Department of Anthropology and Sociology & College of Law, Anthropology and Politics

Professor Emma Crewe

Key information

Department of Anthropology and Sociology Professor of Social Anthropology; Director, GRNPP
MA, PhD (Edinburgh)
Russell Square: College Buildings
Email address


I have been teaching and working on international aid, development and politics since the late 1980s. I began as a social scientist in the energy department of an international non-governmental organisation while undertaking doctoral research on the politics of aid (published in ‘Whose Development? 1998, co-authored with E. A. Harrison). As a lecturer at the University of Sussex (1993-1996) I taught on anthropology and development studies courses.

I have been an adviser to grant-makers and freelance consultant working with donor governments and NGOs. More recently, I was Executive Director of ChildHope, a UK-based INGO working on child rights and social justice with national NGOs and networks in Africa, Asia and Latin America (2005-2011). Since 2014 I have been teaching on a highly innovative course at the University of Hertfordshire Business School, supervising postgraduates to research their own organisations and drawing on sociology/anthropology, complexity sciences, and American pragmatist philosophy, and edited a book on complexity and leadership.

My ethnographies of the House of Lords (ESRC funded, 1998-2002) and the British House of Commons (on a Leverhulme Research Fellowship, 2011-2013) were the first on the UK Parliament. In 2017 I established the Global Research Network for Parliaments and People at SOAS with a grant-making programme to support national scholars to study the relationship between Parliaments and People in Myanmar and Ethiopia (supported by Arts and Humanities Research Council/Global Challenges Research Fund). My current projects involved co-ordinating coalition researching parliaments in six countries and a partnership with the South Omo Theatre Company in Ethiopia.

I have been Chair of Health Poverty Action (2015-2000), Chair of the SOAS Senate (2021-2022) and a Member of the SOAS Board of Trustees (2022-).

Research interests

My research focuses on the socio-politics of organisations. My ethnographic study of Practical Action, an international non-governmental organisation, probed its ‘silent traditions’ during the late 1980s: the rhetoric of participation and partnership, assumptions about technology and knowledge, and how practices are structured by what is taken for granted rather than what is written in plans and policies. 

An interest in how racist and gendered representations are reproduced through rituals and relationships has been a strand of my research since then. Policy has been another interest. My investigation into the links between research, policy and practice led to a ‘context, links, and evidence’ framework (with Young 2002), which is still widely used.

South Asia was once the main regional focus of my research. Research into caste and social change in an Indian village (1984), with potter communities and development practitioners in Sri Lanka (1988-1989), with British Gujaratis in Northamptonshire (1996-1997), with scientists, the private sector and development practitioners in Hyderabad, India (2004-2005), and through project visits and evaluations in India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and Indonesia, have been the foundation of my interest in the region.

Since 1998, I have been studying the UK parliament. My study into the House of Lords (1998-2002, ESRC funded) threw light on how rituals, rules, and symbols are integral to expressions of power relations and difference. An ethos that all peers control the self-regulating House as equals distracts the backbenchers’ attention from the smoke and mirrors power of the ‘Usual Channels’. I turned my attention to shapeshifting MPs who navigate complex hierarchies and roles, producing the first ethnography of the House of Commons in 2015 (funded by a Leverhulme Fellowship). In my ethnography – House of Commons: an anthropology of MPs’ work – I weave history, diversity and relationships into an analysis of how parliament works. One aspect of this work, a mini-history of law-making, involved following one clause of a bill about parenting, which inspired my on-going interest in how MPs and peers engage with the public.

For the last ten years I have been exploring different strategies for undertaking collaborative ethnographies, including inquiries into MPs’ constituency work with psychotherapist Nicholas Sarra and the the UK expenses scandal with Andrew Walker, former House of Commons official. Since 2014 I have also been co-ordinating programmes that have enabled scholars in Bangladesh, Brazil, Myanmar and Ethiopia to study the relationship between parliaments, politicians and individuals/groups in society through grants and training (funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, Global Challenges Research Fund, and European Research Council). 

The current research coalition is funded by a £2m ERC grant to undertake a comparative ethnographic study of the relationship between politicians and citizens in six sites (Brazil, Ethiopia, Fiji, India, UK, US). For details see Global Research Network for Parliaments and People.

PhD Supervision

Name Title
Amir Massoumian Perceptions of cultural preservation, race, gender, hierarchy, nationhood, and immigration in London pub culture


Contact Emma