Engaging and Disrupting Power: The Public Value of Political Ethnography
by M. David Forrest, Oberlin College [@MDavidForrest1]
This article outlines the underappreciated public value of political ethnography. This value, I argue, stems from political ethnography’s ability to support democratic movements that hold important decision makers accountable to struggles for equality and freedom. Political ethnographic studies exercise this ability through their engagement with two significant and interrelated forms of power. The first form is the calcification of public debates—that is, the tendency of decision makers and other public actors to reiterate the established terms of these debates, thereby limiting opportunities for democratic movements to voice contentious ideas. The second form is the naturalization of dominant sociopolitical arrangements—that is, the tendency of many public actors to take for granted the emergence and perpetuation of dominant arrangements, thereby limiting opportunities for democratic movements to contest them. Using examples from across and beyond political science, I chart how ethnographic studies of political life illuminate different perspectives and practices in ways that can work to disrupt these two forms of power. Ultimately, I conclude, political science would significantly benefit from improved and greater efforts to promote this disruptive value.