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The Anthropology of Tax
By Lotta Björklund Larsen & Robin Smith
Taxation is a truly multi-disciplinary subject and there are many social and cultural explanations offered for how people and corporations relate to taxation. Economics, legal studies, critical tax studies, and even sociology have made many significant contributions in this broad theme approaching it with a multidisciplinary lens. Thus, it is apt to ask, what may anthropology – the scientific study of humans, human behavior, and societies – add to tax scholarship? We dare to say, many things.
As researchers of human relations, human behavior, and societies, anthropologists are especially interested in the relation between various aspects of human existence. The aim is double-sided. On the one hand, anthropologists shed light on the social and cultural variations in society, while on the other hand they aim to describe and understand the similarities between societal institutions and human relations throughout the world. This has several implications. For example, anthropologists bring an actor-centered perspective to the scholarship of taxes, focusing on what people actually do and how they give meaning to their actions. Regarding taxation, what does it mean to pay tax in different places and for different people? What understandings of exchange, responsibility, and reciprocity are brought to bear on tax arrangements? How do fiscal cultures shape economic and moral subjects, and indeed what constitutes a fiscal culture? These are interesting issues in their own right, but especially so when placed in relation to tax laws and how such laws are interpreted in practice when collecting revenue. Anthropologists are less concerned about following the money than following the relationships formed by fiscal responsibilities, but they recognize that taxation is more than a tool for a state to bring in revenue – it is a mode of social organization, a way to structure the economy, a way to shape social welfare systems, and reflects economic and social values in a given society.
Methodologically, anthropologists articulate ethnographic accounts of what people actually do, in private life and as professionals, observing them close-up in their everyday practices. This means that we develop close relationships with our informants so that we may formulate first-hand accounts of their lives in order to gain insights. This is particularly important for opening honest discussions about their financial lives. Taxation may be at once viewed as a moral duty and unjust depending on the type or amount of tax, mode of enforcement, and myriad other local factors. Anthropologists endeavor to tease out the tensions, contradictions, and values undergirding peoples’ perceptions of tax regimes that extend beyond revealing modes of tax evasion or avoidance. Indeed, understanding how to increase compliance can sometimes be an afterthought in many of our studies. Rather than focused on a specific outcome, anthropologists seek to understand the social and cultural mechanisms at work that inform local tax behaviors and local economic values and beliefs.
‘Being there’ when taxation is done is not always easy, whether the focus of analysis is taxpayers, tax collectors, or tax advisors, but anthropologists, with our long-term field methods, seek to embed ourselves in such groups by gaining trust and simply playing the long game by living in a community. Taxation can be considered a private practice, particularly if citizens are not always compliant. Indeed, in some cases one might think the designation ‘taxpayer’ is a misnomer if those citizens are cast as tax avoiders, evaders, and even cheaters – but ethnographic accounts of taxation reveal that such designations are not nearly fine-grained enough. One may, for example, happily pay one type of tax whilst refusing to pay another, as Miranda Sheild Johansson (2020) showed in her study of Bolivians working in the informal economy. Casting light on why this is the case can teach us a lot, especially in times when society and cultural values are quickly changing. The explanation for why a given community or group of people does or does not comply with a particular taxation regime may be legal, economic, political, social, or cultural – or a combination of these. Aiming to take the various aspects of being a taxpayer into account reflects our approach of taking nothing as a given.
There are many ethnographic studies of taxation that led to this recent upswing in our focus on taxation. In Africa, we have seen taxes central role in democratization in Nigeria (Guyer 1992) and that ‘fiscal disobedience’ among Cameroonians actually was a way of redefining citizenship (Roitman 2005). Studies of tax administrations in contemporary Northern Europe have, for example, addressed tax inspectors’ selective gaze in Denmark (Boll 2014) and how tax analysts shape taxpayer compliance in contemporary Sweden (Björklund Larsen 2017).
Anthropologists are currently engaged in a wide variety of tax-related research projects that build on ethnographic methods and qualitative data collection. Researchers are working on such themes as the digitalization of tax, tax havens on island nations, migration, tax lotteries, and so much more. We gather insights about concepts such as governance with a geographical focus, such as in the special issue Governing through Taxation analyzing the role of taxation and its social affects a selection of African countries (2018). In another special issue, Beyond the Social Contract: An Anthropology of Tax (Social Analysis, 2020), authors question the almost taken for granted concept of tax as social contract between state and society. Instead, contributors brought forth concepts such as ‘fiscal commons’, ‘rightful returns’, and ‘timebanking’ as modes of community economic self-organization outside of the state’s fiscal purview. There is a special issue in the works with a leading academic journal on reciprocity and redistribution that brings in new scholarship to the anthropology of tax. An edited book volume with a leading British academic press with fifteen contributors is also in progress. Many of the works in progress from contributors are on topics that broaden the anthropology of tax in new and interesting ways. Projects such as these will be announced on our newly launched network website, where you can find announcements for anything from conference CfPs to new books, profiles of anthropologists interested in sharing their current research, a resources page that has an ongoing bibliography of anthropological publications related to taxation as well as links to other research resources, and a blog where we hope people will share more extensive updates on their tax related work. Find us here: https://tax-anthro.net.
Various constellations of anthropologists in our network are embarking upon a whole host of collaborations that will add depth and breadth to the anthropology of tax. More, much more, is coming, and we look forward to engaging with tax scholars across disciplines.
Lotta Björklund Larsen & Robin Smith
Björklund Larsen, L. (2017). Shaping taxpayers: values in action at the Swedish tax agency. New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books.
Boll, K. (2014). Shady car dealings and taxing work practices: An ethnography of a tax audit process. Accounting, Organizations and Society, 39(1), 1–19.
Guyer, J. I. (1992). Representation without Taxation: An Essay on Democracy in Rural Nigeria, 1952-1990. African Studies Review, 35(1), 41–79.
Makovicky, N. & R. Smith (eds.). 2020. Special Issue: Beyond the Social Contract: An Anthropology of Tax. Social Analysis 64(2). https://www.berghahnjournals.com/view/journals/social-analysis/64/2/social-analysis.64.issue-2.xml
Owen, Oliver (ed.). 2018. Special Issue: Governing through Taxation. (Gouverner par la fiscalité) Politique Africaine 151(3). https://www.cairn-int.info/journal-politique-africaine-2018-3.htm
Roitman, J. L. (2005). Fiscal Disobedience: An Anthropology of Economic Regulation in Central Africa. In In-formation series.
Sheild Johansson, M. (2020) ‘Taxes for Independence Rejecting a Fiscal Model of Reciprocity in Peri-urban Bolivia’, Social Analysis, 64(2), pp. 18–37.