What is political about political ethnography? On the context of discovery and the normalization of an emergent subfield

Claudio E. Benzecry, Gianpaolo Baiocchi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Despite recent interest in political ethnography, most of the reflection has been on the ethnographic aspect of the enterprise with much less emphasis on the question implicit in the first word of the couplet: What is actually political about political ethnography and how much should ethnographers pre-define it? The question is complicated because a central component of the definition of what is political is actually the struggle to define its jurisdiction and how it gets distinguished from what it is not. In this article we aim to show how ethnography can actually lead us out of this conundrum in which the political is paradoxically both predefined and, at the same time, the open question that leads the process of inquiry. We do so by advancing a formal and relational approach that provides us with procedural tools to define the nature and specificity of the political bond not ex ante, but rather during the process of research itself. In the first part of the article we historicize the development of political ethnography as a distinct avenue for inquiry and show what have been the challenges to its normalization. This is followed by the article’s main section, which focuses on the four ways in which what is political has been conceptualized in contemporary socio-ethnographical literature. In the conclusion of the article, we advance a lowest common denominator definition proposal, with examples from other scholars as well as from our own research to illustrate how this approach would work.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)229-247
Number of pages19
JournalTheory and Society
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 1 2017


  • Conceptualization
  • Context of discovery
  • Ethnography
  • Politics
  • Sociology of knowledge

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science


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