Anthropology of Parliament

When publishing a book it is exciting to what total strangers make of it. Danny Dorling wrote about my latest – the House of Commons, an anthropology of MPs at work – in the Times Higher Education, in favourable terms and it is a cracking read. But it was interesting to see a book about politics become political material. He suggests I said Tory MPs do a lot of shooting, skiing and being rude about state schools but he exaggerated. One Conservative made the claim about some Tory MPs shooting and skiing in a particular week and another was reported in the press as denigrating state schools. More importantly, I did not suggest that Nicola Blackwood did anything but win her seat in the 2010 election fairly and legally. I have never interviewed her but was quoting a piece she and other Conservatives wrote about winning marginal seats (Blackwood’s article). She only ‘stole’ the seat (not votes) in the sense that the previous MP expected to win it, not in an underhand way.

A reader commenting on the Amazon site was not obviously political but was out of date. He wanted me to write about how the Commons fits into society as a system; structural and systemic models were once fashionable in anthropology but I would suggest that anthropologists gave them up many years ago on the grounds that they imply rigid boundaries, lack of dynamism and can fail to take account of diversity and individual or group performance. So the analysis that weaves through the text is more about the importance of history and culture rather than systems – as he says, my intention was to read the culture of Parliament. He suggests that because organisational ethnographies have been written before, for example about the BBC, there is no need for more. That would mean the end of anthropology of people at work. It all makes me realise that I should perhaps explain more about what contemporary anthropology is about but this was not the right book for dense scholarly method and theory. Fortunately I have just been asked to write a journal article about that so I’d better get on with it. 

Health Poverty Action – a cause to get excited about

While I am increasingly positive about the UK Parliament, which is undergoing a Dr Who-like regeneration, I find myself feeling more and more critical of international aid. UK INGOs have become a bureaucratic industry sending out dishonest and disparaging marketing messages about resource-poor countries and the people within them. Hiding behind apparent moral virtuousness, NGOs can duck accountability in a way that politicians seldom can.

After years of depressing encounters with arrogant aid workers who refuse to take accountability seriously, I’ve been plunged into the middle of an organisation that bucks all these trends. A few days ago I had my first Board meeting as a Trustee of Health Poverty Action and had three surprises. The staff made it clear that they refuse to portray people in the Global South as pathetic, saved only by the kindness of Europeans. They resist unnecessary bureaucracy, spending tiny amounts on both fundraising and their UK office. This means that for every £1 (untied to any project) someone donates to them, they can go and raise £20 for projects from governments and grant-makers. That is a fantastic investment. And they have chosen as their key theme for policy reflection this year: accountability!

This is a charity I can get excited about. So much so that I have rashly agree to live on £1 a day for 5 days. I have had some doubts about this in the past. There is something inadequate about this 5 day experience is a way of trying to imagine what it is like being poor. But it isn’t about that, I now realise. For me, it is more of a symbolic reminder to those who may want to support good causes that this is what some people live on. I have hesitated to give money or time to nearly all international NGOs in the recent past, so the relief of finding one that I feel certain about after years of searching is delicious.

If you feel like sponsoring me, you will make me even happier.


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