Becoming Taxpayers: Establishing the Anthropology of Tax

Is taxation theft by the state, a moral action, or expenses citizens bear in order to make claims on the state? A focus on taxation opens a host of interconnected issues: citizen-state relations; money, work and ownership; notions of a just share; the politics of redistribution; and the balance between responsibility for the extended self and for others. Building on recent, original ethnographic work on fiscal cultures, and tax-focused state and non-state actions, the proposed network of scholars will develop an innovative research project aimed at establishing an anthropology of tax.

Our collaborative project aims to push the frontiers of anthropological knowledge of the state, bureaucracy, money and moral economy. It seeks to lay the groundwork for interdisciplinary investigations into contemporary fiscal structures, and to participate in popular debates regarding the moralities, practices and imaginaries of fiscal systems.

“Becoming Taxpayers” is a research initiation project I lead together with Nicolette Makovicky, Oxford University and is funded by Riksbankens jubileumsfond 2019–2020.

As part of an interdisciplinary project with behavioural economists at the research and policy institute ISET-PI in Tbilisi, I conducted ethnographic fieldwork of a so-called tax lottery in Georgia. Engaging with Georgians from all walks of life including the Armenian minority revealed a number of interesting perspectives on citizens relation to a state—described as distrustful at best. This project also showed that quick fixes to tax compliance are fickle; it is indeed a lottery. Read our report

Co-producing Tax Compliance. Tax Agencies Mobilization of Citizens, Businesses and Third Parties was the largest work package in the Horizon 2020 funded project FairTax (no. 649439, running 2015-2019). Our work package described, analyzed and evaluated the OECD promoted “Co-operative compliance” programmes in four Nordic countries. The co-operative compliance way of working has become a core concern and way of organizing the relation between tax authorities and large multinational corporations in many countries. In the name of efficiency and increased compliance do tax administrations engage taxpayers before tax statements are delivered and control systems take over. The Nordic countries are considered similar and so were the co-operative compliance programmes that were implemented in each country, yet the outcomes were very different. Focusing our research on the experiences and practices of the various projects, we compared the national programmes on a conceptual level. We could thus explain why certain programmes worked and which did not. The research took on a fiscal anthropological approach engaging with various stakeholders: tax administrations and large corporations, but also tax advisors as well as interest organizations that have an impact on tax policy in practice. The results are published in national reports – Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden – and the final comparative study of the Nordic countries.

We also verified our results with those of the Netherlands, the UK and the US  in a collaborative policy recommendation “Taxing-Large-Businesses-Cooperative-Compliance.”

Algorithms as Devices of Power and Valuation

The Algorithm Studies Network explored the social aspects of algorithms in everyday life, business, government, and science. The network brought together internationally renowned researchers from varying disciplines. The central theme for the workshops was the increasing importance of algorithms in society, and the social transformations that this implies. Our point of departure is that algorithms embody certain choices of what to include and exclude, what to value and what to disregard. Through their output and functioning, algorithms come to classify, hierarchize, value and shape different social phenomena, often well beyond their initial aims. Algorithms are in dire need of careful analysis, since their social consequences are as equally pervasive as they are invisible. Not studying them therefore poses serious risks for our understanding of technodemocracy. One result from this network was the special issue Algorithmic Normativities published in Big Data & Society

An international summer school for graduate students was organized on the theme in 2016.

This network was created in collaboration with Francis Lee, Chalmers University and funded by Riksbankens jubileumsfond 2014-2016.

The Fiscal State and Social Citizenship – Theorizing taxation from socio-cultural perspectives

We explored the social and cultural implications of the tax, taxation process and fiscal policies in the Nordic countries in order to broaden the understanding of how taxes impact society, organizations, and/or people’s everyday lives. Two interdisciplinary workshops were arranged with researchers interested in the study of taxation and public finance from social perspectives. This network was created in collaboration with Åsa Gunnarsson, Umeå University and funded by Riksbankens jubileumsfond 2013-2014. One result of this network initiation was the Horizon2020 funded project FairTax.

Two studies were conducted that each in their own way addresses values and practices at the Agency. The first study focuses on taxation of service exchanges and how the border is constructed between the private and the public domains. The result is published as “Common sense’ at the Swedish Tax Agency. Transactional dimensions separating taxable and tax-free income“. In the article values are identified that define the taxable trade from the helping hand. In the second study I followed a risk assessment project from farm to fork, carried out by the Swedish Tax Agency. Through participant observation, ethnographic interviews and document studies, the focus is on the Tax Agency’s internal research practices, the values that govern its (re-)making of policy and how it is implemented in their daily audit work. The book ”Shaping Taxpayers: Values in action at the Swedish Tax Agency”  was published by Berghahn Books. The project was funded by Riksbankens Jubileumsfond (2011-2014)