The Tax Talk Blog

Fiscal governance as memes

Andreas Streinzer, April 27, 2022

Last semester, my students and I tried to step up the fun, our understanding of taxation, and how to study it - with memes. Over the coming weeks on this blog, my students will share how they translated concepts from economic anthropology, the social studies of finance, and tax law into social media bits. All of them enrolled in the course “Fiscal Governance: Knowing, Calculating, and Regulating Flows of Value” in the MA Science and Technology Studies at Goethe University, Frankfurt, Germany, in the winter semester of 2021/22. The inspiration for the series came from a social media assignment by Robin James that she shared online (see HERE).


As teaser, Hannah Piehl has agreed to showcase some of her feminist meme-work that deals with “Ehegattensplitting”, a German tax law that frames married couples as an economic unit and calculates income tax by adding up both incomes and halving them.

Those couples benefit whose incomes fall in different taxation brackets, effectively incentivizing couples with income differences. The empirical effect is de-incentivizing female earning. This is not a coincidence, as Hannah Piehl shows in this gem of a meme:

She reflects on the puzzlement about the law itself and that it is still on the books in 2022:

Criticism of the law has not yet led to the law being reformed, with the ruling CDU party brushing off feminist arguments that Hannah Piehl comments on with this meme:

Stay tuned for more blogposts over the next weeks and months in which students will present and explain their social media bits and memes and relate them to an STS-inspired economic anthropological study of fiscal governance and taxation!


If this has inspired you to give such an assignment in your course, check out these (linked) Syllabus and Social Media Assigment Explainer.


Featured publication: Shaping Taxpayers

Lotta Björklund Larsen, Aug.  5, 2020

Shaping Taxpayers. Values in Action at the Swedish Tax Agency

By Lotta Björklund Larsen

Published in 2017 by Berghahn Books


My monograph is an ANT inspired ethnography based on three years of fieldwork at one of Sweden’s most esteemed bureaucracies, the Swedish Tax Agency (STA), from 2010 to 2013.


As taxation is often deemed utterly boring, my aim was to make this ethnography a vivid and intimate account of knowledge-making. I depict a STA that mediates the application of tax law while it vigorously strives to earn legitimacy in society in its collecting of taxes while minimizing tax faults. Although this book is about a government agency and its citizenry, the leading character is a report which is created as the result of a risk assessment project performed at this Agency.


Based on unparalleled and up-close fieldwork, I follow the creation of this report from its inception, through the research phase, over the deliberations on how the finished report should be communicated to the Swedish public, and ultimately during the process of implementing the changes in routines that followed from the report.


The Agency’s project involved hundreds of people, but eventually came up with results that were deemed too controversial for external publication.

Results from the report emerged as a potential threat to the maintenance of the Agency’s credibility, and the legitimacy it had built up over decades was put at risk.


The book follows a risk assessment project from its inception, through the research phase, in presentations throughout the STA to its final abandonment as the results and conclusions reached did not align with the STA's strategies. Following this project reveals how diverse knowledge claims—legal, economic, and cultural—compete to shape taxpayer behaviour.


Voices about the book: 


“How tax compliance is shaped merits much more attention than it has received in anthropology and the social sciences. The book offers a wonderful rendering of the true strangeness and contingency of familiar routines – something the best social theory does.”

       -Liz McFall, Open University


“Shaping Taxpayers will be a significant, indeed, ground-breaking study that will propel this vein of interdisciplinary scholarship, concerned with social studies of finance, cultural economy, fiscal sociology and bureaucratic practice, into the mainstream.”

-Bill Maurer, Univ. of California, Irvine


Do you have anything to write about taxes? Book review? Your own book announcement? Insights into or reflections on a specific area of tax in society? A short ethnographic vignette that didn't fit into an article but you'd like to share?


Anything you would like to write that relates to tax can be published here!


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