STUDYING UP (from Capital At Work: Methodology in THE MARKET*)

January 20, 2015 § Leave a comment


Envelope & Paperclip, December 2011 (Letter from Irish Ambassador to Germany requesting support and project access from Deutsche Börse AG) from THE MARKET, a project by Mark Curran

In the context of a study of power and finance regarding a globalised hegemony, a central methodological reference for THE MARKET (2010-) has been the proposal by the anthropologist, Laura Naderfor studying up. In her article published in 1972, Nader appealed for a critical repatriated anthropology, through:

What if, in reinventing anthropology, anthropologists were to study the colonizers rather than the colonized, the culture of power rather than the culture of the powerless, the culture of affluence rather than the culture of poverty?

Principally studying the most powerful strata of urban society…and instead of asking why some people are poor, we would ask why other people are so affluent (1972: 289).

Nader argued that by not ‘studying up’ would limit the ability to form ‘adequate theory and description’ (ibid.: 290) and while she further framed her argument in terms of citizenship and democracy, her appeal has methodological implications, namely, concerning access:

the powerful are out of reach on a number of different planes: they don’t want to be studied; it is dangerous to study the powerful; they are busy people; they are not all in one place, and so on (ibid.: 302).


Void Visitors Pass, Deutsche Börse AG March 2012, Eschborn (Frankfurt), Germany from THE MARKET, a project by Mark Curran

In such a potentially limiting context, the possibility for long-term engagement in the form of, for example, participant observation can be severely hampered. However, Nader argued that such limitations should not define the subject of research and advocated a more multivariant approach, including the use of personal documents, memoirs, chance encounters, discussion, interviews and public relations documents amongst others. In the context of power, I would assert such limitations regarding access embody significant critical meaning regarding the focus of study. Over 20 years later, the anthropologist, Hugh Gusterson, revisited Nader’s appeal, elaborating for what he defined as a polymorphous engagement (1997: 116):

The ethnography of the powerful needs to consist of interacting with informants across a number of dispersed sites, not just local communities, and sometimes in virtual form; and it means collecting data eclectically from a disparate array of sources in many different ways such as… formal interviews…extensive reading of newspapers and official documents…careful attention to popular culture, as well as informal social events outside of the actual corporate office or laboratory. (ibid.: 116).


from THE MARKET, Gallery of Photography, Dublin (installation image by Jamin Keogh)

Drawing on Gusterson, the cultural anthropologist, Karen Ho, incorporated such a methodological approach in her excellent study, Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street**, published in 2009. Elaborating on her previous career in investment banking, Ho drew on her personal professional network and included encounters at business events, conferences, college reunions, interviews to simple ‘rich, informal anecdotes gained from chatting’ (2009: 21). Such a methodological engagement regarding an ethnography of the powerful, I would argue, could further critically benefit from representational strategies assembled according to the principle of montage or multivocality as asserted by the visual ethnographer, Sarah Pink – ‘representations that incorporate the multilinearity of research and everyday lives’ (2001: 117). Pink continues regarding such fragmented experience:

reality is, in fact, continuous and subjectively experienced, at best, one can only reconstruct fragments of a subjective experience of reality, representations of knowledge are never complete (ibid.: 167).


from THE MARKET, Gallery of Photography, Dublin (installation image by Jamin Keogh)

Therefore, to formulate representations of research which are open- ended and to paraphrase Michael Taussig, which is not necessarily about reality but whose effects may be real.

*Extract from Curran, M. (2013) Capital At Work: Methodology in THE MARKET in Kirwan, G. (ed.)(2013) An Anthology of IADT Research, IADT, Dublin, 28 – 37. Available HERE

** Ho’s central argument is that Wall Street investment bankers reshape corporate America in their own image, and through the construction of the market, result in the manufacture of crises while simultaneously, ‘assuring its rescue’ (2009: 323). In this, as she defines, economy of appearances, Ho outlines operating structures, the significance regarding ‘pedigree’, citizen complicity and the critical role of fear in this culture of liquidity (ibid.).

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