Studying Up in the Age of Trump

In the recent months and weeks since Donald Trump was elected and inaugurated as our 45th president, I’ve seen a lot of anthropologists questioning “what can we do?,” and a lot of us mobilizing to do be more politically engaged. I’ve also seen calls by some to continue to do what we, as academics and practitioners, have always done, which is to study. The read-ins organized by Paige West and JC Slayer are an excellent reminder that we have a body of scholarship that can help us make sense of what’s happening now, whether through historical comparison, theorization, or ethnographic account. These are all unequivocally good things, in my opinion, and should be part of anthropological practice regardless of who is in power. I want to bring attention to another anthropological practice that has a long history and should also be part of our regular engagement. In this case, however, the rise of Trump presents us with a novel situation that makes this particular practice more salient. The practice is “studying up.”

In 1972 Laura Nader gave the name “studying up” to the practice of using ethnographic methods to understand the inner workings of power itself. Historically, the ethnographic gaze had been turned “downwards” upon those who were marginalized and oppressed. This is still largely the case, though methodological and theoretical changes in the field mean that this “downward” gaze is problematized in ways that it wasn’t before. Nader’s invocation of “upward” anthropology was not a critique of “downward” studies, but rather a call to recognize the missing dimensions of ethnographic study at the time. “Anthropologists,” she says, “have a great deal to contribute to our understanding of the processes whereby power and responsibility is exercised in the United States” (284). This practice, she argues, is not only a valuable and engaging research interest for anthropologists, but also an essential anthropological contribution to the workings of democracy. Quoting at length:

“A democratic framework implies that citizens should have access to decision-makers, institutions of government, and so on. This implies that citizens need to know something about the major institutions, government or otherwise, that affect their lives…I believe that anthropologists would be surprisingly good at applying their descriptive and analytical tools to a major problem: How can a citizenry function in a democracy when that citizenry is woefully ignorant of how the society works and doesn’t work, of how a citizen can ‘plug in’ as a citizen, of what would happen should citizens begin to exercise rights other than voting as a way to make the ‘system’ work for them?”

This is, in part, the role of journalists, and we are witnessing in these early days of Trump’s presidency the resistance to the media. However, anthropologists bring a unique methodological and theoretical grounding to the practice of studying power. That’s not to say we do it better, but we do it differently, and a systematic ethnographic approach to understanding the machinations of power is not just about shedding light on secretive practices, but rather it is a way of developing a framework for understanding the processes by which power is won and maintained, and the ways that democratic power can be transformed into autocratic power. Watching and learning from what is happening now will potentially help us recognize the symptoms of autocratic rule and know what forms of resistance work and which do not.

Today, Laura Nader’s call to action falls upon a very different discipline than it did 45 years ago. An understanding of the role of power is an important – almost essential – component of almost all ethnographic study. However, the study of powerful people and institutions – turning the ethnographic gaze upward – is still not a common practice. Karen’ Ho’s ethnography of Wall Street, Liquidated, is an excellent recent example. The reason is perhaps not a lack of interest, but rather the significant barriers in the way of conducting ethnography in places of power. Sherry Ortner’s 2010 follow up to Nader’s call describes some of those barriers and limitations and offers some ideas for working around them. In particular, people in positions of power are not readily accessible to ethnographers, and finding ways into those organizations and institutions can be challenging. However, we have a history and a methodology (for better and for worse) of working our way into relatively closed social circles, and we can work together to develop new approaches for doing so today. The trick will be communicating with one another, and sharing information about what approaches have worked and which have not.

Whatever happens in the next four or eight years of Trump’s regime, anthropologists need to be on call. Engaging in political activities – marches, protests, phone banks, etc. – getting back to the ethnographic and social theory literature, and ensuring that our ethnographic practice is attentive to the dynamics of power are all components of the work that we need to do. Studying up – turning the ethnographic gaze on the people, institutions, and sites of power – is another way that we can contribute. It is a practice both for keeping the public informed about what’s going on in their political institutions – shining a light on the dark recesses of power – but also for expanding our knowledge about how power functions and changes in times like these. We have the tools, we need only apply them.


Metaphors of Power

the idea of upward anthropology depends on a spatialized metaphor for power. Power increases as you move up the scale and decreases as you move down. It’s a common way of talking about power or of diagramming power relations. But there is no natural reason why we should imagine power along these spatial dimensions – except that perhaps there was a time when it was a more literal configuration. Those with power were literally higher than others – set up on pedestals, living in the tallest buildings, forcing others to bow before them, etc. we have remnants of that, perhaps, in the imagination of the penthouse suite, but very often today the sites of power are more distributed and not so spatially recognizable. In some ways that makes things harder for us. 

Imagining the spatiality of power has its benefits, so I wouldn’t suggest changing the name or idea of this group. Situating power spatially forces us to situate ourselves in relation to it. Laura Nader’s call to “study up” (setting aside the pun aspect of the phrase) forces us to recognize that very often what we do is study down. Why do we do that? It situated us somewhere in the middle – not powerless, but also more powerful than many of the communities in which we work. Those are positive developments, but maybe the spatial metaphor makes it more difficult in some ways to conceive of how we can carry out our project. How does one study upward in a world where power is not actually spatially distributed? 

I’m a metaphor pluralist, meaning that I’m interested in exploring different metaphors and the way they enable different ways of thinking. And I have no qualms about the normative dictums around “mixing metaphors.” I can imagine other metaphors for power that might help us tactically consider how to go about doing “upward” anthropology. For example, there is the visual metaphor made famous by Foucault’s study of the panopticon. Granted the panopticon still depends on a spatial dimension, but the primary characteristic of power is the ability to see without being seen. Another example is the network metaphor. In a network we have nodes and edges representing the individual agents and the various relationships between them. A node with many edges attached represents a very powerful nose with a lot of influence on other nodes. A third metaphor is that of penetrability. John Holloway makes good use of this metaphor in his book Crack Capitalism. The image is of a room or facade that seems impenetrable – one cannot easily gain access. Holloway says that we need to find the cracks by carefully scouring the wall, clawing at it with our fingernails. And when we find such a crack, we must work on it until we are able to pry it open. 

Those are a few of the metaphors I’m familiar with. The question is how can these different metaphors enable different ways of thinking about power and about the project of “studying up”? What other metaphors might we enlist in this project?

The Upward Within

This past Wednesday, we hosted another workshop session , this time at the Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA) annual meeting. It was not well attended, possibly due to a failure on my part to promote it effectively, but there was a core group of participants and a couple of new faces. The discussion, as usual, was interesting and fruitful.

One of the things that I realized is that we often turn to discussions about reflexivity and the racial and gender problems within the discipline. These were not the issues that Laura Nader had in mind when she wrote her piece on studying up nearly 50 years ago, but they come up in almost every session that we do and I think it’s important to think about why that is and how these issues relate to the more general view of upward anthropology. 

Every anthropologist knows – or should know by now – that our discipline is rooted in a colonial past. Anthropologists were often on the front lines of colonialism along with missionaries and soldiers. They worked for colonial administrations and the methods and tools they developed to “know” others were primarily developed as ways of controlling them more effectively – with a velvet fist. We continue to live with this legacy in a discipline that is prediminantly white which makes its image by going off to study exotic and indigenous peoples around the world. Despite an increased critical gaze and awareness of the politics of representation, there are still significant problems with these activities that often go unrecognized precisely because they are done with a spirit of good intentions and critical reflexivity. Tied in to this are the ongoing racial and gender politics within the discipline that perpetuate and are perpetuated by this dominant form of fieldwork. 

The question is what does this have to do with upward anthropology – specifically the act of studying powerful institutions and people. One might argue that an extensive focus on the problems within the discipline distracts us from the revolutionary possibility of studying up. Instead of understanding and breaking down structures of power, we spend our time navel gazing and avoiding the “real” struggles. 

Obviously, I don’t see it that way, and I’m happy to have these discussions be a part of the upward anthropology workshops. I think that there is something about the concept of upward anthropology that brings these issues to the fore – the idea of the upward within. Furthermore, I think that these issues raise the interest in something like upward anthropology. There is a synergy between them where the more we think about studying up the more we will talk about and attempt to address the problematic history and present of our discipline and the more we do that the more we will be inclined to and capable of working on the project of upward anthropology. 

Where do we go from here?: The Future of Upward Anthropology in the Wake of AAA2014 and the Failure of Justice

First, I want to thank everyone who attended our meeting at Sankofa last Thursday, and for making the AAA conference so amazing. It was a challenging experience for many of us – attending the conference while also attempting to support local protest activities around the Mike Brown and Eric Garner cases. It sparked a lot of reflection, and gave me a renewed sense of the importance of this project for both building a better world, and for enacting a different kind of anthropology.


Upward Anthropologists and many others took part in marches this past week to protest the Eric Garner and Mike Brown decisions.


In thinking about these issues, I have some ideas about how we should move forward with this project. First of all, I think it is important to remember that this group started as a localized way to bring anthropologists together in the DC metropolitan area for the specific purpose of assembling data that would contribute to a broader ethnography of power here in one of the most concentrated nodes of power in the US. Our hope is that such an ethnography would provide activists and others with the maps and tools needed to transform or undermine those very structure of power. With that in mind, I will spend the next year building the local community of upward anthropologists and setting up the necessary platforms and resources that the community will use to assemble an ethnography of power.

However, DC does not exist in isolation. Another part of our purpose is to build a network of similar localized upward anthropology communities so that the various localized structures of power can be situated within broader systems of power operating at national, regional, and global scales. That, more or less, is the function of this website, the Facebook page, and the Twitter account. We’ve come a long way since our first meeting at AU PAC a year and a half ago, but we’ve still got a long way to go – this was made apparent last week at the conference. In order to accomplish this second goal, we need your help. I see two tasks ahead of us: 1) to promote the idea of upward anthropology within the discipline, and 2) to encourage and enable anthropologists to begin organizing their own localized upward anthropology groups.

The first task means reaching out to other anthropologists and encouraging them to talk about upward anthropology – on this blog or elsewhere. If you’d like to help by writing a post for this blog, contributing to our social media, or anything else, please contact me (jmtrombley at gmail)! The second task is not so clear to me. I have the sense that people are reluctant to organize their own upward anthropology communities for a variety of reasons. So if you have any suggestions for how to do this, please let me know. If you already are organizing upward anthropology activities – by this or any other name – keep me posted! I have no intention of coopting what anyone else is doing, but I would like to be able to use the resources we’ve pulled together to bring attention to any work that is being done.

The next year will be a busy one. I mentioned last week that, between this project and my dissertation, I’m starting to feel like I’m leading a double life. It will all be worth it in the end, though, if we can begin to build a better anthropology and a bette world.

AAA 2014 Tonight!

Today is the day! If you’re attending AAA 2014, we will be having a meeting at Sankofa tonight from 6-7pm. After the meeting we will head in the direction of Judiciary Square and the Washington Metropolitan Police Department to join ongoing rallies in solidarity for the failure to indict the murderers of Eric Garner and Mike Brown.

Directions to Sankofa from the Marriott:

  • Take the red line from Woodley Park
  • Switch to the green line at Gallery Place/China Town
  • Exit at Shaw/Howard University through the 7th & S street exit
  • Walk North on 7th/Georgia Ave for about a half a mile – past the Hospital.
  • Sankofa is on the Left.
  • The meeting will be in the conference room upstairs.

Come early to browse the book store and get a drink or snack at the cafe. We will see you there!

Upward Anthropology at AAA 2014

As most of you probably know, the American Anthropological Association annual meeting is being held in our home town of Washington DC December 3-7. As promised, we will be holding our own little meeting to coincide with the conference. The meeting is open to anyone who wants to take part, and will be structured in the same pattern of our previous meetings – a brief introduction followed by open discussion and planning. Hopefully some of you can make it!

Here are the meeting details:

  • When: Thursday December 4th, 6-7pm
  • Where: Sankofa Cafe (2714 Georgia Ave NW, Washington, DC 200010
  • Closest metro: Shaw/Howard on the Green line
  • If you have any questions contact Jeremy Trombley (jmtrombley at gmail)

Anthropology at Work

I would venture to bet that the vast majority of us – perhaps in the range of 99% – work for and in powerful institutions. This is obviously true of academic anthropologists, but is also likely the case for those working outside of academia – for government agencies, non-profits, corporations, etc. And we are hired by them to use our ethnographic methods to understand – to help those in power understand – often marginalized, but in all cases less powerful groups of people. Sometimes those above us care about such understanding, sometimes they don’t and other times they are indifferent – simply content to allow us to continue to do what it is we do. At other times, of course, they are openly hostile, because our work challenges an essential part of their powerful position. However, regardless of their reaction, the ethnographic gaze is usually turned downward. In fact, because we are employees of these institutions, we have a tendency to see them as above whatever conditions we might be studying – there is an intuitive aversion to the idea of studying the people and organizations that have hired us.

I would like to challenge this intuition. Being an upward anthropologist, of course I am interested in encouraging anthropologists who work for powerful institutions – both academic and public (an artificial binary, in any case) – to turn their ethnographic gaze upon those institutions themselves. I see this not only as an opportunity to develop a better understanding of power – the goal of upward anthropology – but also as a responsibility that every anthropologist has to the people they study – allowing them to be fully informed of the way that these institutions use the research that is being conducted. But this isn’t just political, it’s methodological as well. Anthropologists pride themselves on having a “holistic” approach – we teach it as one of the defining characteristics of anthropology in every Introductory class. How can an anthropologist claim to be holistic if she is leaving out of her field of inquiry an entire portion of the system? The fact that an organization is interested in ethnographic research on whatever population implies that there is a relationship between that organization and that population. That means that a full and holistic ethnography of the population can only be done in the context of an ethnography of the relationship between the two. Why does that relationship exist? Why is the organization interested? How had this relationship been developed over time? How has the organization in question shaped and affected the population? All of these are important questions that must be addressed to really understand the situation.

The really political question, then, is who gets the information? I had a professor once who commented on another anthropologist’s work studying farmers beliefs about nutrient management for the USDA. She questioned why it seemed appropriate for the USDA to commission this kind of research on farmers, but it seems inappropriate for the anthropologist to study the USDA and present their findings to the farmers. After all, it was the USDA who told the farmers what and how to think about nutrient management in the first place! When we work for an organization, we feel obligated to provide our findings to that organization, and perhaps that is true. However, as upward anthropologists, it is important that we also provide data to the people who are being studied so that they can understand the power relationship between themselves and this organization, and so that they can develop the tools to resist if need be.

Finally, I would argue that this should be one of the lessons we teach students with even a minor encounter with the field. Students come to us from all disciplines and areas of study – often because our introductory courses fulfill some general education requirement in the college. I believe that it is incumbent upon those of us who are responsible for teaching these students, not only the exotic past and present of anthropology, but also the way that anthropology and ethnography can be useful in their own lives and careers. Using ethnography and the critical lens of anthropology to understand the institutions they will almost inevitably work for is one way that we can fulfill this responsibility.

There are a lot of issues that arise from the anthropology of one’s own workplace – ethical issues, privacy issues, objectivity issues, not to mention keeping one’s job! I don’t have the solutions to these problems, but I encourage others to think about and discuss them. So let this be a challenge – to all anthropologists who work for powerful institutions – think about the role that upward anthropology might play in your own work, and what kinds of benefits and drawbacks you might encounter in the process.