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.