Anthropology Studying Up
Pablo Aguilera del Castillo
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0287


Ever since her influential essay on the need to “study up,” Laura Nader has remained a critical voice in anthropology pushing scholars to examine the politics of ethnographic research. Challenging as it might be, understanding her legacy requires discussing everything from energy policy to Orientalism. Over the span of her career as an anthropologist, Nader’s work has examined power itself as an important object of study. Her critique of traditional anthropology has led to a new body of research that both invites anthropologists to study their own communities and reorients their gaze toward the power of states, bureaucratic systems, laws, economies, and sciences. Nader’s proposal to “study up” entails a change in their active scholarly examination of systems, structures, and subjects of power. Nader’s proposal also considers the ethical limitations of anthropological research done abroad, far away from the anthropologists’ homeland, and invites scholars to “repatriate anthropology” by studying the powerful in their own communities. She similarly notes an urgent need for ethnographers to better theorize power. At the heart of Nader’s call for a different kind of anthropology lies an invitation to produce anthropological knowledge that helps develop a more democratic and just society. Nader’s call to reorient anthropological research emerges in a moment of acute political awakening fueled by the end of European colonialism in many countries, the Cold War, the consolidation of a globalized capitalist world, and the consolidation of US imperialism throughout the world. In this context, Nader’s invitation to study up and down has had a lasting effect on the field, contributing to a collective reflection on how political, bureaucratic, legal, economic, and scientific knowledge is produced. Despite the many directions of anthropology today, it doesn’t seem an overstatement to say that an ever-growing number of anthropologists today are decidedly Naderian in their marked interest in understanding systems and structures of power in the making of our social worlds.

Conceptual Origins and the Definition of “Studying Up”

Over the years, Nader 1974 has invited anthropologists to explore the perspectives gained from studying up, challenging previous disciplinary conventions, and producing new forms of imagining both the objects and methods of ethnographic research. In this paper, Nader argues for a new focus on political institutions, bureaucracies, and the powerful. Nader 2011 additionally emphasizes the necessity to reconsider the social and political usefulness of anthropology more broadly. This new elaboration of her argument poses questions about the responsibility of scholars to investigate and document emerging epistemic hierarchies across society. A good example of this new ethnographic orientation can be seen in Nader 1996, where she explores the role of modern science in the making of cultural differences between the West and the non-West. She analyzes the history of Western science as part of a larger effort to establish Western epistemic hegemony. Another example of her interest in epistemic hierarchies can be found in Nader 1997, which explores the role of law. This book studies histories of conflict resolution and jurisprudence across Africa, Europe, the Americas, and Oceania, laying the ground for new methodological and theoretical approaches to study different legal traditions. In Nader 2001, the author also makes the case for a generalist anthropology that explores the invisible, forgotten, or obscured connections between local realities and global structures and systems of power. Recognizing the importance of studying systems and structures of power ethnographically, Gupta and Ferguson 1997 similarly analyzes the ways in which the very definition of “the field” has historically limited anthropological spaces and objects of analysis for ethnographers. Hannerz 2006 and Marcus 1995 further analyze the traditional limits of the anthropological gaze on the world, considering the need to adopt a multi-sited approach that recognizes the emergence new field sites among researchers. Finally, tracing the influence of studying up, Gusterson 1997 reviews ethnographic examples of Nader’s proposal to analyze their strengths and limitations.

  • Gupta, Akhil, and James Ferguson. 1997. Anthropological locations: Boundaries and grounds of a field science. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    This volume challenges the notion of “the field” in anthropology, analyzing its construction through different ethnographic practices. The authors explore unusual field sites to push the boundaries of ethnographic engagement and consider the political implications of beginning to explore understudied spaces.

  • Gusterson, Hugh. 1997. Studying up revisited. PoLAR 20:114.

    DOI: 10.1525/pol.1997.20.1.114

    In this piece, Gusterson analyzes the influence of Nader’s invitation to study up twenty-five years after the publication of “Up the Anthropologist.” The author sees the postmodern reflections of power of George Marcus and Michael Fischer’s Anthropology as Cultural Critique as a result of Nader’s piece. The author analyzes critical ethnographies dealing with the powerful, concluding that most of these are examples of studying up, down, and across social groups.

  • Hannerz, Ulf. 2006. Studying down, up, sideways, through, backwards, forwards, away and at home: Reflections on the field worries of an expansive discipline. In Locating the field: Space, place and context in anthropology. Edited by Simon Coleman and Peter Collins. Oxford: Berg.

    Hannerz discusses various orientations that anthropologists have proposed to examine the notion of the “field” and the evolution of the discipline and its ethical and political concerns over time. The author analyzes the importance for ethnographers of being away in the field, bringing anthropology home, studying up, studying sideways, and placing the field in its historical context.

  • Marcus, George E. 1995. Ethnography in/of the world system: The emergence of multi-sited ethnography. Annual Review of Anthropology 24.1: 95–117.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    In this review article, George Marcus discusses the theoretical and practical stakes of moving from single-site to multi-sited ethnographies. For him, unlike traditional single-site approaches, multi-sited ethnographies are both studies in and of the world system. Multi-sited ethnography is articulated as a tool to examine the circulation of cultural meanings, objects, and identities across time and space. Marcus analyzes the potential of tracing people, things, metaphors, stories, biographies, and conflicts as a method.

  • Nader, Laura. 1974. Up the anthropologist—Perspectives gained from studying up. In Reinventing anthropology. Edited by Dell Hymes, 284–311. New York: Vintage Books.

    This article, first published in 1969, marks a critical moment in US anthropology, inviting scholars to turn their attention to power and the powerful. The article argues for an anthropological focus on political institutions, bureaucracies, and powerful public figures. Besides attending to the practices and social worlds of the powerful, Nader’s proposal calls scholars to study their own ethical and political commitments to the societies they live in. More concretely, the author discusses the need for more ethnographies that better engage with power.

  • Nader, Laura. 2011. Ethnography as theory. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 1.1: 211–219.

    DOI: 10.14318/hau1.1.008

    This article, first published in 1979, explains how studying up requires reconsidering the importance of bringing anthropology home by studying the systems and structures of power in the home communities of anthropologists. Moreover, the author discusses the significant potential of ethnographic analysis to shed light on aspects of social life of power that have otherwise been rendered invisible to most people.

  • Nader, Laura. 2001. Anthropology! Distinguished Lecture—2000. American Anthropologist 103.3: 609–620.

    DOI: 10.1525/aa.2001.103.3.609

    In this lecture, Nader discusses the history of the discipline over the twentieth century, analyzing the subfield changes, anthropology’s place in the humanities and sciences, its relationship to the public, its complicated relationship with the West, and finally its own changing disciplinary boundaries. Nader makes a compelling case for what she calls a “generalist anthropology” addressing big questions through the connections between the local and global, nature and culture, and the particular and the universal.

  • Nader, Laura, ed. 1996. Naked science: Anthropological inquiry into boundaries, power, and knowledge. New York: Routledge.

    This book, edited by Nader, explores the “scientific nature” of traditional knowledge systems, highlighting the mechanisms that privilege Western science over the rest. Through a diverse array of essays exploring Micronesian, Mayan, Japanese, Inuit, and Cree scientific practices alongside modern Western science, the authors unravel the histories and practices that have solidified Western science.

  • Nader, Laura, ed. 1997. Law in culture and society: With a new preface. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    This seminal edited volume, first published in 1969, marks the birth of the subfield of legal anthropology. With contributors from the United States and Europe analyzing law in the regions of Africa, Europe, the Americas, and Oceania, the volume represents a special effort to reckon with the methodological and theoretical challenges of doing anthropology of law. Many of the essays in this volume focus on dispute settlement and jurisprudence across sites and traditions.

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