(Dis)Embodied Methodology in International Political Economy

Nicki Smith

Following some previous discussion on similar themes, a guest post by Nicola Smith. Nicki is Senior Lecturer in Political Science at the University of Birmingham and has published on a diversity of issues surrounding globalisation and social justice. She is currently writing a monograph on Queer Sexual Economies for Palgrave and has published articles in Sexualities, Third World Quarterly and the British Journal of Politics and International Relations. Other related publications include Body/State and Queer Sex Work. The following piece has been developed as part of a book project on methods in critical International Political Economy, edited by Johnna Montgomerie, and a version of it was recently presented at the semi-plenary session on ‘The body in/and international relations’ at the 8th Pan-European Conference on International Relations in Warsaw.


The Book of Life - Brain and Body - Zone of Civilization

There was a time when I understood International Political Economy (IPE) to mean ‘bodies of thought’ (realism, liberalism, Marxism, etc.) and so, not knowing which body to have, I tried each of them on for size. Realism didn’t fit (too tight); liberalism felt wrong (unethically-sourced materials); Marxism looked good (but I lacked the discipline to maintain it). Social constructivism suited my friends and felt pretty comfortable, so this was the body I decided to have. As a social constructivist, I did a lot of work on ideas (‘discourse’) and thought a lot about other bodies of thought. But what I didn’t do was to engage in thought about bodies. Bodies didn’t seem to happen in IPE; they appeared to exist somewhere else entirely, to be accessed only via metaphor (as in the above description) but always somewhere ‘over there’, never as the living, breathing stuff of the discipline. Bodies – or so I assumed – were off the cards.

In other contexts, though, I was thinking a lot about bodies: from the personal (‘will my body be able to produce another body, a child?’) to the professional (‘do I under-perform in job interviews because I gesticulate wildly when nervous?’) and the political, too (‘the government should de-criminalise the sale of sexual services’). Indeed, while I was writing a PhD and then monograph about states and markets – globalisation, economic development and social justice in the Irish Republic – it was bodies that I loved talking, reading, arguing about. I just didn’t see them as ‘IPE’.

In fact, bodies had been there all along; I hadn’t seen them because I hadn’t been looking.

There was, of course, a long-standing ‘body’ of IPE scholarship – feminist scholarship – for whom bodies not only mattered but were the very starting-point of political economic analysis. As I began to read (and take seriously) this scholarship, the international political economy shifted in front of me. Bodies started popping up everywhere. Globalisation? Bodies. Economic development? Bodies. Social justice? Bodies. They appeared in all of these old spaces but, more than this, pointed to vibrant new sites and terrains. Where once ‘the economy’ had represented the formal and monochrome sphere of production and exchange, V. Spike Peterson’s ground-breaking book, A Critical Rewriting of Global Political Economy painted in rich colour the ‘reproductive economy’ – the informal, private sphere of domestic, emotional, erotic and caring labour. Gillian Youngs’ Political Economy, Power and the Body allowed me to imagine the international political economy not as some abstract realm of ‘states and markets’ but rather as being produced by, and productive of, embodied human lives. And work on commercial sex by feminist scholars such as Anna Agathangelou, Kamala Kempadoo and Julia O’Connell Davidson further helped me to think about the ‘macro’ level of global power relations and the ‘micro’ level of individual bodies as co-constituted, and intimately so.

Statue (Neths)

Methodologically, too, feminists called for IPE to be more embodied – for, as Jan Jindy Pettman writes: “body politics [are] not available for critique in disciplines practiced as dis-embodied, in the absence of bodies, both of the writers and of their subjects”. My work on queer sexual economies has sought to build upon and contribute towards this agenda by considering how queer lives, bodies and identities might be rendered more visible in the study of globalisation and capitalism whilst also considering the place of queer theories and methodologies in/and IPE. In practice, this has involved talking a lot with other people about bodies – not just the body in some kind of abstract, detached sense, but actual, material bodies, including my own.

Queer scholarship – which I now find fits me best – encourages reflection not only on processes of knowledge production but also on the subject-position of ‘the academic’, seeking (if not always succeeding) to radically disrupt the boundaries between the researcher and the researched and reminding us that if the international political economy is embodied then so, too, is the international political economist. When embarking on my research on queer sex work in London and Amsterdam, I decided that to try to trouble such boundaries would be a pretty good starting-point to take: that is, I wanted to explicitly treat the body not only as an object of enquiry but as central to my status as an enquiring subject.

I should immediately add, however, that I did not take this to its logical extreme – although there are a number of scholars who have engaged directly in sex work for their research. For a whole variety of intersecting reasons – practical, ethical and personal – this was not an approach I was prepared to adopt myself. Instead, my research primarily took the form of loosely structured interviews with sex workers in London and Amsterdam and, as part of this process, I found that I was comfortable to talk about, and reflect upon, my own corporeality. Where it felt appropriate in interviews – and this was by no means always the case, as I shall discuss below – I allowed myself to talk both about specific bodily experiences (including profoundly visceral ones, such as having a child) and, more broadly, about my own sense of, and relationship with, embodiment. This was something of an experiment – I had certainly not learned to talk about fat thighs and hangovers during my research methods training – but I quickly found that this body-talk both helped to produce, and was itself a product of, those interviews that went ‘well’.

To put this into context, I had found it extremely difficult to secure interviews – I did sixty in total, but had contacted literally hundreds of escorts – in part because of the illicit and often illegal nature of sex work, with many sex workers not prepared to take the risk of speaking with someone else (particularly an academic) about their work and lives. Of course, I guaranteed all interviewees complete confidentiality, and was careful to ensure that the background, purpose, methodological and ethical approval processes of the research were explained in detail from the start. But, for those people who did agree to speak with me, there was inevitably an initial sense of disconnect between the respective subject-positions that we occupied (researcher/researched; academic/sex worker; and so on). What I found, however, was that to recognise both of our existence as embodied subjects – to acknowledge explicitly the elephant in the room that I had a body, too – enabled us to occupy a shared discursive space within and through which we could discuss a whole variety of different levels, experiences and forms of embodiment (intimate, stigmatised, transforming, commodified, and so on).

London Pride 2009 - Sex Workers of the World Unite

Part of my justification for this kind of approach was political, for sex workers have all too often been constructed as bodies and bodies alone: they have been understood as objectified bodies, exploited bodies, commodified bodies, deviant bodies, diseased bodies, and so on. (I have long been struck with how frequently and interchangeably the phrases ‘to sell your body’ and ‘to sell yourself’ are used to describe commercial sexual exchange). The last thing I wanted to do, therefore, was to reproduce such discourses – which I feel are objectifying and de-humanising in and of themselves – by subjecting only the interviewees’ bodies to a feminist gaze. In so doing, and drawing on the auto-ethnographic approach of scholars such as Elina Penttinen, I wanted to challenge the perpetuation of the public/private dichotomy that underpins not only the content but also the methodology of so much contemporary IPE.

At least, this was my intention. What I hadn’t bargained for – and I hadn’t bargained for it at a personal, political or practical level – was that I might frequently want to be disembodied. I hadn’t anticipated that I might not want to be present as a ‘body’ or be feminised in this way; I certainly hadn’t thought that I might want to retreat to the safety of being an honorary Enlightenment Man. But, on occasion, this is exactly what I sought to do. For example, although I was invited on a number of occasions to engage in participant observation (by attending a booking, watching a live webcam show, and so on), I hastily turned these offers down. Although I articulated this, and justified it to myself, in terms of ethical and legal issues (I did not have approval from the University to undertake such research), the simple fact was that I felt extremely uncomfortable with the idea of moving beyond the level of talk. This was not so much because I thought that seeing actual bodies or bodies-in-action might trouble or offend me but rather that I did not want to become visible as a body – albeit an observing body – in the way that participant observation would have required me to. I realised – and this was not without a strong sense of ethical discomfort – that, for all of my desire to renegotiate a variety of substantive and methodological boundaries, I wanted bodies – and, in particular, my own body – to remain firmly secured within the linguistic, not material, realm.

This desire to remain disembodied was further compounded by an issue that I had not really prepared myself for: that of plain old sexual harassment. The possibility that I might be verbally or physically sexually harassed had been raised from the start by the University Ethics Committee who, quite rightly, were above all concerned with my personal safety when undertaking the interviews. I had developed a number of strategies for dealing with this (always meet interviewees in a public location, always make sure someone knows where you are, and so on) and it is important to note that the only time I felt in any way at risk was when I had arrived back at my home town and would walk, in the dark, from the train to my car. However, what I hadn’t anticipated or prepared myself for was that there might be any ambiguity over the reason for and nature of the interviews – I had, after all, taken great pains to clearly identify myself as a researcher and to specify in detail the aims and methodology of my research from the start. But a number of interviewees confessed that – even after all of my disclaimers – they had wondered whether I had ‘really’ wanted to book them and whether all of this (including a brief feature in the Times Higher Education Supplement about my research) was some kind of incredibly elaborate ruse.

Although such suspicions were, for the most part, quickly dispelled (using one’s University email account would be an odd way to make a booking, for instance), there were still times where I was offered ‘free’ bookings, where sexual services were demanded from me as ‘payment’ for an interview, or where the interview request was taken as an invitation to send me sexually explicit images or texts. While I obviously did not meet with anyone who propositioned me in this way, there were also times that – during the interviews themselves – I was explicitly sexualised and/or objectified (for example, without any prompting or indeed information about my sexual history or preferences, one interviewee decided that I was dearly in need of hands-on sexual counselling and that he was expertly qualified to provide this). I found such encounters quite difficult to deal with, in part because I had very little experience in coping with overt sexual harassment from my ‘daily life’, in part because I understood and respected that the culture of the sex industry is highly sexualised (so that such propositions are a ‘normal’, indeed necessary, part of it), but mainly because I wanted to remain categorically and unambiguously disembodied. So, I employed a number of strategies to achieve this, not just in terms of ‘please don’t send me any more explicit photographs’ but also by restating and reinforcing my own subject position as an academic (including in terms of being accountable to the University Ethics Committee).

Having completed the interviews – and now being in the process of writing them up – I am reminded, moreover, of how my position as an academic involves further layers of disembodiment – and of the power relations that are produced by, and productive of, this. As I listen back to the recordings of the interviews, I am intrigued and also somewhat embarrassed to hear the sounds of my own body captured on the tape: my voice, fast-paced and unevenly-pitched, my stuttering, the coughs, the laughs … All of these are signs of my inability to perform authoritative masculinity and yet, as I go through the process of transforming speech into the written word, all of this can be erased. As writer, I get to decide which words get repeated (I can edit out all of my own spoken words if I choose to) and, in so doing, I can remove any traces of my own body (indeed, my very presence at the interview – I can literally write myself out of the text).

Indeed, it is customary for the author to remark upon the physical appearance of an interviewee (albeit in a ‘non-identifying’ way), but it is rare to find detailed descriptions of the author him/herself. By disembodying ourselves in this way – by re-locating ourselves in the position of ‘subject’, as the one who gets to see, to hear, to describe – we can remove ourselves as an object of enquiry (whereas the interviewee, by contrast, becomes that which is seen, heard, and described). Indeed, I don’t know if I have the courage for it to be any other way. For, while it may have felt appropriate to discuss the experience of child-birth (or hangovers, or fat thighs) during the interviews themselves, to write about all of this – to immortalise my own body in the written word, and in the ‘academic voice’, no less – is another thing entirely. As a feminist scholar, then, I actively seek to theorise, research and write the body – and yet it is disembodiment (or, more accurately, my own disembodiment) that, it seems, remains a precondition for precisely this endeavour.

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2 thoughts on “(Dis)Embodied Methodology in International Political Economy

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