Posts Tagged ‘access’

Apologies for the long delay, dearest Readers—I’ve been busy hobnobbing with some of India’s finest energy geeks and politicos. I’ve yet to fully digest the unevenly electrifying boluses they’ve slipped me, but here are some musings on what’s going well and what’s not.

1. Wooing the elites

‘Will they actually talk to you?’ innocent civilians often ask. Simply gaining access to the elites is the most obvious research hurdle—although it is eminently doable.

As a former Oxford Union president once Facebook-boasted with characteristic douchebaggy flair:

It’s not who you know, it’s whom you know.

The researcher of elites, one guide advises, needs many of the characteristics of the social climber: ‘everyone who might possibly know someone, must be contacted and asked if they will give introductions, vouch for one, and otherwise help one’s enterprise.’ (Non-corporate) Brits would undoubtedly cringe at my naked opportunism—I do cringe inwardly, alas, and often wimp out of asking directly—but people in India are fortunately more sympathetic, and friends, acquaintances, and interviewees have often been very helpful. Let’s face it: all elites of all societies operate on this principle, this one just more unabashedly than most.

The barriers to elite access have probably been overrated, too—at least for someone in my position. As wonderfully-named pair Gewirtz & Ozga argue, access is more likely to be granted if the researcher seems ‘perfectly harmless’. As a young, female foreigner, in my interviewees’ eyes I’m about as harmless as a sickly baby koala, and can get away with asking ‘naive’ awkward questions while they play teacher. (Senior politicians and civil servants in Britain would be far more suspicious and hostile, I’m sure.) The exception is business elites, who find me about as appealing as gonorrhoea on toast.

Physical access has been the most demeaning part of the whole process—although only for international conversations. Arriving 15 minutes early at the Australian High Commission, I was told I couldn’t wait outside but had to keep moving. So I sullenly read a book, taking a few steps every couple of minutes as the guards eyed me. At the American embassy the suspicion was probably my own fault: I was inadvertently carrying a highly questionable electronics-filled package. Visions of Gitmo flashed past my eyes.

2. The lost art of conversation 

The single most important technique for successful elite interviews, it is widely agreed, is extensive, customised preparation. True, except several interviewees have asked for almost spontaneous meetings—two hours’ notice on a Saturday for one particularly interesting bureaucrat. A far bigger problem, though, has been what Susan Ostrander called elites’ endearing

tendencies to converse easily, freely, and at great length but not necessarily with the kind of substantive content the research requires.

Try as I might, I just can’t get some of them to shut up and answer my questions, rather than trotting off down entertaining tangents, even when I’ve already outlined my terribly optimistic ‘agenda’ for the meeting. With an embittered sigh, one expert simply advises that it is courting frustration and failure to go in expecting clear answers to particular questions; digressions and overall impressions may be as useful, and are much more likely to be obtained. The most interesting details have emerged so far when interviewees are most relaxed and conversation is flowing freely (so turning on a recorder is also unthinkable). Sigh. Tips on a postcard, please.

3. Are they lying?

Everyone expects those with power to lie. But do they lie more than other people? How does any ethnographer know their informant is ‘telling the truth’? Actually, my experience seems more like that of Julian Brash as he investigated New York City’s business elites and municipal authorities. He began expecting to have to probe the linkages between capitalism and the bureaucracy indirectly and subtly, but was surprised to find many interviewees were open about it. Here too, as Brash suggests,

the powerful operate in a world that is almost completely self-justified, thus rendering obscuration and dishonesty unnecessary.

I am but a gnat on the Indian elites’ windscreen, and most are convinced they’re (trying to) do the right thing.

4. Are elites people too?

Before we hit the field, each research project goes up before NHS death panel-like bureaucrats who assess whether it will die/be cruelly amputated/allowed to struggle onwards towards the light. This committee also rigorously probes the project’s morality (although admittedly they do seem unhealthily fond of making mice innards luminous). This makes sense: anthropologists—who in any case tend to be ethically sensitive types, innately prone to outbreaks of fruitarianism and adopting street puppies—have traditionally worked with vulnerable subjects, seen as requiring protection and empowerment.

But what about when the asymmetry of status, voice, and power between subjects and researcher is reversed? Elites clearly don’t need humble research-lepers to empower them. What are the ethics of interviewing someone who can shield themselves from exposure or criticism, and quite possibly have you deported on a whim? Where is the line between self-censorship and deception? Some argue even obtaining informed consent from such interviewees ‘seems an impossible ideal…an implicit double standard’.

Inevitably, there are researchers who have (arguably) taken this too far (David Mosse’s controversial ‘breach of trust’ in belatedly deciding to write an ethnography, Cultivating development, of his own DFID colleagues; Jennifer L. Pierce’s getting hired as a paralegal at law firms to carry out covert participant observation). In fact, I’ve found most interviewees supportive of critical, political research. As Gewirtz & Ozga found, the powerful understand the purpose of academic research more than most others; indeed, already two have urged me to write a book on specific aspects of Indian energy policy. Elites may be more beautiful and damned than the rest of us, but they also appreciate most the analysis of how power works.