An Interview with Adrienne Pine
From the Series: Teaching Ethnography in the Heart of Government
Scott Ross: In your scholarship and activism, you have taken an applied approach in a number of ways, including testifying in asylum cases, working with unions, and direct action. Your department at American University also has a strong emphasis on applied and public anthropology. How did this shape your approach when first creating and proposing this field school?
Adrienne Pine: Some years back, we identified a need for more rigorous methodological training in the department. My colleague Dan Sayers had run a very popular archaeological field school for many years, and I wanted to create something similarly exciting for training in core ethnographic methods. I’ve always been a little envious of how well my archaeologist friends collaborate, compared with social-cultural folk, who in general tend to take a more “lone wolf” approach as researchers, and a field school seemed like a great way to foster a praxis of collectivity. For me, anthropology is only worth doing insofar as it plays a role in a broader strategic project to make the world a more just place. This priority structures every decision I make about what to teach, research, or write. So, in addition to my goals of improving methodological training and trying to foster collaboration among my students, it was important to me to follow the footsteps of my beloved mentor Laura Nader, who emphasizes the democratic relevance of studying up in her classic essay “Up the Anthropologist” (Nader 1972). Here in Washington, there’s so much talk of democracy and yet so little of it in practice. I was excited to create a field school that encouraged students to research this contradiction on their own.
SR: Washington, D.C., has numerous opportunities for students interested in “studying up” (Nader 1972), including international NGOs, foreign embassies, multilateral institutions, and the federal government’s many departments and offices. Why did you choose to focus this course on Congress?
AP: My dear friend and colleague Brett Williams first suggested I design the field school as an update to J. McIver Weatherford’s (1985) hilarious and insightful classic ethnography Tribes on the Hill, and I loved the idea. As with many ethnographies, the language used in the book hasn’t aged as well as the underlying arguments, but it provides a great introduction to the rituals of power on the Hill that are so foreign to most anthropologists, as well as to most U.S. citizens.
On a more practical note, Capitol Hill made sense because, by definition, it’s a public space. Of course not all of it is open to all of the public, but a whole lot of it is. And the cafeterias provide fantastic seminar spaces and people watching. One day we’ll be discussing Malinowski or Geertz seated next to a coterie of men wearing matching boots and cowboy hats chatting about oil policy, and the next day we might be surrounded by bikers lobbying for healthcare access. There are almost always Congressmembers seated nearby as well. Congress is a place where people—everyday citizens, paid lobbyists, elected representatives, staffers, and many others—put their own beliefs and understandings about their roles within the U.S. system of governance into practice in tangible and performative ways. While I have done plenty of fieldwork at events, meetings and protests at think tanks and NGOs, governmental and multilateral institutions around D.C., I find that Capitol Hill is unique in this town in terms of fieldworker/student access to a broad range of sites (e.g., Members’ offices, hearings, the Congressional subway and shops, staffer bars, the Library of Congress, and Capitol Visitor’s Center, etc.) with daily productive opportunities for conducting participant observation. There’s never a shortage of subject matter.
SR: When I was in college, I was involved in organizing lobbying meetings around human rights and conflict issues. I remember feeling both unprepared and empowered throughout that process, which, now that I think about it, is something I often feel when doing ethnographic research. How do you prepare your students before they attend a hearing or meet with a Congressional staffer?
AP: My students are required to conduct fieldwork and write up field notes on hearings. For hearings, the main thing I try to emphasize to students (along with what they’re reading about ethnographic practice and theory in class) is to pay at least as much attention to everything going on in the room as to what is being said by the speakers. In formal lecture settings like hearings and classrooms, it’s sometimes hard for those of us who have been disciplined through academia into taking notes in a particular sort of way to switch over to a more ethnographic approach. I encourage students to conduct fieldwork on hearings together, but they write up their field notes individually and post them to the class discussion board each evening. It’s always entertaining to see where their observations coincide and where they diverge.
The constituent meeting exercise is less about teaching students how to lobby or legitimating it as tool of citizen participation, and more about moving toward an ethnographic understanding of the process. I want my students to get to the point where they can provide a thick description of the power dynamics in the room.
Additionally, my students are required to solicit and participate in a constituent meeting to lobby a Congressmember about an issue that is important to them. For the purpose of class, I define constituent more broadly than how Congressmembers might, since of course some students are not U.S. citizens and/or are subject to various forms of disenfranchisement. A couple weeks prior to the start of the semester, students have to reach out to the Congressmember with whom they hope to meet. I provide them thorough instructions for doing that. Students are also required to develop a “one-pager” in which they summarize what they are lobbying for and why in a format that is legible and convincing to Congressmembers—and more importantly, to their staffers. To prepare for this, I invite staffers to come speak to the class to tell my students what their work is like and how constituents and (other) lobbyists fail or succeed in making their arguments. I have been very lucky in that my guest speakers—staffers and lobbyists alike—have been incredibly generous in dishing on the sausage-factory of policy-making. I also provide students templates and websites with tips for developing one-pagers, and give feedback on their drafts.
One-pagers force students to switch to a very different writing style, and in many cases, to adopt a different strategic and/or theoretical approach than they might be used to. There may be a wide range of productive approaches to solving a given problem, including community organizing, direct action, and more. But when you’re lobbying policymakers, only policy solutions matter. Additionally, the political economics of elections require that students be aware of the lobbying efforts of their opponents on the issue, and also that they frame their arguments in terms of the importance of their issue to the Congressmember’s constituents. My students sometimes feel empowered and sometimes disempowered by the experience. Some of my students have used their newfound lobbying skills to get jobs, and/or to continue lobbying in Congress for causes they believe in. But for me, the constituent meeting exercise is less about teaching students how to lobby or legitimating it as tool of citizen participation, and more about moving toward an ethnographic understanding of the process. I want my students to get to the point where they can provide a thick description of the power dynamics in the room.
SR: This field school culminates with students doing group projects that address a specific “problem.” Can you give some examples of the types of issues that your students have tackled in their ethnography of the Hill? Where is the next generation looking when studying the U.S. government?
AP: My students have done such brilliant projects—I’m always impressed with what they come up with. And it’s always fun to see how their questions develop. In the first few days of class, students all tend to hone in on the same things—the dramatic enforcement of the gender binary, the stark labor hierarchies, the impact of security measures on the citizen experience, and the cartoonish character of the ever-present lobbyists. I have encouraged them to embrace these first impressions, and also to wait before settling into a research topic. Once they’ve done several days of fieldwork, started to feel a bit more confident in their surroundings, and heard from several “insider” guest speakers, their research questions become much more nuanced, original, and exciting.
For their final group projects, students have researched staffer culture on and off the Hill (including of course ethnographic research at staffer bars and even their off-site ragers); how staffer pay, working conditions, and symbolic capital influence the development of legislation; intra- and inter-office power dynamics among interns, staffers, and their bosses, and strategies used for negotiating them; how white collar workers navigate Capitol Hill as a gendered workspace; comparative constituent strategies for communication with Congressmembers and constituents’ perceptions of their political efficacy; labor politics and worker organizing strategies in the Senate and House cafeterias; and the politics of representation among tour guides on the Hill.
SR: You have taught this course every year since 2017. The political situation in the United States has shifted a lot since the inauguration of Donald Trump as President and the continued rise of “neoliberal fascism”—though as you have argued, this isn’t inherently new to U.S. politics (Pine 2019). In response to these developments, has the course, your experience teaching it, or your students’ engagement with the topic changed during this time?
AP: One of the biggest and most palpable changes on Capitol Hill has been the shift in discourse around sexual harassment and acceptable gendered norms of behavior. The #MeToo movement has undeniably shifted discourse and attitudes among Congressmembers, staffers, and other workers on the Hill, as well as, of course, among the broader public. In the first year I taught the course, students researching sexism on the Hill encountered a wall of silence upon interviewing white collar workers, which in and of itself (as they accurately noted) spoke volumes about how “a culture of consensus [was] internalized and expressed by the white collar workers [who] navigate the space.” By summer 2018, my students encountered a very changed environment—if not in gendered power, then at least in terms of their interlocutors’ willingness to talk about it.
And I can’t think of a better laboratory than Capitol Hill (expect perhaps the big Washington think tanks) for conducting ethnographic research on the mechanics of neoliberal fascism as policy. To be honest I don’t think that much has changed in the three years that I’ve taught the course. As you note in your question, I argue that every administration since Reagan has moved us closer to neoliberal fascism, and what we’re seeing under Trump is merely the broad circulation of openly fascist rhetoric to accompany murderous neoliberal policies that were already grounded in fascist praxis (i.e., chauvinism, imperialism, xenophobia, structural racism, and anti-intellectualism). What my students discover each summer—as Weatherford (1985) wrote nearly forty years ago—is that Capitol Hill has its own deeply entrenched culture that certainly changes over time, but not necessarily in direct correlation with changes in the executive branch. Weatherford does such a great job of illustrating the absurdity of policy creation in 1982. When I read my students’ field notes on Congressional hearings and when I attend them myself, I am struck by how little has changed in the production of what is popularly known in this country as “democracy” but in practice is of course something quite the opposite of that ideal.
SR: You recently argued for practicing solidarity through anthropology, which includes “recognizing pedagogy . . . as organizing work” and enacting a “somatic solidarity” in anthropology (Pine 2019, 38–39). Can you say a little bit more about what solidarity looks like in the classroom or in the university?
AP: This is an idea I first wrote about in an article titled “Revolution as a Care Plan: Ethnography, Nursing and Somatic Solidarity in Honduras” (Pine 2013). In it, I was thinking through the ways in which true solidarity can and must take place precisely where Paul Farmer (2005) and others have deemed it impossible: up and down steep gradients of power. I took note of what bedside nurses who came together as Nurses in Resistance (Enfermeras en Resistencia) following the 2009 U.S.-supported military coup in Honduras told me—that in order to advocate for their patients who were arriving at the hospital bloody and broken by (U.S.-funded) state security forces, they needed to organize within their own ranks and take to the streets themselves as nurses in protest. This wasn’t merely the result of an intellectual political awakening (many of them had never self-identified as “political,” or protested, before). Like their patients, they too were being violently subjectivated by the regime installed following the usurpation of what they had believed to be their democracy, with serious consequences for their own health. Theirs was a newfound solidarity, born in their interconnected, deeply embodied experiences as both healers and subjects. It was this solidarity, which I call somatic solidarity, that propelled them to put their own bodies on the line.
As researchers, anthropologists—like the nurses I write about—intentionally put our bodies in the spaces we are researching, and are subjectivated through the same structural forces as our interlocutors, albeit in ways that correspond to the anthropologist’s particular constellation of privilege and habitus. In the context of conducting participant observation in the post-coup Honduran protests, I myself have experienced the extreme violence of the U.S.-funded and trained Honduran state security forces and have lost friends and family members to targeted assassinations. Experiences like these have helped me to understand at a deeper level and (hopefully) to better articulate how neoliberal fascist policies emanating from Washington devastate people in structurally similar—if profoundly hierarchical—ways. These experiences do not in any way make me “like” a Honduran, but they do create the conditions for a somatic solidarity with my Honduran compañerxs (comrades) that marks a qualitative difference from more disembodied, intellectual forms of “engaged” or public scholarship. Somatic solidarity builds on the concept of militant anthropology, developed by another of my mentors, Nancy Scheper-Hughes, whose course in anthropological methods (co-taught over the years with many other brilliant colleagues) served as the inspiration and original template for this one.
For me, somatic solidarity as an ethnographic praxis and part of a methodology grounded in the preferential option for the poor (Binford 1996) is an ethical imperative. When done well, it also results in better data. This is one of the reasons why leaving the particularly rarified space of the neoliberal classroom to teach methodology in situ on the Hill has for me been so pedagogically rewarding. My students, in doing group fieldwork and research, work in solidarity with each other. And as the curator of the syllabus, I am organizing them toward a particular end—that of learning to study up ethnographically in a way that cultivates somatic solidarity.
Binford, Leigh. 1996. “An Alternative Anthropology: Exercising the Preferential Option for the Poor.” In The El Mozote Massacre: Anthropology and Human Rights, 192–206. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
Farmer, Paul. 2005. Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Nader, Laura. 1972. “Up the Anthopologist—Perspectives Gained from Studying Up.” In Reinventing Anthropology, edited by Dell Hymes, 284–311. New York: Vintage Books.
Pine, Adrienne. 2013. “Revolution as a Care Plan: Ethnography, Nursing and Somatic Solidarity in Honduras.” Social Science an Medicine 99: 143–52.
———. 2019. “Forging an Anthropology of Neoliberal Fascism.” Public Anthropologist 1, no. 1: 20–40.
Weatherford, J. McIver. 1985. Tribes on the Hill: The U.S. Congress Rituals and Realities. Revised Edition. South Hadley, Mass.: Bergin and Garvey.