The making of the fieldwork-er: debating agency in elites research
AbstractBased on the outcome of 20 months fieldwork on the process of elite formation and the making of public space in a northern Namibian town, this paper explores the challenges of doing research among elites. Elites, whether political, economic, administrative, religious or traditional, occupy a prominent position within a community, which sets them apart from the rest of the population. While elite status inevitably brings to its members prestige, recognition and privileges, at the same time it often attracts criticism and suspicion of the elites' modus operandi. For these reasons the elites tend to keep an aura of secrecy around their activities, thus limiting access to their social milieu by outsiders. Beyond secrecy, in Africa, where the relationship between the elites and their subalterns is often socially and culturally regulated through age practices, generational difference can become a considerable hindrance for a young researcher. Taking inspiration from the work of feminist anthropologists, I reflect on my own experience to highlight the problematic role of the researcher's agency in the context of elite studies. Much as in the case of gender, I argue that age and generation regulates and determines the access of fieldworkers to their chosen field sites. As a consequence, fieldworkers doing research among elites have to constantly negotiate and adjust their position in the field. I aim to stress that while on many occasions these negotiations respond to the fieldworker's conscious intended strategies, in other circumstances there is little room for individual choices, let alone conscious and planned manoeuvering.