Anthropological interest in critical studies of class, system, and inequality has recently been revitalized. Most ethnographers have done this from “below,” while studies of financial, political, and other professional elites have tended to avoid the language of class, capital, and inequality. This themed section draws together ethnographies of family wealth transfers, philanthropy, and private sector development to reflect on the place of critique in the anthropology of elites. While disciplinary norms and ethics usually promote deferral to our research participants, the uncritical translation of these norms “upward” to studies of elites raises concerns. We argue for a critical approach that does not seek political purity or attempt to “get the goods” on elites, but that makes explicit the politics involved in doing ethnography with elites.
Ethnographic engagements with global elites
Paul Robert Gilbert and Jessica Sklair
Women, inequality, and social reproduction
This article offers a critical ethnography of the reproduction of elites and inequalities through the lenses of class and gender. The successful transfer of wealth from one generation to the next is increasingly a central concern for the very wealthy. This article shows how the labor of women from elite and non-elite backgrounds enables and facilitates the accumulation of wealth by elite men. From covering “the home front” to investing heavily in their children’s future, and engaging non-elite women’s labor to help them, the elite women featured here reproduced not just their families, but their families as elites. Meanwhile, the aff ective and emotional labor of non-elite women is essential for maintaining the position of wealth elites while also locking those same women into the increasing inequality they help to reproduce.
Today there is a fascination with a new category of elites: the globalized management businessman. The notion of “elite” refers here to a group of people believed to be more competent in a particular field than others; Jack Welsh (GEC), Bill Gates (Microsoft) are among the best-known examples. The members of this social group have their own perception of reality and they also have a distinct class identity, recognizing themselves as separate and superior to the rest of society. Newcomers are socialized and co-opted by the group on the basis of internal criteria established by the existing group members. Therefore group members are more or less interchangeable and may move from one institution—in this case a corporation—to another within the group. Whether defined as heterogeneous or homogeneous, this group utilizes cultural mythologies that serve to legitimize their status and power: these are the focus of this article.
The methodological implications of “studying up” in Pakistan
Based on ethnographic research conducted with the wealthiest and most powerful business owners and politicians in urban Pakistan from 2013 to 2015, this article examines the particular set of epistemological and interpersonal issues that arise when studying elite actors. In politically unstable contexts like Pakistan, the relationship between the researcher and the elite reveals shifting power dynamics of class, gender, and national background, which are further complicated by the prevalence of rumor and the exceptional ability of elite informants to obscure that which they would prefer remain hidden. Specifically, this article argues that the researcher’s positionality, and the inversion of traditional power dynamics between the researcher and the researched, can ameliorate, as well as exacerbate, the challenges of undertaking participant observation with society’s most powerful.
Studying an English Professional Elite
Once the most easily recognizable status profession, the barristers' profession or the Bar is now faced with new regulatory demands, sources of competition and commercial pressures and can, to some extent, be regarded as a contested elite. With methodology at the core of the analysis, this paper addresses the complexities of identifying and studying an historically elite group, especially when, during the research, one is being gently socialized into the ways of the group. In the process, this paper illuminates many of the norms, rituals, and social and psychological dynamics of the Bar, a group aware of its changing position and the threats and opportunities this poses.
Deference and Influence in the Ethnography of Epistemic Elites
Paul Robert Gilbert
Through his enduring efforts to interrogate the regulative ideals of fieldwork, George Marcus has empowered doctoral students in anthropology to rethink their ethnographic encounters in terms that reflect novel objects and contexts of inquiry. Marcus' work has culminated in a charter for ethnographic research among 'epistemic communities' that requires 'deferral' to these elite modes of knowing. For adherents to this programme of methodological reform, the deliberately staged 'para-site' – an opportunity for ethnographers and their 'epistemic partners' to reflect upon a shared intellectual purpose – is the signature fieldwork encounter. This article draws on doctoral research carried out among the overlapping epistemic communities that comprise London's market for mining finance, and reviews an attempt to carve out a para-site of my own. Troubled by this experience, and by the ascendant style of deferent anthropology, I think through possibilities for more critical ethnographic research among epistemic elites.
France Compared to Britain and Germany
Thanks to a comparison of social and educational characteristics of elites in France, Germany and UK at the end of the nineteenth century, this contribution shows the specificities of the French case: a mixture of persistent traditional elites, akin to British and German ones, and the growing domination of a more recent economic and meritocratic bourgeoisie pushing for liberalism and democracy. Nevertheless, evolutions in the same direction as France are also perceptible in the two monarchies and give birth to a new divergence when after WWI the democratization of elites go faster in UK and Germany than in France where the law bourgeoisie remain dominant and blocks the reforms asked by more popular or petit bourgeois groups present in the political parties on the left.
Navigating a critical ethnography of wealth elites
Drawing on ethnographic research on philanthropy within a Brazilian family business, this article proposes a “critical ethnography” of wealth elites. This family’s narrative of historical commitment to social responsibility is crucial to the success of delicate succession processes within the family firm. By insuring the reproduction of the wealth and status of elite families, such business succession processes serve in turn to maintain the structural inequalities shaping Brazilian society. In this family’s account of its past, however, a series of very different activities— rooted in philanthropy, corporate social responsibility (CSR), labor legislation, and commerce—are collapsed within a single, coherent narrative of historical commitment to social responsibility, which sits at odds with alternative versions of this history presented by sources outside the family.
Le Cas des Chimistes de L’Institut de Chimie des Substances Naturelles (CNRS), 1960–2000
Muriel Le Roux
Les chimistes des substances naturelles formèrent une communauté identifi able comme telle au cours des années 1960, moment où la discipline acquiert une autonomie. Relevant d’un domaine de recherche aussi bien académique qu’industriel, les personnels, suivant en cela l’évolution générale des métiers de la connaissance, sont devenus identifi ables comme chercheurs au cours de la même période. Si le mot même de chercheur employé pour défi nir le métier n’était pas dénué de puissance symbolique au début de la période, il apparaît que la situation présente une image inversée aujourd’hui. Une distinction s’est opérée entre lauréats et anonymes ; la distance s’est accrue entre le haut et la base de la pyramide professionelle imposant aux historiens de réinterroger la notion d’élite lorsque l’on cherche à écrire l’histoire des sciences du second XXe siècle.
This article identifies a series of educational characteristics, such as place and level of education attained by individuals, their fields of specialization, and the knowledge of languages. The focus is on members of the Jewish Agency for Palestine—a leading organization of the Yishuv—during the British Mandate (1921-1948). Elite educational variables were potentially significant in a number of different ways: ensuring greater political effectiveness, establishing and promoting stronger ties with the people among whom elite members lived, articulating and communicating of political messages, and so on. This article claims that educational traits have been significant in facilitating the eventual realization of the Zionist project.