What does it entail to study elites: How do we anthropologists approach the rich and powerful? In this conversation Erik Bähre and Zane Kripe share some experiences and ideas.
Suits, ties and going native
Erik: During fieldwork I was invited by a business elite to join them for dinner at the most luxurious hotel on Cape Town’s Waterfront. Fortunately, I had packed my suit and tie. This is a necessary outfit for doing research among business elites; you have to go native. When I arrived at the hotel I parked my small car out of sight – there are limits to going native, after all. I entered the lobby and met the host. We were having a polite chat when something attracted our attention. A few people started running through the lobby; or rather, it was something more restrained between walking and running.They rushed to the balcony adjacent to the lobby. One of the business people from our party also ran to the balcony and I could hear a few screams and some shouting from the crowd.
A minute or two later it was quiet again, and people started to disperse. I had been hesitant to join them. Maybe someone had jumped and committed suicide, so I held back. But maybe I shouldn’t have. The businessman who was part of our party returned in great excitement saying something like: ‘My daughter is going to be so happy I took a picture! That was Beyoncé! She is staying here and she wanted to greet some people, isn’t that great? Security had advised her against it, but she went anyway. How cool is that?’
So my claim to fame is that I almost met Beyoncé. That sounds a bit sad maybe. But almost as spectacular was that Manmohan Singh, then the Prime Minister of India, was having dinner two tables away from us. Zane, what are your experiences with studying elites, and do you have any idea on how to do it, why do it, or why anthropologists generally study marginal people?
Zane: Hey Erik, your story made me laugh. Will anthropology as a discipline change its appeal if we start rubbing shoulders with pop-stars? Even if lesser known, the research of elites is (increasingly) common practice in anthropology. The more anthropology leaves its colonial biases behind, the more we acknowledge the need to study the power structures ‘at the top’ – who are the people who make decisions and who influence thousands and millions of others? How do they feel about their roles? What inspires them and what kind of pressures do they experience? I think these are important questions if we are to understand the complex world we live in.
Popular for insight and support
Erik: Gillian Tett wrote a book called ‘Fool’s Gold: How Unrestrained Greed Corrupted a Dream, Shattered Global markets and Unleashed a Catastrophe’. Tett has a PhD in anthropology and is a journalist for the Financial Times. She interviewed people with key positions in the financial markets; the people who developed the products that led to the financial crisis. And of course the Dutch anthropologist and journalist Joris Luyendijk just published ‘Dit kan niet waar zijn: Onder bankiers’, again about the financial crisis. So not only can anthropologists study elites; there is a big audience that is interested in what anthropologists have to say.
Zane: I agree. But studying elites does require you to rethink some aspects of interaction. For example, what kind of connections, background, qualities, and skills do you need to get access and build up a rapport? Anthropologist Karen Ho, who researched investment bankers, for example, was ‘accepted’ because of her Ivy-league credentials which matched those of the people she was studying.
In my case, studying technology entrepreneurs, I often found that my informants were not only incredibly intelligent and well versed in their own fields, but also referred to Bourdieu, Anderson and other classical texts and concepts in anthropology to make sense of their experiences. Quite a few openly explained that they see me as a colleague who can support their efforts in understanding the world they are part of. Other informants also challenged my professionalism, for example by questioning why I need four years to write a book, when they can do it in a year. I have to admit that at the time it didn’t boost my confidence
The people you study talk back
Erik: Haha. I recognize that. Still we do see that anthropology is well positioned for these kind of studies. Great that your informants referred to Bourdieu and how this leads to different forms of interaction that question the hierarchies of academia. When interviewing people – both elites and people with a very low income – I sometimes bring social theory into the conversation and ask: ‘Is this something that you recognize? Do you think this kind of argument makes sense?’ Studying elites makes us aware that scholars are not producers of magic that should be left untouched by those outside our field.
Zane: You’re right. This is another important aspect of studying elites – the people you study talk back, and they talk back through power structures they share with you. I am thinking of David Mosse’s experience after his research into an international development project. His informants – professionals in their own right – disagreed with his findings and thus tried to prevent his book from being published. They subjected him to the university’s research ethics committee, involved the Dean and the professional association. In his case, David was able to translate this whole situation to a very productive learning experience*.
* His experiences are described in Mosse, David. 2006. 'Anti-social anthropology? Objectivity, objection, and the ethnography of public policy and professional communities', in: Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 12 (4): 935-95
A previous version of this anthropology chat appeared in Bulletin published by Itiwana.