Up the Africanist: the possibilities and problems of ‘studying up’ in Africa

Rebecca Warne Peters, Claire Wendland

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


The original call to ‘study up’ asked anthropologists to study the powerful within their own societies, presumed to be American or European. In this special issue on power in 21st-century Africa, we reflect on methodological and theoretical issues inherent in the project of studying up anywhere. Contributors show that a careful understanding of emic perspectives on upward mobility and maintenance of the upper hand is critical to analysis: authors included here show the complexity of power hierarchies that go beyond obvious and durable routes to power (such as whiteness in ‘mobile’ humanitarian projects), to more unstable and contingent ones (such as party politics in Mozambique), and to those that can both empower and endanger (such as queer activist identities in Malawi). In addition, we find that the position of the ethnographer is unstable in many of these power hierarchies. Rather than introducing unique ethical concerns, we argue, this aspect of studying up reveals ethical concerns that affect all ethnographic work. This introductory essay reviews the complexity of ‘up’ as a social position and the ethics of ‘studying up’ as a method. We close with a call to consider the failure to study up in Africa as evidence of the persistence–and persistent erasure–of white privilege within our own discipline.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)239-254
Number of pages16
JournalCritical African Studies
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1 2016


  • Africa
  • ethnographic methods
  • hierarchy
  • power
  • studying up
  • whiteness

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities
  • General Social Sciences


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