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American Ethnologist

Provisional agency in India: Jugaad and legitimation of corruption



People in India deploy a variety of euphemisms for corruption, one of which is jugaad, which refers to goal-oriented improvisation, especially the use of informal social networks to advance one's interests. But as often as it is conflated with corruption, jugaad is also conceived as necessary for “getting by” and even as virtuous practice. This ethnography of police practices in Uttar Pradesh shows how the contronymic character of jugaad emerges from widespread valuation of what I call “provisional agency,” which is both a capability to provide a social good and a temporary means of mobility geared toward a better future. Understanding practices that may be deemed “corrupt” as embodiments of provisional agency breaks down a clear distinction between virtue and vice and works to disaggregate a rigid inverse relationship between morality and power that assumes “elite” dominance can only be answered by resistance or acquiescence “from below.

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