HomeDoing Fieldwork in Centres of Power

HomeDoing Fieldwork in Centres of Power

Doing Fieldwork in Centres of Power

The Example of Deliberative Bodies

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Published on Wednesday, March 10, 2021


The aim of this call is to gather contributions in order to publish an edited volume on the methodological and epistemological challenges specifically posed by the practice of fieldwork in centres of power. The ambition is to draw on the experience of researchers who have already been confronted with these issues in order to offer examples, paths for reflection and keys to researchers in anthropology, sociology and political science who would like to venture into them in their turn, in order to help them grasp the challenges they pose and adjust their fieldwork practices to respond to them. To narrow the perspective as much as to emphasize a form of power centre that is now widespread, deliberative assemblies are taken as a case study. The latter bring together institutions with different reasons for being (e.g. political, legal or religious) and their scale (local, national or international).



Fieldwork in centres of power is a difficult and complex undertaking by nature. By centres of power, we refer to all the social institutions and organizations – sub-state, state and supra-state – who have a mission of political, economic, legislative, administrative or legal governance. In these contexts, activities are often so intense that elected representatives, political staff, civil servants and journalists have little opportunity to develop critical thinking on their practices, even if they are in demand by researchers. In the name of secrecy or reasons of state, such centres of power attempt to strictly control both the visibility of their activities to outsiders and the way that institutional stakeholders interact with each other. If several authors have pointed out the difficulty of doing fieldwork in these contexts, few of them have addressed it directly in order to examine the issues raised, to find methodological solutions and to examine its epistemological consequences. Nevertheless, at the same time, researchers unanimously agree on the virtues of approaches that claim to use political ethnography (e.g. Abélès 1991; Heclo & Wildavsky 1981; Joseph et al. 2007; Yanow 2011), even if it is difficult to agree on what this term means.


Today, it has been largely acknowledged that the state is not a rational, coherent and homogenous administrative organization (e.g. Abrams 1988; Gupta 2012; Herzfeld 1992, 2005; Lea 2012; Mitchell 1991; Shore 2011). As a result, many ethnographers consider it essential to approach the state from its margins and its peripheries. Concretely, this means focusing on situations where individuals are in direct contact with officialdom, such as in welfare offices or in their interactions with civil servants who implement educational, health, migration, criminal and other policies (e.g. Lipsky 1980; Das & Poole 2004; Fassin 2013). Studying the interface between officialdom and everyday people is undoubtedly a relevant entry point. This is why it is necessary to complement this literature by focusing on individuals who are active in centres of power. Whether they are elected or not, these individuals are not outside the state simply because they run it or that they are its invisible hands. Their tasks also lead them to queue at government offices and to deal with civil servants who are concerned with maintaining established order and defending policies dictated by their own hierarchy. Admittedly, their experience of the state is radically different from that of private citizens, but that doesn’t make it any less complex, plural and therefore important to observe and problematize (see also Abélès 1995; Sharma & Gupta 2006).

Even for those authors who choose to do fieldwork in centres of power, few have directly focused on it as a research theme in its own right. A first reason for this is that the writings of those researchers who have produced the most significant work on this topic now evolve in a piecemeal way, e.g. they are about parliaments (e.g. Abélès 1992; Crewe 2005, 2015; Weatherford 1981), international organizations (e.g. Bellier & Wilson 2000; Garsten & Sörbom 2018; Hertz 2014; Müller 2013) or national and regional executive authority (e.g. Mathur 2016; Lea 2008). These writings are divided into different subsets that have a high degree of internal consistency, but relationships between them are not really intended. It is these relationships between subsets of the academic literature that need to be better articulated with each other. Secondly, in a lot of research in political studies, in sociology or in anthropology, the centres of power are not just one more stage where social tensions are expressed and resolved and which researchers examine on an ad hoc basis for a given research project without first considering their particular intrinsic nature. Finally, in terms of methodology, we must recognize that researchers who defend a basic conception of fieldwork are not uncommon among those who view fieldwork as involving carrying out a series of interviews or observations through immersion, without seeing it as a form of knowledge of social facts that comes with issues and challenges of its own in this type of context (see Pachirat 2011; Schatz 2011; Rhodes 2011). Therefore, for these three reasons, it now seems appropriate to delve deeper into this specific question of fieldwork in centres of power.

We believe that deliberative bodies have a special place amongst the various and many existing centres of power, not in the sense that they are remarkable, but rather in the sense that they are particularly representative of issues that are specific to this type of context. By deliberative bodies, we do not refer specifically to law-making bodies or to the institutions of democratic regimes, but rather to a broader conception whereby elected or appointed officials deliberate on issues that effect a given political community in various ways (e.g. Bailey 1965). This could include tribal and municipal councils, citizens’ councils, regional or national parliaments, intergovernmental organizations (e.g. ASEAN, Mercosur, the African Union) or international institutions (e.g. UN, NATO, WTO, WHO). We believe that such organizations provide a vantage point that should be prioritized for three reasons. Firstly, studying them gives us an opportunity to better understand the logics and dynamics of deliberative practices that are at the heart of a growing number of institutions and organizations today, whether they are political or not (see Richards & Kuper 1971; Détienne 2003). Secondly, the ethnography of deliberative bodies is a research topic that is relatively unexplored today. As a result, the great richness and complexity of deliberative bodies’ social reality are often hidden because everyone has a subjective intuitive understanding of them (see, e.g., Crewe 2017; Fenno 1978). Thirdly, the notion of a “deliberative body” brings together various types of institutions and organizations, all of which have many forms (Lijphart 2012; Manin 2010). This highlights the importance of questioning our vernacular understandings of these institutions and organizations through a collective systematic effort.


At the end of this brief overview, it seems that the academic literature on centres of power has a gap. We aim to address this issue by going a step further than the stimulating thinking begun in certain programmatic writings, notably in the anthropology of social and political institutions and organizations (e.g. Abélès 1995; Durão & Lopes 2011; Garsten & Nyqvist 2013; Wright 1994), and relating this to the case of deliberative bodies as well as other institutions and organizations of state and non-state governance. At the same time, by doing so, we hope to make a modest contribution to a long intellectual tradition, especially within anthropology, for which methodological and epistemological questioning is inseparable from fieldwork. In this way, we are part of a research tradition that considers academic thinking and data analysis as the two inseparable parts of knowledge rather than as compartmentalized disciplinary specialities.

For this edited volume, we make two proposals, one methodological and the other theoretical:

  • Firstly, we argue for a broad conception of the notion of ethnography. More specifically, we mean any academic undertaking based on encounters in the field where the researcher is in an external position (i.e. does not belong to the world studied), uses an empirical approach (i.e. gathers first-hand data) and aims to have a comprehensive perspective (i.e. situates his or her observations in the context of the current sociopolitical issues and portrayals). With this broad definition, we intend to speak to researchers from all of the disciplines in the human and social sciences without abandoning the heart of what makes this mode of knowledge distinctive.    
  • Secondly, we would like to fully explore the hypothesis that deliberative bodies are a representative subset of centres of power. We believe that the focus should be on the variety and the multiplicity of forms of all public, deliberative assemblies that deal with the collective affairs of a given political community, without necessarily giving priority to a geographical region.

Therefore, building on the panel entitled “Ethnography of Parliaments” organized at the July 2020 EASA conference in Lisbon, which resulted in fruitful discussions, we hope to bring together researchers who have carried out ethnographic research in the context of deliberative bodies to further explore these two proposals and to contribute to better recognition of the relevance, the possibility and the legitimacy of this type of approach. Concretely, the goal of this volume is double:

  • Firstly, we want to assess the state of the particular challenges faced when carrying out fieldwork that are often not exclusive to deliberative bodies in specific. In spite of their diversity, what all of these institutions have in common is that they are relatively closed spaces of sociability where the stakeholders that interact are members of an elite because, if nothing else, they have strong symbolic power. This means that there is an unusual fieldwork relationship where the relational power dynamic between the researcher and the person researched is reversed. This is why this volume could, at least in part, take the form of a guide for anyone who wants to do this kind of work.    
  • Secondly, we want to promote the eminent heuristic value of these methodological and epistemological issues using a conception of research whereby the researcher is assigned a place and a role by those who he or she studies. This place and this role should be questioned so that we can put the way that the researcher views the world that he or she studies into perspective. Along the lines of anthropological thinking on the practice of ethnography (see Gupta and Ferguson 1997; Gusterson 1997; Marcus 1998; Nader 1972; Wright and Reinhold 2011), we believe that difficulties of doing fieldwork in the context of institutions, whilst they are real, need not be perceived as barriers to the fieldwork, but rather as expressions of the ways that these social worlds initiate a collective, in-depth consideration of how these social worlds are organized, structured and see themselves. Therefore, this book also aims to initiate a collective, in-depth discussion about the adequacy of fieldwork for this type of context and, if need be, consider the necessary adjustments.

In addition, to build on the complexity and the multifaceted character of centres of power – and therefore of deliberative bodies – we believe that it is essential to highlight a variety of approaches, perspectives and topics. This is why it is important for us to include contributions about the diversity of deliberative bodies, but also ones that are written by researchers from different academic disciplines, different continents and at different stages in their careers. The two proposals we have put forward above should be scrutinized from a pluridisciplinary lens in order to bring out new research topics from routine and everyday social practices, e.g. from the oppositions between what is said and unsaid, formal and informal, public and private or visible and invisible.


The proposals for contributions should ideally combine the two following aspects:

  1. Address a specific issue that you faced during your fieldwork, supported by an ethnographic narrative as evidence, in order to show its specific challenges or the possibilities of finding a solution to it or getting around it. Also consider the issue’s influence on your perception of the social world and, ultimately, on the output of your academic research.Regarding this aspect, themes could include, but are not limited to, the following: access to the field, freedom of inquiry, the lack of legitimacy of academic perspectives, the weight of institutional discourses, comparative research, etc.
  1. Address what doing fieldwork in deliberative bodies means at a more theoretical level, focusing on what this form of knowledge contributes and what we cannot obtain using other approaches.Regarding this aspect, themes could include, but are not limited to, the following: comparison of two kinds of fieldwork in deliberative bodies, fieldwork in deliberative bodies versus in other political institutions, fieldwork in deliberative bodies at home and afar or the epistemology of fieldwork when the researcher is in a position of symbolic subordination with regard to the people studied.

Proposals of about 1,500 words (excluding bibliography) should be sent by April 15, 2021.

The proposals must:

  • present the argument, its relevance and a draft outline of the article.
  • contain a short abstract of 200 words for inclusion in the draft contents of the volume which will then be sent to the publisher and to the other contributors.
  • include a brief biographical note of 100 words.

The tentative publication deadlines are as follows:

  • February 22, 2020: circulation of the call for papers
  • April 15, 2021: deadline for submitting chapter proposals
  • May 1, 2021: notification of acceptance/rejection of chapter proposals
  • August 1, 2021: deadline for submitting a first version of the full chapters and sending them to reviewers
  • October 1, 2021: receipt of feedback from reviewers
  • December 1, 2021: deadline for submitting a second version of the full chapters

Book Editors

  • Jonathan Chibois (IIAC, France)
  • Samuel Shapiro (Université Laval,Canada)


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Policy Worlds: Anthropology and the Analysis of Contemporary Power. Oxford: Berghahn, pp. 300-313.


  • Thursday, April 15, 2021


  • fieldwork, ethnography, epistemology, centre of power, state, political institution, deliberative body, assembly, council, parliament,


  • Samuel Shapiro
    courriel : shapirosamuel [at] gmail [dot] com
  • Jonathan Chibois
    courriel : chibois [at] ehess [dot] fr

Information source

  • Jonathan Chibois
    courriel : chibois [at] ehess [dot] fr


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

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« Doing Fieldwork in Centres of Power », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Wednesday, March 10, 2021, https://doi.org/10.58079/1674

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