Ethnography is still relatively unknown, not just to parliamentary interlocutors, but also to some political scientists. In this chapter, I ask: what does ethnography add to existing qualitative research on the political groups of the European Parliament, more specifically on the substantive themes of the book: democracy, party politics and turbulent times? Secondly, drawing on the chapter’s title, I offer a practical illustration of how ethnography might be conducted of the political groups and elucidate the practices and challenges that this entails. The chapter is based upon my ethnographic research conducted in the 8th and 9th European Parliaments. I introduce shadowing, meeting ethnography and ‘hanging out’ as three ethnographic practices and assess their helpfulness for studying different political group activities. Overall, I present parliamentary ethnography as not only affording practical benefits to researchers, but also how it provides unparalleled knowledge about entanglements and relationships between political group actors and institutions.
- Party Politics
- Turbulent times
- Meeting ethnography
- Hanging out
This question, ‘ethno, ethno, what?’, was uttered to me by a male Member of the European Parliament (MEP) after reading an information sheet, as I embarked on a day of shadowing him. Fortunately, I had time to debrief the MEP and he avidly shouted in the office, ‘follow the action through here, Cherry, bring a chair!’ (FN 050219). Upon bumping into another MEP in the parliament who had been shadowed, I was asked if I was ‘taking the temperatures and smelling the air’ and getting enough ‘ethno-feel’ from the fieldwork (FN 190319). Since ethnography is not a common approach to most actors within the European Parliament (EP), this ambivalent knowledge is similarly shared by some political scientists, who ‘on the whole, ethnography remains mysterious to’ (Crewe, 2018), whereby the novelty of political science and anthropology collaborations is emphasised (Cerwonka & Malki 2007). Meanwhile, some political scientists are critical of a ‘newness’ narrative; therefore, they highlighted political science’s forgotten history of observational methods (Schatz, 2017; Wedeen, 2010) and, in the words of Aronoff and Kubik (2012), a ‘convergent approach’ between political science and anthropology. Indeed, evidence for the latter perception may be seen in the domain of the EP and EU institutions (Abélès, 1993; Abélès et al., 1993; Busby, 2013; Shore, 2000; Wodak, 2003). This ethnographic research revealed insights into the political group’s activities to a greater or lesser extent. Overall, there has been a ‘double absence’ of literature, both on political groups and from an in-depth ethnographic perspective. Surprisingly, the political groups have not received more attention in a field where the assumptions of parliaments and their parties as unitary actors are being questioned (Rai & Spary, 2019; Ripoll Servent this volume).
Parliamentary and party-political ethnographies are arguably broader subtypes of political ethnography (Baiocchi & Connor, 2008). Political ethnography is a broad umbrella term that prioritises methodological immersion in the study of power. Political ethnography contains subfields, such as policy ethnography (Shore et al., 2011), parliamentary ethnography (Crewe, 2021) and political party ethnography (Aronoff, 1977; Crewe, 2020; Faucher, 2020). Notably, it can be approached from different ontological and epistemological positions that influence the methods chosen (Schatz, 2009), and the practice of parliamentary ethnographies may change with the type of parliament (Miller, 2021; Adiputri, 2019). Ethnography can be used as part of a standalone approach. Regarding specific methods, political ethnography includes participant observation and ‘sensibility’ (Wedeen, 2009, pp. 84–90). A sensibility tends to be a broader approach based on presence, materiality, long-term commitment and holistic analysis (Wedeen, 2009, p. 85). Alternatively, ethnography, as one part of a mixed-method approach, can be used to strengthen or test arguments. Overall, parliamentary studies’ scholars are slowly embracing this approach with immersive methodologies in parliaments (Crewe, 2021).
My parliamentary ethnography discussed here was among the European Research Council-funded EUGenDem project on the operation of gender, democracy and party politics in the EP’s political groups’ policies and practices. For timing, fieldwork commenced in the 8th EP and at the beginning of the 9th EP. This chapter asks: What insights does ethnography contribute to the study of political groups and how might we conduct it? To answer these questions, first, I locate parliamentary ethnography in the study of political groups. Second, I nuance the application of ethnography by showing extensively how shadowing, meeting ethnography and hanging out as ethnographic practices can provide insights into the three interlinked themes of the edited volume: democracy, party politics and turbulent times. Finally, I revisit the question of what parliamentary ethnography adds to our understanding of political groups. Overall, the chapter contributes to ameliorating charges of the routinisation of research on the EP and considers the informal dynamics of the EP as an institutional setting.
Parliamentary Ethnography and the Study of Political Groups
Can parliamentary ethnography be used, either as a standalone approach or to enhance existing research on the political groups? Research on EPs is maturing, but Olivier Costa (2019) has two charges. First, he notes that there is a ‘routinisation’ in EP’s literature (p. 6), whereby similar datasets, substantive topics and approaches are used, and consequently, the value of each study tends to ‘regress’. Second, Costa suggests that existing approaches are overspecialised and self-referential and ‘tend to overlook the dynamics of the institution’ (p. 6). My aim in this chapter is to demonstrate how ethnography ameliorates these charges to a degree. Regarding the first charge, ethnographic studies identify new topics, relationships and actors. They can also explore the ‘ruptures, the ambiguity and fragmentary character’ (Wedeen, 2009, p. 85) of EP life, overcoming routinisation. Regarding the second charge, ethnography’s emphasis on entanglements embeds the groups within the EP setting and its capillaries. Furthermore, I argue that ethnographic enquiry is perfectly placed to dig beneath three interlinked themes at the heart of this edited collection: democracy, party politics and turbulent times.
Formalistic notions of democracy stress that the EP is an institution that claims to represent citizens’ interests due to elections to the EP. However, formally the EP’s Rules of Procedure structure the connections between the political groups. There are tensions between the rationalisation of political group activity to empower the EP, and representativeness, deliberation and agency in the parliament (Brack, 2018, p. 185; Mushaben, 2019; Ripoll Servent & Panning, 2019). Scholars of democratic settings have argued that ethnography can highlight informal practices that challenge formal rules (Chappell & Waylen, 2013). There may be a contrast between formal democratic indicators and the lived experiences of democratic spaces.
Although political groups have made some efforts to enable electoral contestation, such as communicating their activities, significant gaps exist. Group meetings and working groups are closed. The European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL), now ‘the Left’, is the only group that publishes its group meetings online, although inconsistently. Group expenses are published annually but in an aggregate form. Voting lists, away-days, coordinators and Heads of National Party Delegations are not always published on websites. Regarding group democracy, statutes tell us the formal supranational and intergovernmental opportunities for democracy and participation (Bressanelli, 2014). However, democracy is not reduced to formal rules of procedure, and group archives are unevenly maintained. The ethnographic move to ‘study up’ has been cited as a democratic intervention (Nader, 1972) in gender equality (Donaldson & Poynting, 2013) and in understanding the EP. Busby (2013) locates ethnography’s importance in the inverse relationship between the growing EP’s powers and citizens’ knowledge. However, scholars doubt whether the transparency afforded by ethnographic research necessarily induces progressive change (Pachirat, 2013). Either way, ethnography allows us to explore ‘shallow democracy’ dimensions in-between elections (Crewe, 2018).
Interpretive accounts explore how democracy is understood and performed by political actors and treat it as an analytical category (Wedeen, 2009). Commentators of the EP construct the condition of democracy as the spirit of an age (Applebaum, 2020), analyse the political-institutional design of democracy (Lord, 2018) and explore agonism and antagonism in political group debates (Kantola & Lombardo, 2021). The political groups articulate the language of democracy and representation as fundamental values to participate in the design of deliberative democracy (Johansson and Raunio in this volume). Some members of EP’s political groups—The European People’s Party Group (EPP), The Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), Renew Europe (Renew), Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA)—share a norm of ‘institutional patriotism’ (Ripoll Servent, 2018, p. 5), and MEPs’ activities in the EP regarding their groups may be informed by their conception of democracy. Ethnography explores how actors attach meanings in situ to everyday group activities.
The second theme is party politics. The EP’s party system has been characterised as having a so-called grand coalition of the EPP and S&D who had always held a majority, but they lost this in the 2019 elections. There has been increasing politicisation, polarisation and ideological diversity, which has intensified the dynamics of inter-group cooperation and competition, and the EP provides a different environment from national party systems since political groups in the EP cannot as easily speculate about the electoral consequences of their choices (Ripoll Servent in this volume). These struggles occur in a working parliament (Lord, 2018), which has consequences for groups that must compromise with other groups. It is precisely because of the perceived consensual working that makes deeper explorations of group dynamics important (Ahrens & Rolandsen Agustín, 2019, p. 9). Political groups are uneasy marriages of different national party delegations (Ahrens and Kantola in this volume), and exploring the lines of contestation within them is important.
Ethnographies of party politics allow researchers to get underneath the skin of political groups to explore coalition building, personalities, mediators, disagreements, identity-building practices and group members’ processes of relating. Generally, several anthropologists of elite actors have noted a gap in ethnographic research on party politics (Crewe, 2020; Faucher, 2020; Gusterson, 2017). Finally, political groups are conceptualised as rational, goal-oriented and purposeful collective actors who maximise their power and influence in the EP. However, they are also affective and communal entities, with some shared aspirations and struggles towards these ends. Shaming and feeling rules are powerful tools for governing behaviour (Hochschild, 1979) and may tell us about group cohesion without formal disciplinary tools. Ethnography is best placed to explicitly explore these relational dynamics.
Third, regarding turbulent times, the EP faces challenges such as differentiated (dis)integration (Lombardo & Kantola, 2019), right-wing populism, Eurosceptic contestation (see Börzel and Hartlapp in this volume) and the politicisation of the Union and gender (Warasin, 2020). While there are some highly ritualised events, such as the State of the Union address (the annual presentation of the Commission’s work programme and commissioner hearings), decision-making can often move with great pace, intensity and uncertainty. Crewe (2021) notes that party politicians manage chronic emergencies, implying that the stakes of their relationships are high and that their politics operate ‘with the dial turned up’ (p. 173). Thus, ethnography can offer insights into the context of so-called EU crises. Observation provides richer insights than interviews conducted in calmer, controlled environments. Furthermore, researchers have struggled to recruit participants to discuss some interview topics, such as those around morality issues, particularly for those positioned on the conservative side of the parliament, and MEPs tend not to refer to their behaviour but to their colleagues’ (Mondo & Close, 2018, p. 1006).
Ethnography is beneficial for exploring everyday discourses and practices of (dis)integration (Lombardo & Kantola, 2019), a phenomenon that is a process rather than an end state. When exploring turbulent times, ‘marking time’ (Rabinow, 2008) of the contemporary is important. This involves bearing witness and making connections, including addressing voices and perspectives that have been submerged in grand narratives of democratic developments in the EU. Without ethnography, disproportional weight can be placed on linear narratives of change and consensual understandings. Ethnography can thicken the analysis of the affective nature of this turbulence and capture ambivalences that oppose signifiers of institutional power and influence.
Given the benefits to qualitative research on the themes of democracy, party politics and turbulent times discussed above, I will now consider the affordances of shadowing, meeting ethnography and hanging out—key ethnographic practices to our understanding of the political groups.
Shadowing, Meeting Ethnography and Hanging Out
To echo Richard Fenno’s sentiments in a methodological appendix to his book Home Style, this section is ‘written less about how this kind of research is done than about how one particular research project was done’ (Fenno, 1978, p. 249). The epistemological use of specific ethnographic practices to meet substantive research questions remains under-conceptualised and can be conflated or go undetected (Nair, 2021, p. 3). Therefore, this section ties specific ethnographic practices to the particular themes of the book. As mentioned, the project was based on research on gendered practices—understood intersectionally—of the political groups. This affected the research practices, which will be explained later in the chapter. Notably, while these three research practices are elucidated, the epistemological impulse towards ethnography as a sensibility (Miller, 2021; Wedeen, 2009) meant that each practice required different degrees of participation.
My research design comprised a pilot study of shadowing nine MEPs from five political groups and a longer stay as a study visitor. This ethnography took a political focus, centring on activities, rules and practices in the 7–8 supranational political groups regarding the EP in the 8th and 9th parliaments. The political groups in the 8th EP, in order of size, were EPP, S&D, The Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), Greens/EFA, Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD), GUE/NGL and Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF). In the 9th EP, Greens/EFA had temporarily grown in size, ALDE became Renew and was again the third largest group, the ECR was heavily reduced in size, and the ENF group was dissolved, but the newly formed Identity and Democracy group (ID) at 73 members was almost double the size. Meanwhile, the EFDD was dissolved and the largest delegation of the EP, the 29-member Brexit Party, sat in the Non-Inscrits (NI). For researching turbulent times, this was an opportune moment; since the fieldwork was undertaken as a member state, the UK left the European Union, and their MEPs left the EP, too.
Access was achieved in the 8th parliament through individual MEPs’ offices. Some parliamentary infrastructure supports observational work, such as internship schemes (Loewenberg, 2011). In the 9th parliament, access was achieved through a two-month academic visitor position at the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS). The physical library reading room was a helpful base for contacting parliamentary actors for interviews, shadowing opportunities, access by appointment to group meetings, working groups and national party delegation meetings.
For the data recording, a reflexive approach was taken. The fieldwork began with a pilot study in the 8th EP, whereby a fieldwork diary written in chronological order was used. In the second stage of the fieldwork, based on what we had learnt, an observational protocol derived from the concepts of feminist institutionalism and geared towards the themes of the project was used. The categories were (1) event setting, (2) power relations, (3) democracy, (4) gendered practices, (5) the political group as a workplace, (6) affect and (7) researcher role. Added to over 30 observation protocols and the field notes totalling 193 pages, 131 interviews were conducted in phases: first, 53 interviews in Brussels in the 8th legislature (2014–2019) and, second, 74 interviews in Brussels, MEPs’ home countries and through Skype in the 9th legislature (2014–2019). Interviews were semi-structured. The COVID-19 pandemic affected the fieldwork by creating an atypical ‘exit’ from the field, meaning that scheduling observations and interviews at the height of the fieldwork became fraught, and in crisis conditions, I became more of an ‘outsider’. However, dialogic and flexible communication was maintained with key interlocutors upon leaving the EP.
I will discuss three analytically distinct fieldwork practices: (1) shadowing, (2) meeting ethnography of group and working group meetings and (3) hanging out. First, I will delineate each practice and how it generated immersion and contributed to the substantive themes of democracy, party politics and turbulent times. Both formal semi-structured and informal interviews also played a key role in my ethnography; however, due to the large amount of literature on elite interviews, they are not discussed directly here.
Shadowing is the practice of accompanying actors throughout their daily work lives (Czarniawska, 2007; McDonald, 2005). It was popularised in political science by Richard Fenno (1978 and 1990), who shadowed 18 US Members of Congress in their districts. The time negotiated for the shadowing placements was between half a day and three days. I shadowed nine MEPs (S&D M, S&D F, EPP M, EPP F, ECR M, 2 X Greens/EFA F, Greens/EFA M, ENF M) for 12 days. Seven of these shadowing placements were supplemented with an interview. Shadowing is facilitated heavily by supportive offices that have familiarity with, and the staff to facilitate, a shadowing placement. Two Accredited Parliamentary Assistants (APAs) shared the MEPs’ diaries, which helped organise shadowing. McDonald recommends not to ‘go in cold’ to a shadowing placement (2005), so I researched the legislative biography of each MEP using the EP website and undertook a generalised online search for their policy interests and personal biographies.
Democracy can be researched through the process of acquiring access. Access fluctuates between individuals for ‘eminence versus nearness and transparency versus secrecy’ (Rodríguez-Teruel & Daloz, 2017, p. 106). My approach to recruitment changed accordingly around MEPs’ worldviews towards hierarchy. Walking through the corridors with staff sometimes revealed a lack of MEP-staff hierarchies—one EFDD APA, took me on an impromptu door-knock to recruit MEPs (FN 290,119), while another EPP APA described her active MEP: ‘we do not get to see the MEP much; she is difficult to pin down’ (FN 271118). Previous research noted that politicians are more open to study than comparable elites, such as economic elites, due to ‘the image of openness they generally try to convey, at least within democratic systems’ (Rodríguez-Teruel, 2017, p. 106). One ECR office asked for my CV (FN 031218) to check my legitimacy or to provide research assistance by snowballing contacts.
Regarding democracy, spending time shadowing MEPs revealed how individual MEPs subjectively saw their group, their political efficacy inside it, their multiple positionings and the effects on their behaviour. These feelings cannot be read from statutes, plenary debates or committee recordings. There were several gripe sessions and uses of irony for describing groups. To deepen the analysis of policy-making (see Elomäki et al. in this volume), shadowing showed a distant relationship between a rapporteur and a committee member from the same group. The S&D MEP had a meeting with a Permanent Representative about a politically sensitive policy—a key policy for (dis)integration. The Permanent Representative wanted to know the S&D’s red lines and was visiting other groups; therefore, a degree of guardedness and impression management was exercised. At that point, the S&D member had no communication with the rapporteur; he said: ‘he looks the part but is incredibly thick’ (FN 171018). Rather than epiphenomenal details, this suggests much about subjective assessments of report allocation, group democracy and who the rapporteur saw himself as working for. A Greens/EFA MEP critiqued shallow democracy in his group’s communications. He resented generic content and ‘beautification’—meaning idealised image management of some of his group’s communication. He preferred more nationally targeted messages (FN 030320). These insights connect with broader discussions about conventionalised emotions in mainstream/centre party communications (Breeze, 2018).
Regarding party politics, shadowing provides unique insights into group switching in the fourth layer of political group formation (Ahrens and Kantola in this volume). I shadowed an MEP who had recently switched groups to the ENF political group. My ethnography shows a broader set of entanglements (Crewe, 2021) relevant to political work, such as informal sanctions that follow a group switch. The MEP’s APA felt that some more disloyal group actors had not received this social disapprobation. Sanctions that accompanied a group switch included unravelling accommodation arrangements, seeing former colleagues who had been personal friends around the EP and the career effects for the APA. The move by the MEP into a new group could not be explained in office, policy or reputational benefits. His APA articulated the switch in emotional discourses: the MEP was concerned about the history of the national party delegation and wanted to hold it together.
Party politics were further performed in an informal meeting held with the MEP’s new ENF committee colleagues in the Mickey Mouse bar—a more informal and open bar in the EP. The MEP established himself as a reliable partner and explained his intended voting behaviour to his new colleagues. He could conceivably co-sign amendments. However, he could not be ‘seen to be helping EU legislation, unless it reduced EU impact and increased member state involvement’. He promised ‘never to vote against a Lopez-Moreno amendment’. If he strongly disagreed, he would not vote. He told the MEPs (through the translation by his APA): ‘I am a controversial man; if they want to vote against me, there’s no hard feelings’ (FN EP8). When I asked the APA how she felt that the meeting had gone, she felt that the MEP had overpromised when assuring his new colleagues that he would not vote against their amendments. She ascribed this naivety to him not being a professional party politician. Shadowing showed how party-political group switches are informally intermediated by APAs, including Heads of Delegations and MEPs.
For researching turbulent times, shadowing this new ENF MEP showed that he was not only formally presenting himself as a reliable partner regarding party politics and amendments but also an empathetic partner, despite ostensibly breaking feeling rules surrounding (non)human suffering (Malmqvist, 2019). The MEP introduced himself by discussing his industry philosophy and said, ‘There is one other difficult emotive issue that I want to raise’ and raised the issue of animal welfare. ‘Don’t worry as it makes me look cruel, but in the country, we have laws to protect animals’ (FN EP8). The MEPs also discussed Halal meat and ‘rusty knives’ and suggested that this was ‘the thin end of a wedge of full Shariah law’. Therefore, he made himself accountable to his new team members for his views on what he had designated as emotive issues. Shadowing opportunities revealed one of the unparalleled aspects of an ethnography—the interactions with the researcher over a sustained period. Since equalities’ research is normative, several participants were concerned about the impression left on me as a researcher. For example, one APA sought assurances in a polarised parliament and asked, ‘We are not so bad, are we?’ (FN EP8). This is because the group was a radical right-wing populist group with a bad reputation for gender equality. Therefore, ethnography rewarded the project with insights into the discomfort that coincided with gender consciousness in EP.
The disadvantage of shadowing multi-national MEPs in political groups is that the parliament is multi-lingual. While sometimes I just did not understand the language, language could also be used in shadowing placements as a tool of privacy when shadowing certain MEPs. This makes the role of staff even greater, who may be significant interlocutors for MEPs, and it also prevents rapport in some instances. I ended one shadowing placement disappointed because the time spent with the MEP had been a matter of hours; however, the office helped set up meetings with key actors. Therefore, to adapt Fenno’s (1990) phrase, the placement felt like ‘soaking, poking and signposting’. Mobility has been cited as the key benefit of shadowing (Czarniawska, 2007), but arguably, shadowing provides guidance too. Shadowing might be particularly beneficial in unfamiliar environments, such as the Strasbourg parliament, which I had only visited once before COVID-19 and experienced it like a rabbit warren—where groups disappeared into different rooms and by-appointment meetings required negotiation.
Meeting Ethnography of Group Meetings and Working Groups
Meetings are ubiquitous in the EP and meeting ethnography is developing conceptually as an analytically distinct practice that explores what meetings do (Brown et al., 2017; Sandler & Thredvall, 2016). I will discuss the group and working group meetings. Formally, the role of the group meeting—the plenary assembly of political groups—is set out in group statutes. Here, forthcoming parliamentary business is discussed alongside unresolved issues in the working groups. The working groups formally develop a policy line. Attending both meetings offered insights into intra-group democracy and the plurality of perspectives beneath group press releases, adding to the account of intra-group policy formation provided by (see Elomäki et al. in this volume).
By observing formal aspects of democracy, such as when an issue was pushed to a vote in the group meeting, democracy could be observed in practices such as (in)formal leadership styles (Kantola & Miller, 2022) and how the Heads of the largest National Party Delegations who were over-represented by men (Kantola & Miller, 2022) enjoyed space in the group meetings. Democracy was articulated in the group meeting’s role, sensitivity and practices to maintain security. I observed the conservative ethos of the bigger groups, seniority norms and the invitation of ‘seasoned veteran’ (Johansson and Raunio in this volume) to address group meetings (S&D 181018). The practice of checking ‘outsiders’ identities adds to the exclusivity of the group meeting. The significance of the group meeting is shown in the orange cards reserved for media officers (EPP, 271118, p. 40) and the Renew Group has a viewing room for staff to watch if the main group meeting room is full. Staff in the EP administration discussed nostalgia for bygone days of group weeks and the centrality of the group meeting (FN 120,320). Undoubtedly, ethnography shows how group meetings ‘contain and animate social worlds’ (Brown et al., 2017, p. 11).
For democracy in working group meetings, S&D, EPP and Renew have had working groups for a long time (Bressanelli, 2014). I observed the creation of the Greens/EFA cluster scheme and entanglements. For example, there were anxieties from staff who had to estimate how much power new institutional bodies would have and how they would be staffed. A Greens/EFA cluster was vigilant of new temporary committees since it would take some of their power and expertise away. Staff attendance was actively considered. The terms ‘cluster boss’ and ‘cluster buddy’ were used by MEPs jovially to parody the new cluster structure playfully and to distance themselves from coldness that can accompany formal institutional positions. For democracy and participation, a Greens/EFA MEP who was the committee coordinator brought a poster to debrief working group members on forthcoming business—to show initiative, efficiency and openness. She presented from the floor in front of the dais and showed the learning and information involved in democracy by introducing the technical terms of the debate (FN 030320).
Discussions about the democratic division of labour between the group meeting and the working group meeting indicated how this structure was affectively managed. Tensions played out quite intensely when disagreements in the working groups were reopened in EPP and Renew group meetings—arguably the two most integrationist groups. In the Renew group meeting, it was suggested that ‘the working group is sacred’ (FN 050220) and its work should not be unravelled in the group meeting. The working groups at the time of the research were affectively managed spaces, and MEPs were chastised through ‘humiliating members of the working group’ (FN 050220) by bringing ‘marginal voices’ and disagreements from the working group meeting. I observed a large 20-min discussion in a Renew group meeting about procedure. Since institutionalisation occurs where added value and boundedness are recognised, this indicates that the working group was insufficiently institutionalised (see also Bressanelli in this volume).
For party politics in the group meeting, following Crewe (2021, p. 132), riffs of meaning were used in declaratory discourses by group members after sensing the mood of the group meeting to boost morale and to construct how the groups managed party politics. My ethnography showed that the EPP narrated themselves as using evidence and eschewing emotive, impulsive decision-making in politicised policy areas (FN 071118). S&D members constructed themselves as a responsible moral group, especially for equalities. However, their discourses were confessional before the 2019 elections, where three rhetorical moves were used: first, that group had to be responsive to societal needs to avoid becoming irrelevant, and second, that all the self-evident benefits of international cooperation had to be questioned. Third, that ‘listening’ exercises would take place with civil society. The Renew Group narrated themselves as a ‘capable’ group at finding intra-group compromises, for example assuaging the economic liberals’ concerns on the Green New Deal, the Greens/EFA called themselves the ‘real’ group listening to civil society in the development of policy, such as around the Copyright Law (FN 190319), the ECR saw themselves as a dialogic group based on the exchange of ideas and maintaining communication with difficult actors (FN 051218), the GUE/NGL group described themselves as punching above their institutional weight in the parliament and exerting political pressure regarding policy influence—being ‘one step ahead’ on migration (FN 110220) and EFDD Group members constructed themselves on the affective side of societal struggles, such as having ‘utter fascination’ with the Gilets jaunes protestors (FN 050,219).
Regarding researching party politics, private intra-group spaces are important for expressing views frankly since future compromises have to be made with other political groups; therefore, strong feelings cannot always be articulated. In the Renew working group meeting, strong language was used: ‘It’s always good to call out when the EPP are being misogynistic, but I trust your judgement on this [wink]’ (FN 050220). In a Renew working group, when reporting on a report on equalities, group members intervened and asked why some text had been deleted. The rapporteur looked exasperated and conveyed to the group how, without the amended text, the EPP political group was ‘going to blow this whole resolution up’ (FN 050220) due to their inner struggles if she pushed it any further. A senior MEP complained that she was ‘tired of the EPP’s red lines and to push them for a vote’ (FN 050220). Therefore, observing this interaction showed how exposure of, and cooperation with, potential partners was a delicate balance in group party politics. Political distinctions between the groups were elaborated in moral economies. A staff member of the Greens/EFA regarded the S&D as ‘populist’ for bidding 23 points for a child benefit report, although the Greens/EFA and ALDE as co-rapporteurs were felt to have greater expertise and the staff member resented how the report had been presented in official EP committee communications as an achievement of consensus politics (FN 190318). Undoubtedly, observing these meetings revealed how political actors had to perform ‘choreography’—presenting a case for how a file is linked to other files that the political group had expertise in and liaising with colleagues in other committees to get the file (FN 210120).
Attending group meetings in turbulent times revealed how strong emotions were elicited when so-called EU ‘crises’ were discussed. The atmospheres were palpable, as this vignette attests, in both the anticipation of the plenary and the feeling rules of groups: MEPs could use consideration of human suffering to bring the group back in line:
MEP (male) anticipates the Greece/Turkey border plenary debate… I know how this will go. We’ll hear a competition of statements: ‘it’s unbearable, it’s untenable’ putting the blame on Greece and saying how Erdogan is weaponising the issues. He shouts across the room that the most practical thing the group can ask for is to unblock the asylum package and create humanitarian corridors. He critiques routinisation in the plenary. ‘Who can say things that are the most virtuous?’ He argues to use letters, initiatives and parliamentary means rather than a competition of rhetoric.
A female MEP speaks and shakes her hands: ‘look at ourselves. There is disbelief in this political family that we are indifferent to human suffering…’ X delegation wanted to write to Von Der Leyen (Commission President). She turns and slams the microphone off. A chair of the meeting acknowledges the MEP’s passion but pleads: please don’t say that the X group is not sensitive to this. We need to listen to each other and allow people to speak. The job has to be organised to allow people to speak and agree on what initiatives might come forward. (FN 030320)
For turbulent times, meeting ethnography showed how working groups could be affected by changes in membership and the loss of critical actors and the expertise that goes with them. For example, a meeting of a Working Group on Extremism and Democracy was thinly attended (FN 050220) following the recent departure of a UK chair. This adds to accounts of the institutionalisation of group structures (see Bressanelli in this volume) since some group structures might be perceived as more important to maintain than others in the face of turbulence.
The disadvantage of meeting ethnography was finding points of access. I was less successful achieving access to a political group meeting through a Secretary General (SG) and their Assistant than through MEPs, though this cooperation differed by group. Alternatively, this could reveal where some types of power were (not) in political groups—for example, the Secretary General’s office lacked the power to make decisions above the MEPs. However, this contrasted with another group meeting, where an APA to a senior MEP in the delegation asked me if I wanted the meeting recorded. The Greens/EFA group asked how far they were cooperating relative to the other groups. A member sought reassurance in a coffee queue: ‘Are we the only group that you are having trouble accessing?’ (FN 030320). Approaching another SG flanked only by a close and large group of male staffers felt challenging despite him personally cooperating with the project, thus illuminating the contradictory dynamics of gender and political groups (Kantola in this volume). The prioritisation of meetings with meeting ethnography is a drawback—especially since many political groups hold their group meetings simultaneously. This is less of a feature of shadowing. Furthermore, the thematic observational protocol obscured sequencing and chronology. Some ‘elite’ meetings were inaccessible, such as the Conference of Presidents, thereby making interviews and ‘hanging out’ (Nair, 2021) important. Regarding turbulence, negotiating access to observe sensitive meetings was uncomfortable for both the participants and me. At times, I felt like a ‘disaster institutionalist’, chasing access to turbulent institutional arrangements that were rapidly dissolving.
In elite settings, the so-called practice of hanging out offers an alternative possibility for immersion. This is a more diffused and dialogic practice than meeting ethnography. Hanging out requires three facets: ‘a period of continuous residence amid members of a field, engage[ment] in informal, ludic and sociable interactions sited outside or at the side-lines of members’ professional habitats and participa[tion] in activities where striking and sustaining rapport is as important as the goals of the research’ (Nair, 2021, p. 10). Densely clustered institutional spaces, such as the European Quarter, provide several immersive opportunities (Nair, 2021, p. 23; Lewicki, 2017). Inside the EP, this included formally attending plenaries and committees, and informally attending inter-group meetings, the Mickey Mouse bar, group corridors and exhibition areas, EPRS book talks, and civil society events. Outside the EP, this included presenting the project to a group of EPP APAs; informally arranged transportation in this case carpooling between Brussels and Strasbourg; it could include attending meetings at other EU institutions and informally going for groceries, hanging out in Flagey, Place Du Luxembourg, attending civil society events and living in Brussels. Hanging out had practical benefits. To refer to Costa’s (2019) charge of routinisation, the ethnography allowed me to locate or, rather, be located by actors in the political groups who, upon hearing about the project, could provide situated and alternative perspectives on the groups’ democratic credentials, which had been inadvertently unsolicited by other academic accounts. This was particularly acute in both the sensitive topics of harassment and racism, in which the actors were introduced to me. Hanging out also allowed me to snowball two ID respondents for interviews, a group from which the EUGenDem project struggled to gain cooperation in general.
Regarding democracy, hanging out at a Library Talk ‘After the Velvet Revolution’ illustrated that some EPP MEPs constructed democracy as anti-communism. This was shown when a GUE/NGL staff member spoke, and an EPP MEP remarked audibly and disapprovingly behind her hand, raising her eyebrows: ‘she’s a communist’ (FN 060220). This discredited the speaker and reflected a lack of democracy since democracy is conceptualised as hearing other perspectives. Furthermore, ethnography allowed me to observe invited expertise by political groups and was suggestive of how group members conceptualise democracy. For example, a Renew MEP invited media scholars and sociologists to discuss academic freedom in Hungary, many of whom were women; therefore, the invitation of actors and the choice of expertise can indicate a certain conceptualisation of democracy (FN 280120). Finally, hanging out in the venues where groups held their events showed relationships with civil society; for example, a GUE/NGL feminist forum was held in a venue distant from the EP.
For party politics, hanging out in EP’s informal settings allowed me to comprehend groups as corporate entities. An ECR APA described the EPP’s merchandise operation as ‘guargantuan’—that is, enormous—compared to other groups, such as in bags, playing cards and baseball caps (FN 051218). The S&D had a poster in the Andy Warhol styles of its former group leaders, which evokes meanings of democratisation, mass communication, accessibility and popularity. Party politics were displayed in posters of the different national party delegations in the Renew Secretariat corridor; this shows pride in the group formation of the Renew Group (see also Ahrens and Kantola in this volume).
Hanging out in turbulent times generates ‘thick’ descriptions of political identity building in (in)formal EP spaces. Observing room bookings showed two events happening simultaneously in the EP: Rainbow families and the Traditional Family, but there was no discussion between the two. Hanging out also revealed affective atmospheres (Kantola & Miller, 2021) and postures. For example, progressive groups were criticised at an ECR event for their ‘liberal stamina’ (FN 050220). Virile masculinity also featured in descriptions of Rainbow families ‘like vegan meatballs, not real meatballs, not real families’ (FN 050220). Ethnography then provides insights into political group identity and its assertion in the parliament. Finally, turbulence in the EP featured informal chats with members of the parliamentary administration. We discussed how dilemmas from turbulent changes (such as a member state leaving) were endogenised into their everyday working practices (such as whether) to include UK data in social policy reporting and how the administration responded to the selective use of evidence to support political group agendas (FN 190220).
The disadvantages of hanging out in EP spaces are like those listed by Nair (2021). These range from the time and material-intensive costs to fieldwork, institutional support for accommodation and other expenses, childcare provision and always having a posture of openness to informal interaction. Researching the far-right generated issues of ethics, reciprocity and the risk of complicity. This occurred in the Beer Factory, the nearest bar to the parliament, when I was invited to sit with actors in the far-right group, one of whom had been helpful for the research project (see also Gusterson, 2017). Finally, the vaunted ‘aimless and disinterested flow of conversation’ (Nair, 2021, p. 11) could not always be maintained. When speaking with an interpreter in the chamber about gendered speaking styles, he said, ‘I see you’re in work mode’ (FN 090220); therefore, the interaction was not perceived as ‘natural’.
To respond to the ‘ethno, ethno what?’ question in the chapter title, this chapter has explicated three ethnographic practices: shadowing, meeting ethnography and hanging out for researching EP political groups. I will now reflect on how studying EP’s political groups at close range with ethnography deepens our understanding of democracy, party politics and turbulent times.
For realist scholars, regarding democracy, ethnographic insights can provide cues about what to expect from supranational democracy and the identification of critical actors for change. For interpretivist scholars, without ethnography, we can miss subjective, daily conceptions of group democracy. Finally, rather than uncompromising self-reference as (privileged) members of civil society, academics reflecting on their research relationships can illustrate degrees of openness and hierarchy in the political groups. The fundamental research practices of trying to achieve participation for normative research topics and how group actors can seek reassurance from the researcher about their (relative) standing in this reveal much.
Regarding party politics, my ethnography allowed me to observe political groups as affective and communal supranational entities. This included observing intra-group political struggles in the face of differences in aspirations or the means of achieving them, for example, over migration. Regarding inter-group struggles, I observed delicate balances of exposure and cooperation with other political groups and the entanglements of party–political actors that constrain their capacity for action.
For turbulent times, my ethnography showed how in throes of deep contestation and uncertainty and without conventional disciplinary tools, feeling rules and shaming at their trespassing could stabilise the groups during ‘crisis’ and provide an anchor when the group risks deviating from its normative values. Furthermore, without ethnographic immersion, accounts of ambivalence and reputational discomfort in the face of gender equality conscientisation might be evacuated from analyses of group actors. This might matter for inducing change. Finally, in elucidating the ‘ethno, ethno what?’, I hope this chapter has inspired the question: ‘ethno, ethno, when?’.
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This study has received funding from the H2020 European Research Council (ERC) Consolidator Grant funding (Grant number 771676).
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Miller, C. (2022). ‘Ethno, Ethno, What?’: Using Ethnography to Explore the European Parliament’s Political Groups in Turbulent Times. In: Ahrens, P., Elomäki, A., Kantola, J. (eds) European Parliament’s Political Groups in Turbulent Times. Palgrave Studies in European Union Politics. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-94012-6_11
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