Legislative Anthropology: Precedent Explains Past Indifference, Offers Future Research Pathways

By William Schumann

Emergent Conversation 14

This essay is part of Reflective Conversation: Revisiting and Revitalizing Ethnographies of Legislatures

I doubt that most cultural anthropologists would accept that legislatures are fixed institutions around which political and civic cultures input their goals and choices, and outcomes are dispassionately generated. Explaining the relatively small body of work on legislatures probably speaks more about precedent and access than to questions about the subject being taken seriously.

At its inception, American ethnology was primarily concerned with “non-Western cultures doing non-Western things” and programs often selected and nurtured students (i.e. future program leaders) in their own image(s).  Add to that the early jostling for disciplinary territory in the academy (e.g. anthropology versus sociology or classics), and the scope of acceptable fieldwork was probably calcified for decades. Secondarily, the organization and prioritization of research funding in anthropology has likely impacted the viability of legislative projects, though this is more difficult to quantify. Notwithstanding these factors, precedent alone cannot account for the development of cognate subjects such as legal anthropology, political anthropology, and (more diffusely) the “anthropology of institutions.”

So why not legislative anthropology as well? Part of the challenge is accessing a comparatively small global population of higher-level legislators/legislative bodies. Access is threatening in politics. Participant-observation has the potential to reveal a legislature’s principle source of power: information secrecy. Any research request that might make an elected official or party vulnerable (real or perceived) will be viewed cautiously. (This is amplified for civil servants.) Even when a request is granted, researchers must contend with the inherent instability of legislative labor. Elected officials are voted out of office, retire, or die. A small number become embroiled in controversies with the public, the media, and/or their parties. Key contacts may change positions within the party or parliamentary machinery and thereby lack time or lose (research) relevance. Over time, a researcher’s publication record might draw scrutiny from future potential participants.

Despite these limitations, publications such as Emma Crewe’s (2005) Lords of Parliament confirm the potential for detailed and nuanced ethnographic research in legislatures. I suspect that, like my own experience with the National Assembly for Wales (NAW), Crewe’s high-level access was built on the first principles of anthropological research: long-term relationship-building, transparency, and an ethical orientation to fieldwork.

Māori Party’s Rawiri Waititi delivers haka for Te Tiriti before being sworn in to Parliament. Screenshot from Twitter.

Studying legislatures can help us question how we conceptualize the nation-state, broaden the relevance of our discipline, and enhance other areas of anthropological research.

Legislatures are important sites for observing cultural practices that reproduce and challenge state authority; ethnography offers a singular strategy for observing how power is actually practiced and contested. Legislatures are sites for analyzing how civic and political objectives are translated into intelligible legislative action, and then operationalized through the bureaucratic administration of policies and laws, each of which are distinctive modalities of cultural practice. The anthropology of legislatures presents a means of distinguishing the study of governing from the study of government, or questioning how key concepts in anthropology like “governmentality” might explain observable legislative behaviors (Clarke 2012). More broadly, every legislative institution is explicitly tasked with representation (a major concept in cultural anthropology), so it is somewhat surprising that legislative cultures have been taken for granted within the field. Legislatures, after all, are primary sites where the cultural nation is mapped onto the legal-bureaucratic state (Balakrishnan 2012). The relevance to anthropology seems very clear at this moment.

Gershon’s (2011) observation that indigenous elected officials must be “alternative enough to stand for a divergent worldview but not so different that [they] threaten liberal morality” is as important as ever in this regard (165). The recent removal of a Māori MP speaker from the floor of the parliament in New Zealand for performing a haka signals the continuing importance of legislatures as sites of cultural conflict (BBC 2021). The 2021 appointments of Deborah Haaland as U.S. Secretary of the Interior and Mary Simon as Governor General of Canada speak to changing indigenous representation in government (Rott 2021; Bilefsky 2021). In Europe, the Scottish National Party’s civic nationalism dominates Scotland’s electoral politics in Holyrood and London. Now a formidable voting bloc in Westminster politics, party leaders may soon test post-Brexit support for Scottish independence through a new public referendum. It seems incumbent upon anthropology to better understand the cultural flows that inform these shifts in representation. Such work could potentially add new perspectives to established ethnographic concerns.

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US Vice President Kamala Harris (R) swears in US Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on March 18, 2021 at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building Ceremonial Office in Washington, DC. Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images.

In fact, the anthropology of legislatures should establish theoretical and methodological connections  among legislative actors, political parties, and civil societies that do not fix the boundaries of “legislative ethnography.” For example, I interned as a policy researcher in the NAW for four months and directly observed well over 100 hours of legislative events; however, my project benefited equally from interactions with non-profits, journalists, and bureaucrats, and from observing party conferences, election campaigns, and public events. (The latter activities also gave me access to elected officials in non-legislative settings.) Additional perspective came from periodic interviews with Welsh Members of Parliament and three-plus weeks spent meeting elected officials and civil servants with the European Union in Brussels. A good example of how an open approach to legislatures benefitted my research is my work on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) policies in the NAW. On this subject, elected officials and civil servants were interviewed in Cardiff, London, and Brussels. I attended relevant legislative sessions and committee hearings in Cardiff and reviewed transcripts from prior debates. I met with environmental groups representing regional-to-international coalitions. I attended a major public hearing on GMOs in western Wales. Understanding GMOs policy in a legislative context also meant getting up to speed on technical aspects of the Assembly’s legislative process (i.e., applying European law to member states and from member states to devolved governments). Collectively, these data specified the competing extra-legislative pressures on Welsh democracy to simultaneously represent public and (hierarchical) institutional interests (Schumann 2009). My approach illustrates one path toward an anthropology of legislatures, which brings the study of legislatures into conversation with a larger body of ethnographic research. Whether environment, civil society, gender, law, health, race, exchange, and/or any other area of work, making connections between established research and novel approaches to legislatures can cast a light on the agency and intersectionality of legislative and non-legislative actors.

Legislative anthropology might also engender new research ideas. Most obvious to me, cultural and linguistic anthropologists could explore collaborative projects that analyze the intersections of speech, context, and action in legislatures. Like Gershon in New Zealand, I witnessed many instances of elected officials “standing for culture” in the NAW by combining personal and statistical talking points to undercut an opponent’s claims of legitimate representation (Gershon 2011, 165-6). This needs more study, and probably requires a clever methodological approach to widely observe how political-legislative speech today is generated, disseminated, and consumed. Finally, collaboration should extend beyond the discipline. Anthropology has shown little interest in theories that explain political behavior from other disciplinary standpoints, yet has offered few alternatives.  A productive step on the path to a legislative anthropology would be to recognize the value and limitations of other theories of legislative behavior. Technical, empirical, and other analyses of government can and should help inform our approaches to anthropologically studying governing. (For the record, I do not do quantitative research.) Eventually, it will be necessary for ethnographers to engage with political scientists and others to articulate what is cultural about legislating, and to make a case about why it is worth studying.

Dr. William R. Schumann is Professor of Appalachian Studies at Appalachian State University. He earned his Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Florida in Gainesville. Schumann is the author of Toward an Anthropology of Government: Democratic Transformations and Nation Building in Wales (2009) and co-editor of Governing Cultures: Anthropological Perspectives on Political Labor, Power and Government (2012). Since conducting legislative fieldwork in Wales, Schumann has focused on building the capacity of rural communities to achieve ecological, cultural, and economic sustainability. This work includes designing applied curricula as an an Honorary Teaching Fellow for the Appalachian Regional Commission (2010-18), leading a community development field school in rural Wales (2003-2016), and, since 2017, collaborating on rural program development with colleagues at the University of the Free State-Qwaqwa in South Africa.

Works Cited

Balakrishnan, Gopal, ed. 2012. Mapping the Nation. New York: Verso.

BBC. 2021. “New Zealand: Maori MP Thrown Out of Debate after Haka.” https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-asia-57091286. Last accessed May 12, 2021.

Bilefsky, Dan. 2021. “Trudeau Appoints Canada’s First Indigenous Governor General.” New York Times, July 6, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/06/world/canada/indigenous-governor-general-mary-simon.html. Last accessed November 1, 2021.

Clarke, John. 2012. “The Work of Governing.” In Governing Cultures: Anthropological Perspectives on Political Labor, Power, and Government, edited by Kendra L. Coulter and William R. Schumann. Pp. 209-231. New York: Palgrave.

Crewe, Emma. 2005. Lords of Parliament: Manners, Rituals, and Politics. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Gershon, Ilana. 2011. “Critical Review Essay: Studying Cultural Pluralism in Courts versus Legislatures.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 34(1): 155-174.

Rott, Nathan. 2021. “Deb Haaland Confirmed As 1st Native American Interior Secretary.” NPR, March 15, 2021.  https://www.npr.org/2021/03/15/977558590/deb-haaland-confirmed-as-first-native-american-interior-secretary. Last accessed November 1, 2021.

Schumann, William. 2009. Towards an Anthropology of Government: Democratic Transformations and Nation-Building in Wales. New York: Palgrave.



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