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Centre for Political Ethnography


Currently, we have the following funded projects.

Lessons for Governing

ESRC Impact Acceleration Award

John Boswell, Jess Smith, Jack Corbett, R. A. W. Rhodes and Dan Devine (Oxford)

Funding to work with the Institute for Government on analysing their Ministers Reflect archive. Ministers Reflect is a source of rare interpretive insight into the heart of British government, with an archive of over 100 semi-structured interviews with former Ministers in British government. The research team will draw on expertise in political ethnography and gender analysis to subject the archive to rigorous scholarly analysis for the first time. The award will also enable them to link emerging insights to existing expertise in executive government, and promote key lessons for governing in Britain. 

Weapons of the Meek: Everyday Acts of Administrative Resistance

John Boswell, Leverhulme Fellowship 
Despite innovation to address ailing trust in politics, democratic reformers ignore the most common way that marginalized citizens encounter the state: in the frontline implementation of laws, policies and services. We know citizens are not meek targets of state action. Ethnographic studies across health, education, planning and policing, reveal subtle forms of agency on the frontline, as citizens evade or challenge authorities. But what do these acts of resistance entail, and what are the impacts for trust in democratic institutions? I provide the first comprehensive analysis of citizen encounters across disciplines, sectors and jurisdictions to inform ideas about democratic renewal.

Learning to Live with Risk and Responsibility: Understanding Popular Responses to COVID-19

Funded by the British Academy. 

Principle Investigator: Nick Clarke, Geography and Environmental Science, University of Southampton. Co-Investigator: Clive Barnett, Geography, University of Exeter. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, British citizens have been asked to act responsibly in novel ways because of the risks their behaviour poses to others and their role in complex chains of causation. This project investigates how citizens have responded to these demands, aiming to advance conceptual and empirical understandings of popular responses to the pandemic. Making use of diaries and other writing collected by Mass Observation, the research will develop a better understanding of how people interpreted demands to act responsibly and translated them into practices of everyday life. Expected outputs include publications on how government public health communications and associated news coverage problematized the daily routines of citizens during the pandemic, and how citizens responded to these publicly circulated imperatives to act responsibly. A research workshop is planned in partnership with Mass Observation to explore how the archive’s collections can be most effectively used to advance understandings of popular responses to COVID-19.

The Participation of Small States in International Organisations

For decades, the world’s smallest states—the most structurally weak members of the multilateral system—have been considered incapable of influencing international organisations (IOs). So, why has the label small state risen to prominence and become institutionalised as a formal grouping in multiple IOs? To answer these questions we draw on interviews with diplomats and officials and participation observation in multiple IOs.

The project, funded by the Australia Research Council, is a collaboration between Jack Corbett (Southampton), Xu Yi-chong and Patrick Weller (Griffith)

Comparative Cabinets: How does Collective Decision-making Work? (R. A. W. Rhodes, Patrick Weller, Griffith University, and Dennis Grube, University of Cambridge).

The aim of this project is to open up the black box of how cabinet actually operates in Australia, Britain, Denmark, The Netherland and Switzerland. It asks two questions: (i) when, how and why is collective agreement identified and obtained in cabinet systems; and (ii) under what conditions can cabinet government operate in conjunction with strong individual leadership? The project was funded by the ARC and the findings will be published in a bookpublished by Oxford University Press in 2021.

Court Politics in the Twenty-first Century (Rod Rhodes, Unfunded 2020 -)

Court politics is about who in British government did what to whom, when, how, why, and with what consequences. This book has two overarching ambitions and a subsidiary one. First, I want to provide not only an accurate description of the court politics of the Conservative governments of the twenty-first century but also to move beyond metaphor and provide an analysis of the practices of the court. Second, I want to show that court politics matter by identifying the varied consequences that flow from court practices, especially the personal, electoral, and governmental consequences. My subsidiary theme is to show that ‘insider’ accounts of court politics that are normally judged unreliable are, in fact, a valuable source of data that will bear secondary analysis.

The heart of the book is my account of the court politics of David Cameron, Theresa May, and Boris Johnson. I explore the ‘backstage’ politics of decision making in elite networks rather than the more common focus on ‘front stage’ politics played out in the spotlight of elections, parliaments and the TV studio.  For each court, I describe its personnel; the PM’s craft; storytelling; reshuffles, resignations and leadership challenges; the political games of barons, especially lying; informality; infighting; loyalty, betrayal, leaks and revenge; and rituals, focusing on language, gossip, humour and bullying. Each chapter has a short case study of the court in action; namely, the education wars, the 2018 election, and the Covid-19 crisis. I chose each case to illustrate respectively the personal, electoral, and governmental consequences of court politics. In the conclusions, discuss the varieties of court politics, their shared dilemmas, and the significant consequences that flow from court practices.

Team Rubicon/RE:ACT – Connecting military and civilian communities (Silke Roth, unfunded, 2018 - )

The project develops a sociology of military-civilian relations and links two unconnected debates: the blurring relations between the military and civilian organisations in the humanitarian context on the one hand and the integration of veterans into civilian work and life on the other hand. The empirical research of this project focuses on the innovative disaster relief organisation Team Rubicon UK (TRUK) which was founded in 2015 and renamed itself RE:ACT in 2020. The organisation actively recruits military veterans, enables the skills transfer from the military to disaster relief and provides opportunities for interactions with civilians through activities of the organisation. I see TRUK/RE:ACT as a bridging organisation (Roth 2003) between military and civilian spheres and explore how it negotiates its identity as professional disaster relief organisation and as veterans’ organisation and the tensions that arise from this dual identity. In developing a sociology of military-civilian relations, I draw on and synthesise a wide range of literatures, including the sociology of organisations, careers, skills transfer, meaningful work in the third sector and the role of volunteering in the life-course.


•             Develop a sociology of military-civilian relations

•             Examine Team Rubicon’s role as bridging organization

•             Consider the continuities and discontinuities between the military and disaster relief

•             Deepen the understanding of peer-support in the context of volunteering


Interpretive Political Science  (Rod Rhodes, Unfunded, 2014 -)

Since 1997, with Mark Bevir, I have developed an interpretive approach to the study of politics and government. This work continues. For the 2014-20 REF, there were three book publications: R. A. W. Rhodes, Networks, Governance and the Differentiated Polity. Selected Essays. Volume I; Interpretive Political Science. Selected Essays. Volume II  (Oxford University Press 2017); and Rhodes, R.A. W., Boswell and J. Corbett The Art and Craft of Comparison. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2019).The work will continue with a fourth volume written with Mark Bevir, The Politics of Everyday Storytelling.

Magical Thinking in Public Policy (John Boswell)

In this project, I ask why seemingly naive ideas to improve policymaking - by making it more evidence-based, preventive, collaborative, transparent, and inclusive - continue to attract attention and support despite widespread cynicism among analysts and practitioners. I draw on a programme of ethnographic research with health officials and practitioners in the UK to understand why 'magical thinking' about public policy persists.  

Blurring Genres

An AHRC funded seminar series (with Susan Hodgett, University of Ulster) that will run from January 2016 to December 2017. This research network brings together an interdisciplinary and international group of experts to explore the ways in which the research methodologies usually associated with the Arts. Political scientists, area studies scholars and policy makers are beginning to recover the Humanities. The network has run six seminars at: SOAS, University of London (3), Manchester, Ulster, and the University of California, Berkeley. We ran also an impact seminar for the Cabinet Office the use of narratives in policy analysis. The series culminated in the publication of  Hodgett, Susan and Rhodes R. A. W. (Eds.) (2020). What Political Science can learn from the Humanities: Blurring Genres. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. 


Other activities

We participate in the international network on ‘Ethnographic Research and Public Sector Reform’ based at the Department of Anthropology, University of Aarhus, Denmark. Contact person:

We have held three workshops - two on public sector reform, and one on ‘The ethnography of legislatures’.

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