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People, Power, Policy: Anthropological and Sociological Perspectives – An Introduction

0 Comments 🕔16.Sep 2015

This article is part of our feature People, Power, Policy.

Ketonen leader image

Photo credit: Daniel Horacio Agostini.


by Irene Ketonen

Policy studies have recently become more visible and important within anthropology. The world’s largest organization of professional anthropologists, the American Anthropological Association, added a new section entitled “Association for the Anthropology of Policy” (ASAP) in 2012. Their mission statement notes that “the study of policy deals with issues at the heart of anthropology such as: institutions and power; ideology and discourse; identity and culture; and interactions between the global and local, public and private, and bureaucracy and market” (ASAP 2012). Anthropologists most commonly examine these issues through the experiences of the people involved, including policy recipients, policy implementers, and increasingly, policy makers.

By contrast, policy studies have been more controversial within sociology. In his 2004 Presidential Address to the American Sociological Association, for example, Michael Burawoy denigrated policy sociology by declaring it to be “sociology in the service of a goal defined by a client.” Ranking policy sociology below other types of sociology (Burawoy 2004), he contrasted it with “public” and “critical” sociology, which he described as more driven by conscience and moral purpose. This was a serious critique and one which has been sharply criticized by other sociologists who advocate for the importance of a sociology engaged with the world outside of academia, including NGOs and all levels of government (Brady 2004, Shortall 2012).

Nonetheless, there is no denying the importance of anthropological and sociological perspectives in contemporary policy debates and their potential for significant social impact.  For this reason, the editors of CritCom have chosen to spotlight working sociologists and anthropologists’ contributions to policy-related research in European Studies.  In this feature, titled “People, Power, Policy: Anthropological and Sociological Perspectives,” we bring together the work of ten different researchers working on widely divergent policy issues.  Anthropologists Asher, Koensler, and Weber all investigate how people respond to the policies they encounter in their everyday lives. In particular, Weber and Koensler demonstrate how “coping” with the effects of policy is sometimes the most productive (or indeed, the only possible) response to policies experienced as harmful. Weber does this through a case study analyzing the strategies utilized by Romanian pensioners for obtaining food, shelter, and medical care in a society deeply impacted by neoliberal fiscal and social policy. Likewise, Koensler draws on an ethnographic case study of a pro-Palestinian campaign against the razing of unauthorized villages to question the utility of European activism for social justice in Israel and Palestine. In contrast, Asher’s informants actively respond to a policy decision to decrease Ukrainian involvement with the European Union (EU) by protesting and circulating (often modified) images of these protests on Twitter.

In addition to these three responses to detrimental policies, Firat investigates the issue from the opposing angle of policy makers. In her case study, these policy makers are officials at EU institutions who create policies relating to energy, infrastructure, and expansion of the EU. Combining both approaches, Nyqvist examines Swedish pension reform from the perspective of policy recipients and policy makers, as well as the government officials assigned to implement it. Her case study makes a powerful argument for how differently three types of actors can view the same set of policies.

In contrast to the qualitative work of anthropologists, sociologists most often engage in research that is comparative and quantitative. For example, in this feature, Shortall and Pfau-Effinger examine gender within the European context. Shortall argues that the idea that gender mainstreaming EU policies can achieve gender equality across Europe is problematic. Using the example of gendered inequalities in agriculture, she examines the complexities of using gender mainstreaming to tackle inequalities determined at the national level in accordance with societal values. Pfau-Effinger also argues that value differences between European societies impact gendered issues. Her theoretical model explains cross-national differences in men’s and women’s behavior towards employment and childcare, which cannot be explained by policy variation alone. Similarly, Wood and Burchell argue that further research is needed to investigate how precarious work, or “zero hours employment,” is mediated by national policies across Europe. Finally, Kline and Giannoumis examine the difficulties faced by Europeans with disabilities in moving across EU member states.

 Irene Ketonen is a Ph.D. candidate at the University at Buffalo. Her dissertation research examines how moral and ethical values are utilized, negotiated, and contested during encounters between farmers in Northern Ireland and EU bureaucracy. She served as Chair of the CritCom Editorial Committee from 2014-2015.

This article is part of our feature People, Power, Policy.


“2012 Mission Statement Detail.” Association for the Anthropology of Policy. accessed April 29, 2015.

Brady, D. “Why Public Sociology May Fail.” Social Forces 82, no. 4 (2004):1629-1638.

Burawoy, Michael. “2004 Presidential Address: For Public Sociology.” American Sociological Review 70 (2005): 4-28.

Shortall, Sally. The Role of Subjectivity and Knowledge Power Struggles in the Formation of Public Policy. Sociology 47(6): 1088-1103.

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