SOAS University of London

Department of Politics and International Studies

An Ethnography of the Westminster Parliament: Shapeshifting as Political Work

Emma Crewe (SOAS Anthropology and Sociology)

Date: 13 December 2017Time: 3:00 PM

Finishes: 13 December 2017Time: 5:00 PM

Venue: Russell Square: College Buildings Room: 4426

Type of Event: Seminar

The Westminster Parliament is continually in the news but still remains mysterious as a place of work. The contrast between politicians' public and private performances creates endless contradictions. They are skilled at winning support and making alliances in private, while increasingly victims and instigators of vicious attacks in public. Elected MPs are cornered into shape-shifting for different audiences – government, party, media, CSOs, activists, or different groups of constituents – so that the claim of representation is in a state of constant flux, to the frustration of the public. Political parties are fragmenting, power is draining from both whips and party leaders, and the House of Lords and backbench MPs are getting more feisty. Drawing on my ethnographic studies of the House of Lords (1998-2002) and House of Commons (2011-2013), I will talk about why such uncertainties and contradictions have emerged and how MPs and peers respond to them. It is political riffs, rhythms and rituals that constitute the enduring relationships, inequalities and continuities in both Houses of Parliament. In suggesting some possibilities for coaxing the UK (and perhaps other countries as well) towards a deeper democracy, I will suggest that ethnographic research on political institutions offers a particularly illuminating form of critical political scrutiny from which to reimagine our political future.

Professor Emma Crewe is a researcher at SOAS and a research supervisor at the Business School in the University of Hertfordshire. An anthropologist by training, she has taught at Sussex University and SOAS and worked since the 1980s as a social scientist, policy adviser, manager and trustee in international NGOs. She was CEO of the INGO ChildHope 2006-2011, trustee of Practical Action (2007-2014) and is Chair of Heath Poverty Action and Find Your Feet. Her ethnographic research into organisations focuses on INGOs and parliaments in the UK, Eastern Africa and South Asia and she has advised the UK Parliament on research and evaluation. Her books about politics and development include: Whose Development? An Ethnography of Aid (with E. A. Harrison, 1998), Lords of Parliament (2005), Anthropology and Development (with R. Axelby, 2013) and House of Commons: An Anthropology of MPs at Work (2015). She is currently managing a research coalition studying the links between Parliament, civil society and public engagement in Bangladesh and Ethiopia (with the Hansard Society and funded by the ESRC/DFID) and will be launching a new programme about democracy in Myanmar and Ethiopia later this year.

Organiser: Dr Manjeet Ramgotra

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