Studying Harms of the Powerful: Themes and issues of the inverted ethnographic gaze

Dr Alex Simpson1

1Macquarie University, ,

How do you do an ethnography of a closed, elite social space when no one lets you in? Moreover, how do you do an ethnography of a closed, elite social space when the ‘coercive harmony’ of power and control actively contrives to keep you, and the wider critical gaze of social science, out? The simple and shortest answer might be to not do it. However, there are grave repercussions of leaving the interests of power and privilege beyond the critical ethnographic gaze. This paper draws on experiences of conducting an ethnographic study of harm and deviance in finance to reflect on the strategies, opportunities and limitations of ethnographic methodologies in examining cultural sites of power. Too often, criminological studies of powerful groups resort to structural level of analysis, which both veils cultures of power in a shroud of opacity and serves to ‘re-elite the elite’ (Stich and Colyar, 2015: 744). By exploring the everyday realities, ambitions and strains of financial life, it is possible to better understand the embedded assumptions and techniques of neutralisation that legitimise the vast production of financial harm. Bringing together the literatures on what Nader (1972) calls ‘studying up’, the paper develops a methodological toolset to shed light on the normalised and reproductive cultural practices of harm that are rooted in bounded sites of power. Doing so contributes to a greater understanding of how criminological inquiry can invert the traditional ‘downward gaze’ to shed light on the normalised cultural practices of the elite.


My current research brings together inter-related themes of class, gender, embodiment and organisational practice to examine the embedded, and often hidden, cultures of finance. Through ethnographic research methods, my work develops an ‘on-the-ground’ account of the everyday practices, thought process and common assumptions that both legitimise and neutralise the production of social harm connected to finance work.

I undertook my PhD at the University of York. Awarded an ESRC studentship, this project focused on questions of harm and deviance in the City of London’s financial services industry. Following my graduation in 2015, I spent three years as a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Brighton. Whilst at Brighton I was on the management board for the Centre for Spatial, Cultural and Environmental Politics and was heavily involved in the Centre for Transforming Gender and Sexuality. This involvement brought new questions of space and place making as well as gendered performativity and embodiment to my research. Since September 2018 I have been working in Department of Security Studies and Criminology, within the Faculty of Arts, and I continue to pursue my research activities as part of the Societal Transformation research theme. Alongside my continuing and ongoing research interests in the cultures of finance, I have also been part of a British Academy funded, ethnographic study of class-based experiences of dirt and dirty work.


The society is devoted to promoting criminological study, research and practice in the region and bringing together persons engaged in all aspects of the field. The membership of the society reflects the diversity of persons involved in the field, including practitioners, academics, policy makers and students.

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