The Risky (But Critical) Business of Seeing Politics, Even Without Film

The fourth contribution in our symposium on Sophie Harman’s Seeing Politics, from Craig Murphy. Craig is the Betty Freyhof Johnson ’44 Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College. He is past chair of the Academic Council on the United Nations System, past president of the International Studies Association, and recipient of the Association’s Distinguished Senior Scholar Award in International Political Economy for his historical studies of global governance and economic development. Craig has published relatively widely on US policy toward the developing world, the economic debates within the UN, the UN Development Programme, the ISO (the International Organization for Standardization), and the co-evolution of industrial capitalism and international institutions. His current project (with JoAnne Yates, Distinguished Professor of MIT’s Sloan School of Management) focuses on private international regulatory standard setting. Their book, Engineering Rules: global standard setting since 1880, was published this year by Johns Hopkins University Press.


When I first heard about Sophie Harman’s “Pili” project, I immediately thought of the first lines of Joshua Goldstein’s 2001 book, War and Gender:

Recently, I discovered a list of unfinished research projects, which I had made fifteen years ago at the end of graduate school. About ten lines down is “gender and war,” with the notation “most interesting of all; will ruin career – wait until tenure.”

The thought was still with me as I read Harman’s brilliant Seeing Politics, not only due to the academic risks to an early career researcher of undertaking a film, but also because Harman’s book forcefully reminded me of how unusually difficult, and academically risky, similar projects using traditional media can be. Therefore, my comments focus what Seeing Politics reminds us about the undervalued and often deeply misunderstood practice of doing traditional intensive fieldwork, especially throughout the global South.

It’s fundamentally important, even if you are ‘just’ seeing (or describing) something.

Harman gives us a wonderfully detailed understanding of what film makers do: They allow us to see and hear political actors and action in their physical and social contexts by carefully selecting words and images from an over-abundant universe of raw material. They find ways to (re)-present, truthfully, the common characteristics of many individual, sometimes by creating aggregate characters. Often, producers and directors must provide anonymity to the people whose words viewers will hear, yet, at the same those speakers are given truthful faces. It is a complex things whose success can certainly be judged, but not perhaps by using only the tools that all social scientists have developed.

Nevertheless, these are also all things done by scholars who provide verbal pictures of politics in disadvantaged communities based on observation, participant observation, interviewing, note taking, and writing. Among the political scientists at the small American college where I teach are people who have painted word pictures of the forgotten young cadres of a failed revolution in a rising world power, prostitutes servicing the troops of (and transforming the strategic relations with) an imperial ally, democracy activists whisked from their authoritarian native countries by disobedient UN officials, religious orders providing basic services that governments fail to provide, African health activists using Western NGO’s branding and funds to support a fundamentally different, local agendas, and encamped refugees creating permanent property rights despite their supposed illegality under the global refugee regime.

All of these colleagues have, at times, been chastised by a majority of their senior colleagues for devoting so much attention the mere experience of politics in the countries they study rather than developing explanations that are, supposedly, the sine qua non of “real” social science. The next generation of junior colleagues with similar research programs will be able to crib from Seeing Politics in order to respond persuasively when such arguments come up again. After all, if we are going to be honest about what is the new, surprising and significant knowledge, the stories of the women who make up Pili, and in the verbal pictures provided by traditional field research, we need to revaluate the value of “merely” describing and seeing.

It’s much harder.

Film making (and traditional field work), especially that done in collaboration with disadvantaged subjects in the global South, is much more difficult than most of the research work done by most of our colleagues in international relations or political science. It takes longer. The necessary lead times can be ridiculously long and many project ideas simply don’t pan out. Researchers have to develop a host of complicated skills that students of (say) voting behavior or events data need never encounter. There are linguistic and cultural skills, of course, but, as Seeing Politics makes abundantly clear, there are also complicated administrative and human skills, dealing with different legal systems, and understanding the unwritten rules that are even more significant governors of foreign research communities in most places around the world. There is a joke that have heard in more than one university setting that slightly-burned out ethnographically-oriented political scientists make the best department chairs or deans: They actually know how to hire people, meet payrolls, manage teams, keep the supply cabinet full, and deal with complicated bureaucracies and powerful clientelist networks.  Most of traditional field researchers will not have Harman’s knowledge of how to import hundreds of kilos of valuable equipment, but the rest of the management work detailed in Seeing Politics will be familiar to them. I, for example, understood what Harman was talking about when she discussed her strategies for assuring that multiple copies of the film could find their ways from Tanzania by different routes. (I was jealous of today’s miniaturization as I remembered the three identical bags of largely hand-copied notes that I’d made in Ghana at the end of my first field study in the 1970s—an investigation of the views about the International Cocoa Agreement of nearly-landless cocoa farmers deeply exploited by the government’s marketing board system: men and women very similar to the many women whose voices we hear in “Pili.”)

Harman says less than she could about some of things that make such field research so difficult. She is very clear about the strength of the moral compass that she and similar scholars must have, and about how essential it is for them to be unusually reflective and mindful. It is not that these researchers are, in some way, morally “better” than their colleagues who do not try to understand and work with the world’s disadvantaged: it is simply that they have had to develop skills that their colleagues have never had to develop. The moral compasses of all successful field researchers may not point in the right direction, but they do have to be reliable, consistent, and always available. What Harman could have said more about is the inevitable ways in which the fraught, imperfect work of trying to represent groups of the world’s most disadvantaged takes a psychological toll: it is truly terrible to know that the world is as cruel as it is, and it is not easy to adjust and readjust to a world of students, colleagues, and friends who have no sense that that is the case.

Real solidarity is much more difficult now than ever before.

When I was preparing for my first field study one of my teachers, Egbert de Vries (the founding rector of ISS in the Hague) asked, “How many real friends does your family have whose income is more than 10 times what yours is? How many who have less than a tenth of what you have?” He asked the question because the people I was studying (what we now might call “$1-a day poor”) were making about one-tenth of my university’s comprehensive fee and quite a bit of research suggested that friendships developed across income gaps that wide. Africa is much more prosperous today than it was in the 1970s, but the gap between the world’s poorest people and the average student (let alone the average professor) in the United States, the Netherlands, or the United Kingdom is now much greater than it was then—at least five or six times greater.  The gap between Sophie Harman and her British team of filmmakers was vast and difficult to overcome. De Vries argued, based on 50 years of experience that went back to studies he did in colonial Java, that when the gaps got too large it became all but impossible to see the richer person with whom one worked as anything but a potential source of money, or to see the poorer person as your equal. “Pili” (the film itself) and the sometimes painful discussion of these issues in Seeing Politics demonstrate that Harman and her collaborators did overcome these gaps, but they remain a terrible, and increasing, threat to the success of films like “Pili,” or of a great deal of traditional field-based research. But the very fact of the increasing difficulty of such work makes it all the more important.

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