The SOAS project connecting parliaments, politicians and people

parliaments and people

On 12 August 2020, the world celebrated ‘International Youth Day’. The theme for it was ‘Youth Engagement for Global Action’, a well-thought out action-oriented cause for the unprecedented shifts we are seeing globally as a result of the pandemic. Increased equalities have become apparent over the time of Covid-19, with the world also experiencing challenges such as authoritarianism, climate, mobility and migration, and conflict. Young people have taken to the internet and the streets, demanding better governance today for a greener, more equal future. Encouraging youth participation in politics and parliaments and limiting gerontocracy takes us a step closer to that world.

Advocating for youth to take up leadership positions in the public sphere remains fundamental. However, better future governance also demands holding our current elected leaders accountable and understanding the relationships and ruptures between them and the people. The power and the privilege to do this is only available to democracies, at the heart of which lies the parliament.  The responsibility to use this right is all the more pressing: strong institutions in several multi-cultural societies are crumbling due to unfair parliamentary representations and failing leaders who have not understood the pulse of their people. This strife is well-evident on social media, where politicians are under constant public-scrutiny as parliamentary processions remain out of reach and inaccessible to many people.

parliaments and people, Kachinland
Parliaments and People in Kachinland research institute.

It is imperative to understand the complex connections between the state and civil societies: they need to work together cohesively to build a sustainable future. A path-breaking research network resonates this thought.  The ‘Global Research Network on Parliaments and People’ (GRNPP) is a SOAS-led initiative working on understanding and building stronger relationships between the parliament and the people.

Launched at Westminster’s Mary Sumner House on 29th November 2017, the research initiative was initially part of the ‘Deepening Democracy’ project (2017-2020) that aimed to ‘support interdisciplinary research opportunity and capacity in Ethiopia and Myanmar’. While this continues to be one of GRNPP’s core focus; its work has since expanded to include “advocacy around the mobilisation of global voices in academic and policy-making environments, encouraging deeper engagement between anthropologists and policy-makers, participating in international coalitions for change, supporting collaborations between academia and the creative and cultural industries, and generating comparative ethnographic research on Parliaments.” It is led by Professor Emma Crewe, professor of Social Anthropology at SOAS. Though most of its core-team members are associated with SOAS, GRNPP has several international partnerships with universities and research institutes in India, Myanmar, Ethiopia etc.

conference, parliaments and people
Mobilising Global Voices Conference (Feb 2019) – members of the UK Parliament’s International Development Select Committee give evidence to a global cohort of researchers, including P4P Grant recipient Mitiku Gabrehiwot. (Image copyright AHRC) 

GRNPP believes in involving anyone and everyone who wishes to do research or participate in the understanding of people and public engagement; either around one issue or area or at a macro-level. To facilitate this, their network has provided £800,000 in the ‘Parliaments and People (P4P) Grants’ to those working in Ethiopia and Myanmar. The vision is to “fund innovative and multidisciplinary projects that seek to develop understandings of the relationship between parliaments, politicians and people – particularly concerning history, gender and culture.”

Some of the investigations funded by P4P include: “Women’s Involvement in Politics in the Mon, Kayin, and Tanintharyi Parliaments: Barriers to Improving Representation and Strengthening Democracy”; “Three-week audio documentary training leading to a series of docu-animation films on gender-based violence”; “Political representation and participation among the Kunama of northern Ethiopia” etc. Most of these studies use qualitative research methodologies such as interviews and field research and bring in more detailed and nuanced observations that truly capture the voice of those systematically ignored to establish their political journeys and participation.

Research outcomes are multi-media and GRNPP encourages collaboration with artistic and creative industries. As Emma Crewe comments, “We are interested in the relationship between arts and politics. We think that scholars working together with people in the creative industries will find very innovative ways to ask difficult questions about politics, and also help us re-imagine what democracy might mean in very specific places.”

Another leading project by this network is ‘A Global Comparative Ethnography of Parliaments, Politicians and People: representation, relationships and ruptures,’ led by Emma Crewe for which she has been awarded a European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant of €2.5 million. Working with a team of ethnographers, she will, “explore the ruptures, crises of representation, and pathways towards more inclusive and relational communication between politicians and people by uncovering the relationships between parliaments, politicians and people – as expressed and shaped by political communication – in six democratic states (Brazil, Ethiopia, Fiji, India, the UK and the US). This research will position anthropology as an intellectually influential, and potentially transformative, source of scholarship on everyday politics.”

GRNPP also provides support, resources and guidance about things like writing a grant proposal, getting academic articles published, research funding and more. They also have a repository of articles on parliamentary research which can be accessed on their website.

For future generations to inherit a sustainable world, it is up to us to pass on systems that are not so inherently flawed in their ideology and operations. Their betterment demands a research approach that goes beyond just figures and statistics to qualitatively understand patterns of inequalities, representations, participation and the complexities of its relationships with the people who put it in power. The Global Research Network on Parliaments and People brings us a step closer in achieving this. Like its mission statement sums up; “the aim is to generate, support, and share insights into the relationships between parliaments, politicians and people in ways that deepen democratic dialogue and foster more inclusive forms of democracy.”


Devyani Nighoskar is a SOAS Digital Ambassador from India. A former journalist, she is currently pursuing her MA in Critical Media and Cultural Studies. Check out her work on Instagram @runawayjojo

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