Ethnographic Interventions and Thought Paradigms at a Governmental Revenue Service

2023 Björklund Larsen, Lotta. Journal of Cultural Economy. Published online: 03.07.2023.

This article addresses the rise and fall of ethnography as a methodology at the Swedish Tax Agency based on following a risk assessment project for three years. The Agency is an interesting institution to study as it is one of the most revered public bureaucracies in the country, despite having to collect one of the highest amounts of income taxes in the world. Strategies to increase taxpayer compliance and tax collector legitimacy follow theories and methods applied in research but are also limited to budgets and organizational structures. This article suggests that three sets of ‘thought paradigms’ existed at the Agency: legality, quantification and para-ethnography. When insights from these clashed, the Agency’s strategies for legitimacy were challenged and even threatened. To the ethnographer’s chagrin, the Agency’s initial interest in ethnographic methods was instead quelled when the result of this risk assessment project was presented.

Game of Tax. Rethinking the relation between redistribution and reciprocity through a Georgian tax lottery

2022 Björklund Larsen, Lotta. Economic Anthropology 10(1), pp. 100-111.

The purpose of a tax lottery is to formalize transactions and motivate consumers to ask for a receipt qua lottery ticket in order to ensure that businesses pay taxes due. Tax lotteries thus have a dual function: more revenue is collected from businesses, and consumers do soft policing work while also having a chance to win. This article is a Schumpeterian analysis of a failed tax lottery in the country of Georgia’s rapid yet shaky political and economic development. Drawing on anthropological research studying taxation and gambling,as it provides an inlet into how Georgians regard their society. Theoretically, this study also provided an opportunity to rethink the relation between redistribution and reciprocity, and I argue that to understand how citizens accept the redistribution of taxation, we have to attend to its reciprocal qualities.

Tax Compliance Dancing. The Importance of Time and Space in Taxing Multinational Corporations

2021 Björklund Larsen, Lotta and Benedicte Brøgger. Journal of Legal Anthropology Vol 5(1), pp. 85-109.

Tax administrations struggle to control large multinational enterprises’ (MNEs) tax planning, avoidance and general evasion, whereas MNEs grapple with the problem of having to comply with widely divergent national tax systems. As a response, tax administrations invent forms of collaboration such as the co-operative compliance model. In this article we compare two compliance projects in Norway and Sweden and elaborate on Valerie Braithwaite’s seminal concept of tax compliance as a ‘dance’ between tax administrations and taxpayers.


2021 Björklund Larsen, Lotta and Karen Boll. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Anthropology.

This encyclopedic entry takes its outset that taxation is in dire need of a critical perspective on its human consequences, its social impact, and how it is culturally shaped. Karen Boll and I outline how an emerging anthropology of taxation can address these issues.

We argue that an anthropology of taxation opens a host of interconnected issues at the nexus of states, markets, and citizenship. It focuses on money, work, and ownership; notions of fairness and honesty or avoidance and evasion; the politics of regulation and redistribution; and the balance between taking responsibility for oneself and for others, to name a few. Ethnographic studies of taxation can depict how various stakeholders in the tax arena shape and are shaped by taxation and can illustrate how subjects of taxation—residents, businesses, communities, and societies—through their view on and practices of taxation, negotiate their relation to the state and to other beneficiaries. Read it!

Skatteantropologi. Ett nytt vetenskapligt perspektiv på ett klassiskt fält.

2020 Björklund Larsen, Lotta. Skattenytt 4, 153-171.

Denna artikel beskriver vilken kunskap och insikter antropologer kan bidra med till skatteforskningen. Artikeln introducerar det antropologiska perspektivet, de etnografiska metoder vi använder och ger ett smakprov på antropologisk forskning om beskattning från världens alla hörn.

Editorial: How should we theorize algorithms? Five common tropes in analyzing algorithmic normativities. 

2019 Lee, Francis & Björklund Larsen, Lotta. Big Data & Society. Published August 13.

We bring analytical awareness of how algorithms are theorized in society and culture especially attending to algorithms normative impact and how they thus shape society. We propose a nuanced discussion to how social scientists think about algorithms in relation to five theoretical ideal types. 

Recalibrating Counting and Accounting Practices: Dealing with Algorithmic Output in Public and Private.

2019 Dudhwala, Farzana & Björklund Larsen, Lotta. Big Data & Society. Published July 17.

Humans just do not use algorithmic results. In this article we address the interaction between algorithmic outputs and the humans engaging with them by drawing on studies of two distinct empirical fields – self-quantification and audit controls of taxpayers. We introduce the concept of recalibration to understand the practices and processes involved in this interaction.

Taxing Large Businesses: Co-operative compliance in action.

2019 Björklund Larsen, Lotta & Oats, Lynne. Intereconomics: Review of European Economic Policy 54(3), pp. 165-170.

Summing up a large comparative research project, this article presents key features of the OECD promoted cooperative compliance model (a collaboration between tax administrations and MNE’s) in its practical implementation and operation. We propose seven universal dimensions of practice based on a qualitative comparison of cooperative compliance programmes in six Northern European jurisdictions. 

What tax morale? A moral anthropological on a Swedish Cooperative Compliance initiative.

2019 Björklund Larsen, Lotta. JOTA - Journal of Tax Administration. Vol 5(1)

This article explores stakeholders’ moral reasoning in order to illuminate on the contradiction between the “successful” Swedish Tax Agency and the “failure” of a project aiming to make multinational corporations collaborate with the Agency. Borrowing from Didier Fassin’s moral anthropological approach make this failure more understandable.

SWEDEN: Failure of a Cooperative Compliance Project?

2018 Björklund Larsen, Lotta. In Emer Mulligan & Lynne Oats (eds.) Contemporary Issues in Tax Research: Volume 3.

This chapter follows a Swedish cooperative compliance project introduced in 2011 and its modified relaunch  in 2014. The Swedish Tax Agency proposed a project that carried with it international success stories from similar projects, but in the Swedish version and context met with strong resistance. The article proposes eight aspects that have to be paid attention to when implementing cooperative compliance initiatives.

Mind the (tax) gap: An ethnography of a number.

2017 Björklund Larsen, Lotta. Journal of Cultural Economy. Vol 10(5), pp. 419-433.

Assessing tax gap numbers is a challenge, communicating them is even more fickle. This article describes the perils of calculating the Swedish tax gap number and reveals examples of its careless usage by various Swedish stakeholders. It is an example of a number that performs a dual function: on the one hand mobilizing people’s morals and subsequent commitments and on the other hand measuring such commitments.

A thrice-told tale: A collaboration between the Swedish Tax Agency and Academia.

2017 Björklund Larsen, Lotta, Ulf Johannesson and Karin Thoresson. JOTA - Journal of Tax Administration. Vol 3(1).

This is the story of a collaborative project involving the creation, development and teaching of a course on qualitative research, which was designed for all Swedish Tax Agency analysts. This is not just a story about collaboration between academia and tax authority, but also one about how interdisciplinary approaches creates new knowledge.

‘Common sense‘ at the Swedish Tax Agency. Transactional boundaries separating taxable and tax-free income. 

2015 Björklund Larsen, Lotta. Critical Perspectives on Accounting. Vol 31, September 2015, pp. 75-89.

How does a tax collecting agency distinguishes between taxable and tax-free income when the law says that all that all exchanges having value constitutes income? ’Common sense’ is here used as a frame for the boundary work that the Agency engage in, based on legislation, courtroom decisions, and praxis-while paying attention to societal legitimacy.

När svarta köp blir grå.

2014. In Jenny Björkman, Björn Fjaestad & Susanna Alexius (eds.) Alla dessa marknader. RJ:s årsbok 2014/2015. Göteborg: Makadam förlag, pp. 87-96.

Det är ingen hemlighet att svartköp är olagligt. Ändå existerar en kvittofri marknad, som nästan hälften av alla svenskar utnyttjar. Ett sätt att legitimera svarta tjänster är att flytta köpet från marknaden till en intimare, privat sfär.

Buy or Barter. Illegal yet licit purchases of work in contemporary Sweden

2013 Björklund Larsen, Lotta. Focaal. Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology Vol. 66, pp. 75-87.

This article explores the tensions between buying and bartering in contemporary Sweden by analyzing the acceptable purchase of informal work. A commonplace phenomenon, but also widely debated, as it is seen as detrimental to welfare society, eroding taxpaying morals and solidarity with fellow citizens.

Molding knowledge into a legal complex. A para-ethnography at the Swedish Tax Agency.

2013 Björklund Larsen, Lotta. Journal of Business Anthropology. Vol 2(2), pp. 209-231.

Drawing on the notion of legal complex, this article addresses knowledge production at the Swedish Tax Agency’s while it strives for legitimacy. In a para-ethnographic vein, the Agency creates knowledge about taxpayers from regulations, research, statistical results, stories, hunches and examples from everyday life including those of the participating observer.

Svarta tjänster - att ge, få och ge igen

2011 Björklund Larsen, Lotta. I Jacobsson, Kerstin ed. Känslan för det allmänna. Medborgarnas relation till staten och varandra. Umeå: Borea, pp. 237-266.

Svart arbete är utbrett i Sverige. Det finns olika uppskattningar av omfattningen av denna samhällsekonomiska företeelse och många tolkningar av orsaken. Omfattningen i Sverige jämfört med andra liknande länder har av vissa ansetts vara mindre (Skatteverket 2006:4:493), av andra större (t.ex. European Commission 2007:284:10; Schneider 1997). De flesta svenskar verkar ha synpunkter på detta samhällsfenomen och förklaringarna till det liksom rättfärdiganden av det är mångfasetterade. En vanlig ekonomisk motivering är att ”det är billigare”, en mer normativ säger ”att alla gör det” och en tredje refererar till det som skall diskuteras i detta kapitel – nämligen medborgarnas krav och förväntningar på välfärdssamhället.