Muhtars, the lowest level elected political position in Turkey, hold an ambiguously defined place within the administrative hierarchy. They are public officials, but local citizens do not always associate them with the central government. Elise Massicard's Street-Level Governing: Negotiating the State in Urban Turkey (Stanford University Press, 2022) is the first book to investigate how muhtars carry out their role—not only what they are supposed to do, but how they actually operate—to provide an ethnographic study of the state as viewed from its margins. It starts from the premise that the seeming "margin" of state administration is not peripheral at all, but instructive as to how it functions.
As Massicard shows, muhtars exist at the intersection of everyday life and the exercise of power. Their position offers a personalized point of contact between citizens and state institutions, enabling close oversight of the citizenry, yet simultaneously projecting the sense of an accessible state to individuals. Challenging common theories of the state, Massicard outlines how the position of the muhtar throws into question an assumed dichotomy between domination and social resistance, and suggests that considerations of circumvention and accommodation are normal attributes of state-society functioning.
Reuben Silverman is a Postdoctoral Researcher at Stockholm University’s Institute for Turkish Studies.