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.

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

  1. Thanks for this insightful post. One of the earliest ‘studying up’ ethnographies that addresses much of these questions and themes is Sally Weaver’s ‘Making Canadian Indian Policy: the hidden agenda 1968-1970’. It is superbly done and stands as a great model for people looking to do ethnographic work on policy, bureaucracy etc. Thanks-

  2. Something than Angela Ho missed in her ethnography is that “studying up” as L. Nader wrote about it in Reinventing Anthropology, was actually put forward as studying up, down, and sideways — point being an adequate ethnography shouldn’t only study up.

  3. I really liked the way you laced Rabinow’s comments into your on-going blogging. It may be obvious, or maybe it isn’t, but what I wanted to do in juxtaposing Strathern and Rabinow’s quotes was to call into question Rabinow’s version of what counts as ‘contemporary’. There is a big irony in the discussion in /Designs/ about how Writing Culture exposed (along with a few other works) the representational politics of ethnographic writing, and especially the way that customary ethnography often seemed to place its subjects ‘out of time.’ This is evidently to be criticized — yet when Rabinow comments on Strathern-New Guinea-molecular biology, ‘molecular biology’ is part of the ‘contemporary world’ and New Guinea is what? When I ran across Strathern’s piece, she seems to understand or imply that there is a shift in anthropology or a slippage between contemporary/us and old/them, and wants to resist it. I just thought that Rabinow inadvertantly revealed a sensibility that essentially reinscribes or reperforms the very ‘sin’ the old ethnographers of moka and the tambaran had allegedly committed.

    This is why I find Strathern-derivative work in biotechnology & medicine to be in some ways much more appealing than some other contemporary stuff, because it is boldly comparative. I’m thinking here of Bamford’s book Biology Unmoored or Monica Konrad’s Nameless Relations and so on (to say nothing of Dame Marilyn’s own Reproducing the Future and other works).

    (This comment to be tagged under: ‘young fogies’)

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