage (or industry). In so doing, donor support has fundamentally changed the way these NGOs operate, leading them to become less political and more technocratic. That is, these organizations have become more concerned about donor reporting requirements than agitating against political corruption.
  • Second, scholars have shown how anticorruption assemblages are held together. For example, Hansen and Tang-Jensen argue that anticorruption assemblages are, in practice, held together through shared “micro operations,” which include the language and methods of anticorruption professionals. These shared norms help connect diverse and geographically distant actors in a broader anticorruption assemblage, and help shape the nature of anticorruption efforts.

Insights from assemblage theory are important for understanding anticorruption reform for two key reasons:

  • First, assemblage theory suggests that the reasons anticorruption reforms fail to live up to expectations might lie beyond the borders of individual countries. While this insight is hardly revolutionary, popular corruption indexes (see here and here) and anticorruption assessments continue to focus on corruption at the national level—despite the fact that, as Paul Heywood argues, anticorruption efforts often fail because of “the tendency of much research and anticorruption advocacy to concentrate on nation-states as the primary unit of analysis.”
  • Second, those drawing on this theory do not assume – as some anticorruption organizations do – that a particular set of institutions will shape anticorruption reform. Adherents to assemblage theory do not presume, for example, that reform occurs when civil society is adequately empowered, donors exert the right type of pressure, or political elites are incentivized to bring about change. Rather, assemblage theory encourages researchers and policymakers to track a vast array of actors, ideas, and objects that can help bring about change—an enterprise that may help expose relationships and engagements that are sometimes hidden. Assemblage theory suggests we look to the fluid transnational assemblages – and everything and everyone involved – to understand the potential for anticorruption reform and its likely outcomes. (This broader perspective can also help us understand why, as I have argued, anticorruption reform sometimes takes place despite, not because of, the civic, political, and administrative institutions that are usually thought to drive anticorruption reform.)

Admittedly, assemblage theory is not ready-made for the world of anticorruption policy making. It does not provide an easy set of “tools” and “guidelines” for policymakers to apply. There are no tick boxes or matrices involved. Rather, assemblage theory offers a way of thinking about the increasingly complex and globalized nature of policy reform—a way of thinking that has the potential to help researchers and policymakers move beyond the rather narrow institutional and territorially bound thinking that has come to dominate assessments of corruption and anticorruption reform.

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