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This article illuminates the social nature of bureaucratic practice. Analyzing the everyday speech of bureaucrats in a polyglossic society reveals both their intensely interactive conduct and their recognition that the government they comprise is itself a participant in a social world of institutions and values. My ethnography shows how Taipei city government administrators mobilize ideologies associated with Taiwan’s two primary languages, and stereotypes associated with bureaucracy, to undermine both. Instead, they present themselves as a post-ethnonational and post-bureaucratic avant garde of their new democracy. In doing so, they draw on local values and tropes of legitimation, which place a premium on the personalistic relations and social imbrications of government actors — relations that democracy, for all its potential to spawn dangerous chaos, is seen to facilitate. They represent their government employer not by claiming a superordinate status for it, but by situating it as one participant within a complex of institutions, networks, and values. In illuminating both the internally and the externally social nature of government bureaucracy, I highlight the creative and progressive possibilities hidden within the drab government office.

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PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review

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