Capturing the Personal in Politics: Ethnographies of Global Environmental Governance
Lisa M. Campbell
Kenneth I. MacDonald
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In writing about Barack Obama’s efforts to entice Republicans into ending US Congressional gridlock, news columnist John Avalon wrote, “All politics is personal and at the end of the day, in a representative democracy, decisions are made by people in a room.”1 While he focused on the role of personal relationships in “a representative democracy,” political decisions are made by “people in a room” across diverse forms of government. Accounting for what happens in that room, and theorizing how and why it happens, is a critical challenge for policy researchers. It requires focusing on the conduct of politics in everyday practice, and it necessitates studying the individual motivations, relationships, and agency that shape policies, institutions, and regimes. It also demands attention to the ways in which bureaucratic norms shape who can speak and how, as well as the ways in which multiple political, social, and cultural phenomena converge, conditioning which ideas, narratives, and practices subsequently become institutionalized. We argue that such details are best captured in real time, by researchers who are also “in the room” to observe and record the everyday practices of policy-making. We argue for the use of ethnography as a core method in research on global environmental politics. As O’Neill et al. highlighted, the study of environmental governance requires attention to dynamic relations of power and authority; the often unpredictable, nonlinear, and contingent trajectories of policies; and the complexity of environmental problems and multiple scales at which environmental governance occurs.2 However, capturing these dynamic relations, contingent trajectories, and complex, trans-scalar processes is challenging, particularly given the dispersed nature of current environmental policymaking processes across sites and scales.