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Jeanne Hanna on “Brexit” & Anthropology of “Right-Wing” Groups

As a self-described “political nerd at heart,” AU anthropology PhD candidate Jeanne Hanna is having quite a year.

Her current research focuses on the UK Independence Party (UKIP), exploring the social, economic, emotional, and political issues motivating people to support this political party.

Jeanne was in the country for the June 2016 Brexit referendum, which initiated the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union. Her inquiries include how UKIP’s supporters are attempting to reshape the party in the aftermath of the referendum, and the ways social, economic, and regional differences among UKIP supporters affect their relationship with the party. She’s also interested in how English people outside UKIP perceive the party’s supporters.

Jeanne is now wrapping up ethnographic fieldwork among supporters of the UKIP in South Yorkshire, after which she’ll return to the United States for a brief visit. She’ll then continue her work in Greater London. Over email, Jeanne shared more about her background, her research in the UK, and how her research connects to her understanding of the current political landscape in the United States.

 

Ballot Table

The “Leave” and “Remain” signs used at the count on the night of the EU referendum to sort the votes. All British votes are still done by paper ballot and sorted and counted by hand.

Jeanne’s path to AU and the UK

Jeanne’s interest in politics has long since led her to pursue meaningful, on-the-ground work. When she was an undergraduate at the University of Memphis, she conducted research with a political action nonprofit in her home state of Tennessee. Her senior thesis, “Identity and activism among Muslims in Tennessee,” called for original ethnographic research on social and political movements among Middle Tennessee’s Muslim communities.

Jeanne came to AU to explore her questions about what draws people to political groups and political causes, as well as how political social movements impact people’s lives.

“Anthropological studies of the so-called ‘right wing’ are relatively rare, and arguably increasing in importance and popularity, not just in the US and UK, but around the world,” Jeanne said. “I decided this was broadly where I wanted to focus my research.”

When she first conceived of the idea of writing her dissertation on a “right-wing” group, she felt somewhat hesitant. “It’s still not a common area of research for anthropologists, though I’m glad to say that’s changing,” she said. “But when I nervously floated the idea to my advisor, David Vine, he was immediately and unconditionally supportive.”

David was willing to learn alongside Jeanne as she developed her initial research plan. “David, along with other faculty members in the department, has an excellent history of pursing and encouraging research that pushes the boundaries of what is typical anthropology. And while our department is committed to social justice, I’ve always appreciated that the people around me understand there are multiple and different avenues to pursuing that aim,” Jeanne said.

Jeanne brought her interests into the classroom, through conversations about theory and through her projects, and insights from peers and teachers helped shape her thinking. Seeking to hone in on a more specific subject, Jeanne first spent 12 weeks in England, hanging out with people involved in a range of political groups.

“The UK Independence Party, which has enjoyed increasing electoral and popular support in the last couple of years, stood out as a group that drew a dedicated and committed following of people from a range of different political backgrounds,” Jeanne said. “I decided to focus the rest of my research on them, and it’s been a fascinating experience so far.”

 

sunrise

After spending all night at the referendum count in Sheffield, Jeanne snapped this picture of the dawn on what many people she’s gotten to know consider a “new Britain.”

Jeanne’s day-to-day field research in the UK

Each day of field work takes Jeanne somewhere different. She attends twice-weekly meetings of local UKIP branches. She attends local town and city council meetings. She attends committee meetings within local councils.

“I’ve been very lucky to be welcomed at several parties and social gatherings organized by local or regional UKIP groups. I also went to events related to the recent election of UKIP’s new national leader,” she said.

At least half her working time is composed of writing notes on her observations and experiences – and last summer gave her a lot to write about.

“By far, the highlight of my research has been the EU referendum campaign,” Jeanne said. “The growing support for UKIP was a major influence in making the referendum a reality, and the people I’ve been getting to know here were actively involved in campaigning to leave the EU. I was able to shadow several campaign events and attend the vote count in Sheffield. It was fascinating and exhilarating to watch history in action that evening.”

 

Billboard truck

A billboard truck, advocating a Leave vote in the referendum, hired by one of the local UKIP groups to drive around town in the days just before the referendum

Political connections across the pond

“With the Trump v. Clinton US election coming right on the heels of the Brexit summer here in the UK, it’s hard not to make comparisons across the current political moment in which we’re all living,” Jeanne said.

While her own interests focus on the views, perspectives, and experiences of the people she is getting to know in the UK, the US election looms large even in England, garnering news coverage and prompting people to ask Jeanne her thoughts about the choice US voters face this November.

“I’m very mindful of the global social and political contexts in which my research participants live, and in which my research is developing,” Jeanne said. “The political movements that have amassed behind Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are a part of that context. There is a great deal of concern about the rise in support for ‘right-wing’ or ‘far right’ movements in the US, Europe, and beyond,” Jeanne said.

Through her research, Jeanne works to push past than those labels, digging deeper to develop an understanding of which issues matter most to people and why. “I don’t doubt that there are connections between various political movements across national borders, but I’m hoping to challenge some of the assumptions about what those connections look like and what views and feelings motivate the people involved,” she said.

She plans to reconnect with AU classmates and teachers in person this winter before continuing the next leg of her research. “I try to keep people updated on how my research is going through semi-regular emails, but I’m looking forward to catching up with these same colleagues and continuing to learn from them during my mid-year break,” Jeanne said.

The MAPA program and Ph.D. in anthropology give students space to explore their interests about the world. Find out more about the master’s degree in public anthropology.

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