The introduction to this special issue by the editors begins by writing that the world has become a difficult place to study: fragmented, polarised, fast-changing, distrustful and savagely unequal. Ethnography is especially well-placed to grapple with our alienating worlds in turbulent times because it encourages adaptability. Grand universalising theories about cultural practices and socio-political action in different places have long been seen as intellectually untenable with decades of postmodernism, but we do not need to give up painting in big and small strokes on a wide canvas. The study of governance institutions is an entrypoint into researching the relationship between localities and wider worlds (regions, nations, cities) and processes (inequality, state-society relations, violence). Ethnographers excel at articulating how the everyday work of politics manifests resonantly and comparatively across these different levels and within various institutions.

The 15 articles in this dossier focus on the institutions or social organizations that constitute the centers of
power, that is, that have as their ‘mission’ the administrative, economic, legislative, political or legal arbitration of governance. Ethnographers’ research into such governance institutions is usually complex, especially if the intellectual puzzles arise out of entanglements rather than elusive linear causality and the scholars are aspiring to be rigorous, as they are in this dossier. The challenges of doing ethnography in centers of power are an essential feature of the papers presented. The collected works give an overview of obstacles, issues, problems and discoveries derived from the insertion of the anthropologist (or equivalent) into her environment of study in contemporary societies.