Research into Parliaments

Parliaments in 'politically fragile states'

Emma is currently co-ordinating a research coalition at SOAS with Enlightened Research Foundation Mynamar, Forum for Social Studies (Addis Ababa), Leeds University, JNU (New Delhi), Hansard Society. This Global Research Network on Parliaments and People will enable researchers, artists and activists to discuss and imagine what democratic politics might look like in a more engaged and inclusive political world.

To promote the study of parliaments and people our network:

  • supports research, scrutiny and debate on the relationship between Parliaments, parliamentarians, civil society and citizens through grants, training and advice

  • encourages collaboration across disciplinary boundaries and between the arts, humanities, creative and cultural industries

  • communicates insights into Parliaments and people in ways that deepen democratic participation

Between 2017-2020 we will focus on supporting the development of research capacity in Myanmar and Ethiopia and neighbouring politically fragile states. This coalition is funded by a £2m grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Councila and the Global Challenges Research Fund.


Parliaments in Bangladesh and Ethiopia

A coalition of SOAS, University of London, Hansard Society and Forum for Social Studies (Ethiopia) have received a grant of £501,930 to research the role of MPs in public engagement and poverty reduction in Bangladesh and Ethiopia. Funding for the three-year research project, Parliamentary effectiveness: public engagement for poverty reduction in Bangladesh and Ethiopia, comes from an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) - Department for International Development (DFID) joint fund. This collaboration of anthropologists and political scientists in Ethiopia and Bangladesh will examine the extent to which poverty reduction depends upon an effective parliament with MPs engaging with the public. 

The work of parliament and parliamentarians is changing within most nations: they can grow stronger as many countries develop processes of public engagement, but weaker in the sense that many citizens become still more disillusioned with their political leaders.  While political anthropology has greatly enhanced our understanding of how the state is embedded in society, this research will more specifically explore the relationship between parliament, parliamentarians and individuals and groups within the public. The research involves asking what makes MPs effective? How do they interact with different stakeholders? What roles do they play in poverty reduction and the promotion of equality? What do MPs, CSOs and citizens recommend for the future? The research team is using qualitative methods of interviews, mapping, and observation, relying on anthropological, gender and actor-orientated approaches. SOAS and the Hansard Society will support in-country researchers to carry out this research and disseminate the findings widely in their regions and beyond. The Principal Investigator is Dr Emma Crewe and Co-Investigator is Dr Ruth Fox in the UK while the other lead researchers are Prof. Z Ahmed and Prof N. Ahmed in Bangladesh and Dr M. Ayenew in Ethiopia.

Professor Richard Black, Pro-Director (Research & Enterprise) at SOAS said: “Poverty reduction is a core area of research at SOAS - international development is continually assessed, critiqued and scrutinised by our scholars. This research project will highlight the many challenges faced by rapidly developing nations as they work to reduce poverty.”


The House of Commons

Emma has been studying the House of Commons on a Leverhulme Research Fellowship. Since October 2011 she has been interviewing MPs in all political parties, MPs' staff, and officials to find out what it is like to be a Member of Parliament. She is exploring how MPs navigate the varied range of demands and pressures they face in the parliamentary chamber, committee rooms, in their political parties, within constituencies and in the media. How do they learn the rules, prioritise their time and establish their reputations? What are the differences between political parties, for newcomers and old hands, and according to MPs' backgrounds and identities? She has been watching debates, visiting constituencies, reading tweets and following parliamentary scrutiny of the family justice aspects of the Children and Families Bill.

Her book House of Commons, an anthropology of MPs at work is being published in April 2015. What others have said about it:

'Every tribe needs its anthropologist and those currently sitting on the green benches in the Houses of Parliament have found theirs in Emma Crewe. She has a keen ear, a flair for divining character and for capturing episodes, and she marries the three in this fascinating study' (Professor Lord Hennessy)

'MPs are scrutinised and criticised more than ever, so it is refreshing to find research which has studied the actual work MPs do, not based on preconceptions and prejudice but on the reality of our daily lives' (Dame Anne Begg, MP for Aberdeen South and Chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee)

'A preceptive, balanced and thorough research project into modern day politics. Being followed around by an anthropologist was, at first, daunting – but better than being followed by a tabloid reporter! And the work is a more sympathetic and realistic analysis of our much-maligned profession.' Rt Hon Sir George Young Bt CH, MP fo North West Hampshire


The House of Lords

On the basis of her earlier research of the upper chamber (1998-2002), Emma wrote a portrait of the House of Lords - the first anthropological study of the UK parliament. The peculiar composition of the Lords - appointed peers, Bishops and hereditary lords - and the relationships between its members are changeable and unexpected. Peers' status in the House depends partly on how impressively they speak during debate. Women thrive in its courteous culture. Some significant hierarchies, however go almost unnoticed. Each of the parties has its own sub-cultures, but in all three obedience to the party 'whips' is maintained more by social ties than by political self-interest. At the same time, ritualised debates allow resolution of disagreement between opposing but fluid moral communities, reflecting conflicts in wider society. Finally, the symbols and rituals, through which relationships, power and ideas are mediated, are analysed from the perspective of anthropology.

What others have said about Lords of Parliament: manners, rituals and politics (2005):

'A beautifully observed study of  political institutions and politic behaviour, this is essential reading for anyone who wants to understands how the Lords really works.' (Prof. Robert Hazell, Director of the Constitution Unit, UCL, London)

'Lords of Parliament immediately takes a place alongside the best anthropological studies of the crucial role played by ritual in modern politics. Crewe's graceful writing and wit come through on each page, while she gives us an inside view of an institution that cannot but provoke our curiosity. It is a book that is going to be read with great pleasure, offering not only much new insight, but copious chuckles.' (Prof. David I. Kertzer, Brown University, Rhode Island)


(Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament)