Studying Up: Four Modalities, Two Challenges

In: Public Anthropologist
Hugh GustersonProfessor of Anthropology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada
George Washington University, Washington DC, USA,

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In her 1973 article “up the anthropologist” Laura Nader called on anthropologists to engage in critical studies of the relationship between powerful institutions and the broader society, using a “vertical slice” approach. But Nader worried that participant observation was hard in the context of studying up, and yet it has been presented as definitive of anthropology’s methodology. This article discusses four methodological strategies for studying up in the light of this concern: insider ethnography; covert ethnography; remote ethnography; and adapted participant observation. The first two have intellectual or ethical liabilities. The last is increasingly normalized. Going forward, anthropologists studying up face two obstacles: first, the increasingly totalizing hold of corporate and government workplaces over their employees, even when they are not at work; and, second, university institutional review boards (irb s) concerned to avoid conflictual or critical research.

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