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Theses and Dissertations

Name:Jennifer N. Webb
Professor:Angela C. Stuesse

Engaging-Up: Compromised Spaces and Potential Partners


The anthropology of public policy critically examines policy and its processes and the myriad ways in which power is exercised. To explore these power dynamics, anthropologists studying policy often study up, or study through a particular policy field. This entails the risky work of studying powerful people, whose ability to retaliate against the researcher and others create methodological and ethical dilemmas and contradictions, as well as potentially harmful consequences. Politicians, bureaucrats, employees of powerful non-profits, and, in the publicprivate neoliberal reality, even the head decision makers within corporations are all prospective research participants—an intimidating prospect for most anthropologists. In contrast, engaged ethnography, with its presupposition that researchers will be aligned with politically marginalized groups, encourages the researcher to engage on a more transparent, reflexive, and expressly positioned level that attempts to make the researcher more exposed, thus equalizing the power differentials between the researcher and the researched.
The inherent contradictions between engaged ethnography and studying up create a situation ripe for methodological and ethical dilemmas, but also for breaking new theoretical ground. This paper will critically examine my experiences with a dominant community development corporation involved in housing and urban development. The purpose of this thesis is twofold. First, I aim to explore the theoretical contradictions, ethical dilemmas, and methodological quandaries that arise from pairing engaged anthropology with the studying up required by the anthropology of public policy. The aim of this query is to show how the difficulties that arose during my thesis research project expose gaps within each body of literature. Second, I hope to present engaging-up as a promising (not just problematic) method that can be employed to better understand a myriad of topical interests of anthropology. Because of its promise, it is important to document this failed attempt so that others may be better prepared. As such, my hope is that my consideration of the contradictions that were unable to be overcome will be described with enough ethnographic clarity and framed in broad enough methodological terms as to be helpful to other engaged ethnographers.