Outside the comfort zone: on the hazards, failures, and serendipities of doing ethnography among US think-tank professionals
Paper short abstract:
Based on ethnographic fieldwork among think tanks in Washington DC, this paper addresses the discomforts of doing ethnography 'close to home' and in circles of power, the challenges involved, the failures encountered, but also the opening of possibilities for engagement.
Paper long abstract:
This paper engages with the challenges of doing ethnographic research in and among think tanks in Washington DC. Think tanks are often perceived to be centers of power, places where knowledge is crafted, political ideas polished, and networks of influence cultivated. The dense social network of 'policy intellectuals' - think tank experts, policy makers, politicians, multilateral experts, and corporate leaders - works like 'an economy of connections,' in which an ethnographer lacking relevant US-based credentials may find him- or herself at a disadvantage. There is as well a deceptive familiarity to the social worlds of think tanks, in that think-tank professionals share the academic's preoccupation with seeking knowledge, debating perspectives and diffusing ideas, yet operate based on distinctly different rationales. In many ways, doing fieldwork among think tanks in the US brings into focus the challenges of 'studying up' and the hazards of accessing networks of influence. It also evokes the discomforts of working in a cultural environment that is 'close to home,' entailing a degree of 'cultural intimacy,' yet only deceptively similar. The paper addresses the challenges involved, the failures encountered, but also the opening of possibilities for engagement. On this basis, the paper invites discussion on the broader question of the US as a field site that ethnographers are either attracted to or tend to avoid.
Does the future of anthropology not include the USA as a field site (except as 'anthropology at home')?