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.

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