keywords: clientelism Ireland Irish political clientelism brokerage administrative change politics urban corruption bribery

Political Transformations: clientelism and technological change

Exploring Cyber Society Conference Proceedings Volume II, John Armitage and Joanne Roberts, eds., University of Northumbria at Newcastle, 1999.

Dr. Lee Komito
Dept of Library and Information Studies; University College Dublin

  1. Information and Politics
  2. New information and communications technologies are expected to transform political systems as part of a move to an 'Information Society'. A Utopian view of this transformation is often reflected, not only by some who write about cyber-democracy, but also in government policy statements. For instance, in Europe, the 'Bangemann Report' (High Level Group on the Information Society, 1994) expected that the Information Society would lead to a "more efficient, transparent and responsive public services, closer to the citizen and at lower cost" in Europe. The High Level Expert Group on the Social and Societal Aspects of the Information Society (1996) noted that "ICTs create new opportunities for greater public participation in and awareness of the political process". Thus, new technologies are expected to improve political participation and administrative efficiency, as long as appropriate policy decisions are taken.

    These changes could manifest themselves in a number of ways. One policy direction has been to encourage greater participation in policy formation by citizens, local communities, and special interest groups. This may happen through electronic town halls, as well as other mechanisms, which will generally improve civic life (e.g., Tsagarousianou, Tambini, Bryan 1998; Raab, Bellamy, Taylor 1996). In addition, a second direction has to provide more 'public' government, through government web sites, which will make government decision processes more transparent and thus accountable.

    In tandem with these policy directions has been the use of information technology to improve the delivery of government services, just as it has been used to improve delivery of other 'products' by organisations using new technology. This has involved greater co-ordination of activities within organisations and improvements in administrative efficiency. It has also been linked to better access, by citizens, to the services which they require from government. As the state becomes a more efficient, and voracious, information consumer, the danger of the state abusing this information also grows. This threat has been addressed by Freedom of Information and Data Protection legislation in many jurisdictions. These provide safeguards against abuse of the state's store of information about citizens.

    All of these developments have been well rehearsed in public policy discussion fora in many countries. Underlying much of the debate has been a general assumption that many of these changes will only take place as a result of intentional policy decisions. Without such policy intervention, the outcomes of technological innovation will be the negative ones of invasion of privacy, abuse of data stores on individuals, and so on. Phrased in this way, the debate becomes dualist: positive policy outcomes due to intervention in governmental processes on one hand, versus negative outcomes if there are no policy inventions on the other hand. However, social and political changes are not always intentional and planned, they may arise as unanticipated consequences. In the remainder of this paper, I would like to explore the radical political change taking place in Ireland, partially (though not wholly) as an unanticipated consequence of technological investments designed to improve the administrative efficiency of the state.

  3. Clientelism and information
  4. In many Western societies, the administrative system is seen as separate from the political system. In Weber's view of bureaucracy, further elaborated by Parsons and other political philosophers, and widely accepted throughout Western society, the state provides services as universalistic benefits; if individuals fulfil the criteria, they receive the benefit. The bureaucracy is non-political and should not be subject to personalistic or political interventions. To receive benefits for particularistic reasons such as the particular qualities of the individual, or due to the personal intervention of someone else, is seen as a corruption of the administrative system.

    In practice, informal and personal networks exist as addenda to the universalistic and formal systems in all societies (c.f., Eisenstadt, Roniger 1984). In some political systems (especially post-colonial states), these informal networks are so pervasive as to blur the distinction between politics and administration, and benefits are the result of political or personal forces, rather than universalistic entitlements. Such systems are often described as 'clientelist'; webs of informal and personal links are used to circumvent or subvert the formal system, so that individuals receive benefits that they may not 'deserve' by universalistic criteria.

    1. Definitions of clientelism
    2. Studies of clientelism developed out of studies of peasant communities (e.g., Wolf 1956). These studies described voluntary links between non-kin which were often integral parts of the communities, although they had not previously received much attention. Often, individuals of unequal status provided resources to which the other party had no access. When such exchanges were the basis of long-lasting personal bonds between the parties, they were called patron-client relations. The patron provided necessary services which were otherwise unavailable and the recipient became the patron's "client". In the patron-client exchanges of peasant communities, landowners provided land to farm, crisis insurance, physical security or protection and, in return, received crops, labour, military service, and gratitude (Scott and Kerkvliet 1977:443-444). The recipient of patronage benefits acknowledged his dependence, and stood ready to assist the patrons in whatever way the patron desired. Symbolic acts of deference or subservience were the client's acknowledgement of his debt, and the fulfilment of the patron's requests was only a partial repayment of a recurring debt. Vertical exchanges were often enveloped or enshrined with special moral values, suggesting a non-economic bond between the parties. Fictive kinship, or "godfatherhood" gave an added moral dimension to the personal relationship, which served to disguise the inequality which created the need for such exchanges.

      Such relationships exist in many parts of the world: the Mediterranean, Latin America, Africa, and Asia. All of these relationships exhibit some common characteristics: they are between people of unequal socio-economic status, they are personal and face-to-face, they are voluntary, and they persist over time (for a sample of various definitions and descriptions, see Eisenstadt and Roniger, 1984; Powell, 1977; Clapham, 1982; Scott, 1977; and Graziano, 1975). Pitt-Rivers' (1961) characterisation of them as "lop-sided friendships" evokes the mixture of economic transaction and moral value which seems to separate such relations from simple economic domination and exploitation on one hand, and egalitarian aspirations of reciprocity on the other.

      Local notables derive power from two kinds of resources: either the direct control of scarce and valued resources, or access to others who control them. One who provides valued goods because he controls them himself is a patron; the resources are in his "giving". One who does not directly control the resources, but has special influence over, or contact with, those who do, is a broker. The resource which a broker provides is his special influence or contact (Boissevain 1974; Paine 1971). While the same person might control both kinds of resources, the resources can be separated analytically. In both cases, the element of monopoly is crucial. It is a broker's or patron's exclusive access to valued resources which makes clients depend on them and which permits brokers and patrons to "charge" for their services (cf. Silverman 1965).

      It has been suggested that, over time, brokerage supplants patronage; patron-client links tend to become broker-client links as the national system intrudes into the local community (Silverman 1965). As state intervention increases, local power begins to depend on access to external resources. Those whose special control over local resources made them patrons will probably also have special access to state resources, but there is an increased chance for others to become brokers. Landowners may find themselves competing with local teachers or priests, whose literacy enables them to provide an alternative access to state resources, and at a lower "cost" to the client. As more individuals have access to the state, the monopoly is lost and there remains little power or profit for the broker. Over time, clients' dependence on brokers and patrons diminishes, and "patron-client ties have tended to become more instrumental, less comprehensive, and hence less resilient" (Scott 1977: 138). The duration of the link shortens, and begins to resemble market exchanges, and, as the overall structures which support and encourage clientelism crumble, so clientelism decays.

      Electoral clientelism is a special case of clientelism and exists when the exchange between patron/broker and client becomes part of the political process (Clapham 1982). In many urban areas, for instance, clients have had little to offer anyone in return for assistance other than their vote. However, such a resource was of value to politicians, who could use this to develop a secure electoral base. In electoral clientelism, then, the clientelist exchange is between the citizen, whose main resource is his or her vote, and the politician, who can provide access to a wide range of state benefits. Urban political machines, especially in 19th Century United States, flourished on such a basis. A change in electoral clientelism will have significant impact on a country's political system. Electoral clientelism is often supported by vested interests in a country, and is likely to be maintained as long as possible. It is sometimes presumed that clientelist politics results from certain economic or political conditions, often associated with under-developed or post-colonial societies and, as modernisation progresses, clientelism will inevitably decline. This is not the case; clientelism is not simply a result of underdevelopment and a phenomenon that will disappear inevitably (Eisenstadt, Roniger 1984; Komito 1984). It can exist, in a state of equilibrium, and not wither away or atrophy. The slow evaporation of clientelist politics in Ireland, partially as an unintended consequence of pragmatic and non-ideological investments in administrative efficiency is of particular interest.

    3. Irish Politics
    4. Clientelism became the dominant descriptive model for Irish politics after Chubb (1963) described politicians as local men who looked after their constituent's interests by "going about persecuting civil servants". Chubb suggested that the Irish politician's primary task was to mediate between his local constituents and the state's administrative apparatus. Voters wanted state services, and politicians helped or appeared to help people obtain those services. Voters believed, incorrectly (according to Chubb), that the "intervention or good offices of a "man in the know'" (1963:273) was needed to obtain state services. This tacit exchange of political support for special personal preference has been a cornerstone of Irish politics since independence in the 1920's (Komito, Gallagher 1993).

      Often, politicians claimed credit for providing benefits which citizens deserved as an entitlement. However, politicians' interventions often achieved results which the voter could not achieve. This was because many people did not understand the bureaucratic system well enough to obtain all that they were entitled to, while politicians were experts who could navigate the bureaucratic maze, and so obtain a state service that might otherwise be denied, or not even requested. Politicians' ability to monopolise and then market their specialist knowledge of state benefits provided a strong political resource (Komito 1984, 1989, 1993).

      The state has helped maintain this market for political brokerage. Bureaucratic procedures were slow and inefficient, so it was difficult for citizens to obtain information about their entitlements, redress in the event of incorrect decisions, or proof that their case was being fairly decided. Yet, while civil servants responded slowly, if at all, to voters who approached civil servants directly, they responded quickly to politicians who intervened on behalf of voters. In the 1960's and 70's, the degree of state intervention in Ireland increased, and citizens' dependence on state assistance grew, yet civil servants provided little public information about services or entitlements. Delays in providing this assistance, lack of information about new benefits provided, linked with existing patterns of distrust, further accentuated clientelist patterns.

      These are, essentially, information issues. That is, clientelist politics in Ireland does not derive from private control over resources, or even control over decisions about resources, it derives from control over information -- information about resources and information about decision processes regarding resources. Politicians were the only sources for information about entitlements, the procedures for claiming entitlements, the criteria for successfully obtaining entitlements, or the progress of applications for entitlements. Since there was no direct access to civil servants, there was no mechanism by which claims by politicians could be evaluated (except in so far as other politicians made competing claims of influence). Politicians were able to garner electoral support by virtue of their position in the information chain.

      To summarise, clientelist politics in Ireland results from specific circumstances. First is the need, by citizens, for government benefits. Second is the slow provision of such benefits. Third is citizens' inability to obtain information directly from civil servants, regarding either the progress of applications for benefits or the reasons for decisions regarding applications made. Fourth is the ability of politicians to get information from civil servants regarding the progress of cases. Fifth is the knowledge that politicians possess regarding civil service procedures and processes. The final circumstance is the lack of any other mediating organisation to provide similar services. These, in combination, have been the foundation for clientelist politics in Ireland. Almost all of these can, and have been, changing as a result of new information and communication technologies.

  5. Changing Administrative Practice and Information Technology
    1. Office Automation
    2. With the increase in state intervention in Ireland in the 1960's came an increase in the amount of work in government departments. Government departments were dealing with more individuals and organisations, as well as new programs and schemes. There were increases in the number of 'clients', an increased number of new programs, increasingly complex eligibility criteria for new and existing programs, and greater amount of data needed about individuals to apply the eligibility criteria. As with many other organisations dealing with increasing amounts of increasingly complex information, office information systems were introduced in the Irish civil service. It took some time before the increased work load led to technology investments. It wasn't until the 1980's that Pye (1992) noted a dramatic increase in IT-related expenditure, in both equipment and staff. For instance, from 1982 through 1987, expenditure was 74 percent greater in real terms than the previous six years; on a per capita basis, there was an increase of 180 percent (Pye 1992: 28). Staffing levels showed equal growth; despite a net drop in civil service staffing by 15 to 20 percent in various government departments during the 1980s, IT staffing increased by 37 percent in the same period (Pye 1992: 115). The IT section of the Irish civil service has been encouraging the use of Lotus/IBM NOTES since the early 1990's, making the Irish civil service one of the early adopters of groupware technology.

    3. Changing the clientelist market
    4. The justification for IT investment was to improve the efficiency of service provision, and indeed the speed of processing cases increased, as did the ability of civil servants to deal with more complex eligibility criteria, using ever more information about applicants. Generally, ICTs do not alter political behaviour or administrative practice (Kling 1996), and Pye found this to be the case in the Irish civil service, noting that "IT has been primarily a conservative force within government departments, serving in the main to reinforce the status quo" (1992: 113). This may be true, in terms of the internal structure of departments, but there has been an unanticipated impact on the way citizens relate to government and the clientelist exchange of perceived favours for votes.

      Administrative delays previously helped create the market for political interventions, since people needed to monitor the progress of applications that might provide them with significant economic benefits, such as a grant or a house (Komito 1989). This was the market in which politicians 'sold' their ability to provide information. With the introduction of office information systems, the processing of cases has speeded up (despite increases in the actual number of cases being processed); with less delay, the need for intervention to discover the status of a case has also lessened.

      Furthermore, the direct monitoring of the progress of cases is now easier. Under the previous system, it was difficult, on a practical level, to find out exactly what was happening with a particular case, as the answer might only be found on a particular piece of paper on a particular desk. It might not be clear on whose desk the case was, and, if the person was away or busy, a report might be slow in coming. Direct queries by citizens produced either no answer or an answer only very slowly, because it was so costly to assemble the information. Due to the nature of parliamentary democracy, however, civil servants had little choice but to put other work aside to find the answer if a politician inquired, despite the cost. This has now changed; with new technology, it is less costly, in time and money, to provide a progress report on a case, and a departmental information officer (or even a receptionist) can easily trace the progress of cases. Citizens no longer need politicians, they need only post a letter or make a phone call (often free of charge) to the relevant department to monitor an application's progress. New technology has even reduced the demand for progress reports on cases, because cases are now processed faster.

      In addition to politicians' control over access to civil servants, has been their control over access to information. In Ireland (as in other jurisdictions), the use of new technology in data acquisition, storage and manipulation has fuelled concerns about the use of information by governments. This, in turn, has led to Freedom of Information legislation which requires civil servants to make available, to the public, the criteria they use for decision making. No longer are criteria for making decisions an obscure process, enabling politicians to make claims that can be neither substantiated or disproved. While the legislation has, so far, been used largely by journalists and opposition party spokesman, it has, even so, increased the amount of information now available about decision making procedures. This has lessened the scope for claims by politicians regarding their influence over particular decisions.

      Finally, the number of mediators or brokers which individuals can ask for assistance has increased. As noted, politicians were originally the only providers of mediated access. The first change was the introduction of the Office of the Ombudsman in the mid 1980's. Previously, there was no external mechanism by which citizens could appeal against decisions made by civil servants. In such cases, citizens had no choice but to go to politicians, in hope that political pressure might provide solutions to administrative delays or errors. The Ombudsman provided a mechanism by which citizens can appeal decisions made by civil servants, without having recourse to politicians. Although the number of citizens using the Ombudsman has been relatively small, it none the less exists as an alternative to politicians and was initially feared by politicians for that reason.

      Voluntary agencies provide additional alternative information sources, in addition to politicians. Community Information Centres function as mediators or brokers, not only providing information but also acting themselves on behalf of citizens. For a number of years, Community Information Centres have existed to provide advice on entitlements and procedures by which entitlements could be applied for. Up to this point, many citizens have tended to rely on politicians, rather than the information centres, believing that influence was more important than information. Growth in the use of the Community Information Centres by citizens suggests this may also be changing. According to National Social Service Board Annual Reports, queries have risen from 39,000 queries in 1979 to 107,011 in 1984 (when Community Information Centres were formally established under the National Social Service Board), to 147,206 queries in 1997. Also changing is the Centres' ability to provide an efficient information resource. In the early 1980's, Community Information Centres maintained social welfare information in paper binders. When regulations changed, new information sheets were produced, the sheets were distributed to the Centres, out-of-date pages were removed from the paper binders and new pages inserted. This process was slow, labour-intensive, and subject to error. Recently, some Centres have been experimenting with electronic updating of files and regulations. The next step is to make such electronic information accessible to the general public, so that intermediaries, whether Social Welfare officers or CIC volunteers, are no longer necessary.

    5. Infrastructure
    6. It is not enough to use ICTs to provide general information services, it is also necessary to provide means by which citizens can inquire about their particular cases, whether it be a social welfare application, housing query, or employment grant. As others have noted (see, especially, Loader 1998), the technological facility of access is of little use if most of the population don't have access to the necessary technology. In Ireland, access to personal computers, modems, and Internet Service Providers remains restricted to the middle-classes, who, in any event, have never depended on politicians for informal access to civil servants anyway. In aid of this, the Irish government is considering a number of measures, including the possibility of providing email addresses and internet access to for all citizens (Ireland 1999: 7), as well as certification and encryption techniques "to permit secure electronic transactions between the citizen and the public service" (p. 8). Although many citizens cannot afford access to electronic information, whether via electronic mail or the World Wide Web, inexpensive access via public access points in libraries, social welfare offices, third level institutions is under active consideration. According to a recent government action plan (Ireland 1999), work will commence immediately to provide high speed internet access in all public libraries, and further consideration will be given to "extending access to those who do not have PC/internet access at present" (p. 7), including dedicated kiosks and use of schools, post offices, and so on.

      One should not presume, however, that access to the bureaucracy requires computers. At the moment, inquiries are in person, by post, or by telephone. Even here, technology has reduced the cost of direct, as opposed to mediated access. Most government departments have free phone numbers for queries, and many have FreePost addresses so that citizens can post without cost. There are also increases in the number of outlying one-stop shops, where citizens can walk in and make queries about a range of government services. The significance of technological innovation has been the reduced cost of accessing civil servants, even if by phone, the reduced cost, for civil servants, of accessing information about cases, and the reduced processing time of those cases. Being able to access information via electronic mail or the World Wide Web is an added bonus, but not a necessary requirement.

  6. Conclusion
    1. Office automation thus has, at the very least, altered the basis of Irish political clientelism and, at the most, undermined its very foundations. It must be noted that ICT investment is not solely responsible for changes in political clientelism. In conjunction with technological changes, changes in bureaucratic culture have encouraged Irish civil service to respond to direct inquiries by citizens. This change has been slowly taking place over the past twenty years, beginning in the 1980's with the requirement that decisions should bear a civil servant's name, instead of being made, anonymously, by the department on behalf of the relevant Minister. However, such changes would have had far less impact, had it not been for the technological changes already described. As a result, the foundations of clientelist politics have been undermined. Firstly, the need for intervention is less, because decisions are made more quickly, lessening the need for political influence to speed up the process. Secondly, citizens can now directly monitor the progress of an application, instead of needing political intervention to get answers from civil servants. Thirdly, citizens have more knowledge about procedures, both lessening dependence on politicians' knowledge and also reducing the scope for exaggerated claims. Finally, there is an increasing number of other brokers who can achieve the same results as politicians, thus reducing the 'price' which politicians can 'charge' for their services. These were not the reasons for technology investments in the Irish Civil service, but they have been the very important consequences of those investments.

      Clientelist behaviours may diminish, but will not disappear, as a result of technological changes in the Irish government's administrative practices. Inevitably, some government decisions remain subject to private political influence and thus clientelist exchanges. As in all states, there are arenas in which private and informal decision making remain important. However, open information can make it difficult to conceal such private influence and this may itself be a powerful restraint. It certainly can ensure that such privatisation of public resources does not extend to the everyday decisions of administration that citizens are directly concerned with.

      More importantly, there are also limits to the political impact of technology solutions. A greater variety of mediating organisations, enhanced by provision of easier direct access to the state by citizens, has meant a decrease in the monopoly over information by political brokers. However, these changes do not necessarily mean a shift to direct (as compared with mediated) access. Indeed, although direct access is an ideal espoused by some proponents of electronic democracy, it is important to realise the limitations of technology to provide such a mechanism. The Irish case demonstrates that it is not sufficient to simply provide information, the information must be both meaningful and trusted or else it is not effective, and it is not clear that an electronic system will be as effective as human mediation.

      Irish politicians' power derived not only from their control over information, but also from their expertise in the application of that information. Politicians capitalised on their knowledge of all the different schemes and programmes -- they knew which scheme was relevant for a particular person. Equally, they knew how to fill out forms in 'civil service' language, making certain that any information that might advance a person's case was provided. A direct access information system must be able to provide equally relevant and meaningful information. Whether this be civil service information officers, or sophisticated government web sites, the information system must assist people in finding services that they can benefit from, and must also elicit any information that might advance their application for those services. Individuals are not always aware, themselves, of what they need, much less able to express that need and, at the moment, experienced and knowledgeable individuals remain more effective at matching citizens needs with state services than electronic information systems. Electronic information systems do not have the sophistication to engage in a half hour discussion and realise that the person's actual problem is totally different, much less be able to suggest a particular service that might address that unfelt and unperceived need, and even less ensure that the person's case is presented in the best possible way.

      Additionally, the information system must be trusted by the citizen/consumer. People go to politicians, amongst other reasons, because they trust that politicians will work on their behalf, and this trust has not previously extended to either civil servants or voluntary agencies. Citizens, for instance, often experienced civil servants as preventing citizens from getting benefits, rather than acting as advocates on the their behalf. If an information system is not trusted by the citizen, there will remain the perceived need for an advocate to make sure that the person has received all the benefits to which they are entitled.

      Thus, the Information Society is expected to transform political relations in industrial societies, but the extent to which transformations only result from conscious policy decisions is often underestimated. In the past, Irish politicians provided real or imagined patronage in exchange for the electoral support of citizens. Politics in Ireland has been conditioned by restricted access to information, and this is changing, although these changes have largely been unintentional consequences of efficiency-driven ICT investments. The introduction of office information systems into the Irish civil service has lessened politicians' monopoly on administrative information. This increased public access to information has altered traditional politics in Ireland and enhanced democratic participation. Additional information about procedures and more rapid accountability has enhanced the trust which citizens have in the system. Improved communication has widened the range of mediators that citizens may use, as well as provided easier direct access to civil servants. These changes have not (and perhaps should not) remove the need for human mediators between citizens and the state. Nor will such changes necessarily increase public participation in politics or improve accountability in decision making. Providing more information through technological innovation is not a guarantee of either better services or more direct participation in the state. However, a lack of information has helped clientelist politics to flourish, and the technological changes, by altering the nature of clientelist exchanges in Ireland, has altered a fundamental tenet of Irish politics.


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    Biographical note:

    Dr. Lee Komito is an anthropologist conducting research on the the cultural and social impact of information and communications technologies. He has published research on information, politics and political clientelism; ethnographic studies of information systems and computer supported cooperative work, and virtual communities. He is currently conducting research on the rhetoric and practice of the Information Society transformation in Ireland.