Academic journal article Journal of Political Studies

Studying Political Elite in Pakistan: Power Relations in Research

Academic journal article Journal of Political Studies

Studying Political Elite in Pakistan: Power Relations in Research

Article excerpt


This article details the ethical, social and political dilemmas that a researcher has to face in studying the political elite. It is argued that the all too common assumption about the vulnerability, thus need to protection, of research participants does not hold true in research with powerful political elite. Political elite have powers to determine, among other things, some fundamental research processes such as who studies them, how they are studied and for how long, rendering the researcher vulnerable in the researcher-researched relationship. It is suggested that the standard research method courses and research ethics protocols need to take into account and adapt to this reversal of power relationship.

Key words: Political elite, research ethics, research participants, power relations, researcher's vulnerability


A considerable shift has occurred in research community attitudes towards the reporting of field experience. We have come a long way from, when it was considered 'narcissistic', 'self-indulgent' and a 'contamination of data' (Punch 1986, p.14) to talk one's field experience. These days, sharing one's experience is considered to be 'academic self reflection' (Gallaher 2009, p. 136) in which 'reflexivity' has become a part of the analysis (Denzin & Lincoln 2005; Lincoln & Guba 1985). However, there are always those, who, on the basis of their experience, argue that there is continuing paucity in social science research on practical challenges and dilemmas that inevitably arise in the field, particularly in a difficult and unstable context (King 2009; Lee 1995; Punch 1986). Often, researchers are left to their own sensibilities and skills to resolve these challenges. The codes of ethics and guidelines of research/academic institutions, in the words of John King, 'almost always fall short in helping the researcher successfully navigate unanticipated ethical, social and political challenges in the field'(King, 2009, p. 8). An analytical account of the pains and perils of conducting field research can serve to highlight ethical, social and political issues (Punch, 1986), help other aspiring researchers avoid reinventing the wheel (Mertus, 2009) and, in the long run, may contribute to review and further development of existing codes and research methods.

In this article, I discuss the challenges and dilemmas related to 'studying powerful/elite' in within existing research ethics protocols developed from the global 'North' perspective. I start with a short discussion of conducting research with 'people in position of power and/ or elite' in the first section. In the following section, I introduce the research project on which this article is based. The third and main section deals with practical issues including 'ethics', 'access', 'safety' and 'identity' that I had to face while conducting research with Pakistani political elite. I conclude by reflecting on my experiences and suggesting how sharing these experiences could be useful for other researchers working with political elite in the global South.

1. Studying Elite

Some forty years ago, in 1969, Laura Nader appealed to anthropologists to 'study up", that is, to analyze the processes and institutions whereby power and responsibilities are exercised in complex American society rather than adhere to traditional anthropological focus on far-flung exotic cultures and marginalized populations (Nader, 1974). Her argument was that 'the quality of life and our lives may depend upon the extent to which citizens understand those who shape attitudes and actually control institutional structures', that is political elite (Nader, 1974, p. 284). Many others have contributed and encouraged fellow social scientists to spell out the processes of power and politics (Handyman, 2000; Marcus, 1992, 1999; Wolf, 1996; Wolf, 1974). From the political science and public policy perspective, Cyril Belshaw (1976), Catherine Marshall (1984), Chris Shore and Susan Wright (1997) and Janine Wedel and colleagues (2005) considered analyses of powerful institutions and political elites the main focus of anthropology of policy and politics. …

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