In the context of research on road development in post-conflict Nepal, we regularly hear about corruption—from planner-bureaucrats, from development practitioners, from policy makers and from residents of communities who become involved in road building in numerous capacities, as labourers, politicians, contractors, entrepreneurs and travellers. The mainstream donor grey literature on road development, moreover, is replete with an “anti-corruption” discourse that directly and explicitly informs practice. Rarely have we encountered a single issue that so animates a range of actors within the relational space forged by encounters among (donors,) states and citizens. This paper explores that rapidly transforming relational space in three ways, thus staking out a methodological approach to the study of state-citizen relations.

First, we consider procurement policies for road construction in agrarian districts where the state-citizen interface is most palpable, with a special focus on how that interface is represented and with what governmental objectives (discourse analysis of policy documents). Second, we examine the gaps between procurement policy and practice by comparing the first-hand accounts of contractors, laborers, and government bureaucrats involved in rural road construction—in order to reveal modes of citizen subjectivity and state governmentality that come into play (semi-structured interviews). Third, we investigate the state-citizen dynamics evident in a particular road tendering event (observation). Together these methods constitute a qualitative methodology oriented to research as praxis. They also highlight corruption itself as a relational construct requiring research to navigate a tension between on the one hand making visible the real, material harms produced by corrupt practices in specific place-time conjunctures, while on the other hand mitigating the risk that such accounts could end up pathologizing poor, rural populations and underwriting regressive reforms. We point to the need for ethnographically grounded, context-sensitive work, to build a robust analysis of the cultural politics of corruption, as a key site of encounter between citizens and the state.