Book review: Street-Level Governing: Negotiating the State in Urban Turkey

reviewed by Gülşah Aykaç

1 Dec 2022, 10:14 a.m.
Gülşah Aykaç

Street-Level Governing book cover

Elise Massicard, Street-Level Governing: Negotiating the State in Urban Turkey, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, Studies in Middle Eastern and Islamic Societies and Cultures, 2022; 344 pp.: ISBN 9781503631854, $32.00 (pbk)


My doctoral research addressed the rapid and radical state-led urban transformation of a squatter-housing district in Ankara, the capital of Turkey (Aykaç, 2022). In that process, I realised that there was a lack of official documents on the particular locality of this district, composed of six neighbourhoods. When I first stepped into the field in 2019, my initial contacts directed me to their neighbourhood representatives, or muhtars, assuring me that the muhtars were the most knowledgeable and respected figures of the neighbourhood and could talk best about the history of the district. Muhtars are the official neighbourhood heads of all neighbourhoods of both urban and rural areas and they are elected every five years in local elections by the residents of their neighbourhoods or village communities independently of political parties. As the smallest local administrative unit of Turkish cities, the muhtarlık, or the office of the muhtar, is currently officially endowed with the authority to oversee simple tasks, while district municipalities have been fully responsible for neighbourhood administration since 1984. However, when I met the muhtars who participated in my research, I realised that they had also played key roles as mediators in the negotiations between the municipality and residents to initiate urban transformation. That was a turning point for my research. I found myself asking more questions about the muhtars’ work, the institution of muhtarlık, and the relevant social dimensions in order to understand the complex and contradictory dynamics of urbanisation. I noticed that muhtars have occupied a historically and culturally unusual position in microlocal governance in Turkey. They are employed by the state, but they are also long-term neighbourhood residents elected by their communities. Therefore, muhtars are not exactly viewed as state agents; they are neither formal nor informal actors.

Muhtarlık, in the sense of both the work and the institution of muhtars, blurs the lines between informal and formal processes of urban governance. The literature, however, is very limited in exploring muhtars as distinctive social actors and their positions in urban practices. Along these lines, Elise Massicard’s Street-Level Governing: Negotiating the State in Urban Turkey fills an important gap by providing a broad sociological view of the work of muhtars as an inherent yet unconsidered part of urban politics in Turkey. Massicard criticises the dichotomies of state/society, informality/formality and domination/resistance framed by theories on governance to open critical space for international comparative urban readings of governing, informality, states, agents and agencies in the production of urban daily life.

It is important to underline that Massicard’s research is based on fieldwork conducted in 2013 across six neighbourhoods of İstanbul. These neighbourhoods were diverse in terms of location, marginality, demographics and the municipalities to which they belonged; the fieldwork was conducted in both central and peripheral, resistant and compliant, and wealthy and low-income neighbourhoods of İstanbul. Contextual differences of the observed neighbourhoods significantly helped to understand the different conditions and manifold ambiguities of the work of muhtars, as Massicard explores the ambiguities and confusing dynamics of muhtarlık in each specific neighbourhood context. Besides those contextual differences, other diverse factors such as individual positions and working conditions of muhtars are also relevant. In this regard, two of the participating muhtars were women, which is highly unusual because female muhtars account for fewer than 1.95% of all muhtars in Turkey (p. 16). This salient inclusion of female muhtars allows readers to question certain societal situations with a broader perspective, such as the daily and one-on-one communications occurring between muhtars and neighbourhood residents, the family and employment backgrounds of muhtars, or the outcomes of the election of a new muhtar. These points about fieldwork might seem minor, but they combine to reveal an outstanding approach that unfolds the contradictions rather than reducing or simplifying them.

The book is structured around four main sections that each comprise two chapters in addition to the introduction, conclusion, appendix and further detailed notes. The first section, entitled ‘A Hybrid Institution Anchored in Local Society’, portrays the history of muhtarlık as established in İstanbul in 1829. In doing so, Massicard distinguishes the neighbourhood muhtarlık from both the village muhtarlık and the Ottoman muhtarlık of the past. She highlights the critical points of change in the institution according to specific political trajectories. For instance, the institution was abolished in 1934 and reinstated in 1944 as a part of the shift from Ottoman era to Republican practices, and its ties with political parties were severed by the coup of 1980. Significant changes in the concept of muhtarlık and the relevant urban conditions swiftly occurred and muhtarlık is completely different today. Neighbourhood residents do not have to present themselves to the muhtarlık office to resolve administrative issues. However, as Massicard argues, muhtarlık still exists and muhtars are still local ‘notables’, elected by their communities to work as ‘intermediaries’ between the state and the public. Muhtars have held hybrid position as neither state agents nor social figures since the Ottoman establishment of muhtarlık.

The second section, ‘A Familiar Institution in the Time of Databases’, concentrates on the question of how the institution is being reconfigured today. There are impressive observations supported by direct quotations from study participants. This section examines how muhtars reproduce the image of being ‘champions’ by remaining proximate and accessible, responding to a wide range of unofficial social requests from the neighbourhood’s residents in the course of daily life. Massicard describes this process as street-level governing or everyday state-making, which challenges the segregation of local society from the state. The third section, ‘Contrasting Political Effects’, discusses ‘the ambivalent political effects’ that are dependent upon variables such as neighbourhood contexts and muhtars’ individual positions, or, in other words, the ways in which muhtars engage with their roles. It further demonstrates the tensions and restrictions inherent to muhtarlık. The final section, entitled ‘Loss of Autonomy at the Microlocal Level’, shifts the discussion to the changes of the most recent years. This section, in combination with the conclusion, carefully reinterprets the author’s fieldwork of 2013 in light of more recent sources and ongoing political tensions. It underlines how changes in municipalisation, urban planning and authority over muhtars have dominated the agency and diminished the autonomy of this microlocal urban institution.

The processes of state-led urban transformation in Turkey have been studied within an emerging body of literature that has revealed that urban governance began growing more centralised and authoritarian after 2013 (Ergenc and Yuksekkaya, 2022; Kuyucu, 2022). Especially in the most recent decade, the consequences of neoliberal and authoritarian urban change have become more apparent in daily life in Turkey. During this time of change, it is challenging to approach the contemporary spatial conditions of the cities with a focus on the rapid and radical urban transformation. There is still an appreciable gap in the scholarship investigating local, non-state actors and their engagement with that transformation. Massicard states in the conclusion of the book that transformation should be studied in terms of complex governmental effects (p. 281). In this regard, Massicard’s outstanding book on the neglected urban agency of muhtarlık crucially challenges major ideas on urban politics, stands as a methodological resource, and contributes to the literature on urban studies by speaking to scholars’ broader interest in how local actors and their interrelations with complex urban outcomes have been reproduced.



Aykaç G (2022) Muhtars becoming real estate agents: Changing roles of neighborhood representatives in relation to the state-led urban transformation in Çinçin, Ankara, Turkey. Journal of Urban Affairs. Epub ahead of print 16 March 2022. DOI: 10.1080/07352166.2022.2027779
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Ergenc C, Yuksekkaya O (2022) Institutionalizing authoritarian urbanism and the centralization of urban decision-making. Territory, Politics, Governance. Epub ahead of print 3 February 2022. DOI: 10.1080/21622671.2021.2020156
Crossref | Google Scholar

Kuyucu T (2022) The great failure: The roles of institutional conflict and social movements in the failure of regeneration initiatives in Istanbul. Urban Affairs Review 58(1): 129–163.
Crossref | Google Scholar | ISI


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