Street-Level Governing
Negotiating the State in Urban Turkey
Elise Massicard



SINCE BECOMING PRESIDENT OF TURKEY, TAYYIP ERDOĞAN HAS—TO general surprise—ushered the muhtar, a hitherto largely neglected figure, into the limelight. Each neighborhood or village elects a muhtar, or headman/head-woman: a low-level official with purely administrative prerogatives. In 2015, for the very first time in the country’s history, the president started receiving muhtars in person. It even became habitual for hundreds of muhtars to travel to the president’s palace from around the country to listen to Erdoğan deliver speeches about general policy. But why has the president suddenly turned to these minor and frequently scorned figures? Is this mere show, a typical move to stage power as close to the people? Arguably not.

Through this initiative, Erdoğan has sought to capitalize on one of Turkey’s administrative specificities. This network of about fifty thousand low-level officials helps expand the reach of state institutions into citizens’ daily lives, in every neighborhood and village in the country. Muhtars ready access to local networks could thus make them a crucial instrument for spreading the message heard at the presidential palace.

But there is more to it than that. On one occasion, invoking the multiple threats the country faced, Erdoğan called on muhtars to keep a close eye on citizens and denounce any suspicious activities to the public authorities: “Is it possible that the muhtar, in his own village or neighborhood, doesn’t know who lives in each house? He’ll know. Is it a terrorist—is it possible he does not know? He knows. He will inform the nearest security forces [ . . . ]. For the step the muhtar will take at that moment will reinforce the state, and the strength of the state is imperative for the prosperity and tranquility of the people; we shall [inform the security forces], we are obliged to.”1 Here it must be borne in mind that most of the muhtars prerogatives—identifying people, issuing certificates, or, more recently, ensuring that people with COVID stay at home for at least one week2—are based not so much on wielding bureaucratic power as on the muhtars’ privileged access to the local population. Their work is grounded primarily in their direct knowledge of what is not necessarily written down in official registers—namely, individuals’ daily lives, including such issues as unauthorized housing and off-the-record activities. These officials can therefore provide the state with a way of accessing private information that administrative rationales struggle to pick up. Does this mean that muhtars could potentially be used as a tool for widespread social control or even as a totalitarian surveillance device? A device that, in contrast to those used in recent history, would not work along bureaucratic lines but instead proceed from intimate knowledge?


Any such interpretation needs nuancing straight away. Muhtars are not typical officials. They have a hybrid status. The muhtarlık—a word referring to the institution or office itself—does not fit into our ready-made categories. Instead, it is halfway between a state administration and a local elected body. The position is characterized by its fundamental ambiguity, primarily because muhtars are elected. While there are many similarities between muhtars and street-level bureaucrats, the way the former relate to those they administrate is wholly altered by the fact that these same people are their constituents. This has an indirect effect on how muhtars relate to institutions.

There are many kinds of elected administrators around the world, such as sheriffs or governors in the United States. In the case of muhtars, the tension between the two facets of their position–field administrator and elected official–is no doubt more palpable. First, this is because they do everything on their own, be it helping to maintain order, keeping the civil register, helping residents with administrative procedures, distributing social assistance, or countless other matters. Second, it is because they do all this at the very local level of the neighborhood or village, hence within a context rooted extensively in acquaintanceship. Muhtars are the outer edge of institutions. They embody a point of contact between state and society. They are limit-figures who operate where administrative and electoral rationales overlap, characterized by the very local nature of their direct contact with society. They provide a fascinating observation point for casting new light on the classic question of how social and political rationales intersect, and on the equally classic issue of the autonomy of the political realm–both in Turkey and elsewhere.


Another reason why the limit-figure of the muhtar is intriguing is that it sheds light on how Turkish society and state intersect, revealing a picture at odds with dominant visions of the Turkish state. Traditionally, the Turkish state has been considered as a strong entity clearly differentiated from society.3 Metin Heper went so far as to describe the Turkish state as “transcendental” (Heper 1992). In the words of Deniz Kadiyoti, “conventional social scientific analysis in Turkey has been strongly state- and institution-centered, focusing on policies and institutions as if these were acting upon a seemingly inert society” (Kandiyoti 2002, 2). Since the early 2000s, these representations of the Turkish state as clearly differentiated from society have been convincingly countered by historians of the early republican period (Akın 2007; Metinsoy 2011; Clayer 2015; Szurek 2015) and by political anthropologists (Alexander 2002; Navaro-Yashin 2002; Yoltar 2007; Babül 2017; Fırat 2019; Akarsu 2020). Interestingly, these criticisms have come primarily from analysts of society; representations of a state clearly separated from society have persisted much longer in political science. Only recently has political science begun to question this representation and to investigate the inner workings of the Turkish state and its practices of governing (Kayaalp 2013; Gourisse 2013; Aslan 2015).

Meanwhile, over recent decades the idea of a coherent state has been brought into question by several bodies of research in sociology and political science examining other countries. Enquiries influenced by sociology view the state as a complex institution, broken up into numerous loci and networks, where diverse social interests are repeatedly negotiated. Mention may be made, for example, of the analysis of organizations which since the 1980s has explored negotiated arrangements between local actors and administrative agents, particularly how they implement public policies.4 In a collective research project, several colleagues and I sought to draw on these approaches to question the postulate of a strong, homogenous Turkish state autonomous from society.5 This endeavor was consistent with Migdals’ state-in-society approach (1994, 2001), which criticized the idea of the state as external to society, giving rise to several groundbreaking studies on Turkey (Watts 2009; Harris 2009; Belge 2013). It is within such a perspective that studying the figure of the muhtar takes on its full significance. For far from being classic bureaucrats, muhtars resemble institutionalized intermediaries. The fact that the office has continued to exist for so long, ever since the 1830s, as perhaps the oldest functioning public institution in Turkey, shows that indirect government and intermediation, far from being throwbacks to some distant past, have continued to play a role in the routine functioning of state, through the republican period right down to the present day. Therefore, muhtars complicate the persistent, dominant, and widespread idea of a general trend toward the “modernization” and “rationalization” of the Turkish state.

Due to their very role—namely, that of facilitating citizens’ access to the state and, inversely, the state’s access to citizens—muhtars provide a privileged viewing point of how the social and institutional spheres mesh. Being in certain respects part of the state, yet in others embedded in society, they call into question very specifically the idea that the state is sharply differentiated from society and endowed with clear limits. My initial research question was whether or not muhtars are part of the state, and whether they act as state officials or not. I changed my perspective in the wake of arguments by Timothy Mitchell, for whom the frontier between state and society, rather than being some ontological constant or given, is forever in play, continually constructed and contested (Mitchell 1991). My thoughts on this topic were inspired by Michel Foucault’s change of focus when, setting aside the question of what the state might be, he considered what it does, looking at its concrete activities and the development of its constitutive apparatus—thus paving the way to many insightful works in political science and anthropology (Bierschenk and Sardan 2014).

My ideas have also drawn on Foucault’s criticism of theories viewing the state as a centralized, unified, and sovereign power, which elevate it to a “primary, original, and already given object” (2007 [2004], 2), and lay down inherent constitutive properties. Foucault proceeds from exactly the opposite hypothesis: “Maybe the state is only a composite reality and a mythicized abstraction” (2007 [2004], 109). Rather than studying the apparatus wielding power—that is to say, localizable legal and repressive institutions—he suggests analyzing the “mechanisms” underpinning the functioning of power. In this way of thinking, the activity of governing is not a monopoly of state, but something in which multiple agents partake, with power being exerted within society as a whole. This program has inspired many studies in terms of governmentality, emphasizing the multiple, varied, intermeshing, reticular, distributed, and localized nature of practices, technologies, and instruments of government (see Lascoumes and Le Galès 2005). It views the state from the vantage point of multiple practices, which are not all situated solely “in” what is commonly identified as the state (Foucault 2007 [2004], 112). It has also inspired scholarship on everyday politics, decentering the idea of a state authority and instead examining fragmented power practices as they actually occur.

But if we accept this idea of various fragmented power practices, at odds with the idea of a coherent state, then how are we to account for the idea of a coherent state functioning as a largely naturalized diffuse social norm—an idea that is particularly strong in Turkey (White 2013, 4)? Joel Migdal defines the state as “a field of power [ . . . ] shaped by (1) the image of a coherent, controlling organization in a territory, which is a representation of the people bounded by that territory, and (2) the actual practices of its multiple parts” (Migdal 2001, 15–16). Many works in the anthropology of the state have drawn on this approach to view the state not as a “distinct, fixed, unitary entity” (Sharma and Gupta 2006, 8) consisting of a set of rationales and institutions, but rather as a “phenomenological reality [ . . . ] produced through discourses and practices of power, produced in local encounters at the everyday level” (Aretxaga 2003, 398). For Gupta, anthropological studies of the state should focus first on the banal techniques of government and everyday practices of bureaucracies, and second, on the more abstract and translocal representation effects through which these practices become associated with the idea of an autonomous and impartial state (Gupta 1995). Abrams suggests we “abandon the state as a material object of study whether concrete or abstract while continuing to take the idea of the state extremely seriously” (Abrams 1998, 75). These studies of “the state” as something that is produced, reproduced, and contested through discourse and practice in everyday interactions with citizens led me to reformulate my initial question—that of knowing whether or not muhtars are part of the state—to instead focus on understanding in what contexts they refer to the state and draw on its legitimacy or authority. In short, how do they “make the state exist” through both their practices and their discourse?


These works suggest that we should pay particular attention to the loci where the state encounters society, among which we may immediately place the muhtarlık: “Instead of looking at the state as an entity ‘from above,’ we attempt to approach public authority ‘from below,’ from the variety of concrete encounters between forms of public authority and the more or less mundane practices of ordinary people” (Lund 2006, 674). For Gupta, “for the majority of [ . . . ] citizens, the most immediate context for encountering the state is provided by their relationships with government bureaucracies at the local level. [ . . . ] Because they give concrete shape and form to what would otherwise be an abstraction (‘the state’), these everyday encounters provide one of the critical components through which the state comes to be constructed” (Gupta 1995, 378). It is through these routine practices and encounters that ordinary citizens experience the state, and the relationships between individuals and the otherwise abstract state take on material form (Siblot 2002). These relationships are largely structured by the concrete ties connecting citizens to the many different institutions embodying “the state.” Recent works examining the state in Turkey have paid attention to concrete everyday government practices (Silverstein 2018) and more specifically encounters between citizens and the “state” (Alexander 2002; Navaro-Yashin 2002; Fliche 2005; Secor 2007; Yoltar 2007; Akarsu 2020). Many of these works focus on tense and contested settings: civil courthouses in poor urban neighborhoods (Koğacıoğlu 2008), criminal courts (Hakyemez 2018), women’s shelters (Ekal 2015), Turkey’s Kurdish southeast (Watts 2009), or policing in urban margins (Yonucu 2018).

By looking at muhtars, this book draws on this literature. But it differs from it in focusing on an ordinary and multifaceted institution with which citizens may come into contact, not only in specific situations (such as welfare distribution; see Yazıcı 2012) but for many different reasons, which may be conflictual or not–ranging from claiming social assistance or obtaining mundane paperwork to being searched for by the police. It analyzes how the practices of muhtars both underpin and undermine the image of a coherent and centralized state, where this image in turn constrains and shapes citizens’ practice, along with that of officials. The question thus shifts from seeking to ascertain whether the Turkish state is strong, to revealing how it is produced on the ground and experienced on an everyday level through what is composed and played out around these encounters. It examines what specific “practical sense” of the state muhtars generate,6 what ordinary relationships they engender with institutions, and what they produce in terms of socialization to the state and officialdom.

Such a perspective presupposes abandoning a top-down approach centered on national policies and institutions, in favor of a localized and socially anchored approach. It also implies shifting focus to look at what cannot be reduced to formalized, organized, and institutionalized forms of politics. This work is, in this respect, inspired by approaches in terms of low politics (Bayat 2009), infrapolitics (Scott 1990), vernacular politics (White 2002), and “politics from below” (Bayart 1981; Bayart 1992). These do not start from some a priori definition of what politics (or the state) might be, but instead view its contours as constructed in action, and as fluctuating (Bayart 1985). This requires attention to relatively broad practices anchored in their contexts. A further reason why this approach appealed to me is that my field observations shed light on the continuum between everyday life and the exercise of power, allowing for examination of the extent to which the political sphere might be autonomous from the social sphere.

This perspective additionally seeks to bring out the structuring role everyday practices play in forming the state and making practical sense of it. This entails turning away from an event-based approach to instead focus on the everyday level. The everyday refers to experienced practice—that is, practical knowledge and social experience (de Certeau 1984; Scott 1985). My approach is also inspired by German Alltagsgeschichte, which calls for understanding narrative “from below,” as process and as product of how social actors appropriate meanings, events, and processes (Lüdtke 1995). It thus provides a way of emphasizing the role of “average people,” on-the-ground public agents, and ordinary citizens.


These sources of inspiration led me to reformulate my object of study. My initial project of examining what muhtars are—state agents wielding institutional power, or representatives for neighborhood residents and their interests?—shifted to analyzing what they do and what this produces. This book examines how the muhtarlık as an institution actually functions. Looking at practices as they transpire in context enables us to gauge the practices of muhtars against the official rules–to which, as we shall see, they are far from conforming–and against other norms that inform how they go about their role, which may pertain to other registers (such as values, or moral obligation). Studying what muhtars do implies sketching a “sociology of work” akin to the sociology of political work (Fontaine and Le Bart 1994). This strong sociological focus differentiates this book from other, often more abstract and less sociologically grounded studies of governmental apparatus. The approach is manifold, drawing mainly on the sociology of organizations, the sociology of institutions, and interactionist sociology.

The work of subaltern public agents has become a topic for study, particularly in the sociology of organizations. This scholarship has shed light on their relative autonomy in implementing regulations, together with the extent to which their strategies seize upon zones of uncertainty, which exist in all organizations (Blau 1955; Crozier and Friedberg 1977). Lipsky has brought to light the influence wielded by street-level bureaucrats—that is, those who are in direct contact with the population. In carrying out their everyday work implementing regulations, they enjoy a certain power and hence capacity to significantly modify the sense of policies and how they are applied, via the practical choices they make in interpreting rules, selecting candidates, facilitating access to benefits, communicating or withholding “extra” information, and so on (Lipsky 1980). Many works in Lipsky’s wake have emphasized the leeway available to subaltern public agents, due particularly to their capacity for dialogue and negotiation in their interactions with users (Warin 2002), and to a set of informal arrangement practices.

This book is less concerned with the leeway muhtars enjoy, or with how their actions modify the policies they are meant to apply, than with what their actions—particularly these arrangements and negotiations—produce in terms of governing. It focuses on understanding this mode of “government,” considered as a “way of guiding the behavior of individuals and groups” (Bayart 2008 [1992], 28). This book analyzes the institution of the muhtarlık as one instance of an enactment of the “state, of political and administrative socialization” (Berger and Luckmann 1966), actualizing and producing relationships to institutions—both representations of the state and ways of “coping” with institutions.

From this point of view, recent alterations to the muhtarlık can shed new light on how government is undergoing transformation in Turkey. This “semi-formal” mode of government, indicative of the partial and indirect sway of institutions over entire swaths of social life, is being challenged as more impersonal and rationalized techniques of government are developed (Silverstein 2018). In an unexpected twist, the muhtarlık is not disappearing but is being reconfigured, and it continues to be used extensively by neighborhood residents. Personalized and informal government rationales coexist alongside impersonal and bureaucratized ones in present-day Turkey. Inspecting reconfigurations of the job of muhtar provides a way of investigating this composite form of government.

The question of the political effects of the muhtarlık can be framed in terms of domination and resistance: Does this institution provide a channel for pushing resident’s interests, working around the institutional order or even subverting it? Or, on the contrary, does it enforce compliance to that order, as the executive probably expects? Over recent years, in an unprecedented move, the executive has become more involved with the muhtarlık and has subjected it to greater oversight, generating new dynamics in this respect. The muhtarlık is prone to working both with and around the institutional order, and its political effects are profoundly ambivalent. We ultimately shall see that micro-level modes of government display both social and territorial differentiation.


The sociology of institutions has shown that they only exist through the ways in which individuals take on institutional roles, hence the need to study the ways they do so (Lagroye and Offerlé 2010). One way of empirically tackling this question is therefore to study how they embody this role. A role-orientation approach is especially apposite, as the muhtarlık enjoys considerable “administrative autonomy”—or, put differently, limited obligation to comply with prescribed institutional practices (Dubois 2010, 5). There is far less hierarchical control over muhtars than over other bureaucrats. Consequently, muhtars may stray significantly from the official precepts supposedly guiding them in how they perform their role, and, by extension, in how they define it—hence my decision to examine very different muhtars and neighborhoods. We shall observe differing, socially situated ways of relating to this institution. As we will see, some muhtars behave in oppositional ways, while others engage with the institution as a way to enforce consent to the state order or even to act as a surveillance device. Two main sets of factors shape their contrasting ways of embodying this role: first, the differing constraints on their action, and second, the dispositions of individual muhtars.

From a relational perspective, the differing practices of muhtars need to be related to the sphere of constraints within which they act. In fact, the constraints on their action change over time and have increased in recent years; they also vary significantly from one context to another. This aspect takes on specific form here, since muhtars lie at the intersection of multiple spheres of constraint: institutional on the one hand, social on the other. Institutional constraints are increasing; and as we shall see, muhtars’ relative autonomy from authorities and party politics—long a characteristic of that institution—is on the wane. We shall observe the effects this change has. The social constraints attendant upon the context in which muhtars work (the size of the neighborhood, salient social divides, and the types of requests made by residents) are in fact determinant. While the sociology of administrative relations has emphasized the significance of the setting in which counter staff interact with the public, muhtars not only officiate but also live amid the constituents whom they administer and who make incessant requests. The action of muhtars is significantly constrained by the fact that they live and carry out their functions in their own neighborhoods, a setting often marked by rumor, and in which they are acquainted with people to varying degrees. Study of the relationship between residents of a neighborhood and muhtars needs to be rooted in the larger set of neighborhood-level social relations in which they take on meaning (Siblot 2002, 80). How does this pronounced local anchoring influence—or even constrain—how muhtars do their job? For interactionist sociology, observing interaction in context is a way of linking contacts at the micro level to the political and social structures that govern them (Goffman 1959). The book thus studies interactions between muhtars and residents. By examining how muhtars “perform” and deal with interactions, we can further identify what representations they have of their role, and how they wish to be perceived. This, in turn, impacts on the representations of the state they produce.

Hence, paying attention to how muhtars assume their role raises the question of how citizens use the institution. The book analyzes not only the role as actualized by muhtars themselves, but also the practices of many different people who give it form. Users perhaps play an even greater part in defining this role than they do for “classic” administrations, given the muhtarlık’s greater flexibility and its electoral dimension. This perspective echoes recent scholarship in Ottoman history, often inspired by subaltern studies, which emphasizes the degree of autonomy local populations enjoyed, and their capacity to negotiate with state actors (Petrov 2004; Quataert 2008). These works concur that nonstate actors—often disadvantaged ones—were capable of playing an active role in their relationship with the authorities, drawing on the leeway conferred by the law and its application (Lévy-Aksu 2012, 21). We shall observe that social differentiation appears crucial in the uses (or non-uses) citizens make of the institution. Generally speaking, those who are disadvantaged (in several meanings of the term) have recourse to the muhtarlık. However, it would be simplistic to reduce it to a straightforward “institution of the dominated.”

This leads to the second dimension shaping their contrasting ways of embodying this role, namely the social dispositions of muhtars. Although this book examines an institution, it grants considerable importance to individual agents. This is for two reasons, the first of which is theoretical. Certain works inspired by Foucault, especially those analyzing disciplinary power, inquire into power mechanisms, with a tendency to overstate their coherence and effectiveness. Scott’s analysis of the technical mechanisms enabling the state to apprehend a complex and fragmented world and act on nature, society, and space (Scott 1990, 1998) has been criticized for being disembodied, for lacking a sociological dimension, and for paying insufficient attention to the actual officials making use of these instruments (Herzfeld 1993). This raises the question of whether the practices of administrators are a direct application of some “state rationale.” Sociologists of organizations, as well as those working in actor-network theory, have demonstrated the merits of focusing on actors in seeking to understand how political action actually functions (for Turkey, see Kayaalp 2013). For Bourdieu, “executive positions in large bureaucracies owe many of their most characteristic features, though these are never specified in any bureaucratic regulation or job description, to the dispositions officeholders bring to it at a given moment” (Bourdieu 1990, 88). Public officials draw on categories of perception that acquire meaning in the light of their social trajectory. This is especially true for muhtars, given that the institution has relatively little sway over them.

The second reason why this book accords considerable importance to individual agents is more pragmatic. Having no administrative apparatus, the muhtarlık is an extremely personalized institution. This dimension has increased over time, resulting in the gradual whittling away of any collegial dimension. The muhtarlık is composed of a muhtar supported by a council of elders (azas, or ihtiyar heyeti),7 But it has been extensively “presidentialized.” The councils of elders have become more and more marginalized in urban neighborhoods—largely because, since 1963, muhtars are directly elected by the residents, rather than indirectly by the councils. This is an ongoing trend, for generally it is muhtars who now decide on the ranking of their councillors, something previously determined by their constituents’ preferential vote. One consequence of this personalization is that people say they are “going to the muhtar’s” rather than “going to the muhtarlık.” The institution is thus personalized and embodied to an unusual degree. Heeding agents implies placing their sociology at the center of analysis. This leads in turn to analyzing the social characteristics of muhtars and the conditions in which they are recruited, together with their trajectories and dispositions. This way, we can build up a satisfactory account of these agents who embody one specific but important contact between institutions and citizens on a daily basis. So this book sets out to analyze certain everyday practices of governing in Turkey, by appreciating who these officials are, where they come from, and how they make sense of what they do (see Babül 2017, 29).


This work fills a gap in the scholarship. The figure of the muhtar has been little studied, no doubt because it does not fit readily into classic categories. Even fewer works have looked at the muhtar in political terms. Political science in Turkey has never evinced any interest in this figure, who is generally considered to be infrapolitical, administrative, and in short insignificant. However, the very fact that muhtar elections are those around which most electoral violence–including death–is observed (mostly in villages) hints at the importance the candidates grant to this position.8 The microlocal dimension probably goes some way to explaining the lack of scholarly interest. Political science about Turkey has rarely investigated how local political spheres function and are structured. There are few studies of local politics, and those that do exist are regarded as being of minor interest. Even the few benchmark studies about local politics make scant mention of muhtars.9 In his book about local elections, Turan (2008) makes no reference to them. Only Joppien’s recent book (2019) on municipal politics mentions muhtars, though without dwelling on them much. Since the 1980 coup they are no longer elected on party ticketa, and this seemingly has made the political dimension of their action an obsolete question, while maintaining the illusion of their neutrality with regard to politics. All in all, political science appears to have broadly assented to the “official” division of social activities: muhtars are no longer elected on party tickets, ergo they are outside the political realm. The presidential muhtar meetings have attracted some scholarly attention, but it has focused on other topics (populism, Denli 2017; the presidentialization of foreign policy, Ülgül 2018) rather than directly on muhtars.10

Although one strand of research has examined the political dimension of muhtars, it has looked only at muhtars in villages, not the ones in urban neighbor hoods. The muhtarlık exists in both places,11 but with greater means (its own budget) and prerogatives in villages. The studies in question were part of village sociology conducted in the 1960s and 1970s. Working within a developmentalist perspective drawing on theories of modernization prevalent at the time, they sought to pinpoint the dynamics of social change and integration in the nation, together with the role muhtars played in these processes (Yasa 1957; Kolars 1963, 87; Pierce 1964, 69, 85; Stirling 1965, 12, 270; Stycos 1965; Magnarella 1974). More recently, in her work about an Anatolian village, which focused on the symbolic dimension, Delaney (1991) viewed the muhtar as an important figure. These works are of limited interest for the approach taken here.

Most recent scholarship about urban muhtars views them from the perspective of administrative science. It mainly analyzes how they relate to other administrations, and the extent to which their means are adequate or inadequate for their missions. Much of it consists of master’s dissertations, and often draws on questionnaire surveys. More recent works study the institution of the muhtarlık in the light of issues such as participation or local democracy. But these approaches fail to take local configurations into account, and generally seem shorn of context. Most studies of neighborhoods make little mention of the political dimension, and refer to muhtars only fleetingly.

Ultimately it is studies in related disciplines, particularly sociology and history, that are closest to the perspective taken here. Behar has written a precise study looking at the residents of an Ottoman neighborhood and the activity of its muhtars, drawing on a precious source, the notes of successive muhtars of an Istanbul neighborhood (Kasap İlyas) running back to the late nineteenth century, together with certain documents from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Behar 2003). Several works of sociology about the outer neighborhoods of cities have also paid indirect attention to muhtars, depicting their role in local politics and in solving urban problems (Erder 1996; Erder 1997; Wedel 1999).


A further reason why there are few studies of muhtars is that working at a very micro level on daily activities that are fairly difficult to apprehend raises a certain number of methodological challenges. I had to combine different methods, sometimes in a makeshift manner.

There are few written sources. Official sources such as laws and regulations help build up the legal framework within which muhtars act, but they tell us virtually nothing about their practices. The archives of the prime minister’s office contain mostly official reports and correspondence, and the available documents concerning muhtars cover the late 1930s to the late 1950s, but not systematically. These documents show how the central authorities thought about the muhtarlıks, especially those in villages, but they reveal only the official facet of their activity, relating to the central authorities. The Istanbul municipal archives cast light on the official written relationship between the municipality and the muhtarlıks, focusing on disputes over neighborhood boundaries. While these help us piece together certain debates and changes to the institution, they provide at best a very partial and fragmentary vision of the muhtars’ activity. Written documents mainly take the form of letters, circulars, and instructions from the authorities to the muhtars, but the muhtars tend not to follow any standard archiving practices, and provide few written traces of their activity. When the muhtars do conserve documents, it is a matter of individual, fragmentary initiatives, and I did not always manage to gain access to them.

So most of the empirical material on which this work is based was collected during field research, I needed to select areas for empirical observation that were suited to localized analysis (Briquet and Sawicki 1989). I opted for the level of neighborhoods, and for a microanalytic approach to help bring out the intermeshing of social rationales (Revel 1996, 30–31). Insofar as I sought to apprehend the differing ways in which a single institution was actualized in varying contexts, I decided to select several neighborhoods. But which ones? Anthropological approaches to the state pay particular attention to its “margins,” defined by Das and Poole as “sites of practice on which law and other state practices are colonized by other forms of regulation that emanate from the pressing needs of populations to secure economic and physical survival” (Das and Poole 2004, 8)—hence as places where “state law and order continually have to be re-established” (Asad 2004, 279). These approaches thus focus on specific technologies of power deployed by states to manage populations viewed as marginal (Yonucu 2018). Likewise, most works following Migdal’s state-in-society approach look at sites of contest and opposition (Watts 2009; Harris 2009; Belge 2013). This is also the case for studies in “subaltern politics,” which work on the assumption that subalterns practice specific forms of politics. Yet I believe this focus to be reductive, or even tautological, because the premises significantly shape the results obtained. I preferred, on the contrary, to conduct my investigations in contrasting neighborhoods with varying levels of wealth and marginality, so as to get an idea of the varying ways in which the institution is actualized, and thus analyze this mode of government in its diversity. For practical reasons I limited my enquiry to Istanbul, whose sheer size, diversity, and vibrant political environment allowed me to observe highly contrasting situations.

I did not have the luxury of choosing places to investigate based on the social properties of the muhtars or their neighborhoods. The first criterion was the possibility of building up a relationship of trust with a muhtar, which would enable me to gain lasting access to the field. My identity as a foreign researcher working for the French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs did not fail to arouse suspicion about the “true purpose” of my research; it should not be forgotten that muhtars are also informers.

Additionally, it is important to stress that the period when I was conducting most of the survey (2013–14) was one of marked political tension: first, the Gezi Park protests and their violent repression (May to July 2013),12 particularly in the very urban settings where my research was situated; the subsequent increasing conflict and visibility of urban issues in the public sphere; the scandal relating to accusations of government corruption (from December 2013); and the local elections during which the muhtars were elected (March 2014)–the first elections after the Gezi protests, adding to the conflict. The tensions caused by these episodes raised the stakes, fueled politicization, and compounded the sensitivity of urban issues. Consequently, muhtars were more exposed, making my research partners more suspicious and cautious. Yet this also made it easier for me to pinpoint what was at stake at their level. I left Turkey just before the executive launched several initiatives to reassert the value and role of muhtars and tried to tie them more firmly to state institutions. I made several follow-up trips until 2019, but could not analyze in-depth the impacts this policy had on the ground.

In any case, in conducting my research, trust was essential. It was down to the benevolence of individual muhtars whether they tolerated my presence and granted me access to less formatted discussions and scenes. I needed to be introduced to them, and so I approached muhtars who had had some contact with academia–because, for instance, one colleague lived in their neighborhood, and another had taught them or their children, or had met them at events organized to oppose urban renewal projects. It was then a matter of using their contacts to expand my base. In this way I managed to constitute a varied sample, which enabled me to observe muhtars and neighborhoods with sharply contrasting political and socioeconomic characteristics, and to highlight constants and salient differences in the conditions and ways in which each performed their job. Furthermore, at the time of my field study these neighborhoods belonged to five different district municipalities—three held by the AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, the Justice and Development Party), the conservative party with an Islamist background that has ruled the country since 2002, and two by the CHP (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, the Republican People’s Party), the Kemalist opposition party. I did not seek representativity, but instead conceived of the exemplary character of social phenomena in other than rigorously statistical terms (Revel 1996, 31).

Of these six muhtars two, Bediz and Ebru, were women. Thus women were overrepresented in my sample, for after the 2014 elections women were just under 10 percent of muhtars in Istanbul, and 1.95 percent of neighborhood muhtars across the country.13 To “individualize” all the muhtars while preserving their anonymity, I have assigned them first names starting with the letter used to denote each muhtar’s respective neighborhood: Ahmet for neighborhood A, Bediz for neighborhood B, and so on. I have kept women’s names for women, and men’s names for men. I conducted in-depth observations of how they performed their jobs, and visited them and their neighborhoods many times. By engaging with them over a lengthy period I was also able to note how contexts changed. In particular, observing them over many different periods–before and during elections; at Ramadan, an important period for social assistance; in troubled periods such as during and after the Gezi Park protests, and so on–enabled me to appreciate how political developments affected their activity.

The Neighborhoods Observed*

A is an old central neighborhood of middle- to lower-class residents (low-level employees, self-employed skilled manual workers, and small business owners) that is relatively well established.

B is an old central neighborhood undergoing gentrification, whose residents come from highly contrasting social backgrounds and include many disadvantaged people who have migrated from eastern provinces of Turkey since the 1960s.

C, next to B, is an old central neighborhood undergoing gentrification, with few residents and many businesses.

D is a sprawling, very disadvantaged outer neighborhood with a large population. It was built without authorization in the 1990s, and there were plans for an urban renewal project. The neighborhood’s infrastructure is unfinished, with many dirt roads, and houses lacking water or electricity. Large numbers of internal migrants are still arriving there, and the neighborhood is socially and politically fragmented, thus sparking tensions.

E is a fairly central neighborhood dating from the 1950s. It is wealthy, with many luxury restaurants and shops.

F, an outer neighborhood built without authorization, sprang up in the 1960s. It is fairly deprived, but stable. All its infrastructure is in place, and no more internal migrants are arriving there.

*To preserve the anonymity of these neighborhoods, the press sources and sociological studies used for them are not referenced here. A table outlining the main characteristics of the neighborhoods and muhtars studied is included in the appendix.

I also encountered other muhtars on a less systematic basis. These interviews played a lesser role in building my analysis, but helped for examining specific dimensions in greater depth (the role muhtars play in urban renewal projects, the way post-Gezi urban citizenship activists considered and tried to build links with muhtars, and the role of muhtar associations). I have designated these “secondary” neighborhoods using lowercase letters (from g to k—without j, for I could find no male first name starting with that letter). Last, I sought to meet the main people with whom the muhtars were in contact. This of course included neighborhood residents, but also urbanists involved in urban initiatives and city planners, and party officials. It was harder to gain access to municipal and subprovincial department heads, and I met them less frequently.

The prime method I used was interviewing. In order to compare the muhtars’ often self-glorifying declarations with what they actually did (and to understand which aspects they emphasized or downplayed), I needed to observe them at work. The angle taken in this study implied a praxeological approach, apprehending the muhtars’ actions in context. Routine work cannot be observed in the laws and regulations framing these activities, or in what those who perform them have to say. Observation is the only way of apprehending in context the practical definitions agents have of their role, their moral judgements, the values they invoke, and the ways in which they conform to, deviate from, or resist the official order or the citizens’ requests. Furthermore, observation is the only way to access how muhtars interact with the residents. Observation provides a way of apprehending the terms and forms of interaction, delivering better understanding of what is at stake in the relationships.

It was not easy, however, to observe muhtars, for they were unwilling to expose themselves to an outsider’s gaze whenever this deviated from the image they wanted to present of themselves. However willing they were to answer at least some of my questions, I sensed that some were reluctant to let me observe them going about at least some of their activities. They retained control over our interaction, and often sought to get rid of me.

I adopted several techniques to overcome this difficulty. First, I used interviews as a “pretext” for observing. With few exceptions, I targeted exactly those moments when I supposed the muhtar would be busy or have lots of visitors. That obliged me to wait, and prevented me from asking questions, thus giving me a pretext to come back another time. The muhtars apologized for “having” to make me wait. But from my point of view this was often the most interesting part. It was when I was meant to be interviewing them but circumstances were unfavorable that I could begin observing their practices. In any case, the interviews rarely took place one-to-one, for neighborhood residents would phone or come in, repeatedly interrupting our conversation. The methodological differentiation between interviews and observation was somewhat artificial. Second, I asked the muhtars about what they were doing as they went about their work, to better apprehend their practices (Becker 1993). The muhtars seemed to be reassured by my interest in the material and factual aspects of their daily routine, which are to all appearances “not sensitive” and “apolitical.” Third, I sought to “follow” these muhtars over time. I repeatedly visited them to build up trust and acquire greater understanding of their work. That enabled me to place what they said within the local configuration.

Observation enabled me to pick up on hesitations, uncertainty as to how to proceed, and the tensions produced by negotiation and adapting to various situations. Only observation makes it possible for one to apprehend posture, intonation, gestures, body language, and emotions, which are often more telling than what is said. The way muhtars act (talking to someone, or walking around the muhtarlık or neighborhood) counts just as much as what they say. I attached much importance to observing these trifling “details, little things, in short [ . . . ] what does not lend politics its nobility” (Hibou 2006, 16)—the modes of address, the banal conversations, the layout of the premises, and everything making up the “atmosphere.” In this I followed the influence of Foucault’s theories about the “hymn to small things” and “the political anatomy of detail” (1995 [1975], 139).

There were certain limitations to the observations I could conduct. I had access to the muhtars’ “official” setting, the premises where they received visitors in their muhtarlık. But it would be reductive to suppose any “unity of place” to their activity, and this is one of the factors differentiating muhtars from street-level bureaucrats. Muhtars officiate in many other places and contexts, such as on the phone and in the street, for neighborhood residents, shopkeepers, and passersby are forever calling out to them. They officiate at home, for people go to visit them there. Or they officiate when they are out visiting, or taking part in all sorts of ceremonies and meetings. They officiate in practically all their social interactions, as well as with officials from the municipality, the subgovernor’s office, or such-and-such a social center. On several occasions I tried to accompany them outside the muhtarlık. I asked them to let me know what meetings they would be attending, but they would “forget” to tell me, and would say later that the hour or day had changed several times, thus covering their tracks. They were skilled at “partitioning off” their settings and publics, so that my technique of just “being there waiting” was less effective. I only had limited access to most of these “other” settings, places, and times. In particular, I rarely managed to attend when muhtars were meeting official interlocutors from the subgovernor’s office, the municipality, or political parties. I did not gain access to the muhtars’ meetings with the district municipalities or the subgovernor’s office. I only caught glimpses when these people (police officers, postmen, municipal administrators and councillors, staff from the subgovernor’s office, or party cadres) visited or phoned the muhtar. These interactions gave me precious but limited indications. And this introduces a significant bias: “By focusing on public and formal scenes, observers abandon what goes on in the wings, the asides, the interstices where the crux of social exchange tends to be played out. [ . . . ] The main risk is of decontextualizing the procedure, in the light of the surrounding institutions, from the sphere of social relations in which it is placed, from the setting of parallel controversies adjacent to it” (Blondiaux and Fourniau 2011, 21).

One final limitation should be mentioned. Muhtars operate in a context of personalized acquaintanceship characterized by preexisting ties, in which neighborhood residents are not all equal. Whenever I observed an interaction between a muhtar and a given resident, though I could guess whether they were previously acquainted, I could not know in what their acquaintanceship consisted. Without prolonged immersion in this milieu, I could not access the implicit dimension shared by the protagonists, and it was often awkward or intrusive for me to ask afterward. I also did not know their reputations. This was a bit less true in neighborhoods B and C. Since I lived nearby, I often went to those neighborhoods and frequented certain shops. By dint of being greeted by me as I went past, they grew accustomed to my presence. I regularly went to chat over tea with the muhtars there about events in their neighborhood. But despite that, I do not claim long-term immersion in an acquaintanceship milieu.

This book is divided into four parts. Part 1 goes over the origins and main characteristics of the institution of the muhtarlık. It shows that the muhtarlık is not a classic administration, but a hybrid institution. It does not fit the dominant interpretation of Ottoman and Turkish history, viewed in terms of bureaucratization. Instead, I suggest, muhtars should be seen as institutionalized intermediaries. The institution is characterized by the voluntarily partial sway that state institutions exert over it. The activity of muhtars cannot strictly be said to be professionalized (chapter 1). The pronounced social anchoring of the muhtarlık has an impact on the social profiles of muhtars, meaning that they are comparable to notables (chapter 2). The resilience of this figure of indirect government, despite the institutional upheavals the country has been through, means that intermediation needs to be considered an integral part of the Turkish state’s functioning.

Part 2 analyzes how the role of muhtar has been reconfigured by the arrival of databases which, from the perspective of rationalization, ought to have led to the muhtars’ demise. The introduction of impersonal IT administrative mechanisms has led to their prerogatives being reduced. Yet, rather than disappearing, the muhtars’ role has been reconfigured. Though they intervene less often and less directly, they continue to act as intermediaries and as means of redress, particularly for the distribution of social assistance (chapter 3). The coexistence of apparently opposed modes of government raises the question of what is specific to this institution. Members of the public make extensive use of it due to its proximity and familiarity. They present muhtars with all sorts of requests which exceed the official definition of their function. Muhtars find themselves caught between these demands, to which they are sensitive since they depend on their electorate, and institutional injunctions. Thus they seek to reconcile the two. But the public image they give is primarily one of being prompt to serve their constituents, thereby producing the image of a negotiable state (chapter 4).

Part 3 analyzes the ambivalent and contrasting political effects of this mode of government. Due to its familiarity, the muhtarlık makes the state accessible, and partakes in the administrative socialization of citizens. At the same time, due to the possibility of individualized treatment and accompanying arrangements, the muhtarlık embodies the possibility of prevailing upon the official order, thus feeding incessant suspicions of favoritism. The effect is to strip the state of its neutrality (chapter 5). A further ambivalent dimension to the institution’s political effects relates to the fact that muhtars, with their extensive autonomy, inhabit their role in widely differing ways. At times they act as institutional relays, at others as a channel for residents’ demands. The ways they embody this role are also linked to the neighborhood context, as well as to their very different personal trajectories (chapter 6).

Part 4 analyzes the muhtarlık’s loss of autonomy over recent years. The ways in which muhtars assume their role cannot be dissociated from their relationship with institutions, which have a strong and ever-growing influence on the resources available to them. There is also an increasingly marked partisan political dimension to their relationship with institutions (chapter 7). The authorities have recently become more directly involved with the muhtarlık, thereby diminishing its autonomy. The municipalities are increasingly involved at the neighborhood level, thus marginalizing the muhtars. More proactive urban planning policies have led to an increased number of conflicts involving muhtarlıks. Lastly, since 2014 the executive has been seeking to bind the muhtarlıks ever more closely to it (chapter 8). The comparative autonomy from institutional and partisan political considerations that have long characterized this microlevel of government might well be coming to an end, thus suggesting a crucial transformation of patterns of government and state-society relations in Turkey.


1. Presidential address to muhtars, Ankara, August 19, 2015.

2. “Vali Yerlikaya ‘dan muhtarlara COVID-19’ la mücadelede destek çağrısı,” TRT, September 10, 2020, Accessed on January 7, 2020.

3. For critical discussion of these ideas, see Gourisse 2015.

4. See, for example, Padioleau 1982; Dupuy and Thoenig 1985.

5. The project called “Order and Compromise: Patterns of Administration and Government in Turkey and the Ottoman Empire since the Late 19th Century” was financed by the French Agence nationale de la recherche for the period 2008–12, and coordinated by me. The results of this research program are to be found in Aymes, Gourisse, and Massicard 2015.

6. . While the title of Bourdieu’s book has been translated as The Logic of Practice, I prefer here to use “practical sense,” which appears closer to the French sens pratique. The term “practical sense” steers clear of any rationalizing interpretation, insisting on the subjective and interiorized dimension of practices: “There is an economy of practices, the reason immanent in practices, whose ‘origin’ lies neither in the ‘decisions’ of reason understood as rational calculation nor in the determinations of mechanisms external to and superior to the agents” (Bourdieu, 1990, 50).

7. The term ihtiyar is still used to refer to azas and is mostly translated as “elder,” despite its first sense meaning “prominent.”

8. Kerem Kocalar, “Gaziantep’te muhtarlık seçimi kavgası: 3 ölü, 6 yaralı,” Anadolu Ajansı, March 30, 2019,

9. The position is not mentioned in any of the following reference works: Varol 1989; Kurtoğlu 2005; Çitçi 1989; Erder and İncioğlu 2008.

10. Interestingly, muhtars still exist in several post-Ottoman states: Cyprus, Lebanon, Bulgaria, and Iraq, to name a few. But they have also hardly been examined.

11. About two-thirds of them are urban neighborhood muhtars. “2020’de Türkiye’sinde muhtar sayısı,” Haber ne diyor? January 22, 2020, Accessed December 20, 2020.

12. A wave of civil unrest and demonstrations from May to July 2013, initially to contest the plan to transform Istanbul’s Gezi Park into rebuilt Ottoman barracks containing a shopping center. The protests were sparked by outrage at the violent eviction of a sit-in held at the park to denounce the plan. Subsequent supporting demonstrations took place across Turkey, voicing a wide range of concerns, at the core of which were issues of freedom of expression and of assembly, as well as the government’s alleged authoritarianism and growing interventionism on lifestyles. These protests were the largest Turkey has seen in recent decades, with more than three million people estimated to have actively taken part.

13. “Türkiye Muhtarlar Konfederasyonu Genel Başkanı Akdeniz: ‘Türkiye genelinde kadın muhtarların sayısı arttı,’”, August 1, 2014, Accessed January 15, 2021.