More than Native: Deploying Class and Culture in ‘Studying up’

From the Series: Denaturalizing Ethnographic Epistemology

Facade of the Shangri-La Office in Ulaanbaatar. Image by Tuya Shagdar.

‘Native’ anthropologists who study elites are often subjected to suspicions and ambiguities by their peers about their ability to remain objective about their study subjects, as well as their motives for studying the powerful.1 As a scholar of a tiny minority of oligarchic elites in Mongolia, some of whom indeed share my social milieu, I could be regarded as a ‘native.’ I am therefore caught within not only an expectation to sustain objective distance from my subjects but also a moral obligation to distance myself from certain assumptions about a shared class affinity with those I study.

Here I reflect on the tensions inherent in representing socially powerful ‘natives’ to a world audience through an English-language publication. By studying up and engaging with contemporary Mongolian elites who astutely navigate the movements of capitalism and commerce, I hoped to distance ‘my’ people from Trouillot’s ‘savage slot’ (2021, 70), which tends to represent Inner Asian nomads as fierce, free people (Sneath 2007, 132–135) living at the edge of civilization. As I discovered, this ‘native-non-native’ binary was inadequate for describing the diverse and complex experiences of doing research among ‘my’ people. I felt a range of complex emotions from guilt, and indignation towards some of my interlocutors resulting from the ambiguity of social obligations that we may develop say from friendship, personal network, and all the other baggage that comes with immersive fieldwork.2 I understood by abstracting difference and sameness into a bifurcation between the researcher and the researched, we ignore larger and subtler heuristics in our discipline, such as power dynamics from which we, sometimes, choose to distance ourselves, and I will try to explain how.

The thing which connects me to my subjects of study, and which makes me a ‘native,’ as such, is not only a question of shared cultural characteristics like citizenship, speaking the Mongolian language, and belonging to some bounded understanding of being Mongolian. There are far subtler ways through which one may feel a closeness to certain sub-groups rather than the cultural whole of a given society like, say, a shared social ethos of distinction (Bourdieu 1979). The category of ‘native’ elides these subtle distinctions within societies that we study. If we think about cultures as homogenous, discrete wholes, then discovering class stratification and hierarchies within those ‘bounded’ fields of study may be especially discomfiting as in the case of an anthropologist discovering that their ‘native’ interlocutor is not only literate but has a predilection for Stendhal (Crehan 2002, 65). The ‘native’ thus comes dangerously close to the anthropologist by sharing their social and cultural ecumene of class and taste. Acknowledging that elites can be ‘modern’ just like ‘us’ in the societies that we study is important, on one hand, as this would encourage anthropologists to look beyond simple categories of ‘native’ and ‘non-native.’

On the other hand, this would help to widen the scale of our field sites and move beyond just mere locality to the wider relational aspect of capitalism, especially how it moves through the global circuits of finance and knowledge.

Some time ago, I learned that the Asian Development Bank (ADB) was using a publication I co-authored to determine whether to grant a loan to a businessman-turned-politician whom we had interviewed. In the piece, I mentioned the Mongolian businessman-politician by his name3 and detailed how he distributed thousands of dollars’ worth of gifts to residents of the rural district where he was standing for election. During the research, I enjoyed perfectly cordial relations with him and even developed a certain respect for his ambition and business acumen. I was not conscious of any sympathies I might have had for him until I discovered that he might be refused an important loan because I represented him as a businessman wanting to buy his way into politics by using his economic capital. At the time of my fieldwork, it seemed that any power asymmetries between us would be firmly in favor of my interlocutor, a business tycoon well on his way to becoming a member of parliament. However, when my position as ‘producer of academic knowledge’ became unexpectedly powerful, I was forced to ask myself: if I had known the paper could significantly affect my subject, would I have written it differently? To my surprise, rather than a sense of vindication, I felt guilty that I might be implicated in the decision about whether or not to grant him the loan. Would my critique of the rich not only harm him but jeopardize the possibility that certain marginalized people might be able to improve their condition through him?

Four years after the publication and during a chance meeting with a new CEO of the company, she informed me that because of the ADB loan many women employees were now on regular payroll per agreement with the bank. The sensation, I believe, was not connected to the obligations I was subjected to or feel as someone who is classed as ‘native,’ rather it was the lack of understanding of the scale of the relational aspect of the contemporary elite and the question about who reads our publications and for what purposes, left me with lingering questions. The questions were about the hegemonic institutions in which ‘we’ as anthropologists are embedded (Chua and Mathur 2018). The elites, as much as they constitute a distinct sub-grouping in society, are embedded in the structures of the capitalist financial regime the way ‘we’ as anthropologists are also structured into ‘our’ institutions of knowledge and power. This tendency in our discipline to divide people into ‘elites’ and ‘marginalized,’ ‘natives’ and ‘non-natives,’ etc. is part of the problem. Recognizing these power asymmetries in binary ways is itself a trap because it allows us to divide up the world in ways that are inconsistent with how power actually travels through our social relations.

Within the anthropological field of knowledge production, the anthropologist’s position cannot be entirely dyadic or ‘biographical,’ only considering the personal background or lack of, the researcher and the researched. It is true that the anthropologist also feels a responsibility to potential wider audiences and, in some sense, obligation to the ‘public.’4 Yet as the empiric evidence and the discussion of the intended audience demonstrated, it is impossible to sustain the fiction of a purely objective narrative when the fruits of research are involved in what looks like a project where a ‘native’ researcher was deployed in the service to the public interest limited to imagined audiences in powerful countries and institutions. My question is: who is this imagined audience?

As the ethnographer, my ability to represent elites like this businessman-politician in ways that might jeopardize their activities was a power differential that left a conflicting sense about the ethics of engagement in the field and importantly about constructing anthropological knowledge for the wider audience. This asymmetry, inherent in an ethnographic representation (similar to Ayling’s findings (2020) on the Nigerian elites’ schooling strategies for their children as being entangled in British colonial history echoed the ambiguity), I have come to develop in my reflections about academic publication.5 As much as we might think recognizing power asymmetries gives us some kind of power over or clarity about them, in the end, it does not really. We are still as lost as we have ever been.

Our biographies are often subjects of interest because of lingering colonial assumptions about who ought to be the subject who conducts research and who ought to be its object. A ‘native’ intervention (Buyandelger 2020), for instance, would presumably mean wielding the agency to represent Mongolians—as a Mongolian—within the world of anthropology to an audience of anthropologists. But whose world of anthropology and what for? Even as we critique colonial assumptions that divide the world along the ‘native’ and the ‘non-native’ binary, we continue to miss other, more subtle ways of differentiating power. Indeed, the power the ethnographer wields over those they represent is itself constrained by the hierarchies and power asymmetries that govern them as subjects of academic institutions, which in turn are accountable to the nation-states from where they draw their funding. Not all products of social science knowledge are equally available to the very rich and the very poor and all nations (Galliher 1980, 305). Within the audiences we imagine for the knowledge we produce, there is a persistent question of which anthropologists should be concerned with: is it the US? Or, the wider anglophone-educated public audience via linguistic structures of power (Foucault 1980)? If a ‘native’ anthropologist is assumed to have a ‘better’ representation of the research subjects, to what ends is this research deployed and for whom?

In addition to the assumption that the ‘native’ anthropologist will, somehow, have better access to social forms in ‘their’ countries, they are somehow double tasked by their peers with being more ‘critical’ because it is ‘their’ society. In other words, at the risk of being classified as defensive and naïve, or even worse as ‘nationalist,’ any positive account of the societies that we study could potentially be met with suspicion. The social and class-like affinity which I strategically employed in my research allowed me to closely study how powerful people condition the relations of deep structural injustices, and however objectively speaking it is also supposed to contribute to the understanding of the diversity of capitalist relations around the world. This also puts me in a double bind as a ‘native’ anthropologist vis-à-vis my peers who also expect me to maintain a critical and therefore moral distance from my subjects. I find these expectations tedious and the categories where they are borne from, quite honestly, archaic when more and more ‘native’ anthropologists have joined the international community of anthropology over the years with a desire to be just like their other peersto be modern. Being modern also means being able to critically and realistically assess how the institutions in which we are embedded and where our productive labor is employed are entangled in global networks of the contemporary capitalist order.

Fifty years ago, when Nader called for anthropologists to study up (1972), she welcomed American postgraduate students’ enthusiasm to study powerful institutions in ‘their’ country. She urged the anthropologist to study not only the colonized but also the relations of colonizers (Nader 1972, 5). This proposal, however useful, was written at a time when categories such as traditional and modern, ‘native and non-native’ perhaps continued to make sense. While decolonizing such cultural categories remains relevant, anthropology is yet to confront more important issues such as the increasingly neoliberal standards6 of doing research and publishing, the value of which is judged in relevance to and as an outcome of relations beyond our research fields and sites, and service of less legible (Hardt and Negri 2019) and powerful economic institutions deciding the fates of global credit and debit network.


1. Rachel Sherman noted that this ambiguity from the academics in Euro-America may come from the moral tensions involving hierarchy where social elites mirror existing hierarchical structures in academia itself; say full-time tenured academics versus the precarious part-time workforce or the source of wealth in institutions that we are embedded (2020).

2. About the experience of friendship and affective bonds between elites and the researcher, see Armytage 2015 (454). On a range of moral emotions felt by anthropologists, ranging from guilt, anger and disgust, see Gable 2014.

3. Since he is a well-known public figure, it was impossible to anonymize the research. His photos and name were widely circulated in calendars that he was giving away as gifts in the run-up to the elections. For reference, see Bonilla and Shagdar 2018.

4. Some social scientists contend that elites are more than just individuals and must be held accountable to public scrutiny and that some sort of principle of justice should be upheld (see Galliher 1980; Murphy and Dingwal 2011). It is also argued that the powerful cannot expect social scientists to collaborate in image management (Armytage 2018). Researchers studying elites point to the inadequacy of the current ethics guidelines, which were largely conceived in relation to atrocities committed against relatively powerless human subjects in scientific research from the post-war era (Lillie and Ayling 2020). Although later revisions to U.S. codes of professional ethics in the 1980s rejected public responsibility (Berreman 1991), they also called for a ‘politics of truth’ that included ‘studying up’ such that the interests of the people studied would be questioned rather than defended (Pels 1999, 112).

5. Lillie and Ayling’s research (2020) on the elites’ choices in schooling their children in British and Swiss boarding school systems open an important dimension into the power differentials of studying up, and it largely unsettles the simplistic dichotomy between ‘native and non-native’ anthropology (2020). Their research outcome sheds important light on the complexity of class and cultural affinity as the results of specific historical and economic structures of power which continue to linger in the background of the field sites; that is, British colonial history which structures the dispositions of the Nigerian elites’ preference for British boarding school system, and the Ivy League education system which reproduces Euro-American cultural hegemony through its academic institutions in the service of global elites’ children.

6. When it comes to disciplinary prescriptions within the academy, as Pels (2018) notes, the attitude has tended to be ‘the more the better,’ resembling a neoliberal “audit culture” (392), and so ethical requirements appear to be linked to both European traditionalism and 20th-century American corporate liberalism (Dingwal 2008, 5-6). This is apparent in the professional ethical guidelines of bodies such as the Association of Social Anthropologists (ASA) and the American Anthropological Association (AAA), where researchers are required to “anticipate harms” (consequence), uphold subjects’ rights “by negotiating informed consent,” and uphold their rights to “privacy and confidentiality” (human rights). In this respect, the influence of biomedical ethics has been widely remarked upon (Cassell 1979; Galliher 1980) so the normative framework developed in that field has now become a dominant strand in social science research. However, such prescriptions rarely go beyond their formalist framework to substantiate research in areas of social stratification.


I would like to thank Adela Zhang for her generous edits, without which this essay would not have achieved clarity. I also would like to thank Joe Ellis for his valuable observation and comments.


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