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).


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.



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

Being 'there': Reflections on fieldwork in the DRC

Fieldwork in fragile places - Part 1: The security dilemma. Staying safe while collecting the data that matters. 

Opinion by Suda Perera5th November 2014

Don't give up on government

Can the World Bank's flagship World Development Report inspire a good governance revolution that delivers development gains?

Opinion by Dan Hymowitz3rd February 2017

Beyond the limits: can we Think and Work Politically to achieve the SDGs?

How international development agencies need to change to confound the sceptics. (Guest post for the OECD's Institutions and Stability blog)

Opinion by Heather Marquette4th February 2016

Transparency and Accountability: learning through collaboration

How can the impact of transparency and accountability work be deepened? 

Opinion by Brendan Halloran10th June 2014

Politics, risk and development: three takeaways

Reflections from last week's Australasian Aid Conference and DLP’s 2016 Annual Conference, both hosted at Australian universities. 

Opinion by Chris Roche19th February 2016

Fixing aid: we can't turn off the tap at the first sign of corruption

Much 'petty' corruption is about the poor using what little power they have to stave off destitution. (Guest post for The Conversation)

Opinion by Heather Marquette10th November 2014

It's all about inclusion, but how?

Shifting the focus of development intervention from form to the actual practice and distribution of power. (Guest post for the World Bank Governance for Development blog)

Opinion by Alina Rocha Menocal6th April 2016

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

The history of India’s largely forgotten shift to autocracy and its return to democracy can tell us much about how change happens.

Opinion by Niheer Dasandi25th June 2015

Corruption: unpacking the black box of political will

New thinking on the reasons why individuals engage in corruption - including the pragmatic calculation that, right or wrong, corruption may be the only solution to pressing difficulties. 

Opinion by Heather Marquette12th January 2015

Where does political will come from?

Guest post for From Poverty to Power introducing DLP's 10-year synthesis report

Opinion by Claire Mcloughlin2nd March 2018

Rules of thumb for women leaders in the Pacific, and beyond

Guest post for The Interpreter on 'Being the First'

Opinion by Ceridwen Spark22nd February 2018

International donors - aiding or abetting?

The importance of acknowledging the dilemmas donors may face when giving aid to developmental states.

Opinion by Niheer Dasandi10th September 2015

Adding gender and power to the TWP agenda

Gender relations are full-blown power relationships. Yet in the development context, they are too often seen as value-neutral cultural arrangements. 

Opinion by Sally Moyle6th August 2015

DLP political settlements workshop: reflections

A practitioner considers how the intangible nature of power can be discussed and included in a policy framework. 

Opinion by Astrid Jamar22nd July 2015

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

Promoting and sustaining individual behavioural change is as important as building flexibility into development programming.

Opinion by Greg Power2nd December 2016

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

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

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

Many different paths, but all leading to similar destinations - and adding useful nuance to development thinking and practice.  

Opinion by Thomas Parks29th August 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

Reforming FIFA: what can we learn from experience with (other) corrupt autocrats?

FIFA may not be a developing nation, but international football has its own complex political economy. Guest post for From Poverty to Power.

Opinion by Paul Jackson and Heather Marquette11th June 2015

Inclusive political settlements: who and what gets included?

DLP hosted a day-long high level introductory workshop on political settlements in June. This post introduces a series that showcases the contributions of researchers, policymakers and practitioners.

Opinion by Alina Rocha Menocal13th July 2015

Indonesia and the political settlements trap

When aspirations triggered by development and prosperity outstrip a political settlement's ability to deliver on those expectations, how easy is it to 're-settle' the settlement? 

Opinion by Graham Teskey17th July 2015

Breaking new ground in parliamentary strengthening

The importance of tailoring parliamentary support programmes to their context. (Guest post for openDemocracy)

Opinion by Alina Rocha Menocal29th March 2016

How does politically informed programming shape development outcomes?

A new 'thinking and working politically' community of practice aims to develop practical guidance for development practitioners based on evidence of what works in politically smart programming.

Opinion by Mark Robinson29th January 2016

Cancer and the links between medicine and development

DLP Senior Research Partner discusses what cancer has taught him about the links between medicine and development. Guest post for From Poverty to Power.

Opinion by Chris Roche15th April 2015

Bringing Political Economy Analysis in from the cold

Once seen as a 'transformative' tool to change donor thinking, does much PEA now do little to help staff think and work politically?

Opinion by Jonathan Fisher6th May 2014

Development cooperation and fighting corruption: thinking differently

Corruption is an emotive word and covers a huge range of behaviours - yet anti-corruption efforts still follow a one-size-fits-all pattern.  

Opinion by Heather Marquette24th June 2015

Security and justice – the mismatch between policy and practice

What hinders more politically nuanced security and justice programming?

Opinion by Shivit Bakrania21st July 2014

How can a gendered understanding of power and politics make development work more effective?

Guest post for From Poverty to Power on the launch of the 'Gender and Politics in Practice' findings

Opinion by Helen Derbyshire13th February 2018

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

The Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi report tells us that how we measure affects what we do; and if our measurements are flawed, decisions may be distorted.

Opinion by Alex Cobham12th May 2015

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

New DLP research poses the question of whether the focus of the international development community on primary education is too narrow.

Opinion by Amir Jones25th March 2014

The practicalities of change: Positive deviance and land reform in Vanuatu

Anna Naupa's 2016 Adrian Leftwich Memorial Lecture discussed where most transformation happens - in drafting the rules, or in putting them into action.

Opinion by Anna Naupa13th April 2016

Innovation: transactional or transformative?

It's time to discuss how the word 'innovation' might mean different things to different audiences. 

Opinion by Chris Roche23rd March 2015

Different development: walk the talk

The argument for asset-based approaches to development programming and practice that value communities' capacity, skills and knowledge.

Opinion by Gillian Fletcher14th April 2015

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

Learning how to balance the technically possible and politically feasible in volatile, conflict-affected contexts.

Opinion by Aditi Haté 22nd February 2017

Political settlements: people and the landscapes of power

The inescapable conundrum that politics involves actual politicians is one reason why the subject of political settlements generates so much debate.

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

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

Anthropology and elites: 'Studying up', politically

The parallels between - and ethical dilemmas of - anthropology's focus on context and international development's ‘thinking and working politically’ concept. 

Opinion by Paul Robert Gilbert10th March 2016

Thinking about women and girls makes development work better for everyone

A look at what happens when gender analysis is placed more squarely at the heart of governance work. (Guest post in The Conversation)

Opinion by Orlanda Siow7th March 2017

Oil reform in Nigeria: The ups and downs of channel-hopping programme delivery

How much do we really know about what 'thinking and working politically' can achieve – and where it might present dangers – in challenging political and sectoral contexts?

Opinion by Joanna Buckley27th July 2017

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

Can donors, researchers, policymakers and practitioners all agree on what we mean when we talk about 'political settlements'?

Opinion by Edward Laws15th July 2015

What are governance advisers missing with 'Political Economy Analysis'?

DLP's contribution to a new-style field guide for development practitioners. Guest post in FP2P

Opinion by David Hudson8th October 2015

Shuffling the decks: quick fixes versus long-term stability

(First published as a guest post for the ODI's Development Progress blog)

Opinion by Suda Perera22nd January 2015

Using aid to strengthen Parliaments: fix the car, or worry about the driver?

Parliaments have always been treated as the poor cousins of democracy assistance efforts. (Guest post for From Poverty to Power)

Opinion by Alina Rocha Menocal24th November 2014

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