photo of anya bernstein smiling at the camera.

Professor Anya Bernstein receives prestigious Fulbright grant

How democracies actually work—the day-to-day administration of government—is a continuing scholarly question for Professor Anya Bernstein. Now she’s taking her longtime inquiry a step further with the help of a prestigious grant.

Bernstein has been chosen to receive a Fulbright Scholar Award. The Fulbright program, coordinated by the U.S. Department of State, is devoted to improving intercultural relations, diplomacy and competence between the U.S. and other nations through educational exchange. With the support of the award, Bernstein will conduct research in Germany on the country’s administrative state and connect with intellectual colleagues doing similar work.

We asked Bernstein to elaborate on her work and the opportunities this experience in Europe will present.

Congratulations on your Fulbright Scholar Award! You’ll be looking at how national administrators in Germany implement legislative policy. Can you tell us a little more about the question you’re trying to answer?

Thank you! In a broad sense, I’m interested in the role of administrative agencies in democracy. Agencies are often maligned as “unaccountable bureaucrats,” but in practice, democracy can’t work without bureaucracy. So it seems important to know more about the people who work in agencies—their everyday policy-making practices, their understandings of what makes government action legitimate, their office cultures and values—because those are the people who actually implement whatever laws elected legislatures enact.

In this particular project, I’m interested in a few specific issues. First, I’m looking at how administrators go about interpreting the laws they implement. What sources of information and what practices guide their understanding of statutes? Second, I’m interested in how administrators see the organization of the executive branch. Do they think of the chief executive as their boss who tells them what to do, or are there networks of authority and responsibility that permeate the government? And tying it all together, I’m interested in how administrators conceive of the separation of powers. How do government branches interact, in their view, and what kinds of interaction make government action legitimate?  

Why did you choose Germany as the site for this research?

This project is part of my longer research interest in the bureaucracy of democracy. I’ve studied this in the U.S.—an old, large and powerful democracy—and in Taiwan—a new, small and relatively disempowered one. Germany interests me as a third site for a few reasons. It forms an interesting contrast to the other two sites, with a middle-aged democratic system, a parliamentary rather than presidential system, and a history of theorizing and valuing administration. It’s also been really successful, so I think there’s something to learn from there.

Finally, German law has been incredibly influential in Taiwan, which was my original field site, and in East Asia generally. Taiwanese public law is largely modeled on Germany, while its democratization movement was inspired a lot by American conceptions of democracy. So the three sites are historically connected in ways that I thought would make for particularly interesting comparisons.  

You’re doing this work in affiliation with the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Germany. How does that collaboration work?

The institute has a department focused on legal ethnography, so it’s a really congenial place for me to be. They have some fantastic scholars studying administrative structures. Beyond just giving me people to consult with, the affiliation will also involve co-organizing a couple of workshops that bring scholars together to discuss issues in studying law as a social activity (rather than as doctrine).

You have a doctoral degree in anthropology. How will that lens shape the way you go about this research?

Yes, I got my PhD before going to law school. Anthropological methods and theories continue to be my go-to for getting at how people do things and how they think about what they do. So, as I’m going about this research, I’ll stay attuned not just to what people tell me about their work, but about the underlying worldviews and values they reveal in that telling. I’ll try to note where there are gaps between what people say they do and the practices I actually witness, to understand how my subjects’ understandings of their work help them make sense of the things they actually do. And I’ll be constructing my own vision of the networks and lines of power and authority that structure the government’s work, which often don’t map directly on to organizational charts or explicit claims about how authority is organized.

How might your findings illuminate how democracy is administered in the United States?

I’m currently writing a couple of articles based on a related research project in the U.S. In one of those pieces, a co-author and I are developing a more realistic and nuanced understanding of “accountability” in the administrative state, and in a future piece we’ll examine the complex and unpredictable role of statutes in U.S. administrative work. Looking at related issues in Germany can help us see how successful democracy can come in different forms, to get away from assumptions about how democracy “has to” look or what something like accountability “really” is. I think seeing the very variegated forms that democracy comes in can make us more imaginative about constructing our own democracy. It also helps us remember that democracy is not something we can assume or rest easy about; it’s always only what we make of it.