Power in Plain Sight, or, why studying up is actually not as difficult as you might think

Studying up is no longer rare in anthropology—in fact, it seems to me that it was never really as rare as anthropology’s self-understanding makes it out to be. Despite this there continue to be a series of questions that are regularly posed about studying up, questions concerning the difficulties of access; concerning the relationship between anthropologist and an informant that, by virtue of the typical anthropologists’ political leanings, she might not be particularly sympathetic with; and concerning the ability of powerful people to obscure, distort, or limit access to information. In my research for Bloomberg’s New York, I encountered a situation that made me think that these sorts of questions are misconceived and based on mistaken premises.

Unsurprisingly, and as is true of any ethnographic project, my direct access to different groups and individuals involved in the Bloomberg administration and in the debates over the development of the far west side ultimately proved to be highly uneven. This unevenness was a result of two factors–my own preexisting networks and difficulty of gaining access to certain powerful people.

Having attended graduate school in planning in NYC, I knew people involved in many different aspects of development politics in NYC. For instance, one good friend worked for the Community Board that represented the far west side, and through him I was able to gain access to and contacts within the various organizations and groups that opposed the administration’s plans for the far west side. I also knew several relatively junior planners working for the city government, who over beers and in the backs of hearing chambers and community halls were able to give me their appraisal of what was happening. While they were occasionally guarded, they tended to be pretty open, a product of both their relatively junior status–they didn’t have a huge amount at stake–and our previous relationship. And as with my friend in the opposition, they were able to make introductions to higher level policy makers and officials.

I also got access to city officials and elites of various sorts in the most typical of ethnographic fashions–by hanging around enough that I became another of the usual crowd that showed up at events related to the Hudson Yards plan (i.e.,the administration’s plans for the far west side). Once I was an established presence, starting up an informal conversation or asking for a more formal interview, even with relatively high-level officials, was not so difficult.

My own social and cultural characteristics played a role as well. As a relatively clean-cut white man from a relatively privileged background, I had enough familiarity with the trappings of power and enough exposure to wealthy and powerful people to feel relatively comfortable conversing with them and to adjust my self-presentation as the situation demanded. Again, there’s nothing particularly unique about this; anthropologists’ identities (and their manipulation) have always had a crucial impact on the shape of their fieldwork.

There was a point at which direct access became a major problem, and that was with the people at the very top levels of the administration. For example, I never was able to interview Mayor Bloomberg or the Deputy Mayor in charge of redevelopment, Daniel Doctoroff. I sent numerous letters, tried to exploit all the channels I could to get at  these two, and to other high level officials, but ultimately I was only able to get a sit-down interview with one very high-level official in the administration, and that only after he had left the administration and after I was no longer a graduate student but a professor.

However, that interview was very instructive. This official was exteremely frank with me. An ex-financier, he was completely dismissive of politicians and politics in general. He spoke openly and unselfconsciously about the need for city government to both act like a business and provide support for businesses. He made it clear that he thought that people like him were essential to both the city’s economic future and its proper governance.

In short, he made it clear to me that the conclusion I was reaching from analyzing the public actions and speech of these elites was basically a differently worded version of same story these elites were telling about themselves, albeit in a different vocabulary and with an (obviously) very different political interpretation than my own. I was beginning to see that the Bloomberg administration’s approach to governance, far from being the product of one eclectic businessman’s personal predilections and experience, was a class project, a claim to hegemony on the part of what I call in the book the city’s “postindustrial elite.” Now a member of that elite was frankly telling me that it was absolutely necssary that business elites run the city government, for it was their skills and talents that best fit the situation faced by a post-9/11 NYC faced with budget problems and fierce interurban competition. “The city needed us,” he told me. What was to me (to use crude terms) a play for capitalist hegemony in the city was to him a new commitment to public service and an effort to give back. What from my critical perspective seemed majorly problematic if not downright objectionable, from his perspective seemed an absolute and obvious necessity.

There is a sense–which I shared at the beginning of my research–that as people who share some important cultural and social characteristics with (professionalized, highly educated, relatively well-off) anthropologists, powerful and wealthy people in a place like NYC might be expected to have some some degree of reflexivity, if not self-doubt about what it is they are up to. This is not what I found. While the elites I spoke with were intelligent, thoughtful, and truly committed to what they saw as the best interests of NYC, they displayed very little doubt that they were doing the right thing, and that their critics were motivated primarily by personal/psychological factors–fear of the future, small-mindedness, greed, NIMBYism, etc–rather than by legitimate differences in political ideology, economic interest, urban identity, and so on. While there were efforts to dissemble, to obscure, to and distort the details of policy (would that piece of the project require public funding? Had there never been a plan for an alternative site for the west side Olympic stadium?) when it came to the big picture, elites were open, clear, and certain about what it was they were doing.

I think that there’s a also sense that the powerful are hiding something–that studying up is an opportunity to sweep away the curtain obscuring the working of power and see what’s really going on. But in fact, in my experience, power generally operates in plain sight. This is because the powerful operate in a world that is almost completely self-justified, thus rendering obscuration and dishonesty unnecessary. What is crucial to the ethnographic and anthropological study of power is not gaining access to its secret workings, but to understand the terms and production of its self-justification. In a sense this renders what is commonly held to be a central task of ethnography–”to undercover the hidden principles of a way of life,” to paraphrase an undergraduate text I recently taught–moot. It also makes studying up a far less difficult task than you might think.

8 thoughts on “Power in Plain Sight, or, why studying up is actually not as difficult as you might think

  1. Many psychology studies support these points. In particular, individuals with high power tend to focus on their own opinions and desires and are less influenced by the thoughts of those around them. Inducing feelings of being powerful reduces accuracy in estimating the interests of others.

  2. @julian

    It seems to me that you have not demonstrated that the questions with which you begin are misconceived, but rather that the premises of those who ask them should be examined. As you so very nicely illustrate by describing your own project, studying up may not be as hard as people think — if, like you, they bring the right kinds of social and cultural capital with them into the field. I could say the same of my own experience studying the social networks of members of teams that have created award-winning advertising in Japan. If asked how I get to talk to superstar creators, I can only answer that having spent thirteen years working for one of the two biggest agencies in Japan, I know people who know people and when I interview them I don’t ask questions for dummies and get answers for dummies in return. Karen Ho is another good example. Her description on the University of Minnesota website reads in part,

    After several years of field experience on Wall Street, first as an employee at an investment bank and then as an ethnographer, Ho presented her results in her dissertation, Liquefying Corporations and Communities: Wall Street World Views and Socioeconomic Transformations in the Post-Industrial US (2003).

    What we three all share is an investment of several years as active participants in the worlds we study. In a very real sense we are not so much participant observers as observing participants—and doesn’t that make all the difference?

  3. it seems to me that in order to study how these things become “self-justified” (taking this to mean that certain kinds of development, etc. seem “natural” or “obvious,” not in the sense that elites are the only ones justifying their power) we need to not just study “elites” … this is indicated also by how it wasn’t necessary to interview Bloomberg and the head of development after all!

  4. I’ve found Lisa Markowitz’s idea of “studying over” to be just as helpful as “studying up,” especially when the ethnographer has a similar class, educational, professional, and political background to powerful informants who might be considered colleagues or comrades in another context. It raises a slightly different set of questions – not so much about access to power, but about the kinds of territoriality, sympathy, and loyalty that arise when the ethnographer engages in that kind of hybrid role.

  5. Sure – Markowitz uses the phrase in a piece in L. Markowitz, “Finding the Field: Notes on the Ethnography of NGOs,” Human Organization 60, no. 1 (2001): 40-46.

    The quote I was thinking of in the piece is:

    “The aspect of NGO fieldwork I find ultimately most unsettling is in what I have come to think of as studying over: conducting ethnography among NGO staff. I intentionally chose to affiliate with a well-esteemed GSO, doing work I admire, filled with people I like. This choice also came out of the normal ethnographic opportunism based in long-term acquaintance. Some of the staffers in this GSO and other alpaca sector NGOs are fellow social scientists, and some are now friends. Participant observation among them involves chatting in the office, jolting about in pickup trucks, talking politics, and swapping stories in the evening. They also act as key informants in explaining regional NGO turf wars. I find myself, not surprisingly, assuming their point of view: good NGOs are those with whom ‘my NGOs’ collaborate.” (Markowitz 2001: 43)

    Taken broadly, the difficulties she’s highlighting seem like ethnographic difficulties anywhere, but I think it’s a useful additive to the idea of studying up in situations where the ethnographer’s relationship to informants is a little more horizontal and intimate than studying up might imply.

  6. Thanks, Ryan. Found the Markowitz piece on Questia. Interesting, indeed. I discover that I have long been, albeit unconsciously, an advocate of studying over in all ethnographic situations. It has always seemed to me that, given a choice from Eric Berne’s games people play, adult-to-adult is superior to parent-child or child-parent.

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