Illuminating the craft of policy: an anthropological approach to policy ethnography

Publication Name

Anthropology and Medicine


The ‘task to come’ in anthropological fieldwork is rarely discussed explicitly as a set of underpinning methodological, analytical, conceptual, and theoretical precepts and practices. Drawing on learnings from a study of policymakers in the Australian Public Service–a non-conventional fieldwork location–this paper presents an account of how the anthropologist instituted direction and purpose or ‘fruitful ways of looking’ as an orientation to policy ethnography and the sense-making journey that follows. This paper progresses three interrelated aims: (1) to argue that, through ethnographic fieldwork, anthropology adds value to understanding the policy setting and its actors as engaged in purposeful and meaningful work underpinned by policy knowledge and expertise; (2) provocate that anthropology should contribute to research agendas outside of critical normative disciplinary interests in power and control; (3) illustrate that preparation is useful to tailor the production of anthropological knowledge to its context. An ‘interpretive framework’ is described as the culmination of this approach to collecting and interpreting ethnographic field data, demonstrating how this attends to the policy setting as socio-cultural domain with actors engaged in shared practices, routines and rituals, steeped in policy-practitioner skills, knowledge and expertise–or policy ‘craft’. Together, this conditioned the anthropological gaze to take in everyday activities involved in policy work and enabled the study of meetings and documents to discern what happens during these structured conversations to better understand how policy staff engage with academic research in meeting their policy responsibilities under the expectations of the evidence-based policy agenda.

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