All posts by julian

Some final thoughts on studying…up? over? sideways?

The comments on my last couple of posts, along with this and this have had me mulling over the complexities of studying “elites” (whatever that fuzzy if useful term means), particularly those with whom we share (in part) a cultural, social, political, and economic context, and wondering what those of us who study elites might learn from each other.

In my book, I discuss how certain members of the Bloomberg administration translated their wealth, status, and expertise into a governmental program in New York City. I also touched on the fraught relationship between the professional aspirations and expertise of urban planners and this governmental program, as well as the conflicting forms of technocratic practice that existed within the Bloomberg administration. But ultimately, my book is about class formation and mobilization and their effect on urban governance. So in this sense, it represents relatively straightforward case of “studying up:” I was interested in understanding a new form of local, upper class political practice, one that I took a generally critical approach to.

This is one way to do it. But what the comments and posts referred to above make clear is that there is a proliferation of modes of studying elites and that this proliferation is driven by the variation in the constitution of elites, i.e. by the multiple form(s) of social power that elites have access to: money, expertise, professional credentials, state power, cultural production, property, and status, to name a few. Moreover, we see a variety of ways in which ethnographers relate to their interlocutors, as well as different degrees of “identity overlap” between ethnographer and subject.

For instance, my situation is different from situation described by Lisa Markowitz. I shared with urban planners expertise and membership in a certain milieu constituted by professional status, but not a sense of solidarity or shared goals. Markowitz, on the other hand, was much more political sympathetic to her informants, a situation often faced by anthropologists of all sorts. The issue here is our political stance, and its relation to the sort of analysis/interpretation we offer. How do we reconcile critique of the powerful with fairness to our informants? How do we maintain critical distance from elite projects we are sympathetic with? While none of these questions are particularly new, in the case of studying elites they present some new twists: will writing a critical ethnography present professional difficulties (I have heard stores, possibly apocryphal but nevertheless worrying, about one urbanist whose book ruffled enough feather that pressure was brought to bear on her university to deny her tenure)? How do we avoid being seduced by power, for instance, by that always tantalizing ability to influence the “real world” of policy?

Paul Rabinow refers to a slighly different situation here; for him, the issue is engaging with highly specialized knowledge, command of which constitutes a form of difference. In this case, as Rabinow points out, there is more than a hint of the traditional posture of the ethnographer as student, learning the principles of an unfamiliar way of life. Again, nothing radically new here, except that the ethnographer may share a higher degree of epistemological and ontological presupposition with the bearers of expert knowledge than might otherwise be the case. This would seem to require a high degree of self-reflexivity, as one would have to constantly be focused on explicating those presuppositions and linking them to the knowledge under consideration.

Finally, there is the case of Suleiman Osman, whose recent book, despite being outside of anthropology, nevertheless presents a relevant case: a native of Park Slope, one of Brooklyn’s first gentrified neighborhoods, Osman just published a history of “Brownstoners” in Brooklyn, that is, a history of a relatively elite social group that he is part of. How do we anthropologists (who by virtue of at least our educational attainment are “elite”) study the varied social groupings and networks we belong to? How do we reconcile our personal loyalties and commitments with our professional and intellectual ones? Here, to one degree or another, Karen Ho’s work on Wall Streeters and Michele Lamont’s study of academic judgement present relevant examples–especially because they discuss two cases in which informants tended to display very different attitudes towards their own practice: in Ho’s case, financial professionals had constructed solid justifications of what they were up to, while in Lamont’s case, the subjects have, if anything, an overdeveloped sense of reflexivity and self-critique. These differences in self-regard would presumably affect the relationships between ethnographer and subject, especially when personal ties are involved.

So, the study of elites is differentiated on several axes: of political sympathy, of shared knowledge, of power relations, of informants’ reflexivity, and of socio-cultural belonging, to name a few. Perhaps it would be useful to restart the periodic conversation among the practitioners of the anthropology of elites, in order to explore commonalities and differences and to exchange ideas. Or perhaps we should just be happy that as “studying up” has taken hold in cultural anthropology, it has been marked by the same diversity of approach and subject as the field as a whole.

This will be my last guest post on Savage Minds. Thanks for paying attention, and thanks again to Kerim et al. for having me.

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.

Ethnography is like fishing…(h/t Marcel Mauss and James Ferguson)

I have gotten a couple of comments regarding methods, access, etc. (thanks for the comments!); I will get to those issues later this week. Today I thought I would give a description of the early portion of ethnographic research that Bloomberg’s New York is based on–a narrative of what actually happened, rather than the packaged, fabricated narrative that we as academic professionals spend so much time self-consciously producing.

First a brief backstory: from 1998-2000, I attended urban planning graduate school. Halfway through, I realized I was far more interested in analyzing cities than planning them, especially because (at that point anyway) in NYC “planning” often meant little more than manufacturing windfall profits for developers. So I headed off to the CUNY Graduate Center to work with their flock of urbanists.

Flashing forward to 2003: my dissertation research begins. The idea is for me to investigate the process by which the “business agenda” comes to be. Basically, what I am trying to do here is use ethnography to explore what happens in the gap between the functional requirements of capitalist urbanization (as laid out by Harvey, Castells, Molotch and Logan, etc. etc.) and the construction of an actual elite agenda in a specific historical, cultural, and geographical context. My focus is on the public spaces of development policy formation, such as conferences and other professional meetings, city council hearings, etc., but also on more informal mechanisms. For the latter, I draw on the network of contacts I began developing in graduate school, and I soon find out that the development policy world in NYC is pretty small and interlinked (I had an excel spreadsheet with just a couple of hundred names on it). I begin talking to people, attending those conferences, interviewing, and so on.

As I do so, I quickly realize three things. First, the Bloomberg administration is up to something different than I expect, given the standard shape of neoliberal urban governance in NYC or elsewhere. The administration is engaging in citywide urban planning, moving away from the use of indiscriminate tax subsidies, and perhaps most interestingly pulling a lot of new people into City Hall. Not surprisingly, given the new Mayor’s background in business, this includes several people from finance and other private sector industries. Less expected is the hiring of a number of very well-respected planning and policy professionals to staff the top levels of the Bloomberg administration’s development and planning agencies. Such people had largely been excluded from previous administration in favor of folks drawn from the real estate industry or from the murky world of NYC’s public-private development agencies (which basically amounts to the same thing). Bloomberg’s City Hall is becoming a hotbed corporate and professional technocracy.

Second, the Mayor’s business background (along with that of the other private sector people he was bringing into government) actually seems to matter in substantive ways. Economic development officials are telling the city council about the thorough rebranding campaign underway; city officials are referring to companies as “clients”; City Hall was being physically remodeled along the lines the Mayor had used in his private company, Bloomberg LLP; and perhaps most remarkably, the Mayor is referring to NYC as a “luxury product.” Importing private-sector logic into government is nothing new, in NYC or elsewhere, but now it is being done by people who can (and do!) credibly claim to be running the city like a private company.

Third, everybody in the development and policy world is focused on the far west side of Manhattan. Everybody. Nobody wants to talk about the business agenda formation; they want to talk about the Hudson Yards (the plan proposed for the area). The Bloomberg administration is joining NYC2012 (the city’s private Olympic bid organization), the Group of 35 (an elite commission charged with stimulating office development in NYC), the New York Jets, and a number of other planning and development groups in targeting the area to the west of Times Square and Penn Station for redevelopment. And as it turned out, graduate school classmates of mine are involved in the growing conflict over far west side redevelopment in a number of ways–some working for city agencies, others working for community organizations that oppose the plan as currently formulated.

This was a key point in my research; suddenly focusing on the process of business agenda formulation seemed a bit boring, especially since I had a full-scale development battle emerging in front of me! I also had this interesting phenomenon of the ex-CEO mayor actually running the city as a business (rather than just for business), which seemed to have some unpredictable consequences (like a willingness to raise taxes and hire egghead professors and policy professionals and respect their expertise). Finally, I had all these professionals–city planners, professors, public health experts, markets, educational experts, former management consultants, etc.–talking about the new spirit of professionalism and competence in City Hall, and the new excitement about public service that they and their peers were feeling.

Realizing all this, I began to split my research onto two tracks. First, I began investigating the early years of the Bloomberg administration, i.e. late 2001 to mid-2003, using interviews with officials, government documents, transcripts of administration testimony to the city council, and various secondary sources. Second, I threw myself into the conflict over the far west side of Manhattan, attending every community meeting, rally, city council hearing, conference, and official planning meeting I could find, and redirecting my interviewing towards those engaged in the conflict. I’ll write a bit more about the second, more ethnographic of these two tracks next time.

What I am up to

I want to thank Kerim and all the Savage Minds folks for giving me the opportunity to share my work and thoughts. Its an especially nice opportunity for me because my relationship to the mainstream of contemporary anthropology has been, if not vexed exactly, then fraught. Though I received my PhD in anthropology, though I have taught in anthropology departments for the past five years, and though, in the classroom at least, I have become a believer in anthropology’s indispensability to the well-rounded undergraduate, my writing and research has always felt somewhat oblique to the discipline and its central concerns.

That’s because I investigate issues–urban governance and urban political economy in the contemporary United States–that have generally been addressed in interdisciplinary urban studies. However, the way I investigate them–using ethnographic methods and analysis, paying close attention to my informants’ words and to detail and particularity, and by taking seriously the impact of what I will gloss here as “cultural” matters in the context of urban governance–are very “anthropological,” or at least seem so to me.

Adding to this, the people I have for the most part studied–urban planners, city officials, economic development experts, developers and so on–are generally not studied in any real depth by anthropologists or by people in urban studies. Most urban anthropologists (not all, of course) tend to focus on relatively poor, or ethnic, or working class neighborhoods; when my “people” do show up, its usually only when City Hall and developers are trying to perpetrate some kind of nefarious development scheme. In urban studies, the folks I study typically are either subsumed into the application of some larger structuralist theory of urban governance (the urban growth machine, the capitalist urban state, urban neoliberalism, etc.), or (more common now that Marxist thought has been, if not displaced as dominant in critical urban studies, then theoretically hybridized, ethnographized, and made more flexible) incorporated into nicely context-sensitive empirical accounts in a relatively one-dimensional way, as inhabitants of government positions or as avatars of commodification, rather than as three dimensional individuals with class, race, gender, educational, and other biographical/social/cultural characteristics (that is to say, in the manner that anthropologists typically portray their informants).

Urban anthropology and critical urban studies do a lot of things really well–think of how much we know about the dynamics, complexities, and social organization of poor urban neighborhoods, or about why it is that developers so often get what they want from city government–but one thing they aren’t particularly good at is providing well-rounded and robust accounts of the formation, makeup, development, history, and internal tensions of urban elites. I think this is important to do for both analytical and political reasons.

So that’s what I am up to. Hopefully it begins to explain why an anthropologist would do something like study the administration of New York’s ex-billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg.