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For many people, the government has two faces: it can provide social and financial security, but it can also be a hindrance or come to dictate your life. Anthropologist Anouk de Koning’s research focuses on how states operate and play a role in citizens’ daily lives. From 1 June, she has been appointed professor of Anthropology of Power, Politics and the State.
Portrait of Anouk de Koning
Photographer: Suedy Maurício

Making and implementing policies together with citizens at the local level: this sympathetic idea has become the mantra in Dutch social policy. It, however, often proves difficult in practice, as De Koning notes: ‘In my research, I focus on the dilemmas of social policy that foregrounds a close working relationship with citizens. As Yannick Drijfhout, one of my PhD students, put it: “Working with the neighbourhood is difficult, because the neighbourhood has no front door.” Policy officials often look for neighbourhood representatives, but who should those be? At times, officials actively create their own network of residents. And when a resident volunteers for the role, these same officials often wonder if that person truly represents the neighbourhood.’

Working with “the neighbourhood” is difficult, because the neighbourhood has no front door.

‘New social policies also try to give the state a human face: a person who is approachable, thinks along, is sympathetic and can mediate between residents and various parts of the governmental apparatus. It then, of course, matters all the more who this person is: a man or woman, white or a person of colour, from an elite or a working-class background. These are the kind of themes in Crafting Resilience, a national research project I lead.’

Hard times

Besides this national research, De Koning leads a comparative research project on the future of the welfare state in Europe called Prototyping Welfare. ‘Social and welfare services are increasingly confronted with harsh realities: families without enough to eat, for example, or the growing number of so-called economically homeless. In Amsterdam, housing has effectively long ceased to be a fundamental right. Instead, the City has to make do with limited resources. In the four cities we study – Amsterdam, London, Marseille and Thessaloniki – we examine which actors step up to fill these gaps: what kind of public roles are they taking on, and for whom?’

In Amsterdam, housing has effectively long ceased to be a fundamental right.

Many institutions and no clearcut borders

With her chair, De Koning hopes to contribute to theory building about the state from an anthropological perspective. ‘The state, or in the Netherlands the overheid, is an intriguing phenomenon: it is made up of many institutions, has no clearcut borders, but is seen and addressed as a single actor. The state offers people hope for a secure existence, but it can also be a frightening power that can crush your life. I very much look forward to building a better understanding of the state in partnership with colleagues who study the state in countries like India, Indonesia or Kenya, and colleagues at the AISSR who do so from the perspective of other disciplines. Furthermore, I’m very curious about new, creative ways of teaching, which this UvA department is particularly good at.’

About Anouk de Koning

Anouk de Koning is an anthropologist. Before her appointment, she was associate professor at the Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at Leiden University. She is currently leading two major research projects: Prototyping Welfare and Crafting Resilience.

Prof. dr. A. (Anouk) de Koning

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

Programme group: Moving Matters: People, Goods, Power and Ideas