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.


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