Rethinking Power Relations When Studying Up
On Tuesday, November 8, 2016, the U.S. public elected Donald J. Trump as the nation’s forty-fifth president. Still processing the election two days later, I attended a public roundtable at the Central City Islamic Center, a quarterly event hosted by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. Since 2002, DHS has sought to improve community relations through these forums, particularly in Muslim and Arab communities, across the United States. To do so, these DHS roundtables “bring together American Arab, Muslim, South Asian, Middle Eastern, Somali, Sikh, Latino, Jewish, and Asian/Asian Pacific Islander communities with government representatives” (Department of Homeland Security 2016). Wanting me to better understand how the local community approached countering violent extremism efforts, behavioral threat assessment trainer Elliot Adams invited me to observe the November 2016 DHS roundtable on CVE programming.
Having eagerly accepted Adams’s invitation, on November 10, I walked into a room buzzing with conversations among three dozen community leaders, federal national security representatives, and state law enforcement personnel. Looking for an open seat, I weaved my way through community members wearing kufis and hijabs as well as national security men donning pins on their suit lapels indicating their affiliations with federal or state agencies. After a panel of community leaders detailed how local organizations worked to prevent young people from engaging in violent extremism, DHS host Nabil Soliman invited community members to an open discussion.
As people asked the panelists about CVE, I felt a palpable tension surface. The conversation about community efforts to counter violent extremism shifted to reports of an increasing number of white supremacist attacks on communities of color, their places of worship, and their bodies: How could communities combat these forms of violence? Were CVE policies also implemented in white communities and Christian institutions? As Soliman referred people who experienced white supremacist violence to the FBI and other law enforcement agents in the room, pressing uncertainties related to the violence against Muslims pulsated through the room. This exchange revealed that although community leaders served as, or worked closely with, national security actors, they, too, were exposed to intensified anti-Muslim violence in the hours, days, and months following President Trump’s election.
As a project engaged in “studying up,” I had considered the power relations involved in conducting research on national security actors prior to entering the field. During the DHS roundtable, however, I quickly recognized my failure to anticipate how people’s elite status in, or associations with, the U.S. security state could not insulate them from anti-Muslim racism. Observing the DHS roundtable as a non-Muslim woman of color, I began asking: What does it mean to study people who both hold positions of power and are targets of state and vigilante violence? As a researcher, how did the Trump era—defined, in part, by ongoing threats to deport, incarcerate, and surveil Muslims—shape my responsibilities to research participants? At the time of my fieldwork, emerging research on CVE already had pitted “good” and “bad” Muslims against each other. In this context, how could I—as a researcher, writer, and teacher—militate against efforts to fracture Muslim communities while attending to community concerns with, and critiques of, CVE policies? What were the political and ethical implications of, and responsibilities in, “studying up” when people in power also occupied marginalized positions?
This chapter explores these methodological provocations, with attention to how the heterogeneity of power shapes the research encounter. To do so, I first outline the methodology that organized my fieldwork aimed at “studying up, down, and sideways,” sometimes rearticulated as “studying through” or “studying power” (Nader 1997, 1972; Reinhold 1994). Second, I detail how I used eclectic methods to gather data that provided insight into the CVE policy world. Lastly, I explore how uneven and dynamic relations of power saturated every phase of this project, from designing the study to writing this book. In doing so, I seek to advance how social scientists theorize power in the methodological and epistemological projects of “studying up” and what these new understandings might mean for future research.
Making Sense of the CVE Policy World
When I first scrolled through the FBI’s Don’t Be a Puppet interactive website, my millennial sensibilities compelled me to ask, rather crossly, “Who made this?” The 1980s graphics seemed so remote from the 2016 gaming world with which I watched young people engage. I wondered how the website designers chose this interface and what they hoped to accomplish through young people’s interactions with it. Through my initial encounter with the FBI portal, I began asking questions about Don’t Be a Puppet’s designers rather than its users: What did the website designers intend to communicate about violent extremism? What vocabularies did they, and the broader national security community, rely on to frame the problem of violent extremism? What did the website designers expect to achieve through young people’s engagement with these national security vocabularies and frameworks?
Ever curious, I sought answers to these questions as I navigated the website. For example, I listened to FBI director James Comey introduce viewers to the Don’t Be a Puppet theme. In this video, Comey warned that, through online terrorist recruitment, “young people become puppets used to spread a message of hate.” Comey then urged young people to hone their critical thinking skills by engaging the website as a way “to be a part of the solution.” “Don’t be a puppet,” Comey concluded, rather anticlimactically. As I watched this video, I noted how Comey framed young people as uniquely vulnerable to terrorist radicalization and suggested that Don’t Be a Puppet could protect them from this vulnerability.
Next, I completed each of the learning modules, which defined violent extremism, listed “known violent extremist groups,” discussed why people turn to violent extremism, explored how violent extremists recruit youth, and detailed “where to get help.” By interacting with these learning modules, I came to understand the “twisted beliefs and values” and “warped principles” of violent extremists, the dangers of “groupthink,” and the differences between “free speech” and “violent extremism.” Despite its simplistic interface, the Don’t Be a Puppet website provided extensive information on violent extremism from the perspective of the FBI.
As I completed Don’t Be a Puppet’s final assessment, I realized that although I was curious about how young people responded to the website, I wanted to know more about the perspectives of those who advanced the project, designed it, and advocated for its use in local communities. In addition, as interested as I was in what CVE policies said and what they sought to do, I also wanted to better understand how their makers came to think about national security: What is it? Who threatens it? Who secures the nation and how?
As these questions illustrate, my early encounter with Don’t Be a Puppet provoked questions that focused on the website’s creators rather than its users. I sought to uncover how Don’t Be a Puppet and other initiatives came into being, particularly by investigating the perspectives and practices of those involved in the CVE policy world. Like Brenda Chalfin’s (2010) ethnography of Ghana’s Customs Service, this study sought to “probe the ‘public face’ of the state and how that face came to be constituted over time by shifts in policies, practices, and individual interests and understandings” (15). Such an approach recognizes that “before we can understand how the state is subverted or undermined, we need to consider how state power is manufactured, institutionalized, and recursively inscribed” (15). By researching the upper and lower echelons of the U.S. security state, I wanted to understand how CVE logics, norms, and discourses both shaped and were shaped by prevailing social contexts, institutional arrangements, and people’s daily work.
Because the CVE framework has informed domestic war on terror debates, CVE policies have served as governing cultural texts, with CVE actors as the key authors of those cultural texts. I therefore sought to understand how federal policymakers, state law enforcement personnel, community leaders, street-level bureaucrats, and others in the CVE policy field defined for themselves what CVE was and how it worked, how they made sense of their roles in enacting CVE policies, and how they performed those roles. How did people negotiate competing theories of radicalization as they designed and implemented CVE policies? How did governing social, political, and economic contexts shape policy decisions and people’s understandings of these policy decisions? How did differences in people’s understandings of CVE and its broader national security context influence policy making and taking across CVE sites? As these questions indicate, I wanted to understand the prevailing “controlling processes,” the “mechanisms by which ideas take hold and become institutional in relation to power” (Nader 1997, 711). That is, I sought to understand how the concept of countering violent extremism, and its attendant national security vocabularies and logics, came to be institutionalized and thus operationalized through people’s everyday work. Politicians, street-level bureaucrats, community leaders, and local officials, after all, differentially understand, enact, and enforce policies, deciding for themselves what constitutes ethical and effective national security work.
To carry out this type of analysis, this research project heeded anthropologist Laura Nader’s well-known call to “study up.” Rather than follow disciplinary conventions of studying relatively powerless individuals, Nader (1972) urged researchers to analyze powerful institutional workers and their relationships to subordinated people. Social scientists have responded to this demand by studying Wall Street financiers (Ho 2009), J. P. Morgan bankers (Tett 2009), immigration bureaucrats (Mountz 2010), artificial intelligence scientists (Forsythe and Hess 2001), military strategists (Vine 2011; Lutz 2002), weapons manufacturers (Gusterson 1996; Nordstrom 2004), and police torturers (Huggins and Glebbeek 2003; Huggins 1998). Through an exploration of the everyday, these studies reveal the work of powerful people and their connections to larger systems, like racism and capitalism, that contour people’s daily lives.
As a methodological imperative, “studying up” requires designing research projects that examine powerful institutions and their actors. As an epistemological demand, “studying up” necessitates historicizing and contextualizing power. This means undertaking additional work to “locate and analyze the connections between powerful institutions (particularly bureaucracies and corporations) and relatively powerless individuals” (Nader 1972, 13). That is, “studying up” is not “an either/or proposition” whereby researchers choose to study either powerful elites or powerless individuals (13). Instead, “studying up” requires “studying up, down, and sideways,” which means that researchers investigate the networks of power that connect elite institutions, powerful actors, and everyday people (8).
Despite Nader’s insistence on this nuanced framework, social scientists sometimes have reduced “studying up” to studying only the powerful. Given these tendencies, Sue Reinhold (1994) reformulated “studying up” as “studying through” in her dissertation research. “Studying through” means “tracing the ways in which power creates webs and relations between actors, institutions, and discourses across time and space” (Shore and Wright 1997, 14). “Studying through,” as a conceptual frame, seeks to grasp the call to study up, down, and sideways.
Like Reinhold, Sarah Becker and Brittnie Aiello (2013) have worked to capture the complexity of “studying up” by reframing this methodological approach as “studying power.” In this view, power is “not something one person has and another does not” but, rather, “contextually-bound and situationally variant” (64). This means that social scientists must trace how power operates as “a dynamic and negotiated process” that is “tied to pre-exiting status differences and context-specific factors” like race, class, gender, and sexuality (64). Given this understanding of power, social scientists who “study up” cannot research only those “who come from a high- or low-status position” because this “fails to adequately capture the complex nature of power in the field” (64). When Becker and Aiello studied institutions of crime control, for example, they needed to examine both “how individuals exercised power” and how this power “is implicated in the dominant cultural ideologies about gender, race, and crime control” (64). The researchers located individual power within the social histories, belief systems, and cultural ideologies that organized power relations and shaped how people acted within those power relations.
Whether conceptualized as “studying up,” “studying through,” or “studying power,” this methodological approach to interpretive qualitative research emphasizes the socially mediated webs of power that connect elite actors, their institutions, and subordinated populations. Although research projects that “study up” investigate the everyday lives of powerful people, they do so to understand how power operates across time and space. As a methodological and epistemological approach, “studying up” was well-suited to capture the inner workings of U.S. national security power, policy, and practice. In doing so, this study locates key CVE actors in relation to the larger systems in which they conducted their daily work and the everyday people affected by that work. Accessing the organizing logics and labor of CVE actors offers a window into the cultural, political, and social machinations of the U.S. security state.
“Studying up” also aligned with the needs of local community organizations working to end the criminalization of youth of color. One community organization, for example, rejected a youth participatory action research project I proposed to examine and respond to how CVE affected local youth. Instead, this community organization sought more information on CVE that could contribute to their political education projects used to inform, empower, and mobilize youth to resist their criminalization. By providing insight into governing national security policies, “studying up” can support the work of community organizations contesting the constant criminalization, surveillance, and incarceration of their communities. This research study therefore concluded with a community convening through which I reported my findings to community organizations and conducted any additional research they needed, like filing Freedom of Information Act requests and tracking down additional policy documents.
Despite these aims, the ethical standards enforced by university institutional review boards limited my capacity to report my findings to community members. Mandated to protect the anonymity of research participants, I could not report which agencies said what about their local CVE practices. Under these dictates, I used interviews and participant observation as breadcrumbs, navigational tools to find public documents that revealed the CVE programs that participants discussed and used in their daily work. As public records, these documents could be shared with communities while adhering to the ethical standards that govern academic research. By leveraging my privileged status as a university researcher, which granted me access to national security experts, “studying up” supported grassroots organizing “from below.”
From working as a floor runner for the Chicago Stock Exchange (Zaloom 2006), to hanging out with nuclear engineers in a singles club (Gusterson 1996), to following Customs Service workers across Ghana (Chalfin 2010), social scientists have relied on innovative methods to study complex layers of power. This is because powerful institutions like nuclear weapons laboratories often are inaccessible to the general public and thus not conducive to conventional ethnographic methods where researchers immerse themselves in a single setting for an extended period of time. Given these issues of access, some ethnographers undertake “polymorphous engagement,” which means “interacting with informants across a number of dispersed sites” as well as “collecting data eclectically from a disparate array of sources in many different ways” (Gusterson 1997, 116). Rather than primarily rely on ethnography’s tradition of participant observation, scholars who “study up” typically utilize an “eclectic mix” of research methods in multiple sites over time (Gusterson 1997). Drawing from broader approaches to interpretative qualitative research, these eclectic methods include participant observation, formal interviews and focus groups, document analysis of policy texts, and extensive attention to popular culture and online interactions. By blurring the genres of qualitative sociology and ethnographic anthropology, these eclectic methods can provide insight into the ideological and material work of the U.S. security state.
To “study power” within the CVE policy environment, this project undertook polymorphous engagement, employing eclectic methods in multiple sites of CVE policy making and taking over time. To understand the “full realm of processes and relations involved in the production of policy” related to countering violent extremism (Wedel et al. 2005, 34), this research project included participant observation, semi-structured interviews, informal conversations, and textual analyses of official documents and popular media. Through these methods, my research assistant and I trafficked back and forth between policy hot spots to “uncover the constellation of actors, activities, and influences that shape policy decisions and their implementation, effects, and how they play out” (Wedel et al. 2005, 39). Taken together, these methods worked to obtain a “vertical slice” of how the U.S. security state has operated in and through CVE policies and sites over time (Nader 1972, 8).
Entering the CVE Policy World
My first encounter with the FBI’s Don’t Be a Puppet website in 2016 sparked my curiosity about CVE and its makers. After completing the website’s learning modules, my research assistant and I culled federal, state, local, and research databases for texts like policies, white papers, and reports related to countering violent extremism. Wanting to better understand what led to the creation and launch of the Don’t Be a Puppet initiative, our initial review included more than a hundred documents. These documents included Cold War policies that provided a historical understanding of contemporary security regimes, research publications that first framed the problem of violent extremism in the early 2000s, and evolving policies that formalized the Obama administration’s commitment to CVE in 2015. In addition, we read and analyzed policies and publications related to the United Kingdom’s Preventing Violent Extremism initiative (now known as Prevent), which informed the making of CVE in the United States. We approached these policy documents as cultural texts as well as classificatory devices that sorted people into categories like “violent extremist.” We also filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, which compelled government agencies to disclose public records, such as CVE program evaluations, grant proposals, and operating budgets. These documents provided insight into the “official story” and dominant national security narratives circulated by agencies like the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
In addition to these policy documents, we analyzed emerging reports issued by community organizations and popular media outlets like the Minneapolis newspaper Star Tribune. As anthropologists suggest, one way to monitor social life is to read local texts that regularly report on issues of national security. These documents provided insight into the debates over, and concerns about, the emerging CVE policy framework from writers across the globe with varying degrees of power and influence.
After conducting this initial document analysis in the early stages of this research project, we continued to collect, code, and analyze national security texts related to countering violent extremism. How people talk and write about the world in formal policies, research briefs, and online modules, after all, “reflect[s] wider ideological pressures and, ultimately, particular constellations of power relations” (Wooffitt 2005, 14). Within the national security policy environment, these documents offered a window into the contexts in which research participants operated and provided a historical understanding of contemporary CVE policies and practices.
Although this ongoing document analysis gave us insight into the official and popular texts and vocabularies that organized people’s daily work and the logics of CVE policies, we also understood that researchers cannot “learn through records alone how an organization actually operates day-by-day” or “treat records—however ‘official’—as firm evidence of what they report” (Atkinson and Coffey 1997, 47). Given these limitations, my research assistant and I supplemented our document analysis by observing industry conferences hosted by national security agencies and academic institutions, sitting in on web-based and in-person seminars related to CVE programming, visiting museum exhibits on national security issues, participating in conference calls organized by impacted community members, and attending community events like the DHS roundtable at the invitation of research participants. Through our observation of these events in different locations and attendant collection of distributed materials, we gained insight into how CVE actors framed the problem of violent extremism to various audiences and defined methods for combating the perceived rise of homegrown terrorism.
Industry conferences and trainings served as important sites for the circulation of CVE knowledges and practices. Observation of these spaces provided a window into “how (in)security professionals conceive of and inhabit knowledges of practice” through their participation in these events (Baird 2017, 2). Within these social settings, CVE actors performed for their peers or for targeted communities, allowing for the study of the “multiple meanings of discursive and non-discursive features of (semi)public events, including, symbols, relations, spaces, and objects, across the multiple talks and exhibits present at a certain event” (Baird 2017, 3). Erving Goffman’s (1959) formulation of front-stage/backstage “presentation of self in everyday life” instructs qualitative researchers to be attentive to how people strategically perform in different spaces to make particular impressions on the researcher, peers, supervisors, and community members. In this way, “multi-sited event ethnography [was] an appropriate tool for understanding how knowledge of practice emerges, allowing the researcher to identify and record knowledge practices within and across particular events” (Baird 2017, 3). Although my research assistant and I could not conduct participation observation in one location for an extended period of time, this fieldwork provided insight into the vocabularies, knowledges, and norms of the CVE policy field and its actors through our strategic immersion into multiple sites.
Our inclusion in this range of CVE activities across the United States facilitated many informal conversations with CVE actors, who enjoyed varying degrees of privilege and influence, from political elites to powerful state actors to street-level bureaucrats. These conversations helped us understand how people made sense of these activities in real time. Through these informal interactions, we began developing a network of CVE actors whom we came to formally interview.
In addition to meeting CVE actors at these public events, my research assistant and I observed college students who struggled to be taken seriously by adults. At my first industry conference, for example, we noticed that when two college students submitted formal “question cards” like other participants, the moderator discarded their questions. News reporters did not seek out youth participants and local news segments often privileged the voices of elite actors like DHS representatives rather than young adults directly affected by local CVE programming. In these instances, we wanted to know what these young adults wished to say and why, so we engaged with them through informal discussions and side conversations, sometimes in between sessions, over email, or during our next trip to the region. When a Somali college student was denied an interview with a local reporter, for example, we hung around to learn more about what he intended to say to the reporter and why it was important to him.
As community organizing efforts against CVE intensified, we sought out these critical perspectives to clarify our thinking and to check our interpretations of CVE. Throughout this book, these voices and experiences provide additional insight into CVE, even though I never intended to formally include college students in this research project. Although not representative of all young adults targeted by CVE, these voices have sharpened my analysis of governing national security policies and the actors who create, implement, and manage them.
Through this eclectic mix of fieldwork and subsequent analysis, I realized that studying up requires rethinking the ethical conventions used to protect participants, particularly in reports about my findings. Although this book follows the ethnographic standard of referring to participants by their pseudonyms to maintain anonymity, I also have incorporated the real names of public figures whose actions or words are a matter of public record, with the exception of young adults. This follows the naming convention used in Hugh Gusterson’s ethnography of nuclear weapons scientists, where “some people appear under their real names while others appear only under pseudonyms. Others appear at one moment under their real name and later under a pseudonym. This is done, not to confuse the reader, but to maximize documentary verisimilitude and at the same time honor the privacy that properly lies at the heart of the ethnographic contract” (1996, xvii–xviii). In this book, I use real names when referring to information that is a matter of public record, like policy documents, newspaper interviews, or public forums. If the information I present came from an interview or private conversation, then I use a pseudonym. In addition, I have altered other information to further protect the identity of each participant. In some cases, this means using a pseudonym for a participant’s workplace or changing a position title. These practices respond to the complex power relations that define “studying up,” adhere to discipline-specific ethical mandates, and fulfill the confidentiality agreements rendered when formally interviewing participants.
Toward a Feminist Methodology
Shortly after responding to my research assistant’s request for an in-person interview, potential participant Tanvir Rahman sent me an email. In this email, Rahman reiterated his interest in the study but first wanted to know more about me, my research, and my politics. As a part of his response, Rahman wrote:
I told [your research assistant] during our telephone conversation today that I’d be interested in reading your work, and after visiting your webpage I found a number of articles that I would like to read. Unfortunately I don’t have a budget for accessing these articles. Would you be willing and able to share these articles with me before I meet with [your research assistant] on Thursday so that I can read them? Would you be willing to speak with me about your work as well?
As I compiled the published articles and book excerpts Rahman requested, I recognized that, unlike conventional ethnographic projects, this research study engaged people in positions of power, often with advanced education and training. Over the course of his professional career, Rahman had accumulated extensive experience and connections in the criminal-legal system. This follows Gusterson’s (1996) reminder that when ethnographers “study up,” we encounter research participants who are “powerful and literate” and who “read what we say” (117).
In our email exchange, Rahman confirmed his privileged status as a formally educated and well-connected CVE actor in a powerful, albeit underfunded, state agency. Research participant Adrian Baker similarly reported that he “read and strongly respected [my] work on militarization in the classroom.” Exchanges like these illustrate how powerful participants can negotiate authority in the research encounter by limiting access, setting the conditions for meeting, directly showing that they “read what we say,” and publicly questioning our findings on social media and other news outlets.
Despite these exercises of authority, power is not hierarchical, static, or something an individual person simply has or possesses. Power emanates from, and is defined by, broader social structures, historical processes, and cultural contexts. In addition, power often operates through workers, like intermediary bureaucrats, who, through their labor, come to embody, enact, and extend state power that is not of their own making. The power relations that “characterize any historically embedded society are never as transparently clear as the names we give to them imply” (Gordon 1997, 3). Power, after all, “can be invisible, it can be fantastic, it can be dull and routine. It can be obvious, it can reach you by the baton of the police, it can speak the language of your thoughts and desires” (3). Power is dynamic, constantly remade and reworked through governing institutions, dominant discourses, and people’s daily work.
Because power operates diffusely, social scientists must “locate power relations and contextualize decision-making within workplace settings and life histories” (Mountz 2004, 328). When studying institutional power, researchers cannot assume that power inheres in elite actors; they must locate that power institutionally, historically, and socially. An analysis of power when “studying up” thus cannot be reduced to ethnographers studying elite actors within powerful institutions, as even powerful people report to authority figures, hold beliefs that can conflict with their jobs, are limited in the work they can do, and are shaped by prevailing social, political, and economic contexts. “Studying up” is more complicated than studying powerful people because power itself is dynamic and contextual. Qualitative researchers must be attentive to how elite actors carry out their work, and make sense of that work, within broader institutional contexts, social structures, and relations of power.
Social scientists have worked to account for these complex power relations through the application of feminist methodologies. Feminist methodologists acknowledge that our social location—our place in society—frames our research and shapes meaning-making processes (Harding 1993; Haraway 1988; Lather 1993; DeVault 1999; England 1994; N. Nguyen 2016). Lorraine Code (1995), for example, instructs that “differing social positions generate variable constructions of reality and afford different perspectives on the world” (52). This means that “knowers are always somewhere—at once limited and enabled by the specificities of their locations” (52–53). Like all people, my place in society informs what I know and how I have come to know it. In the research context, the social locations of the researcher, the researched, and the relations between the two shape the research process, including the interpretation and analysis of people’s experiences, knowledges, and daily lives.
Understanding that all knowledge is situated and partial compelled me to ask: How did my status as a racial outsider—a non-Muslim woman of color interviewing U.S. Muslims like Rahman—shape my relationships with participants? How did my status as a university researcher and my intellectual politics inform the questions I asked, my interpretations of participant responses, and my analyses of how broader social contexts informed Rahman’s everyday work? In a post-9/11 context, how did Rahman’s status as an elite actor within a powerful institution influence his relationship with me and how he responded to my inquiries? How did our place in society organize our variable understandings of what constitutes national security, racial profiling, and violent extremism? These questions follow feminist methodologists who urge social scientists to account for the identities of researchers and research participants as well as the social contexts that frame the research process, structure axes of difference, and shape meaning-making. This meant that I needed to be reflexive about how my status as a racial outsider affected every stage of this study.
My status as a university researcher also influenced my rapport with participants who sometimes sought resources or connections through their inclusion in the study. Although I was read as a young (naïve) woman, my academic job indicated to research participants that I had the authority to report on CVE and represent their work. This invariably shaped my relationship with research participants, most evident in requests for my published manuscripts. By communicating their awareness of my research, participants like Rahman and Baker worked to manage the power relations that organized the research encounter.
Because I had no experience in law enforcement, some CVE actors treated me with suspicion, caution, and even disrespect. In interviews with law enforcement, for example, participants sometimes dismissed me when I raised community critiques of CVE, deeming them “unintelligent,” “superficial,” or “conspiracy theories.” However, when I mentioned that a former FBI agent held similar concerns, some participants carefully thought about and responded to these concerns. Initially I interpreted these differential responses as racialized and gendered, whereby law enforcement personnel afforded a white man more credibility than Muslim critics. The former FBI agent, however, offered an alternative interpretation: “That’s a law enforcement thing.” From his perspective, “law enforcement don’t respect the perspectives of anyone who hasn’t walked in their shoes” (informal conversation, March 20, 2017). In this view, the former FBI agent’s critiques had currency in the CVE policy world because of his prior experience with the FBI and his status as a white man. As a credible voice in the national security policy world, CVE actors needed to take seriously and manage the former FBI agent’s role in pushing the CVE debate. Meanwhile, I struggled to gain respect during interviews with CVE actors, who sometimes took phone calls, visited with colleagues, or belittled me as I asked questions.
Although I was able to gain access to research sites by emailing potential participants and attending CVE events, some participants limited or abruptly terminated my access. Elliott Adams, for example, invited me to a DHS roundtable where he introduced me to other CVE actors and seemed eager to arrange a focus group with state law enforcement officials. After meeting me at the roundtable, however, he stopped responding to my emails and phone calls to schedule the focus group. Other participants refused to communicate with me after a local newspaper ran a story critiquing CVE, which included my own commentary on how the identification of potential terrorists relied on “racial and religious profiling practices” (as quoted in Ruppenthal 2017). Despite regularly gaining access to research sites and participants, maintaining that access over time proved difficult, especially given my public commentary on CVE and association with local community organizations.
Like mine did, my research assistant’s positionality shaped her fieldwork. As a white woman and graduate student, she primarily interviewed former white supremacists (“formers”) and talked with college students about their perspectives on and experiences with CVE. As a racial insider, she was able to build rapport with “formers,” who spoke freely about their past violences and struggles to leave white supremacist groups. In this study, being white did not automatically translate into trust in the research encounter, but the possibility of a shared understanding between anti-racist white people facilitated the interview process. Former white supremacist Amy Kerns, for example, stated that “We have a problem with white privilege in our society. I’m not one of those self-hating white people, but if you look around at how people of color are treated, and you hear things like, ‘Oh, racism doesn’t exist; we have a Black president now!’” As Kerns described how the current “hatred” made her “sick,” my research assistant affirmed her, commenting, “I’m feeling what you’re feeling.” In this exchange, Kerns approached the interview as a conversation between two white people with a shared commitment to anti-racism, evident in her use of “we.” My research assistant encouraged this sentiment by saying, “I’m feeling what you’re feeling” (interview, January 5, 2017).
To build rapport with participants in positions of power, my research assistant highlighted her student status. To do so, she deferentially asked questions that presumed little prior knowledge or familiarity with industry jargon. Participants responded to my research assistant’s questions as experts wanting to teach her about their work and the national security policies that drove that work. Because my research assistant positioned herself as a student who worked for a professor, participants rarely viewed her as a threat or as an academic with legitimate critiques of CVE.
As these examples indicate, like all researchers, our place in the world shaped how we interacted with, and interpreted the experiences of, CVE actors. “The production of ethnographic knowledge is shaped by the shifting, contextual, and relational contours of the researcher’s social identity and her social situatedness or positionality (in terms of gender, race, class, sexuality, and other axes of social difference), with respect to her subjects” (Nagar and Geiger 2007, 267, emphasis in original). Feminist approaches to qualitative research recognize that our place in society frames our research and shapes meaning-making processes.
To account for how our social identities and positionality affect our research, feminist methodologists suggest that social scientists turn to “situating technologies” (Rose 1997, 308). Reflexivity is one such situating technology used to analyze and account for how power relations shape qualitative research. Reflexivity “is not a matter of looking harder or more closely, but of seeing what frames our seeing—spaces of constructed visibility and incitements to see which constitute power/knowledge” (Lather 1993, 675). Throughout this research study, I continually employed reflexive techniques like memoing and member-checking to recognize and account for what framed my seeing (Lincoln and Guba 1985). Through these practices, I interrograted my own assumptions, intellectual politics, and positionality, all of which organized my relationships with CVE actors, my interpretations of the data, and my writing of the study’s findings.
Guided by these feminist contributions, critical approaches to “studying up” must attend to the relational power dynamics that infuse the research encounter. This reflexive process must include a “reconceptualization of how power operates in the research setting” and a “critical examination of researcher positionality and the micropolitics of the research encounter” (Conti and O’Neil 2007, 63). That is, feminist researchers “make central the complex workings of power in the research study” (Conti and O’Neil 2007, 65). Rather than ignore how power shapes fieldwork when “studying up,” feminist methodologists call on ethnographers to examine how power relations affect research studies, how researchers may perpetuate power structures in the research setting, and how the relationality between the researcher and the researched influence the production of knowledge.
As a part of these feminist interventions, social scientists have explored some of the ethical and epistemological conundrums encountered when “studying up.” Elise Edwards (2007), for example, struggled to evaluate the ethics of naming a CEO involved in a racketeering scandal at one of her research sites, the office of a Japanese soccer team. She examined how such reporting in academic publications and speaking engagements could harm others involved with the soccer team, from players to office staff with less power who could be punished or even fired. The “heterogeneity of power vectors” in Edwards’s field site and the “multiplicity of positions” held by participants muddied the ethical and political demands of her research (574). Ultimately, Edwards determined that naming the CEO in her work “felt both historically and politically important,” especially since “his name and documentation of his illegal activities were already part of the public record in countless newspaper articles and court documents” (580). Given the power differentials between people associated with the soccer team, the decision to preserve or abandon anonymity was not straightforward. Edwards maintained the authority to name, or not name, powerful people and to represent their actions in particular ways. Navigating these power relations and related ethical issues was a complex and messy process.
In addition to these negotiations of naming participants in positions of power, researchers who “study up” have explored different strategies to navigate these dynamic power relations. Some qualitative methodologists, for example, have examined how social scientists can leverage their status as researchers, experience with the military, or citizenship to manage research encounters with powerful military elites or national security agents (Gazit and Maoz-Shai 2010). Feminist researchers have investigated how women researchers of color negotiate racial difference when interviewing powerful white men (Anderson-Levy 2010). Additional studies have explored how women researchers manage sexual advances and violence when interviewing powerful people like police torturers and assassins (Huggins 1998; Huggins and Glebbeek 2003; Glebbeek 2003). Others have explored how research participants exercise their authority to govern the direction of an interview or question the credibility of the researcher (Conti and O’Neil 2007). In all these cases, “studying up” involved power relations that were more complicated and complex than simply less powerful researchers studying elite actors in powerful institutions. Given these complexities, researchers “studying up” must document, account for, and be reflexive about power relations during every stage of research, from designing the study, to gaining access, to writing.
Although “studying up” presents different power dynamics than more conventional qualitative studies, methodologists cannot ignore or sidestep how power shapes fieldwork. Applying feminist methodologies and corresponding ethical guidelines to “studying up” conventions is one way to enhance how researchers acknowledge and account for how power operates in projects on the elite.
“I Have Skin in the Game”: Capturing Complex Personhood
Despite these contributions, few analyses fully address the heterogeneity of power within elite institutions where people occupy different positions of privilege, whether as managers, administrators, or CEOs. Managers, administrators, and CEOs are also diverse in terms of race, class, gender, sexuality, citizenship status, and dis/ability, axes of social difference that generate particular power dynamics within elite institutions as well as in the research encounter. Rahman, for example, held a powerful yet precarious position in a state institution as his employment was contingent on continued state and federal funding. He also was a Muslim man subjected to anti-Muslim racism. Although socioeconomic status occasionally can mitigate the effects of racism (Lacy 2007), Rahman’s racial and religious identities complicated his status as an “elite” or “powerful” actor.
Given these complex power dynamics that define all workplaces, Rahman’s membership in and commitment to Muslim communities organized his CVE work and his institutional standing. When my research assistant first met Rahman, for example, he declared, “I have a criminal defense background. I’ve worked with youth. I’ve been, I am a leader in the Muslim community. I have skin in the game.” The confluence of his experiences and identities as a legal scholar, youth worker, and Muslim immigrant meant he had “skin in the game”: moral, ethical, and political responsibilities to engage CVE and respond to the needs of the communities to whom he was accountable, from federal funders to Muslim youth. How Rahman thought about and enacted his role as a CVE actor therefore could not be reduced to his powerful position within an elite institution, as his multiple social locations shaped his work and his understandings of that work (interview, November 10, 2016).
As an institutional worker, Rahman was not only a powerful CVE actor. He also reported to supervisors and funders, was accountable to community members who publicly critiqued or welcomed his efforts, and experienced anti-Muslim racism in his everyday life. Power was contingent and dynamic in his workplace, in his community, and in the research encounter. As a qualitative researcher, I needed to be attentive to how these power relations structured national security work and shaped my research, particularly as I built rapport with research participants, negotiated authority during interviews, interpreted collected data, and reported my findings in media interviews and in my own writing. I also needed to engage in reflexive practices like sharing my findings with research participants during the interview process and participating in collaborative meaning-making sessions with other social scientists.
Rahman’s affirmation that he had “skin in the game” not only caused me to rethink and reconceptualize power relations in the field. It also compelled me to ask additional research questions to better examine the “micro-processes” through which people “are influenced and persuaded to participate in their own domination or, alternatively, resist it, sometimes disrupting domination or putting the system in reverse” (Nader 1997, 712). Like policies themselves, CVE actors were producers of social categories that classified people as violent extremists, dangerous terrorists, or deviant criminals, typically through racialized forms of identification. Yet, the production of these social categories, in practice and in policy writing, sometimes generated disquiet and anxiety in their authors. As illustrated in Rahman’s stated desire to “get CVE right,” Muslim actors negotiated prevailing national security discourses, understandings of what constitutes “good citizenship” in the United States, their own experiences with anti-Muslim racism and racial profiling, and their career goals. These negotiations often created conflicting and contradictory logics and practices that research participants navigated in their everyday lives as CVE actors.
In our interactions with Rahman, I noticed strategies he used to smooth over these contradictions. Rahman, for example, nervously began the first few minutes of his interview by acknowledging that “in the wrong setting,” the Don’t Be a Puppet initiative “could be really problematic.” Citing his own experiences as a Muslim immigrant in a predominately white community, Rahman criticized Don’t Be a Puppet’s narrow focus on Muslims as “the data clearly show that white supremacists, sovereign citizens, and violent militias are responsible for more violence and death than those who are inspired by al-Qaeda or now ISIS.” Rahman also rejected CVE programs “focused exclusively on Muslim and Arab communities.” Despite these critiques, Rahman helped “recruit mosques across the country” to participate in a CVE initiative “focused on the Muslim community nationally.” Recognizing this contradiction, Rahman insisted that his own work “could be useful if it’s done right,” citing problems with the implementation, rather than the concept, of CVE. By distinguishing his work from other CVE programs, Rahman managed his own anxieties about the impetuses and implications of this emerging national security approach, particularly for Muslim communities (interview, November 10, 2016).
Our conversations with Rahman indicated that I needed to be attentive to how CVE actors nervously negotiated public objections to their work, which often generated contradictory logics to justify this national security approach. Rather than treat Rahman’s fraught assessment of CVE as an internal struggle, I needed to locate these anxieties within broader contestations over how to define national security, identify a potential violent extremist, and ward off terrorist threats. As a qualitative researcher, I needed to look for how Rahman reacted when the ready-made narratives that organized his work ruptured. I needed to investigate how Rahman came to imagine his own CVE praxis as an effective and progressive national security strategy, despite community protests that argued otherwise. Yet, I could not undertake this analysis without being reflexive about the complex web of power relations that organized Rahman’s work and his understandings of that work. This web was spun, in part, by national security funding streams that encouraged “talking points about jihad,” histories of surveillance in communities of color, geopolitical struggles, prevailing cultural contexts that defined what counts as national security, and Rahman’s own identities, beliefs, and personal experiences. I also needed to be reflexive about how my own status as a non-Muslim university researcher informed how Rahman discussed his work and how I made sense of his work.
As these negotiations illustrate, critical methodologists who “study up” must design research projects that capture the “complex personhood” of participants like Rahman. Complex personhood “is about conferring the respect on others that comes from presuming that life and people’s lives are simultaneously straightforward and full of enormously subtle meaning” (Gordon 1997, 5). As a qualitative researcher, I needed to seek out how the “enormously subtle meaning” of participants’ lives shaped their involvement in the CVE policy world. “Recognizing and portraying interviewees as complex and even sympathetic human beings disrupts easy or uncomplicated links between the social realm” of powerful institutions, their actors, and their impact on everyday people (Conti and O’Neil 2007, 79).
Rather than reduce Rahman to a powerful elite who sought to advance CVE policies at any cost, I approached Rahman as a complicated figure—a Muslim, immigrant, legal scholar, husband and father, and careerist—who “possess[ed] a complex and oftentimes contradictory humanity and subjectivity” irreducible to his role as a CVE actor (Gordon 1997, 4; see also Tuck 2009). To apprehend this complex personhood, I worked to be attentive to the social, political, and personal contexts that organized Rahman’s conceptualization of national security and his commitment to CVE. Through ongoing reflexive practices, my fieldwork pulled me closer toward the perspectives and lifeworlds of CVE actors like Rahman, whose complex personhood shaped their daily work.
Although I interviewed CVE actors in positions of power, I still needed to account for and be reflexive of my own authority throughout my fieldwork, especially as a non-Muslim woman of color. I maintained the authority to ask particular questions, interpret people’s responses to my questions, and report those interpretations to the public. In a follow-up conversation with Rahman, for example, I tested out ideas about CVE, asked for clarification, and communicated my own critiques of CVE. This gave Rahman the opportunity to correct my misunderstandings or misinterpretations of his work. In fact, when a newspaper interviewed me about CVE, Rahman called me to critique my analysis and clarify his own position on CVE. Although Rahman could challenge or reject my ideas, I maintain the power to represent his work in my writing, including this book.
In crafting these representations, I also needed to consider how U.S. national security policies historically have pitted “good” and “bad” Muslims against each other. In this dominant framework, “bad” Muslims are “clearly responsible for terrorism” while “good” Muslims willingly comply with special registries, FBI investigations, and other forms of surveillance (Mamdani 2004, 15). The introduction of and contestations over CVE have intensified this divisive binary and fractured Muslim communities across the United States. As a qualitative researcher in a political context defined by renewed anti-Muslim racism, I needed to be reflexive about how my writing represents the heterogeneous experiences of Muslims involved in CVE. My representations, after all, can both reproduce and disrupt the good versus bad Muslim binary.
Like Carol Cohn’s (2006, 1987) study of nuclear weapons intellectuals, I began this project because CVE troubled me and I wanted to better understand how people involved in this work came to understand CVE as a progressive alternative to conventional counterterrorism tactics. By “studying up,” I sought to trace the webs of power through which national security ideas became institutionalized and enacted through the daily work of street-level bureaucrats and powerful actors. Yet, as my interactions with Rahman reveal, “studying up” involves more complex power relations than simply studying elite actors in powerful institutions. As a qualitative researcher I needed to craft reflexive practices that accounted for and responded to these dynamic power relations. I also needed to enhance my ethnographic toolkit to better apprehend and communicate the depth of institutional life and the constellation of effects it engenders in and through its elite workers with varying degrees of power, influence, and authority. Despite these efforts, I recognize the limitations of these reflexive practices and the need for qualitative methodologists to develop strategies that capture the heterogeneity of power when studying up.
Although reflexivity is an unfinished project, this book attempts to capture the complex personhoods of those involved in the CVE policy world, elevating their sometimes competing and contradictory understandings of justice, community engagement, and national security as central to this story. In doing so, I respond to the underdeveloped ethnographic demand to “retain the complex personhood of the informant,” which “challenges dominant notions of how power operates when studying elites” (Conti and O’Neil 2007, 80). Too often social scientists “withhold from the very people they are most concerned with the right to complex personhood” (Gordon 1997, 4). Through my exploration of the CVE policy world, I work to render the complex personhoods of key actors as I explore the logics, norms, and structures of this new national security approach.