Reluctant Anthropologists: Revealing but Rare Insights into Legislatures

By Emma Crewe

Emergent Conversation 14

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

Black Rod knocks on the door to the Commons, May 18, 2016. The doors to the Commons chamber are shut in Black Rod’s face: a practice symbolising the Commons’ autonomy from the monarch. He strikes the door three times before it is opened. Photo by UK Parliament. CC BY NC 2.0.

Ten years ago Ilana Gershon analyzed how the concept of culture travels through different institutions, and how people are made cultural in courts versus in legislatures, in a seminal Critical Review Essay published in PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropological Review (2011).[1] As Gershon (2008) clarifies in an earlier piece about New Zealand, institutional contexts configure what counts as cultural in different ways for reasons worth exploring. Legislatures and parliaments are obviously sites of contestation, with even the terms of debate often becoming hotly argued over—for example, whether to refer to Māori “race” or “culture” when discussing their interests. Once text is law, it becomes more stable, so definitions are no longer in the domain of political compromise. In the 2011 essay Gershon takes this contrast still further, analyzing cultural pluralism more generally in Anglo-American legal settings. Legislators make laws that contain general rules so that they can claim they are representing many, whereas in courts the general rules are applied to specific contexts with the aim of accomplishing objective justice (156). The performance of both representation and justice means glossing over difference at certain points, including cultural context, but they achieve this differently. Legislators are able to embody cultural difference while court officials can’t because the nature of their work is contrasted: representation vs adjudication (166).

Gershon may have underestimated one of the contradictions in politicians’ labor. While accountable representation creates an influential logic in the work of elected legislators, some legislatures also contain appointed parliamentarians who see themselves as in the business of neither justice nor representation but expert scrutiny. Even elected representatives stray from the representation imperative when immersed in fighting for votes for their party outside their constituency or causes that relate to their former profession while sitting on select committees. Her article is significant not because she has finished the job of analysis but rather she has expanded our capacity to think about political and legal work. She has made clear that anthropological scholars of courts need to adjust when studying legislatures to take account of different assumptions, logics and labor. The importance of her article for non-anthropologist ethnographers of parliaments, a growing sub-branch of political science in Europe, is a reminder that ethnography entails far more than interviews, shadowing, and a dash of observation. Ethnography requires whatever methods and theories assist in an analysis of the cultural logic of institutions rather than a set recipe of tools and techniques. The political scientist Thompson (2020) charts the rise of ethnographical approaches within the study of parliaments in the U.K., crediting the Westminster parliament itself in part for opening up to embedded researchers; yet anthropological theories of ethnography remain misunderstood by some political scientists (as I explain elsewhere, Crewe 2021).

You might think Gershon’s essay would inspire both anthropologists to get more interested in legislatures and political scientists to be curious about anthropologically informed ethnography, so it is puzzling that relatively few have followed in her footsteps. A handful of anthropologists had already ventured into parliaments before 2011, the first being Weatherford who described the extensive patron-client relations to be found within the U.S. Congress (1985). Marc Abélès, the first anthropologist of parliaments in Europe, researched local politics in France, the French National Assembly, and the European Parliament. Whether highlighting how politicians in France are the living symbol of a locality (2000), or how the rituals of debate in the chamber entails the incarnation of different elements in society (2006), Abélès brought the study of symbolism into parliamentary studies. Several others had looked at conflicts over identity in the European Parliament (e.g., Shore 2002, Bellier 2002, Wodak 2003), I studied the House of Lords (2005), and William Schumann (2009) writes about the symbolic importance of producing documents that legitimate the Assembly and speaking Welsh as a way to claim a national Welsh identity.

Drawing by Theo Walker of Emma Crewe researching the UK Houses of Parliament.

Several anthropologists have written ethnographies of parliament since 2011. In my research (2015) on the House of Commons, I found that UK parliamentary debates had much in common with France, with cosmological debates (about relationships in the family, with animals, in the constitution and with our neighbors) being the most controversial and heated. Just as politics is an intensification of sociality (Crewe 2021), the emotional charge of politics can magnify to the point where the risk of violence heightens. This underlying violence in politics highlights how and why parliamentary debates have to be ritualized; the inevitable hostilities that arise out of difference would descend into chaos and violence if the discussion was not highly regulated, as the other main reductionist theory found in the more conventional political science approaches to parliamentary studies: rational choice theory. Anthropologists set ourselves a very different task from political scientists with their focus on political roles, functions, and outputs, as I explain in the Anthropology of Parliaments:

Politics involves strange processes of alchemy. We need to know what ingredients are involved but also how they mix, fuse and play together. In democracies the essentials are elections and winning support, representation of interests, administration of the state, and scrutiny of government. To work out how this happens in everyday culture-making and power struggles, I have suggested that you might want to consider politics as a form of work, organised by riffs, rhythms and rituals. When seen as work processes that are endlessly entangled with each other, we can begin to analyse what is going on between people from their multiple points of view. The final task is to grapple with making decisions about where to focus our gaze and how to study the entanglements with a sense of proportion. I need to disentangle the entanglements (Crewe 2021, 175)

In this disentangling process, Bourdieu has been a strong influence on most anthropologists of parliaments, with a focus on history, silent traditions, symbolism, and everyday practices. When Amy Busby (2013) writes about the political work of Members of the European Parliament as an everyday activity, she too draws on Bourdieu to consider how politicians accrue different kinds of social and political capital–offices or reputation–even though their ethos articulates egalitarianism (222). Jessica Bignell (2018) analyzed the work of political communication through a Bourdieuian lens, but challenged his power determinism, pointing to how communication has many strands. It allows political actors anywhere to do many things at once as they “navigate the messiness, uncertainty, and indeterminancy that they are enmeshed in to create change or keep things the same” (2013: 238-9). Like any good anthropologist, Bignell has her mind on both the general and specific, and in relation to the latter, she considers the specific case of the Green Party in New Zealand for whom–given their small size and marginality–communication always has the theme of reputation building within it (232-235). Similarly, among a rich array of themes, Heikki Wilenus (2020) writes about how East Javanese regional councillors are also concerned with reputation; they have to dispense patronage but appear above corruption at the same time. The required navigation of contradictions in political worlds is a clear theme emerging from all this anthropological work.

These full-length ethnographies on parliamentarians and parliaments show such promise, and parliaments have so much that anthropologists are trained to research—hierarchy, rituals, kinship, marriage, cultural plurality, conflict—that it is surprising in some ways that we have witnessed more of a trickle than a stampede of embedded researchers. Gershon (2011) points out that we do not have to start anew (155). I might add that the anthropology of organizations is a slowly growing field, and although various edited volumes have neglected parliaments so far (e.g., Gellner and Hirsch 2011, Jimenez 2016, Niezen and Sapignoli 2017), they provide scope for comparative research with other types of organizations. Equally, the anthropology of parliaments could take account of anthropological studies of democracy (see Paley 2002); elections in India (Banerjee 2014), Brazil (Ansell 2018), Russia (Melnikova 2013) and Bosnia-Herzegovina (Coles 2004); how politicians are viewed by citizens across the globe (e.g., Apter 1987, Ruud 2001, Spencer 2007, Michelutti 2008, Floret 2010, Ahmed 2019); and parliamentary-created processes of exclusion on the basis of being migrants in the U.S. (Chock 1991) or Dalits in the U.K. (Mosse 2020). Feminist scholarship on women MPs encountering misogyny—whether Tamale (1999) in Uganda, Miller (2021) and Puwar (2004) in the U.K., or Rai and Spary (2019) in India—provide further scope for both inspiration and comparison.

Photo of Emma Crewe and a colleague interviewing politicians in Mon State, Myanmar. Photo supplied by author.

On a more pessimistic note, parliaments are daunting as sites of fieldwork. First, access is becoming even more difficult as security tightens its grip. If you have contacts in the insular worlds created around parliaments, as I did before I entered the House of Lords in 1998 (Crewe 2021, 16-23), then it is far easier to secure a pass. For those with no networks, and especially early career researchers, the difficulties of access create huge barriers that are worthy of study in and of themselves. Secondly, anthropologists are reluctant to study up (Gilbert and Sklair 2018). Our assumption tends to be that ethnographic research demands a process of imagination and empathy whereby you aim to see the world through the eyes of your interlocutors. That works fine if you research how citizens respond to the work of politicians but if you turn your gaze entirely on the politicians, trying to understand their various and contradictory experiences of political work, then the discomforts of complicity and collusion become inevitable. Even the process of detaching from your material, as you withdraw to write about the world you have been immersed in from a distance, makes critical scrutiny more of a possibility, still there are reasons for moderation. In some countries, critiquing politicians is extremely dangerous. This is not the case in the U.K., but even in Westminster I feared diminished access either for myself or for subsequent researchers if I ventured towards what might be perceived as overly hostile criticism. This is probably partly why even the thought of studying parliaments can be somewhat intimidating, especially if you are socially or politically vulnerable. It is perhaps a symptom of my own privileged background that this did not prevent me from overcoming doubts about approaching Westminster to be an embedded researcher.

Finally, anthropology as a discipline has a history of ambivalence about studying up, at home, and in institutions. There is the ghost of an idea that a real anthropologist travels to a remote and rural place, claims that territory as their area and becomes such an expert that even the people in that locality might consult them about their traditions. And yet the House of Lords is by far the strangest fieldwork site I have navigated (out of various sites in Bangladesh, India, Ethiopia, Myanmar, and the U.K.). Some new peers have been directed towards my ethnography (2005) to help them learn the ropes, and yet I still don’t quite feel at home in the Palace of Westminster. Physically and politically, I still get utterly lost when trying to find my way around the thousands of rooms and complex relationships, meanings, and rhythms created by those who work there. There is so much that we don’t know about what goes on in parliaments, especially within political parties, within lobbying groups, and via digital media; in relation to government, the judiciary, the private sector, and civil society; and how legislative bodies are failing to deal with various emergencies, changing but staying the same, and navigating the rise in violence within democracies. But also, to return to one of Gershon’s themes, how and why knowledge is transformed as it travels around the state, the virtual world, and other parts of society merits further investigation. More anthropological scrutiny of these institutions with so much potential and capacity to create good and inflict harm will benefit them profoundly; Ilana Gershon’s encouragement to study legislatures has become urgent. I might even try to claim that it would be unethical to ignore her.

Emma Crewe is a Research Professor at SOAS (University of London) and a Research Supervisor at the University of Hertfordshire where she teaches doctoral students about management. An anthropologist by training, her research focuses on parliaments and she has publishing widely on political work and knowledge, including her latest book on the Anthropology of Parliaments (Routledge, 2021). She is Director of the Global Research Network on Parliaments and People, Chair of the Royal Anthropological Institute’s Committee on the Anthropology of Policy and Practice, and Chair of the SOAS Senate. She led a 4-year grant-making programme, awarding over £800k to scholars in Ethiopia and Myanmar to study democracy, and currently co-ordinates a £2m global comparative ethnographic study of parliaments in Brazil, Ethiopia, Fiji, India, the UK and the US (funded by the European Research Council).


[1] I would like to thank the European Research Council for supporting the writing of this essay as part of the Ethnographies of Parliaments, Politicians and People programme, 2019-2024, no. 834986.

Works Cited

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About Jennifer Curtis

Jennifer Curtis is an Honorary Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh:

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