39. Studying up: dissecting the ethnography of wealth and power

Federica Duca
Academic Coordinator,  Public Affairs Research Institute (PARI), University of the Witwatersrand. 

The last decades have seen renewed interest in the study of inequality across the globe. Increasing wealth inequality is now a focal point of interest, with particular emphasis devoted to the gap between the 1% and the rest of the population across the globe.  Popularised by economists such as Piketty, wealth inequality and redistribution now sits at the top of research agendas, and “studying up”, as advocated by Nader in 1972, has become increasingly popular amongst social scientists. The work of sociologists and anthropologists has proliferated in this regard, and scholars contribute to this conversation through a number of studies of privilege, elite attitudes and behaviours, elite norms, values and lifestyle, providing us with nuanced ways of understanding the life of elites from within. Indeed, the life of the wealthy now seems to be more scrutinized than ever before. 

However, it is less clear how such ethnographic accounts might assist us in understanding the differences between the various forms of wealth, and how different social and political contexts contribute to wealth creation and redistribution, or its lack thereof. Indeed, there is often a tendency to refer to global elites without clear distinctions between national and international contexts in defining wealth, the distribution of power, and the relationship between the economic and the political realms.  

In trying to address such a gap, the aim of this panel is twofold. On the one hand, it seeks to contribute to a fine grained theorization of wealth and power through ethnographic research by looking at local and international contexts; race and gender cleavages, assessing differences and commonalities. On the other hand, it advocates for an applied ethnography, where “studying up” is put at the service of progressive, transformative and emancipatory policy making.

The broad questions that the panel seeks to address are: 

  1. How can ethnography and qualitative research bridge the work of economists on wealth inequality and lead to a nuanced understanding of wealth? 
  2. How do we define the difference between various forms of wealth and power (elites, the 1%, the wealthy, oligarchs) at the local (e.g. urban), national and international levels? 
  3. How do self-understandings of their positions influence policy making?
  4. What are the challenges encountered when “studying up”? 

The panel welcomes empirical and theoretical contributions globally, either focusing on one context or offering comparative analysis from the fields of political sociology, critical policy studies, urban studies, nationalism studies and global sociology, amongst others. 

Wealth, elite, studying up, policy making, institutions, privilege

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Ceron-Anaya, H. (2019). Privilege at Play: Class, Race, Gender, and Golf in Mexico, Oxford University Press Inc, 2019.

Cousin, B; Khan, S.; Mears, A. (Editors), (2018). “Elites, Economy and Society”, Socio-Economic Review, 16(2): 225-458.

Gains, F. (2011). “Elite Ethnographies: Potential Pitfalls and Prospects for Getting ‘Up Close and Personal'”. Public Administration, 89 (1): 156-166.

Herida, M. (2021). “Scales, Inequalities, and Elites in Latin America”, Global Dialogue, 11, 1, April 2021, pp. 54-55.

Rakopoulos, T.; Rio, K. (2018).” Introduction to an anthropology of wealth”, History and Anthropology, 29 (3): 275-291

Nader, L. (1972). “Up the anthropologists: Perspectives Gained From Studying Up”, Reinventing Anthropology, edited by Hymes, Dell H., New York, Pantheon Books, c1972, 284-311.

Paugam, S.; Cousin, B. Giorgetti, C.; Naudette, J. (Editors) (2017). Ce que les riches pensent des pauvres¸ Éditions du Seuil

Piketty, T. (2013). Le Capital au Siècle, Éditions du SeuilSherman, R. (2017). Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence, Princeton University Press, 2017.

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