What is a good ethnography of Parliament?

By Emma Crewe

Ethnography is a methodological and theoretical approach to studying social worlds. Doing ethnography does not require particular research techniques but is a process of prolonged engagement with a group of people to find out how they act, think, talk and relate to each other. Ethnographers’ understanding of subjectivity is distinct from positivistic approaches; rather than attempting to remove their influence on the research findings, they make this part of their research. Such reflexivity entails turning back on oneself, reflecting on how you are thinking and on how the social interaction between ethnographer and informant impacts on perception and interpretation.

Why might ethnography be useful for studying Parliament? There are problems with approaches that treat what informants say as straightforward data, especially politicians, who are mistresses and masters of representation. One of the specialties of ethnography is to study people’s claims and statements alongside or as part of their cultural practices, rituals and conversations. Contradictions become part of the study rather than something to be evaded. Even so, parliamentary ethnography is under-used. Scholars of politics in Europe have tried it out: Shirin Rai turning her attention to rituals, symbols and performance, and Marc Geddes using ethnographic methods to look at select committees in the UK. Such approaches remain rare.

Between 1998-2000, I embedded myself into the House of Lords, watching the way debate and law-making was ritualised, investigating the gaps and contradictions between ethos, rules and practices and seeing how these related to hierarchies. Rather than a normative account of roles, functions or impact, I painted a picture of relationships, power and culture. Despite an ethos of being independent-minded experts, a puzzling aspect of the Lords was the pattern of most party peers obeying the whip. Neither of the theories that still hold sway over political science – rational choice theory and institutionalism – could explain this. My surmise was that it is only when you see how politics is entangled with social networks and culture that peers’ relative obedience makes sense. Peers’ loyalty to party, and enmity towards the other parties, develops over years of everyday interaction – socialising, giving each other support on the green benches, committee or in party work, and arguing indignantly about the moral wickedness of opponents. In ethnographic research one begins with a research question, start asking and watching, test out interpretations, find your assumptions challenged, develop a new theory, ask more questions, and so on.

I carried out fieldwork in the Commons between 2011-13 but this time confined myself to a focus on MPs’ work in Parliament and constituencies, why it varies between members and how it is changing. My book continues on the theme that politics is entangled with social and cultural life. For example, gender inequality persists in the politically competitive and more powerful lower house because it reflects broader trends in UK society. Entanglements vary according to the identity of the MP and change over time, so the demands of constituency have massively increased for all but vary according to gender. I mention these arguments to convey the sense that ethnography is about tackling puzzles, contrasting people’s statements and practices and finding patterns.

In both Houses, fieldwork consisted of six main techniques:

  1. I conducted semi-structured and unstructured interviews with checklists of questions in the Lords with 121 peers, 67 parliamentary staff or former staff, and 16 others (special advisers, journalists, spouses and MPs) and in the Commons with 44 MPs, 24 former MPs, 14 staff and 28 others (special advisers, peers, parliamentary candidates, MPs’ staff, civil servants, journalists, civil society representatives etc). The peers and MPs were roughly representative in terms of gender, length of service, party and position.
  2. I regularly observed debates in the chambers, select and public bill committees, both formal and informal and public and private peers’/MPs’ meetings, staff meetings, ceremonies and parliamentary videos, TV and media interviews, and weekly Cross-bench meetings in the Lords.
  3. I reviewed literature on Parliament: documents and articles, stories, blogs or tweets on both conventional and social media. I read transcripts of parliamentary proceedings, committee reports and policy statements, notices from whips and letters to both peers and MPs from citizens or constituents as well as academic work mainly by political scientists, biographies and diaries of politicians.
  4. Informal interaction with MPs, peers, constituents, party workers, civil servants, staff, journalists, and visitors in offices, meeting rooms, corridors, eating places and at functions took the form of discussion, gossip and talking about current issues. Sharing an office with Cross-bench peers provided an excellent opportunity for gossip. Gossip is far from trivial in organisations – often it is when people talk about what is really going on, rather than what is supposed to be happening. I also engaged in various initiatives (pro-bono): (a) assisting in registering candidates for an election of the hereditary peers who were to remain in the House, (b) sitting on the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority as an external expert advising on MPs’ pay, pensions and allowances, (c) giving advice about conducting qualitative research within the Commons (e.g., to elicit MPs’ views about the quality of services provided by within Parliament), (d) giving oral evidence to the Liaison Committee, Administration Committee, and ad hoc Governance Committee, (e) discussing Parliament with officials and academics at the Study of Parliament Group.
  5. Narrative case studies. In the House of Lords I followed all the stages and interviewed various protagonists about the House of Lords Reform Act 1999, the piece of legislation that removed the right of peers to sit in the Lords on the basis of hereditary privileges. In the Commons I followed clause (later Section) 11 in the Children and Families Bill 2014 before and as it travelled through the House and was discussed by stakeholders and networks outside. I tracked one parliamentary candidate in her bid to get selected, and campaigned with the Liberal Democrat, Labour and Conservative parties at the Eastleigh by-election. Finally I visited seven constituencies in England, Scotland and Wales, watching various meetings held with MPs in public, private and charitable organisations and thirty-two ‘surgery’ meetings with constituents.
  6. Recording and publishing. I recorded notes on all of the above, with verbatim quotes and analysis of what I heard and saw, as well as logs (or diaries) amounting to 416 typed pages in total. Whenever I drafted any book or article, I sought permission to name, request checks for accuracy and confidentiality, and solicited comments from key informants. Increasingly I realised that this was no mere check for accuracy but a valuable way to elicit responses and learn more about how different informants viewed their world.

Such a mix of methods seemed to me the best way to investigate the difficult and puzzling questions in a complex organization within the messy world of politics. Like any demanding approach to research, it requires considerable skill, time and innovation. My tips for doing it well are:

  • Work out how to establish trust in as little time as possible: if you can account for what you are doing and explain your aims, your independence from parties, and your rules for protecting anonymity, concisely but convincingly, then this helps. Noticing how different people respond, and answering their specific concerns, also allows a researcher to forge a trusting relationship with an informant fast.
  • Continually notice and challenge your own assumptions and how your interpretation emerges out of your varying relationships with informants: to avoid using research to merely reconfirm your prejudices, or those of people you get close to, reflexivity is vital for good research.
  • Hone your skills when asking questions, listening and watching: a stimulating question is tailored to the person and situation, does not reveal what you are thinking and triggers curiosity in your informant. If you flatter them along the way, that can encourage openness but you have to mean it.
  • Take account of multiple views, contradictions and how Parliament is changing: continually ask yourself and your informants, “Why is she saying that?” “Is that specific to her and if so , why?” “How is that different from others or from an earlier time?” Test out your interpretations on as many informants as possible to give them the chance to comment on how you represent them but also to develop your understanding.

Emma CreweDr Emma Crewe is Research Associate at SOAS, University of London. She tweets @_Emma_Crewe, and her website is available here.

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2 thoughts on “What is a good ethnography of Parliament?

  1. Pingback: Interpreting Parliament, but how? | Annotations

  2. Pingback: Interpreting Parliament, but how? | Parliaments and Legislatures

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