Laura Nader on “Studying Up”


See the full text of Laura Nader’s article “Up the Anthropologist: Perspective Gained from Studying Up”

“The study of man is confronted with an unprecedented situation: never before have so few, by their actions and inactions, had the power of life and death over so many members of the species.”

“Maybe these are attempts to get behind the facelessness of a bureaucratic society, to get at the mechanisms whereby faraway corporations and large-scale industries are directing the everyday aspects of our lives. Whatever the motivation, the studies raise important questions as to responsibility, accountability, self-regulation, or on another level, questions relating to social structure, network analysis, library research, and participant observation.”

“Studying ‘up’ as well as ‘down’ would lead us to ask many ‘common sense’ questions in reverse. Instead of asking why some people are poor, we would ask why other people are so affluent? How on earth would a social scientist explain the hoarding patterns of the American rich and middle class? How can we explain the fantastic resistance to change among those whose options ‘appear to be many’? How has it come to be, we might ask, that anthropologists are more interested in why peasants don’t change than why the auto industry doesn’t innovate, or why the Pentagon or universities cannot be more organizationally creative? The conservatism of such major institutions and bureaucratic organizations probably has wider implications for the species and for theories of change than does the conservatism of peasantry.”

“If anthropology were reinvented to study up, we would sooner or later need to study down as well. We are not dealing with an either/or proposition; we need simply to realize when it is useful or crucial in terms of the problem to extend the domain of study up, down, or sideways.”

“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. Most members of complex societies and certainly most Americans do not know enough about, nor do they know how to cope with, the people, institutions, and organizations that most 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?”


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