Anthropology and elites: 'Studying up', politically

10th March 2016

Some strikingly parallel questions are being asked in my own discipline of anthropology and by those examining how donors and practitioners can think and work politically with developing communities.

Those parallels struck me again at a recent international workshop organised by Jessie Sklair and myself at the University of Sussex. Elites were the focus of our discussion; we considered the dilemmas – and opportunities – involved in carrying out ethnographic work among elites, rather than among the less powerful groups that are traditionally the anthropologist’s subject of study.

Does the hospitality that ethnography depends on make working for political change impossible?

We wanted to ask ourselves how we should balance our obligations, both to these elite groups, and to those whose lives may be affected by their political agency. When can – or should – ethnography produce critique, confrontation, or collaboration? Or does the hospitality that ethnography depends on make working for political change impossible?

Similar questions have emerged from DLP’s work on Thinking and Working Politically.  As Niheer Dasandi, Heather Marquette and Mark Robinson asked in a recent Research Paper, drawing on Brian Levy’s work: “What does ‘working with the grain’ mean when, for example, ‘the grain’ – whatever that may be – includes deeply entrenched patriarchy?” 

Anthropology has long had a rather awkward relationship with development. In a much-cited paper published a quarter of a century ago, but still frequently used in undergraduate teaching, Arturo Escobar questioned the trend for anthropologists to work as consultants for international donor agencies. How, asked Escobar, could anthropologists fulfil their ethical obligations to those whose hospitality made their research possible, and make that research available to donors?

Today there are some anthropologists, like Elizabeth Harrison, who question the turn to ethnographies of ‘Aidland’ – especially where these may focus more on the personal lives of Aidlanders, and less on the aims and outcomes of development work.

Yet there are strong parallels between the shift toward studying the everyday politics of ‘Aidland’ in anthropology, and DLP’s work on ‘Thinking and Working Politically’ in development programming.  In ‘Everyday Political Analysis’, David Hudson, Heather Marquette and Sam Waldock make the case for political analysis that forces us “to shift our focus from the poor, program beneficiaries and / or their representatives and instead concentrate on the powerful … we need to look beyond our usual focus on the poor and their (claimed) representatives, and ask who or what is key to effective change.”

Ethnographic work offers an opportunity to provide insights into precisely those “types of power structures, such as gender, religion, ethnicity, class and rural-urban divides” that shape the bearing of politicians and bureaucrats, and so affect policies and inequalities.

So, for instance, Tijo Salverda, one of the Sussex workshop participants, has carried out research among the Franco-Mauritian elite, and introduced the notion of ‘defensive power’ to explain how this group has responded to a decline in political influence.

And if ethnographic work can inform an understanding of the political context required for Thinking and Working Politically in development programming, it can also provide rich insights into the organisational contexts in which policies are made or interrupted. Emma Crewe, another contributor to the Sussex workshop, has used the tools of ethnography to examine the workings of the UK’s House of Lords and the House of Commons.

For Crewe, accounts of politicians based on ‘rational actor’ models will not do; she uses an ethnography of manners and rituals in the upper house to illuminate the reasons why peers in the Lords so often vote with their party whips – when there is little chance of peers losing their position if they rebel, and political ‘career advancement’ is not a significant factor.

Peers subscribe to a curiously egalitarian ideology, and the self-regulation of speeches in the Lords means that those who interrupt may find themselves snubbed in the corridors or by an exodus from the debating chamber as they speak. The ritualised ‘polishing’ of parliamentary debate transcripts in Hansard adds to this pressure and party lines emerge as an axis of belonging and competition in a context where “ritual emerges as integral to the political process and not a mere servant to it.”

Ethnographers are occasionally accused of ‘going native’ when they study with elites – and sometimes this may be true. Equally, if they are critical of those elites, they might be accused of falling short of an ethnographic ideal that says anthropologists “are not needed to add ‘critique’, moral injunction, or higher meaning” to the accounts given by their informants.

Ethnographic work may be able to inform an understanding of the obstacles that reform might face in a particular political and organisational context.

Yet ethnographic work may well be able to help inform an understanding of the obstacles that reform might face in a particular political and organisational context. Crewe’s ethnography of the House of Commons obviously differs in tone from the recent report calling for a ‘New Magna Carta’ in the UK. But a key concern of that report is that “basic rules about British government do not at present exist in any legal form at all, but rely instead on unwritten understandings or traditions”. Most are “inaccessible or unintelligible to ordinary people” – and this only reinforces the importance of ethnographic work that reveals how ritual emerges as integral to the political process.

It remains, perhaps, up to the individual anthropologist to determine what kinds of policy ‘ends’ will be kept in mind during research in novel elite contexts. Those dependant on the hospitality of influential political elites continue to have ethical obligations to their ‘informants’. Yet, as Mark Sanders has argued, social research always involves a tension between the “parochial filiation or affiliation” that might arise from ethnographic fieldwork, and a far broader sense of responsibility to ‘wider society’. When anthropologists ‘study up’ and work among those whose decisions affect policies and  inequalities, then thinking about and practising ethnography ‘politically’ may become more of a necessity than a choice.

Image: Judges in the Lords chamber, UK Parliament (Parliamentary copyright/Catherine Bebbington).

0 Comments

Leave a comment

The views expressed in Opinions posts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of DLP, the Australian Government or DLP's partner organisations.

Documents

Author

Paul Robert Gilbert

Paul Robert Gilbert

Paul Robert Gilbert is a Research Associate at the University of Sussex, and teaches anthropology and development studies at Brunel University and the University of Birmingham. His doctoral research in Bangladesh, the UK and Papua New Guinea explored how the search for new financial opportunities shapes development outcomes. He blogs regularly for Sociology Lens, taking an anthropological perspective on current affairs, and is an editor at Rethinking Economics.

Read more

Related items

Anthropology and elites: 'Studying up', politically

Some strikingly parallel questions are being asked in my own discipline of anthropology and by those examining how donors and practitioners can think and work politically with developing communities.

Opinion by Paul Robert Gilbert10th March 2016

DLP political settlements workshop: reflections

Serendipity, perhaps. I joined the Political Settlements Research Programme at the beginning of June; my first formal engagement was on June 17, at the Political Settlements Workshop organised by the Developmental Leadership Program. It was quite an induction day.

Opinion by Astrid Jamar22nd July 2015

From functional governance to sustainable peace: Making the space to reflect, learn and adapt

Last month, UNDP co-hosted a Global Meeting in Jordan on supporting core government functions in fragile and conflict-affected settings. It brought together over 60 colleagues and practitioners from the UN system, World Bank, donors, and government representatives from around the world.

Opinion by Aditi Haté 22nd February 2017

International donors - aiding or abetting?

In September 2012, lawyers representing an Ethiopian farmer announced that they planned to sue the UK government for its role in human rights violations in Ethiopia. The farmer, named in court papers as “Mr O”, alleged that the Ethiopian government’s “villagisation” programme had involved the forced resettlement of thousands of families including his own.

Opinion by Niheer Dasandi10th September 2015

Cancer and the links between medicine and development

Guest post for From Poverty to Power

Opinion by Chris Roche15th April 2015
Opinion by Heather Marquette10th November 2014

Indonesia and the political settlements trap

When your office is in Jakarta, you get a lot of time to day-dream in taxis while going from hotel to office and back again. I am just back from a couple of weeks working there and I marvelled at the traffic, the tech-savvy population and the profusion of swanky hotels. On one long journey I got to musing about the challenges facing Indonesia’s efforts to shift itself upwards in the World Bank’s country classification database.

Opinion by Graham Teskey17th July 2015
Opinion by Orlanda Ward7th March 2017

Gender and power: six links and one big opportunity

Donors have recently made great efforts to understand power in partner countries. Yet they have largely ignored one of the most pervasive power relations – gender.

Opinion by Diana Koester21st May 2015

Shuffling the decks: quick fixes versus long-term stability

Guest post for Development Progress on 'post-conflict' DRC

Opinion by Suda Perera22nd January 2015

It's all about inclusion, but how?

Guest post for the World Bank

Opinion by Alina Rocha Menocal6th April 2016

Political settlements: people and the landscapes of power

The problem with politics is that it involves people, and people do strange things. When development actors engage with power they often prefer to iron out the unpredictability of real politics in favour of the much neater lines of trends and social groups. We revere drivers of change studies because we can cope with the long-term, identity-based analysis of `deep’ politics. 

Opinion by Alan Whaites24th July 2015

Identifying rebels with a cause (and effect)

The Developmental Leadership Program will host its 2016 Annual Conference at La Trobe University in Melbourne on 8 February. Its theme is ‘Power, Politics and Positive Deviance’.

Opinion by Chris Roche1st December 2015

Forgotten South Sudan tangled in factionalism and failed politics

A toxic blend of complex historical identity politics and short-term elite politicking

Opinion by Jonathan Fisher4th September 2014

How quality secondary and higher education can improve national leadership: lessons from Ghana

International leaders and experts have just gathered at the Global Education and Skills Forum to try to defuse the 'ticking time-bomb' of 57 million children not in primary school. But is this focus on the education crisis at primary level too narrow? Amir Jones reflects on new DLP research into education and developmental leadership in Ghana.

Opinion by Amir Jones25th March 2014

Gender analysis, and thinking and working politically – bridging the gap

Guest post on Devpolicy  introducing panels at this week's Australasian Aid Conference

Opinion by Chris Roche14th February 2017
Opinion by Alina Rocha Menocal29th March 2016

The practicalities of change - positive deviance and land reform in Vanuatu

This guest post by Anna Naupa draws on her Adrian Leftwich Memorial Lecture, presented at the DLP Annual Conference 2016: Power, Politics and Positive Deviance. It is the perspective of Anna Naupa and not that of any organisation with which she is, or has been, affiliated.

Opinion by Anna Naupa13th April 2016

'Sticky’ change: What international development can learn from adaptive management

One of the most significant failings of international political assistance has been the tendency to focus too much on institutional structure and process, and not enough on culture and behaviour.

Opinion by Greg Power2nd December 2016

Don't give up on government

The World Bank launched its flagship World Development Report (WDR) this week, which boldly redefines how governance and policy interact to yield good or bad development outcomes. People are rightly praising the report for rejecting best practicesembracing adaptation and endorsing a focus on politics.

Opinion by Dan Hymowitz3rd February 2017

Being 'there': reflections on fieldwork in the DRC

Fieldwork in fragile places part 1: the security dilemma

Opinion by Suda Perera5th November 2014

How does politically informed programming shape development outcomes?

Many well-intentioned development programmes founder in the face of resistance from entrenched elites who feel threatened by a potential loss of power and resources. Resources intended for the poor and disadvantaged benefit the rich and powerful. In response, development practitioners and academics have become keenly interested in the political factors that shape development outcomes over the past ten years.

Opinion by Mark Robinson29th January 2016

Medellin - more than a miracle

Bad news sells. And for news editors looking for horror stories to recycle, Colombia's second largest city used to be a reliable source.

Opinion by Cheryl Stonehouse4th March 2014

Security and justice – the mismatch between policy and practice

What hinders more politically nuanced security and justice programming?

Opinion by Shivit Bakrania21st July 2014

Different development: walk the talk

Spent the day at a ‘Doing Development Differently’ event recently and, while it offered a great opportunity to meet and hear from fascinating, dedicated, thoughtful people, I came away somewhat disheartened. Why? Because:

Opinion by Gillian Fletcher14th April 2015

The curious case of Indian autocracy and what it tells us about 'thinking and working politically'

Today marks the fortieth anniversary of Indira Gandhi’s declaration of a national emergency in India, which led to an 18-month period of autocracy. Civil rights were suspended, political opponents and journalists were arrested without the right to trial, censorship was imposed, elections were cancelled, non-Congress state governments were dismissed, the constitution changed.

Opinion by Niheer Dasandi25th June 2015

Do donors have realistic expectations of their staff when it comes to 'thinking and working politically'?

Is learning to ‘think politically’ like learning a new language? 

Opinion by Heather Marquette9th June 2014

Resources and reflections on gender and thinking and working politically

Next week's meeting of the Thinking and Working Politically Community of Practice will focus on gender at an opportune time. It follows a spate of interesting papers, blog posts and talks about the relationship between 'thinking and working politically' and gender issues. 

Opinion by Chris Roche12th June 2015

Uncounted: has the post-2015 data revolution failed already?

Counting matters. As the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi report puts it: What we measure affects what we do; and if our measurements are flawed, decisions may be distorted…. [I]f metrics of performance are flawed, so too may be inferences we draw.

Opinion by Alex Cobham12th May 2015

Politics, risk and development: three takeaways

Last week was a big one for the Australasian development community, particularly for those interested in the politics of development. The Australasian Aid Conference at the Australian National University (10-11 February) included a packed session on 'Putting political thinking into development practice'. And DLP’s Annual Conference at La Trobe University focused  on Power, Politics and Positive Deviance.

Opinion by Chris Roche19th February 2016

Fragmentation of the Thinking and Working Politically agenda: Should we worry?

Recently, I’ve read many articles and heard from many colleagues who are concerned about the apparent competition between the Doing Development Differently (DDD) network and the Thinking and Working Politically (TWP) community of practice.

Opinion by Thomas Parks29th August 2016

Inclusive political settlements: who and what gets included, and how?

DLP hosted a day-long high level introductory workshop on political settlements in June. This post is the first of a series inspired by the workshop and written by researchers, policymakers and practitioners. Here Alina Rocha Menocal discusses current research and thinking on the usefulness of a political settlements approach.

Opinion by Alina Rocha Menocal13th July 2015

Adding gender and power to the TWP agenda

Thinking and Working Politically presents development to us as an endeavour embedded within power structures. This is so important.

It helps us see clearly that we need to understand domestic politics to deliver development outcomes. Who are the players? Who makes decisions? Who will stand to lose from a proposal and how can they block progress?

Opinion by Sally Moyle6th August 2015

What do we do on Monday? Political settlements in theory and practice

The political settlements framework can seem a distraction to some practitioners, many of whom have been thinking and working politically about development for a number of years. They find the term difficult to define with any precision and, in any case, quite unnecessary. In the real world, progress towards better understanding of and engagement with the political conditions which help and hinder development has been ticking along nicely, independently of the academic debates.

Opinion by Edward Laws15th July 2015

Development cooperation and fighting corruption: thinking differently

Everyone associates Brazil with football and the World Cup. Brazilians pouring out onto the street last summer to protest the competition being hosted in their country was last thing many of us expected to see.

Opinion by Heather Marquette24th June 2015
Opinion by Alina Rocha Menocal24th November 2014

Innovation: transactional or transformative?

Innovation has become a popular word in international development. In Australia today, Bjorn Lomborg helped to formally open DFAT’s development innovation hub innovationXchange, which is designed to ‘identify, trial and scale up successful approaches’. Other donors, including the US and the UK, are also promoting innovation through initiatives like the Development Innovation Ventures programme.

Opinion by Chris Roche23rd March 2015