Department of Anthropology and Sociology

Ethnography as an approach for understanding parliament


Ethnography as a tool for understanding parliament and transforming working practices in the House of Commons.

Since 1998, Professor Emma Crewe’s ethnographies of the Houses of Parliament have transformed not only our understanding of the institution and the many people and relationships that underpin it, but the study of parliaments more broadly. Having pioneered ethnographic approaches to studying parliament, Professor Crewe’s work has positioned parliament as an object of anthropological study, whilst challenging political scientists in Europe, South Asia and Eastern Africa to approach their work with an ethnographic lens.

Her recent book, The Anthropology of Parliaments: Entanglements in Democratic Politics, brings a comparative approach to the analysis of parliament and democratic politics, and as Director of the Global Research Network on Parliaments and People, Professor Crewe has created opportunities for scholars in Asia and Africa to research the relationships between parliaments, politicians and civil society.

Pictured: Saturday sitting in the House of Commons to debate renegotiated Brexit deal 19/10/2019. Image ©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/Stephen Pike

Shaping working practices

Emma Crewe has also influenced parliamentary working practices within the House of Commons, bringing an anthropological understanding of the social dynamics of life and work in Westminster to the practical challenges of inducting and supporting MPs and their staff. She has also argued for diversifying the witnesses and improving the quality of evidence available to select committees, as well learning lessons about transparency from the MP’s expenses scandal.

According to Paul Evans, the former Clerk of Committees in the House of Commons, “[Emma Crewe’s] 2005 book on the Lords and particularly her 2015 book on the Commons… marked a new departure in the study of Parliament in the UK and have won wide acclaim within the institution as well as outside... Her study of the Commons is without question the best description of what it actually feels like to be an MP and how politics looks to those outside the circle of government.” Harnessing research as a critical tool for holding parliament to account and enabling scrutiny, the former Clerk of the IDSC has commented that ‘Emma continues to be one of the academics making a regular contribution to parliamentary scrutiny…’.

Video: Emma Crewe talking about the Anthropology of Parliaments.