Researching Amongst Elites
Aguiar, Luis L.M. and Schneider, Christopher J.
'Whose side are we on?' asked Howard Becker in 1967. The question is as relevant today as ever, as social scientists find themselves trying to comprehend, report on, and reduce disadvantage at the bottom, and critique and challenge reinforced advantage at the top. Researching Amongst Elites brings together researchers from across North America and Australasia to present findings from 12 qualitative studies which aimed to uncover elite practices. This is a collection to be thought of both as a guide to the practicalities of studying 'up' but also a manifesto for doing so.
Research subjects and participants are wide-ranging, with not all fitting the classical Millsian conceptualisation of social elites, with celebrities, leaders in the voluntary sector, and entrepreneurial immigrants all included, alongside chapters focused on high-flying business executives. More interestingly, from a practical fieldwork perspective, are the farmers and fire-fighters discussed in the chapters by Tomic and Tumper (chapter 13), and Pacholok (chapter 11) respectively. Tomic and Tumper explore the hostility they faced when entering the field to research Mexican migrants working on farms in British Columbia as part of a guest-worker program. Local journalists, program managers, and farmers all provided hurdles to negotiating access and developing unbiased accounts of lived experience. This chapter is a refreshing exploration of the difficulties when powerful individuals are suspicious of researchers, and might impact their outputs.
Pacholok reflects on the process of being a woman interviewing male fire-fighters, a group considered a local elite because of the 'significant amount of valuable resources that afford them power and privilege in their community' (p. 202). Pacholok neatly draws out the extent to which these men draw on these resources, both social and economic capital, through the prestige afforded to them by their symbolic relationship to both 9/11 and their hero-status after putting out wildfires. They 'cashed in' on their success to secure a raise, a positive media profile, and national celebrity status. Further, Pacholok reflects on perhaps a common fear of researching elites, that of telling truth to power, with researchers aware that elites have more power and control over interviews and access than less powerful individuals. She reflects as a feminist on the overtly sexist and homophobic conversations she participated in during fieldwork, and describes her complicity in this behaviour, 'laughing nervously' as the banter ensued. She struggles to balance the desire to challenge their views with the knowledge that she dare not risk upsetting them. 'I needed their cooperation and I worried that any objections to their comments could potentially undermine their masculinity and compromise the interview process' (p. 208). It is these issues which make Pacholok's chapter excellent reading for early-career researchers and students who may be facing similar situations, whether studying an elite group or not.
Aguiar's introductory chapter provides an enlightening overview of how the research of elite communities has been considered within social sciences. He determines that there is particular difficulty in turning the academic gaze upwards as a result of neoliberalism. This stifling of creative research agendas, he argues, stems from the fear of negating promotion or advancement within the Higher Education system, due to the critical approach required of the social researcher. Also highly interesting here are Borer's (chapter 5) reflections on the celebrity interview, where the standard stock responses celebrities are trained to give in journalistic settings have to be navigated. These 'interview repertoires' are the opposite of social science, and he perceptively highlights that while much research has been conducted about celebrities and celebrity culture, little has been conducted of them and among them.
This readable collection contains a range of lively empirical research essays which employ varied methodologies, and it offers significant food-for-thought and guidance to others who may be considering studying up. However, the price of the book must be considered exorbitant, for a collection which would have worked just as well as a Special Issue of a research methods journal. Overall this book should makes important if not essential reading for researchers undertaking such projects, and while a copy would be a excellent addition to any academic library, it should not be considered crucial to an individual researcher's bookshelves.
Sheffield Hallam University