Criminalization of Laziness: Punishment, Reward, and Negotiation in the Ottoman Bureaus

By Melis Hafez
Submitted to Session P4973 (Law, Legitimacy, and Laziness in Late Ottoman Imperial Culture, 2017 Annual Meeting
Ottoman Empire;
19th-21st Centuries;
This paper, in the historical context of the administrative and bureaucratic reforms of the nineteenth century, examines criminalization of laziness focusing between 1870s and 1914. During the nineteenth century, the Ottoman state took punitive steps against bureaucrats who failed to meet the new standards of efficiency. Bureaucrats who neglected their duties were fined, demoted, transferred, suspended, and even dismissed. The objectives of this paper are two fold: first, it aims to explore the changing perceptions of productivity and efficiency in the Ottoman bureaucracy. This paper is a part of a larger project that examines the development of the culture of productivity in late Ottoman society. By focusing on the bureaucratic offices of the period, I hope to shed light on the role of social practice in this emergent culture. I argue that the Ottoman state’s involvement in bureaucratic productivity and efficiency was pivotal in shaping of the attitudes about work and laziness, hence in making and spreading of the culture of productivity.
The second aim of this paper is to demonstrate the contested nature of this new culture, particularly in the bureaucratic office: Bureaucrats challenged allegations of laziness using the state mechanisms, and they constantly contested and negotiated them. Bureaucrats disputed decisions of fines, demotions, and dismissals, which were made based on the accusation of absenteeism (adem-i devam), laziness and slacking (betaet and rehavet). They took pains to prove that they were diligent and/or they had a legitimate reasons for their actions and, and of course, inactions. The legal aspects of these processes reveal a contested realm when it comes to the expectations of duty and performance of the fulfillment of work, from the perspective of both the state and its employees.
By examining hundreds of documents, bureaucratic bills, state documents, particularly the Ottoman Personnel Records (Sicill-i Ahval) and the records of state investigation of individual bureaucrats, along with petitions from bureaucrats and citizens, and the accounts/memoirs by and on office holders, I show that in these empire-wide offices Ottoman citizens, bureaucrats and, to a certain extent, the public became directly aware of the concern for efficiency and modern work practices. Through new social practices, and a process of punishment, reward, and negotiation, new concepts of work and productivity were disseminated throughout the bureaus of the empire.