Ethnography of Legislatures, research workshop, Edinburgh (UK)

(Pour la version française de ce billet, voir ici).

Two weeks ago, I was pleased to attend the Ethnography of Legislatures’ research workshop, at the University of Edinburg (UK). Once again, I would sincerely thank the organizers for all they’ve done.

You may find the programme in following this link. Here is what it was about  :

Ethnography offers remarkably rich opportunities to explore parliaments in terms of the norms, beliefs and practices of those who operate inside them, and to advance our understanding of these institutions and how they are understood, navigated and utilised by political actors. Ethnographic approaches have recently attracted attention from political scholars, such as Rod Rhodes’ (2011), while Emma Crewe’s anthropological analyses of the UK parliament (2005;2015) demonstrated the value of ethnographic parliamentary research. Such approaches are particularly valuable in advancing interpretive research agendas.

I’ve presented for my part some reflections on the curious variability of the “MP”’s concept, I observed during my fieldwork. Such reflections are not really recent, but I’m currently discovering how much they have been important in my thought process over the past few months. In short, I’ve spoken about the fact that the term of MP doesn’t always name the same activities or the same human entity, according to who talks, when, in which context. I’ve therefore explained how I was led, not definitely to abandon talking about “MP” (which would have been senseless), but to carefully use this term, and finally to prefer another one.

A major scientific event

With this workshop, the organizers brought together a group of people who have in common to trying to understand parliaments from a qualitative, empirical and inductive perspective. It’s not that common (this is a euphemism!). While there has been a resurgence of interest in legislative studies in recent years, it seems that this is due to quantitative and computerised approaches, based on data produced and given by parliaments themselves. On the contrary, this workshop offered an alternative academic space for all of those who consider relevant to tackle the parliaments through field surveys. It allowed us to get to know each others, share experiences, compare viewpoints… in brief, all sorts of things that allow an academic field to live as such. From this point of view, it was an important event, even if it went quite unnoticed (at least in the French speaking world).

That said, perhaps some improvements might perhaps be considered, if we were to repeat this experience. It is not a question of criticising the work done here by the organisers, but rather of raising a problem that may deserve a collective reflection. Our discussions had this same problem as all the academic events in which people of different backgrounds are brought together, in order to prevent scientific knowledge from being developed in isolation. A laudable intention, no doubt. In Edinburgh, two weeks ago, the personal careers of the attendees were widely various, even if the most of us were labelled “academic”. We met former MPs, former ministers, consultants, sociologists, anthropologists, political researchers… who were for most part a little bit of everything at the same time. Such a diversity allowed to make rich and exciting discussions. However, because of our different backgrounds and positions, it was clear that we didn’t always have the same motivations in our desire to get to know parliaments better, nor the same methodological requirements.

What is ethnography?

Because this workshop was ethnography-centred, it may have been useful to define what we should collectively understand in such a concept. It’s true that methodological plurality is desirable, even within the ethnography field itself. It’s also true that not defining certain methodological requirements makes it possible to involve people from outside the academic world. It’s as well true that academics have an interest in exchanging views with the other parliamentary actors, in order to learn more about how each understands the legislative work.

But, may we really consider that such a dialogue is possible without being minimum supervised and marked out? May we really believe that we are all always talking about the same things, only because we use the same words (as if they were never ambivalent)? For example, I’m not sure that the notion of observation is really universal, and that what I call observation is similar to what a consultant calls it. For example, I don’t think the concept of reflexivity has the same meaning for a scientist and for a MP.

Although such openness of academic world is desirable, we should perhaps not remain blind about its stakes. If we are advocating a qualitative approach of parliamentary worlds, it seems necessary (and inevitable) to agree on what distinguishes a scientific discourse from a witness discourse in this particular context. This means that it’s important to determine what distinguishes an insider from an outsider, and that we need to speak about the ability of some actors to be alternatively the one and the other, rather than considering that all observer posts are equal. Or we would have to accept that we are all ethnographers of our own life.

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