Realism in political theory, ethnographic sensibility, and the moral agency of bureaucrats

Janosch Prinz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)
4 Downloads (Pure)


This article argues that ethnographic methods, or an ethnographic sensibility more broadly speaking, can go some way to addressing a thorny issue of realism in political theory. Realists are committed to taking context seriously and to offering critique, but how can they do both? Based on a reconstruction of the main lines of inquiry and arguments of Bernardo Zacka’s When the State Meets the Street, the article shows that an ethnographic sensibility is well suited to address the realist predicament because it combines two levels of interpretation. On one level, it seeks to reconstruct people’s understanding of what they are doing and who they are. On a second level, ethnography seeks to interpret the larger ideational and material power relations that affect people’s values and practices. The essay spells out how taking an ethnographic sensibility can enhance (realist) political theorists’ understanding of the nature and limits of politics in a particular context, while at the same time providing a starting point for potentially transformative criticism from within this context.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)64-87
Number of pages24
Issue number1
Early online date21 Nov 2019
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2020


  • Political Theory
  • realism in political theory
  • Ethnography
  • Bureaucracy
  • Methodology

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