Political anthropology

by Henry Farrell on September 22, 2009 · 11 comments

in Methodology

David Glenn has a good piece in the Chronicle talking about how political scientists are learning from anthropology:

Pachirat is not alone. In Political Ethnography: What Immersion Contributes to the Study of Power, a new collection of essays from the University of Chicago Press, he and 16 other scholars argue that political science should drink deeply from the well of anthropology. Their subjects include housing activists in Philadelphia, faith healers in the Congo, middle-aged conservatives at a Michigan diner, and an ax murderer in Ukraine. … Among political ethnographers themselves there are intellectual tensions, which are threaded through Schatz’s book. Some contributors take a relatively old-fashioned approach to evidence-gathering and hypothesis-testing. But others have more-radical instincts, which draw on cultural anthropologists’ models of reflexivity—that is, the notion that ethnographers should scrutinize how their own biases and cultural positions shape their investigations in the field. …
Crudely speaking, each of those two camps has a presiding elder spirit. For the traditionalists, it is Richard F. Fenno Jr., a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Rochester. In 1978, Mr. Fenno published Home Style: House Members in Their Districts, a book based on immersive fieldwork with members of Congress and their staffs. … For the more radically interpretivist political ethnographers, the presiding spirit is James C. Scott, a professor of political science and anthropology at Yale. In books like Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (Yale University Press, 1998), Scott has applied anthropological theory to questions of governmental power.

While I like me James Scott just fine, I’m more interested in the methodological benefits of anthropology than the ‘situating the social scientist’ stuff. It seems to me that anthropology went off a cliff in the 1980s with James Clifford and company seeming more interested in the anthropologist himself or herself than the people they were talking to.[1] But anthropologists know an awful lot more than most political scientists about soak and poke, really figuring out contexts etc. The contrast between comparative politics’ notion of fieldwork (a few months in the field; fifty or sixty interviews plus documents), and anthropologists’ (a couple of years of deep immersion) has always amazed me – I’d like to see more applications of anthropological techniques, and better qualitative training of our students on the basis of these techniques.

Update: I should have thanked my colleague Robert Adcock for the tip …

fn1. This is certainly not to say that work, say, about how political science fits into broader structures of power or knowledge is valueless; rather that concentrating on this to the exclusion of the purported subject matter of the discipline can lead to its own blindnesses. Here, I’m buying into Paul Rabinow’s critique of these tendencies in anthropology.

{ 11 comments }

Ed Schatz September 22, 2009 at 3:45 pm

Thanks for the post, Henry.

I agree that some anthropologists went too far–too far for those among us who would rather learn more about the research topic and less about the researcher him/herself. On the other hand, it would be interesting to ponder if at least some political scientists “went off a cliff” of a different kind at some point. Their free-fall was maybe of a different epistemological type, but the climb back to intellectually sound ground is still pretty steep…

The point about fieldwork duration (and quality) is crucial. Let’s reserve the word “fieldwork” for something rather more serious than staying at the Ritz and conducting a bunch of elite interviews. We need to think seriously about how close we’re really getting to the phenomena we claim to study.

Sebastian September 22, 2009 at 6:13 pm

I think along with the “going off the deep edge” – comes a sense of moral superiority that I find incredibly off-putting. Many of the anthropologists – especially the “heavy on the ethnography” types – with whom I have interacted have a tendency to think of their work not only as more interesting (that’s OK) but as “morally superior” in some way. Needless to say, I try to limit my interaction with them.

Similarly, many of the hard-core rational choicers in political science have a very annoying degree of disdain (and ignorance) of anything they don’t consider “modern political science”. I also try not to spend to much time with those people.

And as for fieldwork – what is wrong with elite interviews? I think anthropologists have gotten so obsessed with studying “ordinary people” and “weapons of the weak” that they have very little grip at understanding actual political processes. And, if my outside understanding of the conflicts within anthro is correct, than those people who remain interested in these questions – the David Harvey’s etc. (I know he’s technically a geographer, but he teaches at CUNY anthro) – get viciously attacked (once again by the “morally superior” ethnography crowd) as racist, sexist and what you have it.

I’m not saying that you can’t learn interesting things by studying more local level political interaction (and I think the fact that, e.g. Steve Levitsky did a lot of that in his book on Argentine Peronism made it a much better book) but the idea that the type of evidence is somehow superior to talking with key decision-makers on a decision you are interested in, tracking down key documents, reconstructing narratives of events and (*gasp*) maybe even looking if there is some quantitative or quantifiable evidence that you can use to learn more about your research question – I just don’t get it.

And if the interpretivists in political science would stop being so damn righteous about this, I’d be much happier in engaging with them – and their work – more.

Fr. September 22, 2009 at 7:06 pm

“The point about fieldwork duration (and quality) is crucial.”

I agree, but there is more than one way to spend time in the field. In public policy, you might interact only a few hours every year with policy-makers. Even if you add all the other interviews you conduct, that represents roughly one month, perhaps two, if put consecutively (which is impossible in reality due to access issues).

However, if you add archival research, reading the policy documentation, reading the journals on your policy sector and reading the news on your topic, you are spending at least two or three hours a day in “the field”. I would say I spend approximately a third of my working day reading on the policy(ies) I examine (and then hours at night reading blogs and papers – hm).

Ed Schatz September 23, 2009 at 6:05 am

I agree with Fr. that there’s more than one way to spend time in the field, and her/his way is probably ideal for the question s/he is asking. It sounds like a version of fieldwork to me, and I should add that if something is NOT fieldwork, that’s fine by me–depends on the research problem…

Likewise, to Sebastian’s point, there’s nothing wrong with elite interviews per se, depending on the research questions being addressed. (I have done quite a few of them.) My point was simple: we should be asking ourselves (and the people whose work we read) whether the knowledge-claims being advanced are based on information generated in ways that persuade. For me, at least, interview data is most persuasive if it starts out rich and complex (even if it is subsequently sifted and simplified for patterns). Again, this depends on the research question, but without adequate understanding of the context being studied (something you often get from the two-week researcher who has honed in on a narrowly specialized topic from which s/he does not waver, while staying at that elite hotel), you are unlikely to generate persuasive accounts. My view.

Which gets to Sebastian’s other point–about moral superiority. I agree that such a feeling would be off-putting, but two points. First, it’s hard to levy that particular claim at all interpretivists. That’s a pretty varied bunch, full of all kinds of different people. Some may even be pleasant individuals! Second, there are–as Sebastian mentions–many non-interpretivists (I won’t name names, but I do have concrete individuals in mind) who, in my humble judgment, operate with exactly this kind of self-assured sense of superiority. My own preference is to remember that our view of the political will always remain flawed; I don’t see how anyone can fail to be humbled by doing research on politics.

Final point: the ethnography volume covered in the Glenn piece has chapters by a variety of card-carrying (ok, no cards actually) non-interpretivists. They, like Henry, are uninterested in anthro-like uses of ethnographic methods. They simply believe that ground-level methods accord them better views on what’s really happening in political life. If ethnographic methods are to be used in Political Science, they don’t have to be used in the same ways that they are used in Anthropology–e.g., they can be used to immerse the researcher in the lifeworlds of ruling elites (rather than in those of the subaltern referenced in Sebastian’s post).

ProfPTJ September 23, 2009 at 10:51 am

This discussion seems to me to be conflating two distinct things: ethnography as method, i.e. participant-observation or other experience-near modes of data-collection, with ethnography as methodology, i.e. an inextricably perspectival take on knowledge which of necessity foregrounds the social location of the researcher. Note that such foregrounding need not be narcissistic or otherwise self-indulgent; indeed, it need not even focus on the individual researcher per se, but might instead be focused on the social conditions of knowledge-production a la Karl Mannheim or Pierre Bourdieu.

To keep things clear I tend to refer to ethnography-as-methodology as reflexivist research. The fact that many reflexivists, especially in anthropology, use ethnographic fieldwork techniques is something that can and should be explained historically and institutionally, since there is precisely no logical connection between reflexivist research and ethnographic fieldwork techniques. Methodologically speaking, there’s nothing to stop one from participant-observing in order to code variables, any more than there’s anything to stop one from counting or formalizing the use of words in order to explicate meaning or to disclose latent structures of power. Methods themselves are methodologically neutral, I’d argue — which is not to say that a neopositivist and a reflexivist would engage in participant-observation fieldwork in exactly the same way, but is instead to say that there’s no simple and determinate relationship between data-collection techniques and overall research design.

So Henry’s criticism becomes a rejection of reflexivism as a research orientation. I say “rejection” because situating knowledge-production in broader social arrangements is simply not optional for reflexivist research; it’s quintessential, and not as a supplement or as another research question. Instead, for reflexivist research, knowledge is inextricably bound up with its conditions of production, so explicating them is a methodological necessity.

Henry September 23, 2009 at 11:44 am

People here are interpreting me as taking a rather stronger stance than I am in fact doing (matters may be clarified by reading the Rabinow piece that I link to, which is well worth reading). When I say:

This is certainly not to say that work, say, about how political science fits into broader structures of power or knowledge is valueless; rather that concentrating on this to the exclusion of the purported subject matter of the discipline can lead to its own blindnesses.

I am (I would have thought) obviously not ‘rejecting’ reflexivism or whatever you might like to call it – I am merely pointing out that it has its own methodological failings, and that these were especially well exemplified in an (arguably dominant) variety of 1980s and early 1990s cultural anthropology. The burden of Rabinow’s critique as I understand it is that Clifford-style cultural anthropology, while fetishizing the role of the anthropologist-as-participant failed completely to pay attention to the ways in which these practices of interpretation were themselves cultural weapons in the broader battlefield of the academy. I quote:

A variety of important writing in the past decade has explored the historical relations between world macropolitics and anthropology … we also now know a great deal about the relations of power and discourse between the anthropologist and the people with whom he/she works … I have claimed, however, that [Clifford’s] approach contains an interesting blind spot, a refusal of self-reflection … In my opinion, the stakes in recent debates about writing are not directly political in the conventional sense of the term. I have argued elsewhere that what politics is involved is academic politics, and that this level of politics has not been explored … Bourdieu’s work would lead us to suspect that contemporary academic proclamations of anti-colonialism, while admirable, are not the whole story. These proclamations must be seen as political moves within the academic community … One is led to consider the politics of interpretation in the academy today. Asking whether longer, dispersive, multi-authored texts would yield tenure would seem petty. But those are the dimensions of power relations to which Nietzsche exhorted us to be scrupulously attentive. There can be no doubt of the existence and influence of this kind of power relation in the production of texts. We owe these less glamorous, if more immediately constraining, conditions more attention. The taboo against specifying them is much greater than the strictures against denouncing colonialism; an anthropology of anthropology would include them. Just as there was formerly a discursive knot preventing discussion of exactly those fieldwork practices that defined the authority of the anthropologist, which has now been untied, so, too, the micropractices of the academy might well do with some scrutiny. … Those domains that cannot be analyzed or refuted, and yet are directly central to hierarchy, should not be regarded as innocent or irrelevant. We know that one of the most common tactics of an elite group is to refuse to discuss – to label as vulgar or uninteresting – issues that are uncomfortable to them. … My wager is that looking at the conditions under which people are hired, given tenure, published, awarded grants, and feted would repay the effort. how has the “deconstructionist” wave differed from the other major trend in the academy in the past decade – feminism? How are careers made now? How are careers destroyed now? What are the boundaries of taste? Who established and who enforces these civilties? Whatever else we know, we certainly know that the material conditions under which the textual movement has flourished must include the university, its micropolitics, its trends.

The eminently Bourdieuvian point that Rabinow is making here is that this particular school of cultural anthropologists’ interest in ‘situating knowledge production in broader social arrangements’ only went so far. And my limited experience, for what it is worth, tends to support Rabinow – I have been informed by cultural anthropologists that raising these issues (when said anthropologists are belabouring academics from other disciplines for not paying sufficient attention to the Other), is ‘taking discussion in a perverse direction.’

As for my more general stance on reflexivity, I am a pragmatist. When this seems to generate useful knowledge, I am all for it. When it gets in the way of generating other, more useful knowledge (by my admittedly partial standards of ‘usefulness’), I’m against it.

Robert Adcock September 23, 2009 at 12:08 pm

It strikes me that the direction of the conversation here is a perfect example of the “fractal” patterns highlighted in Andrew Abbot’s sociology of sociology. At stake is, first and foremost, not “reflexivity” but a debate among those who entirely agree that being reflective is important between different modes of reflexivity: 1) a more personal identity / autobiographical reflexivity and 2) a more Bourdieuian reflexivity that emphasizes structural patterns and dynamics in a discipline at large or in that discipline’s relations to the outside world.

That said I think there is a slightly different issue that Henry raises about getting on with generating useful knowledge. The time it takes to do reflexivity of type 2 above well (I can’t comment on type 1) makes it potentially an entirely absorbing research agenda in and of itself. Should every political science also be a historian, sociologist, or philosopher of their discipline? The demand for reflexivity would, I suspect, go exactly down the road Henry fears if interpreted in this way!

Sebastian September 23, 2009 at 1:30 pm

Thanks Ed for those thoughtful comments.
I agree that doing ethnography/participant observation of elites is/would be great, but it’s even harder to do than ethnography of the subaltern. At least in my fieldwork, (unsurprisingly) the further I go up the hierarchical ladder, the harder unfettered access becomes.
Also, a large part of my frustration with Anthro is that so few people are doing that, although they have all the tools and a disciplinary tradition more likely to reward the enormous sunk investment such work would require.

As for “moral superiority” – obviously that doesn’t apply to all interpretivists (some of my best friends… ;-) – but still I wonder if there isn’t something systematic going on: If you believe that the failure to take on a more reflexivist position essentially leads you to exploit your research subject, misunderstand the nature of knowledge etc. – doesn’t that almost compel you to look down on people who just don’t see it?
Similarly, if you believe that there is a pre-scientific and a scientific way of doing political science (as many Rochester people believe – Riker was quite explicit about that, too) – won’t you automatically look down on the people who still do phlogiston political science?
I may be wrong about this, but I just don’t get the same type of arrogance of the “I’m better because of what I do” type neither from the (to put names on broad schools) Gelmans and Kings, nor from the Colliers and Mahoneys. Plenty of very arrogant people in those camps, too, but I feel their arrogance is based just on the fact that they think they’re smarter than everyone else, which I find a lot easier to stomach.

Peri Schwartz-Shea September 23, 2009 at 6:28 pm

I find the comments about “moral superiority” similar to some of the issues around “efficiency.” One always needs to ask, “whose?”

For a thoughtful analysis, see:

Alcoff, Linda. “The Problem of Speaking for Others.” Cultural Critique, 1991 (Winter): 5-33.

Ed Schatz September 24, 2009 at 10:14 am

Let me pick up on Sebastian’s comment about the difficulty of gaining access to the truly powerful.

I agree. This is tough stuff. No one should expect to get access to those higher up the power ladder. On the other hand, perhaps we need to be more creative about how we approach this, rather than assume that access will simply be foreclosed. In other words, why not give it a try, rather than referencing the commonplace assumption that you cannot directly observe the powerful exercise their power?

Not sure what exactly I have in mind, and I know that it would vary widely depending on circumstances, but there is a strain in Anthro that tries to do exactly this. See http://aaa-igapp.net/

I don’t pretend to know how successful they will be, but why would political scientists leave it to anthropologists to attempt to bring ethnographic methods to the study of “high politics?” Can’t we imagine contributing something of our own?

Those are my three cents for the moment. I just don’t want the relative ease of studying something to dictate the kinds of questions we ask and the kinds of methods we use.

ProfPTJ September 24, 2009 at 10:50 am

I would say that our sub-conversation about the role of reflexivity is a further instance of precisely the same method/methodology conflation or ambiguity that I flagged before. To engage in reflexivism-as-methodology means that disclosing and evaluating the social location of a speaker is an essential part of the warrant for that speaker’s claim; it is no more optional than is the provision of a measure of statistical significance when making a lawlike generalization. In other words, that’s a claim that reflexive analysis is fundamental, and cannot be submitted to any other kind of methodological evaluation — even to Henry’s self-declared “pragmatism” (which I share). To say that reflexivity is sometimes useful and sometimes not is to declare that, methodologically speaking, one is not a reflexivist.

[To Robert: I'm not sure that every piece of reflexive analysis has to engage in full-blown history and sociology of the discipline; I can easily imagine a division of labor among different scholars in that regard. What's important, I think, is the methodological claim that knowing about the social location of a speaker is an indispensable part of evaluating or warranting that speaker's claims.]

In this light, it’s interesting that the Rabinow piece that Henry links to is actually a call for more, not less, reflexivity — and more in a categorical sense, not more as pragmatically useful or appropriate. That makes sense, given Rabinow’s philosophical priors. Methodologically speaking, though, that places Henry on a different page than his source. It’s also fascinating that the Google ad on the side of the page when I went to the Rabinow book was an ad equating ethnography with market research, offering experienced anthropologists to help you “assess your customer’s unmet needs.” that’s even more bluntly an ethnography-as-method stance.

Basically, I think that we need to be more precise concerning what we’re talking about when it comes to these issues. Within a given methodology one might be might be very tolerant and accepting of multiple methods and techniques, but that doesn’t mean that one is or should be tolerant and accepting of different methodologies. So the question concerning ethnography in political science is a two-part question: can and should we use experience-near participant-observation techniques to gather data (a method question), and can and should we require more reflexivity in our scholarship as a condition of its status as warranted knowledge (a methodological question)? Like I believe Henry is arguing, I would say yes to the first and no to the second.

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