Linguistic Anthropology and Electoral Madness

Since I've returned to the United States, I've been thrown into the whirlwind of election frenzy that I largely wasn't exposed to in England. It's kind of shocking to see how candidates from both parties approach each other in the debate forum and what people generally consider to be acceptable behavior or not. Recently, after the Vice Presidential debate, there was lots of hubbub surrounding Joe Biden's behavior in the debate, particularly his willingness to so blatantly criticize Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney's running mate. 

This probably seems entirely unrelated to anthropology, but stay with me on this idea. After reading so many ethnographies of institutions, I am curious as to whether anyone knows of an ethnographic research performed on contemporary political machines? I use the word 'machine' as a loaded term here - I suppose the word 'party' would also be a sufficient word to put in its place. What would an ethnography of that type look like? I suppose the first thing that strikes my mind is the linguistic element of it and how that combined with kinetic-type analysis could provide an interesting framework from which to draw from. 

Any thoughts on this?

My apologies for the long time without posting - I've been focusing on my job search and sort of neglecting other things as a result. Thanks for any input, guys!

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Comment by John McCreery on October 16, 2012 at 3:57am

Body language and gesture are, of course, topics with a long history in anthropology. Off the top of my head, I instantly think of Edward T Hall's The Silent Language and a book on primate behavior by Allison Jolly, which featured some marvelous side-by-side photographs of an angry chimpanzee and an angry Richard Nixon. There is a good case to be made, moreover, for a growing consciousness, starting with the rise of TV as a medium for political campaigning, of the need to present oneself effectively non-verbally. My daughter's Master of Public Policy course at the Kennedy School at Harvard included the training that informed her critique of the first Romney-Obama debate. To wit, Romney got the body language right, looking at the camera and speaking in an authoritative mode to the audience, while Obama, besides looking tired, spent too much time looking away from the camera, at Romney or the moderator, instead of the camera, disengaged from the audience.

Comment by Chelsea Hayman on October 16, 2012 at 12:30am

Hey John, 

I guess what I am most interested in is bodily gesturing and speech patterns. There were a lot of interesting screenshots that were captured from that night that kind of set up this idea in the viewer's mind. I found them intriguing. I suppose I am just interested in how people viewing it engage with these ideas following the debate and how the particular gestures or mannerisms of candidates really clue into the party that a person connects to or their own personal beliefs. The first thing that comes to mind is Joe Biden's constant laughing and his use of the word "malarky," etc. - many media outlets presented this in a nearly humorous way, whereas some people (Fox News) presented it as "unprofessional." I suppose a more specific emerging question could be: What do we classify as "unprofessional" in a public forum like this and how do people latch onto it in a certain way? 

Comment by John McCreery on October 15, 2012 at 9:08am

Chelsea, could you tell us a bit more about what you find shocking?


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