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We Are the 1 Percent: Rethinking National Elites as Protest Participants

We Are the 1 Percent: Rethinking National Elites as Protest Participants

1 Comment 🕔26.Nov 2013

This article is part of our Enough! feature on Europe’s exploding social movements.


by John Postill

More than 40 years ago, Laura Nader asked herself why so few anthropologists study elites and came to the conclusion that “anthropologists value studying what they like and liking what they study and, in general, we prefer the underdog.”[1]

With some notable exceptions this is still largely the case today, as the following anecdote illustrates. Last year I gave a talk at Aarhus University, in Denmark, about my anthropological research into the uses of social media by Spanish citizens during the 2011 protests. One of my examples was the use of smartphones and video sites such as YouTube to denounce police brutality.  During the Q&A, the American anthropologist George Marcus took up this example and asked me what Spain’s intelligence services, particularly its highest echelons, made of the protests. Indeed, what went on within Spain’s ruling elites as the protests gathered pace?

I was lost for words, as I had not given this question much serious thought, if any at all. In my ethnographic research I had taken what seemed like the sensible course of following the 99 percent as they mobilized to demand “real democracy now” and declare that they were no longer “commodities in the hands of politicians and bankers.”[2] It had not occurred to me to turn the targets of popular indignation into research participants.

On closer inspection, the problem is not limited to anthropology. Thus a recent review of the interdisciplinary literature on the new protest movements shows that most of the attention to date has been focused on the 99 percent, not the 1 percent, through topics such as martyrdom, social capital, digital media practices, and so on.[3]  This leaves us with the unresolved issue of not knowing much about elite involvement in the new protest movements.

So what can we do as an emergent field of scholarship to address this problem?

In this essay I wish to propose three urgent measures that we can take – one conceptual, the other two methodological – in order to start working toward a solution.


The 1 percent as protest participants

Writing about the earlier anti-corporate globalization movement, Nick Crossley argues that protest fields consist not only of activists and protesters but also of ‘mediating agencies’ such as the police and the press:

On the one hand, their actions crush, discourage, incite, encourage or amplify support and participation […]. On the other, as McAdam (1983)[4]  has shown, policing tactics and strategies often interact in a dialogical fashion with protest activity; each move or innovation on one side calling for corresponding moves and innovations on the other.[5]

This image captures beautifully the dynamic nature of protest fields, yet it fails to include one crucial agency – that of the rich and powerful. By locating the protest field in the streets and squares where protesters and police typically interact, Crossley is unwittingly excluding from the analysis the 1 percent.

The first measure to adopt, therefore, is to correct the conceptual error of excluding the 1 percent from our research projects. To do this, we must regard the 1 percent not as remote Olympian beings but as protest participants in their own right. Instead, we need to map the protest field so that the 1 percent will be as integral to the protests as their more visible underdogs. Out of sight should not mean out of mind. Whether we choose social network analysis, correspondence analysis, big data analysis or some other tool, it is imperative that we find room in our accounts for the ‘moves and innovations’ of the (trans)national elites in relation to the non-elites.

By this I am not proposing a crude division of the protest field into two antagonistic moieties: the 1 percent versus the 99 percent. Rather I am suggesting that we design highly differentiated models of the field in which all key individual and collective agents (political leaders, high financiers, religious organizations, activist networks, etc.) find a place. One could, for example, draw a chronological series of Bourdieu-inspired correspondence matrixes in which protest participants – broadly defined – are placed in relation to one another according to their unique mixes of capital (social, political, economic, etc.) and relative distance from hardcore protesters.  An alternative analytical approach would be to devise a series of social network analyses that made visible the strong and weak ties connecting elite players with one another and with non-elite players over a period of time. One could also combine correspondence and social network analysis, as suggested by Wouter de Nooy for the Dutch literary field, and so on. [6]

Whichever the approach adopted, these analytical exercises would not only shed light on the often occluded but active part played by 1-percent agents, but also help us move beyond reductive binaries that pit a monolithic ‘system’ against an oppressed ‘people’.  Indeed, it is reasonable to assume that such analyses would reveal many overlaps and cross-overs, with some 1-percent participants quietly supporting the protests and numerous 99 percent participants opposing them – e.g., pro-government voters unaffected by the economic crisis. For example, Spain’s firefighters have frequently sided with protesters in recent clashes, sometimes acting as buffers between demonstrators and the riot police. What is far less clear – precisely because of the research bias that brought us here – is whether this is a position privately held by the highest ranks of the fire services, or even by some of their political masters. For all we know, there could be politicians with Spain’s governing conservative party (Partido Popular) secretly assisting the protest movement – an unlikely situation, to be sure, but one that only further elite research can rule out.


We know more than we think 

Armed with the notion that the elites, too, are protest participants of a kind, we can now begin to take stock of the available information on specific national elites and their protest trajectories. My working assumption here is that we know more about the 1 percent as protest participants than we think. Four main sources of data present themselves for this urgent task.

First, there is a treasure trove of recently leaked information about powerful individuals and organizations around the world freely available online. These include the US State Department, the US National Security Agency (NSA), its UK counterpart, GCHQ, the global bank HSBC, as well as national governments and elites around the world.[7] In Spain, the US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks were crucial to the gestation of the indignados movement in early 2011. The leaks revealed how the US had pressurized the Spanish government into passing restrictive copyright legislation (known as ‘Ley Sinde’) to protect its own culture industry.[8] As the current global conflict over Internet freedom gathers momentum, we should be ready to harvest the protest-related fruits of future revelations. Given that the task of sifting through huge amounts of data and evaluating its significance exceeds the capacity of today’s overstretched news media outlets, as Dominic Rushe has argued, there is great potential here for academic researchers to develop partnerships modeled after the ground-breaking research jointly undertaken by Guardian journalists and London School of Economics scholars following the British riots of 2011.[9]

Second, with the phenomenal growth of Twitter, Facebook and other egocentric platforms in the past few years, the 1 percent are now freely volunteering more information about themselves than ever before, and they are doing so largely bypassing the traditional news media. These digital contents can be revealing not only about the public figure in question, but on occasions about intra-elite power struggles over a social protest as well. For instance, on 21 December 2010, the Miami-based Spanish singer Alejandro Sanz tweeted that Spain’s “cowardly” politicians had bowed to popular pressure and were about to abandon plans to pass a new bill, the just-mentioned Ley Sinde, aimed at protecting artists’ intellectual property.[10]

A third source of information for the would-be 1 percent protest scholar is the boom in ‘crowdsourced’ fact-finding on all manner of topics – including social protest – freely shared online. For example, shortly after Alejandro Sanz’s tweet, a torrent of criticism from Spain’s netizens was channeled through the Twitter hashtag #alejandrosanzfacts, many of whom reminded the wealthy singer of his privileged status as a tax exile living in Florida. A second example concerns Wikipedia. When preparing this piece, a Google search led me to a Wikipedia entry where volunteer editors have gathered a rich set of materials on Spanish politicians’ reactions to the indignados protests.[11] Both are examples of potential leads on elite position-taking within a field of protest at specific historical conjunctures.

Finally, the conceptual shift I am proposing – a shift from viewing the 1 percent elites as external to the protests to placing them firmly inside the new protest fields – can also help us revisit the existing academic literature with new eyes. Thus in a recent journal article, the sociologist Eduardo Romanos discusses Spain’s anti-eviction movement, led by the indignados platform PAH (Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca, the Mortgage Victims’ Platform).[12] Through a savvy combination of direct actions (escraches) and the cultivation of public relations with opposition politicians and the media, PAH has managed to break with “the deep-rooted tendency toward a lack of interaction between protest movements and institutional actors.”[13] Such interactions can be rich sources of insight into 1-percent protest participants and their evolving relationships with 99-percent activists as the latter find new ways of penetrating a political system that once seemed impregnable.


Elite ethnography

Having reconceptualized the 1 percent as protest participants and taken stock of our existing knowledge of them, the next logical step is to study their protest-related practices from within, ideally through participant observation – the hallmark of ethnographic research.

This is not as outlandish an idea as it may seem at first. After all, there are some worthy precedents of anthropologists (and sociologists) conducting ethnographic fieldwork among the world’s rich and powerful.[14] Consider, for instance, Emma Crewe’s fieldwork in Britain’s House of Lords, where she found that peers are literally treated ‘as peers’ regardless of their standing outside the House – a finding that would surprise activists for whom peer-to-peer ‘horizontality’ is exclusive to grassroots movements.[15] Or take Karen Ho’s Liquidated, a late 1990s ethnography of the everyday lives of investment bankers in Wall Street.[16] In this prescient study, Ho discovered a dysfunctional world intimately linked to elite universities and marked by its relentless competition and job insecurity.

There are also valuable lessons to be learned from non-academic works such as Plutocrats, a thoroughly researched study of ‘the new global super-rich’ by the business journalist Chrystia Freeland.[17] This author argues that the greatest income disparity is to be found not between the 1 percent and the rest of the population but within the 1 percent itself. It is in fact the top 0.1 percent earners whose income has risen most dramatically over the past decades, to the chagrin of the rest of the 1 percent who feel ‘poor’ by comparison. This ‘elite underdog’ resentment suggests an important source of future research participant recruitment – and potential alliances – for scholars interested in elite participation in the new protest movements.



To recapitulate, I have argued here that new protest research is hindered by a collective blind spot that prevents us from seeing the part the rich and powerful are playing in the new protest movements. The 1 percent may be the target of much rightful indignation, but we still know surprisingly little about their participation in the movements. To rectify this situation, I have suggested we take three urgent steps. First, that we bring the elites and the non-elites under a common analytical umbrella, namely the protest field as a dynamic domain of conflict in which variously positioned agents – from the super-rich to the destitute, from the highly visible to the invisible – compete and cooperate over a range of pressing issues.  Second, that we take stock of the existing information on 1-percent involvements in the protests. Our current knowledge is probably greater than we imagine, but it is widely scattered and must be collaboratively gathered and evaluated before it can be put to good use. Finally, I have suggested that some of us undertake ethnographic research into 1 percent protest participants following the example set by previous elite ethnographies.

Ironically, by lavishing so much attention on our fellow 99 percent protesters at the expense of the 1 percent (and indeed the 0.1 percent), we have done the new movements a disservice. It is therefore time for some of us to ‘study up’ so that we can begin to close the power/knowledge gap.


John Postill is Vice-Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow at RMIT University, Melbourne (2013–2016), and Digital Anthropology Fellow at University College London (UCL). His publications include Localizing the Internet (2011), Media and Nation Building (2006) and the co-edited volume Theorising Media and Practice (2010, with Birgit Bräuchler). Currently he is conducting anthropological research on new forms of digital activism and civic engagement in Indonesia, Spain, and globally.

This article is part of our Enough! feature on Europe’s exploding social movements.

[1] Laura Nader, “Up the Anthropologist – Perspectives Gained from Studying Up,” Reinventing Anthropology, ed. D. Hymes (New York: Random House, 1972); quoted in Stefanie Lotter, “Book Review: Chris Shore & Stephen Nugent (eds). Elite cultures: anthropological perspectives. ASA Monographs No 38. London: Routledge, 2002.”
Anthropology Matters 6 (1), 2004.

[2] John Postill and Sarah Pink, “Social Media Ethnography: The Digital Researcher in a Messy Web,” Media International Australia 145 (2012): 123–134.

[3] John Postill, “The Uneven Convergence of Digital Freedom Activism and Popular Protest: A Global Theory of the New Protest Movements,” Melbourne: RMIT University, 2013, available at:

[4] Doug McAdam, Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982).

[5] Nick Crossley, “Global AntiCorporate Struggle: A Preliminary Analysis,” British Journal of Sociology 53.4 (2002): 667–691, here 677.

[6] Wouter de Nooy, “Fields and Networks: Correspondence Analysis and Social Network Analysis in the Framework of Field Theory,” Poetics 31 (2003): 305–27.

[7] Ander Iñaki Oliden, Ana Requena Aguilar, and Juan Luis Sánchez, “Los hijos del 15M ya andan solos,” El Diario, 12 May 2013, available at: Dominic Rushe, “NSA surveillance goes beyond Orwell’s imagination –Alan Rusbridger,” The Guardian, 24 September 2013, available at:

[8] Maira Sutton, “Spain’s Ley Sinde: New Revelations of U.S. Coercion,” Electronic Frontier Foundation, 9 January 2012, available at:

[9] James Ball and Symeon Brown, “Why BlackBerry Messenger was rioters’ communication method of choice”, The Guardian, 7 December 2011, available at:

[10] “Alejandro Sanz apoya la ‘Ley Sinde’ y vuelve a liarla en la red,” Expansion, 27 December 2010, available at:

[11] Anexo: Reacciones de los partidos políticos ante las protestas en España de 2011:

[12] Eduardo Romanos, “Evictions, Petitions and Escraches: Contentious Housing in Austerity Spain,” Social Movement Studies, (forthcoming): 1–7.

[13] Romanos, “Evictions, Petitions and Escraches,” 1.

[14] Abner Cohen, The Politics of Elite Culture: Explorations in the Dramaturgy of Power in a Modern African Society (Berkely: University of California Press, 1981); George E. Marcus, Elites: Ethnographic Issues (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1993).

[15] Emma Crewe, Lords of Parliament: Manners, Rituals and Politics (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005).

[16] Karen Ho, Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street (Duke University Press, 2009).

[17] Chrystia Freeland, Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else (London: Penguin, 2012).




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