Proving participation: vocational bureaucrats and bureaucratic creativity in the implementation of the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage

Bortolotto, Chiara, Philipp Demgenski, Panas Karampampas, and Simone Toji. 2020. “Proving Participation: Vocational Bureaucrats and Bureaucratic Creativity in the Implementation of the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.” Social Anthropology 28 (1): 66–82.

This paper investigates the bureaucratisation of the (utopian) ideal of community participation in Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) safeguarding and management. The analysis considers the whole ‘policy life’ of the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of ICH. Our ethnographic examples from UNESCO, Brazil, China and Greece illustrate how bureaucratic operations often disenchant the participatory ideal, alienating it from its original intention. At the same time, driven by their commitment to ‘good’ governance and informed by sentiments of frustration and disappointment with actual policy results, vocational bureaucrats at different administrative levels experiment with and conceive of new tools in order to produce evidence of participation. We demonstrate how this bureaucratic creativity has concrete consequences, which may differ from the intended utopia, but nevertheless bring to life particular interpretations of the participatory principle among the recipients for whom heritage policies were originally designed. Thus, we present a more nuanced picture of bureaucratisation in which officials’ emotions and engagement sustain their agency against structural constraints as well as the futility and fragility of administrative procedures.