Trading Up: Reflections on Power, Collaboration, and Ethnography in the Anthropology of Policy
Anthropology in Action
In the summer of 2006, a young Canadian named Kyle MacDonald succeeded in an ambitious endeavour to transform a red paperclip into a small home via a series of internet exchanges. The logic of the project was simple: by engaging in a series of asymmetric trades (potential traders had to be willing to offer something that was slightly bigger and better than the object MacDonald offered them), MacDonald would ultimately be able to secure the deed to a residence. The red paperclip was initially
... ip was initially traded for a fish pen, which was then exchanged for a hand-made, ceramic doorknob, an object that attracted the attention of a doorknob enthusiast, who offered a gas grill in its place, and so on and so forth (see AbstrAct: This article constitutes a pragmatic consideration of how to orchestrate access to 'powerful' individuals and a theoretical reflection on what efforts to negotiate access reveal about the anthropologist's subterranean assumptions about power, collaboration and ethnographic data. Too frequently, powerful actors and the contemporary settings they inhabit appear to be obstacles to ethnographic research. In contrast, I propose that we explore the ways in which working with powerful actors can enhance, rather than inhibit, the possibilities of anthropological data collection. In this article, I present several examples from my field research in the Mexican government to show how the ethnographic encounter can be constructive of the political process, not jut an appendage to it. By directing attention to the ways in which our actual research practices (and not just our findings) intervene in the political space, we can re-orient our expectations about data and the ontology of anthropological expertise.