Rejoinder: For Whom Do We Study International Politics?

Sophie HarmanThe last post in our symposium on Sophie Harman’s Seeing Politics, from the author herself. Sophie Harman is Professor of International Politics at Queen Mary, University of London. Sophie’s research focuses on visual method and the politics of seeing, global health politics, African agency, and the politics of conspicuously invisible women. She has pursued these interests through projects on Global Health Governance, the World Bank and HIV/AIDS, partnerships in health in Africa, the 2014/15 Ebola response, the governance of HIV/AIDS, and her recent film project, Pili, for which she was nominated for a BAFTA as in the category of Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director, or Producer. Apart from Seeing Politics, Sophie’s recent publications include ‘Why It Must Be a Feminist Global Health Agenda’ in The Lancet (with Sara Davies, Rashida Manjoo, Maria Tanyag and Clare Wenham), and ‘Governing Ebola: Between Global Health and Medical Humanitarianism’ in Globalizations (with Clare Wenham(. She is also a Co-Editor of Review of International Studies, and the recipient of numerous grants and awards.

The full collection of contributions to the Seeing Politics symposium is now accessible here.


 

Big Pili

When things get a bit much at work it is not uncommon to hide in the loo. When you are shooting a film scene in fields without a nearby loo, everyone demanding something from you (new, better umbrellas to shelter from the heat, more money for the field manager, colder water), you find yourself escaping for a pee in a pineapple field. It was during a trip to a pineapple field that the thought occurred to me, I wonder what notable Professors of International Relations (IR) around the world are doing right now? Quickly followed by, what on earth am I doing? Very few people in the field of IR seem to think what I’m doing is real research, why didn’t I just write a book about the 2014/15 Ebola outbreak? I’m peeing in a pineapple field: no-one is going to take this work seriously. Based on these five thoughtful and generous reflections on Seeing Politics, I was clearly wrong.

Not only is this type of work taken seriously, there seems to be genuine hunger or, at the very least, curiosity, for new, visual methods, and an honesty to the politics of co-production among academic researchers. As the excellent contributors to this Symposium clearly show, tensions and questions persist over the use of visual politics, narrative, co-production, representation, knowledge, and disciplinary boundaries that sit uneasily within not just International Relations, but academia more broadly. What is refreshing about the five interventions is a willingness to not dodge the discomfort in these questions. I am so grateful to each contributor for reading Seeing Politics in such detail, really engaging in what I was trying to do, and offering new insights that I had not even thought about. I am especially grateful for each of them taking time during busy periods of their academic life: each contribution was written in the midst of PhD reviews, marking season, research Directorships, and of course their own research and writing projects. Thank you Paul Kirby, editor of the Disorder of Things. n the Q&A that followed a screening of Pili at the European International Studies Association (EISA) in Barcelona 2017, Pablo suggested that he sort of wished I wasn’t writing a book about the film, so that it could just stand by itself. I don’t know if he’s changed his mind, but I am flattered he suggested the idea of this symposium and grateful for his patience and advice and for making this happen.

Several themes emerged across the five essays: narrative and story-telling, vocalisation and visualisation, experiencing and explaining politics, and not only why and how we research international politics, but who the research is for. Laura J. Shepherd’s introduction to the symposium begins with the importance of story-telling in the Western Anglophone. Story-telling is not limited to the Western Anglophone (something literary criticism is starting to recognise) but is a fundamental social and political practice throughout the world that helps make sense of the world and how it came to be. This can range from the stories out families tell us about our history, to what states and citizens tell themselves about their own history, to how we tell stories about our research and understanding of the world, and how stories and narratives contradict and challenge each other. Stories inform our identity, how we make sense of the world, and how we relate to each other. Given the importance of narrative and the stories we tell, see, and shape our world view, and what I was trying to do with Pili, I could have made more of the literature and debates in this aspect of IR. Perhaps. The cowards reply to Shepherd here would be that I was exhausted with ‘turns’ when situating the book: the problem in writing a book that does not fit within Shepherd’s ‘disciplining of the discipline’ is how and where to position the book. I had an unwieldy chapter 1 where debates on narrative, story-telling, and auto-ethnography all got chopped.

The more/less cowardly answer is a fear of the palimpsest. As Shepherd insightfully notes the book shows how making a film is a complicated endeavour and ‘Making a researcher is similarly so, and that, for me, is the text that emerges as a palimpsest.’ In many ways for all that Seeing Politics is about film, co-production, and knowledge, it can fundamentally be read as a book about research, researchers, and the stories we tell ourselves and write. I have an uneasy relationship with this palimpsest, in particular the problem of erasure inherent within it: that the palimpsest of the book does not erase the stories of Pili. It is a strength of Shepherd’s essay that in one sentence she hits the biggest source of my unease: the palimpsest is not just the book, as audiences for the film grow and people want to learn more about it in audience Q&As, marketing, and promotion, the voices and narrative that were so important to the film risk erasure to the bigger narrative of the politics of seeing how the film was made. Audiences ask me how ‘Pili’ is (despite her being a character), interviewers want to know why and how the film was made, and the visual narrative of Pili once the film was released is the face of Bello Rashid (‘Pili’) on posters with Director Leanne Welham and I on red carpets, answering questions as to what ‘Pili’ is doing now.

Q&As and responses to both the book and film, suggest audiences want a happy ending. They want the lives of women such as ‘Pili’ to improve. They want me to have a close and ongoing relationship with the women in film. They want the women in the film to show some sort of pleasure, or worse, gratitude, for being in the film. Craig Murphy pinpoints the difficulty with such happy endings. First, experiencing the world as it is leads to seeing some of the worst forms of inequality that exist, so packaging a happy ending narrative is wholly misleading to audiences, however they much they may want it. Second, experiencing the world and explaining it from this basis necessitates an honest reflection on the different relationships we have, both as researchers and as people in our everyday lives. As Murphy states, ‘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’ – in many ways in writing Seeing Politics this is what I was trying to do. Finally, in a world of visual representation there is the happy ending we see – in the case of Pili, pictures of joy from the cast and I at the 2016 and 2018 Tanzania screenings, the fun I had in attending the BAFTAs – and the toll and aspect of people’s lives we don’t see. Murphy suggests he would have liked me to have reflected more on the psychological toll of research of this kind. The toll of the project resulted in me losing more skin pigment, eating too much, jolting awake at night (only in the first month back from Tanzania), writing Seeing Politics and then realising I should probably talk to someone (big thanks to those colleagues who sensed this may be a good idea before I did, with kind and well-timed ‘you okay hon?’ you know who you are Tim, James, and Kim). I deleted the previous sentence seven times as I don’t want this to be the focus of the project or have to discuss it on a future roundtable (I’m not a trained therapist or counsellor, I find it quite boring): I kept it in as I know others face similar dilemmas, and this should be destigmatised, especially for postgraduate researchers. More substantively, I am mindful of how my own well-being is linked with ongoing relationships with the lives of others long after a project has been completed who don’t want to share. As with my fear of the palimpsest, I don’t want Seeing Politics to become about me.

This latter point, highlights one of Jo Vearey’s key responses to the book, there are some voices missing in all this: what do the women think of the film, the book, and the whole process? I can guess; I can draw on their feedback from the 2018 Tanzanian premiere in Dar es Salaam; I can give you the limited responses I get via a third party production assistant/translator from time to time. But really, I don’t know, I haven’t seen the women and thus spoken directly to them for three years. The main reason I have not seen them in three years is the film has not made any money for them: as chapter 2 sets out in detail, no money was promised and expectations were managed, but hope and expectations still exist. I don’t want to disappoint them or let them down (maybe Murphy does have a point that perhaps I should have said more on this): I don’t want to have to defend myself against any accusation that I lied and have kept the money for myself. If asked about the process of making the film, I suspect some of the women would tell me what they think I want to hear or limit their response depending on what they need or want from me, and a handful will tell me what I don’t want to hear. Similar to Vearey’s reflection, this is an addition to the book’s longlist of discomforts: similar to the book, I want to confront this discomfort. My hope is to run a short follow up project for the women to reflect directly on the process five to ten years after production ended. I have some ideas as to how to do this – film and photo elicitation, working with a third party researcher – however as Vearey’s response clearly highlights doing so brings me back to one of the core issues explored in the book: how to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable tension between intent and process. Substantively, it is not my intention that matters: it’s up to the co-producers of the film – the cast, the crew, the community of women from which the story was drawn – and the interest and value they place in such a project.

Upon his death in May 2019, Binyavanga Wainaina’s satirical essay ‘How to write about Africa’ was shared across social media. The response to Wainaina’s death was similar to many talented artists, sadness at the loss of life, particularly so young, but also a pleasure in re-reading or re-listening to their work. Re-reading ‘How to write about Africa’ I was struck by the sentence:

The Modern African is a fat man who steals and works in the visa office, refusing to give work permits to qualified Westerners who really care about Africa. He is an enemy of development, always using his government job to make it difficult for pragmatic and good-hearted expats to set up NGOs or Legal Conservation Areas. (Wainaina, 2005)

No-one wants to tick one of the items on Wainaina’s list and I thank Simukai Chigudu for kindly not pointing this out in his discussion of chapters 4 and 5 on gatekeeping politics, especially given the lengthy discussion on visas and permits in chapter 4. Chigudu’s reflection on gatekeeping in the book is perhaps more generous in suggesting it serves as a reminder to study states, particularly African states, ethnographically given the diffuse and at times competing units of government. I concur here, but would also extend this argument for investigating various forms of gatekeeping. As the book explores, gatekeeping depends on the intersection between formal political processes and informal practices at both the state level in Tanzania and within the hierarchy of global film governance. To understand and see such gatekeeping, you need to engage with the gate.

A theme that runs across Chigudu’s essay is one of change in story-telling in and of Africa. Chigudu’s shift from a reflection on the impact of new and modern technology, most notably mobile phones and smartphones, to Black Panther is particularly revealing. Both, in different ways, have been highlighted as markers of change in perceptions of the continent, stories, and the stories that are told and seen. Both, in different ways, are subject to the same old questions of access, use, types of representation, and ownership of such technologies and stories. These two positions are well summarised by Jelani Cobb’s 2018 essay on the film, where he outlines ‘Africa—or, rather, “Africa”—is a creation of a white world and the literary, academic, cinematic, and political mechanisms that it used to give mythology the credibility of truth’ yet the importance of Black Panther, and Wakanda specifically, is how ‘It is a redemptive counter-mythology’ (Cobb, 2018).

Wakanda may be located on the map in central Africa, feature a diverse range of black actors from around the world, and draw on themes of colonialism, coloniality, and Afrofutures, but it is a western, American film. It was produced by and makes money for Marvel Studios and Walt Disney Pictures (IMDb, 2019), and the ‘hero’ ends up committing to the liberal internationalist cause at the UN General Assembly. This may not matter; when I left a packed London cinema on Valentine’s Day in 2018, there was an absolute sizzle of positivity among the predominantly younger audience (and me, who doesn’t love to suspend their critical mind and just enjoy militarized rhinos?), ‘this changes everything’ I overheard one young black man say excitedly to his friends. This points to an important question that someone asked me at the beginning of this project, who is the audience for this film? And which audience matters? As chapter 5 explores in the book, as Pili progressed to sales and distribution, this question changed from who is the audience, to which audience matters, to which audience counts. In film the audience that matters is the audience that makes money; ‘this changes everything’ is true of Black Panther not only in how it makes audiences feel and think, but the potential impact on Hollywood: a film set in Africa, with a majority black cast, made US$1.344 billion as of May 2018 at the Box Office (IMDb, 2019). As Chigudu alludes to, Black Panther in many ways is emblematic of the tech revolution in Africa: a source of promise, joy, optimism, global connection, new opportunities for representation, under western ownership, control, and profit.

Western ownership, control, and profit is a theme that runs throughout chapter 5 of the book, and is an issue drawn out by Dean Cooper-Cunningham’s point on ‘giving’ voice and the relationship between vocalization and visualization. Voices exist, people are seen throughout their lives: the politics is the context in which they are seen, how their voices are amplified, who amplifies them, who ‘gives’ and who takes space. As Cooper-Cunningham explores, part of the book shows and reflects the inequalities of who enters and controls entry into political spaces, be it the global response to HIV/AIDS or film production and cinema audiences. This point reminds me of bell hooks’ argument of the second wave feminist movement, wherein the white bourgeois women who dominated the movement shaped the spaces and ways women of colour, particularly black women, were involved, with white women concluding ‘that black women need not contribute to developing theory. We were to provide the colorful life stories to document and validate the prevailing set of theoretical assumptions’ (hooks, 2000; 33). hooks’ argument has important relevance to academic research, gatekeeping, and the role of different partners in co-production practices and how these roles are shaped and given space. As Seeing Politics suggests, this is about what knowledge counts, who counts, and, as Cooper-Cunningham insightfully reflects, who ‘gives’ or allows this voice or knowledge, and the politics therein.

I conclude this reply with one of Cooper-Cunningham’s final points on the book and Murphy’s initial insight on the distinction between experiencing politics and explaining politics as arbitrary markers of what defines ‘real’ social science. I began this project thinking about who or what my research is for. I had become slightly lost in the academic system, being critical of performance indicators while simultaneously being motived (and subsequently disappointed) by them, forgetting why I loved my job, becoming bored and frustrated by what I was reading and writing. I had my pineapple field moments and the book reflects a lot of the difficulty and discomfort involved with a co-produced project: but I regained a sense of interest and purpose in my research, however uncomfortable, by remembering the question that first got me interested in international politics, posed by Cooper-Cunningham: for whom do we study international politics?

References

Cobb, Jelani. (2018). ‘“Black Panther” and the Invention of “Africa”’ The New Yorker https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/black-panther-and-the-invention-of-africa (accessed August 2019)

hooks, bell. (2000). Feminist theory: from margin to center London: Pluto Press.

IMDb. (2019). ‘Black Panther’ https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1825683/releaseinfo?ref_=ttco_ql_2 (accessed August 2019).

Wainaina, Binyavanga. (2005). ‘How to write about Africa’ Granta https://granta.com/how-to-write-about-africa/ (accessed August 2019)

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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.

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Just Research? (Un)Seeing Politics in a Complex World

Jo VeareyThe third post in our symposium on Sophie Harman’s Seeing Politics, from Jo Vearey. Jo is an Associate Professor and Director of the African Centre for Migration & Society, University of the Witwatersrand, where she is involved in designing and coordinating research programmes, teaching, and supervising graduate students. Jo is involved in multiple international partnership, is Vice-Chair of the global Migration, Health, and Development Research Initiative (MHADRI), and is an Honorary Researcher at the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Edinburgh. Jo is a South African National Research Foundation rated researcher and, supported by a Wellcome Trust Investigator Award, established the Migration and Health Project Southern Africa (maHp). With a commitment to social justice, Jo’s research explores ways to generate and communicate knowledge to improve responses to migration, health and wellbeing in the southern African region. Fundamental to her research practice is Jo’s participation in a range of policy processes at international, regional, national and local levels. Jo is exploring the role of public engagement in the development of appropriate policy responses, including the use of mixed methods approaches that involve various publics in the co-production and application of knowledge to affect change.


Sophie Harman has produced an excellent, accessible text within which she shares her reflections on the opportunities and tensions associated with a research process that draws on feminist research praxis, engages with efforts to democratise research, and aims to work with participants to co-produce knowledge. In Seeing Politics, Sophie presents a comprehensive review of the potential of film as a feminist method, and reflects on her work with 80 women in Tanzania that culminated in the co-production of a narrative feature film that shares their stories of living with HIV. The resultant film – Pili – has been shown at international film festivals and received awards and, as Sophie highlights, is the first time that a co-produced narrative film has been applied as a feminist research method in the field of International Relations (IR). Seeing Politics is a book about method and about a justice-driven approach that attempts to ‘make visible the invisible’ lived experiences of women living with HIV in Tanzania, notably their navigation of formal and informal everyday politics and how this intersects with their health and wellbeing, and with gendered experiences of discrimination and abuse. But it is also about a lot more.

Knowledge Politics

Seeing Politics forces us to see a different form of politics: the politics of knowledge. Whilst this is, obviously, implicit throughout the book, we should more explicitly reflect on how ‘the visual’ as a research method and research output ‘makes visible’ the discomforts of knowledge politics, namely: who is telling whose story and for what purpose? When we claim to ‘make visible the invisible’, who are we positioning as invisible and what does it mean to do so? In what context? Is it for us (the researcher) to determine who needs to be made visible? For whose benefit? What are the implications of making people and places visible? Such questions force us to engage in our own research praxis and confront uncomfortable questions about the politics of knowledge, and the role of scholarship and the academy when engaging in justice-driven research.  These are by no means new or novel questions and an extensive body of literature exists that I won’t in any way attempt to summarise here. These long established calls for democratising, decolonising and humanizing research are attracting a new generation of indigenous researchers from multiple disciplinary perspectives who are productively engaging with these tensions, re-engaging with decolonial approaches to research methods and praxis and challenging the status quo in international partnerships.

Sophie highlights that the methodology outlined in Seeing Politics is about a commitment to ensuring what Sophie and her colleague William Brown have previously framed as ‘African agency’, an approach to research that aims “to take African politics, actions, preferences, strategies and purposes seriously to get beyond the tired tropes of an Africa that is victimised, chaotic, violent and poor” (Brown and Harman 2013, 1-2). This is a welcome imperative but, as a framing proposed by two white, British academics based in the UK, what does this – as an academic project in its own right – mean for the idea of ‘African agency’?  At its core, I would argue that Seeing Politics is in fact about precisely these tensions and contradictions that many of us experience in our research praxis. The book itself becomes a helpful tool for recognising and responding to the discomfort we feel of being a researcher and the way we feel about our own positions and complicity in the extractive nature of research. I see how I can use the book in my teaching as a way to generate exactly this form of reflection.

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A Political Ethnography of the Visual

4379-Simukai_Chigudu_(423586)-1The second post in our symposium on Sophie Harman’s Seeing Politics. This contribution is from Simukai Chigudu, who is Associate Professor of African Politics at the University of Oxford. Simukai is principally interested in the social politics of inequality in Africa, which he examines using disease, public health, violence, and social suffering as organising frameworks for both historical and contemporary case studies. His forthcoming book entitled The Political Life of an Epidemic: Cholera, Crisis and Citizenship in Zimbabwe (Cambridge University Press, 2020) is a study of the social and political causes and consequences of Zimbabwe’s catastrophic cholera outbreak in 2008/09, the worst in African history. He has published articles in a number of peer-reviewed scholarly journals including African AffairsGlobal Health GovernanceHealth EconomicsPolicy and Law, the International Feminist Journal of PoliticsHealth Policy and PlanningSeizure: The European Journal of EpilepsyFeminist Africa, and The Lancet. Prior to academia, Simukai was a medical doctor in the UK’s National Health Service where he worked for three years.


Political science as a discipline, including the branch of international relations, has been slow to grapple with the AIDS crisis. It seems that the HIV-AIDS issue has been conceived of as too private, too biological, too microlevel and sociological, too behavioral and too cultural to attract the attention of many political scientists.

Catherine Boone & Jake Batsell, Africa Today, 2001

It is tempting – and certainly not altogether misguided – to think that in our contemporary digital age, the ubiquitous infrastructures of the Internet, of mobile phones, and of cheap audio and video technologies have radically democratised economies of representation in various (global) public spheres. After all, it is often claimed, mobile phones have profoundly transformed how we acquire and exchange information. In Africa, where most have gone from no phone to mobile phone (‘leapfrogging’), many have believed that improved access to telecommunication would enhance everything from entrepreneurialism, to democratisation, to service delivery, all the while ushering in socio-economic development (Archambault 2016). As part of this package of social transformation through innovation, techno-utopians praise communication technologies and social media for opening up important avenues for popular oral and visual circuits of storytelling.

But how far can these circuits of storytelling go? Where do they meet their limits? What are the structures that enable and inhibit storytelling in public arenas? Sophie Harman’s Seeing Politics offers a fascinating exploration of these questions through her foray into the commercial world of narrative film production. Film is both a microcosm and a macrocosm of the intimate but also vexed interrelationships between technology, economy and the politics of storytelling. Harman shows in riveting detail how a blind optimism in capitalism’s logic of progress and innovation belies the socio-economic structures, patronage politics and gatekeeping practices that govern the making, dissemination and consumption of narrative films.

A simple illustration. The visual landscape of representations of Africa in narrative film, Harman argues, remains largely defined by Hollywood cinematic tropes of ‘“the dark continent” full of “tribal” conflict (Black Hawk Down), ruthless dictators (Last King of Scotland), inner-city violence (Tsotsi), genocide (Hotel Rwanda), government corruption and collusion with capitalist interests (The Constant Gardener), and resource plunder (Blood Diamond)’ (p. 34). Even Black Panther – and I say this cautiously as an enthusiastic Marvel fanboy – can only subvert these tropes through a computer-generated spectacle that, despite being a compelling comic-book movie, offers little by way of a textured and rich (dare I say real?) Africa while the prolific film-makers of Nollywood, Swahiliwood, and Bongo film industries simply can’t compete with the Hollywood behemoth.

Where might ‘we’ (taken here to mean a global audience) then see ordinary African people, in their diversity and uniqueness, reconfiguring and pluralising images of the continent? Harman’s debut film, Pili, is a place to start.

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Seeing Politics, Seeing the Self/Knowing Politics, Knowing the Self

The first contribution in a symposium on Sophie Harman’s Seeing Politics (McGill-QUeen’s University Press, 2019) (other symposia are also available). The symposium is today introduced by Disorder regular Laura Shepherd. Laura is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow and Professor of International Relations at Sydney University. Laura is also a Visiting Senior Fellow at the LSE Centre for Women, Peace and Security in London, UK. Her primary research focuses on the United Nations Security Council’s ‘Women, Peace and Security’ agenda. Laura is particularly interested in gender, security and violence, and she has strong interests in pedagogy and popular culture. Laura is author/editor of several books, including, most recently Gender, UN Peacebuilding and the Politics of Space (Oxford University Press, 2017) and Routledge Handbook of Gender & Security (edited with Caron Gentry and Laura Sjoberg; Routledge, 2019). Her work has been published in journals such as European Journal of International Relations, International Affairs, and International Feminist Journal of Politics. She tweets from @drljshepherd and blogs semi-regularly right here.

The contributions to the symposium will be collected at this link as they appear over the next weeks.


Stories have a privileged place in the communicative practices of Western Anglophone cultures; they are a way of learning, and of passing on learning. Sophie Harman’s book is motivated by the insight that the stories of Pili and other HIV-positive African women remain largely untold in scholarly and policy discourse on international politics. As Harman writes in the opening pages, ‘Their stories are instrumentalised for funding, political will, and campaigns but they are one-dimensional stories of success in adversity, educational and sanitised narratives, or morality tales of risk and redemption’.[i] Harman goes on to explain that the partiality of the stories that we tell is not unrelated to the methods that we use to conduct our investigations of world politics; a decolonial feminist perspective enables a different kind of seeing, wherein such ‘methods of seeing need to allow such women to see and represent themselves and to value the knowledge and co-contribution to the research process’.[ii] This sets the scene, so to speak, for the development of film-as-method.

Harman’s is not an uncontroversial intellectual undertaking. International Relations, Harman’s discipline and the discipline in which I also (somewhat uneasily) situate myself, seems a particularly disciplined discipline. The idea of a discipline (noun), in the academic sense, clearly derives from the verb: both relate to establishing clear boundaries between what is right and good (behaviour/research) and what is wrong and bad (behaviour/research); both have ways to correct transgression when an uninitiated (or resistant) person strays. We are trained to recognize the boundaries of our discipline and to stay carefully with them, and the artefacts and agents of International Relations police those boundaries furiously, both explicitly and implicitly.[iii] ‘Among other things, international relations students are quietly forbidden from looking for, let alone importing, valuable insights from art, fiction, and literary criticism’.[iv]  Yet – and thankfully – an ill-disciplined, dissident series of scholars have refused to be bound by such strictures and have delighted in music, photographs, sculptures, murals, novels, and films as ways of encountering, and presenting encounters with, world politics.[v]

Seeing Politics Harman

Harman’s book in some ways continues in the tradition of these scholarly works, exploring ‘the potential of film as method and scholarly output for seeing politics’.[vi] But Harman achieves much more than this. She deftly interweaves telling and showing, reading and seeing, to complicate both how we understand the empirical focus of her investigation – the lives of Pili and women like her – and how we approach and apprehend knowledge itself in our quest to better understand the practices of world politics, and she is centrally concerned with the story of her research – or rather, the stories, plural. Harman presents a many-layered narrative in Seeing Politics, drawing in her own research story, the stories of the women that she worked with, the stories of film-making, and stories about the broader political economy of media production, distribution, and consumption. As Harman explains, ‘[n]arrative feature film is an important method in capturing who speaks and who sees IR; however, it also provides an important insight into the relational aspect of knowledge production and consumption and the role of the researcher within this’.[vii] Within every story, there are multiple stories, and within those stories, worlds to tell. Harman writes with a remarkable sensitivity towards these stories, a sensitivity that I can only describe as an ethic, a mode of encountering the world and her own research as a social practice within that world. This research ethic, and mode of both encountering and producing knowledge, situates Seeing Politics as a different kind of intervention.

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On Situatedness, Knowledges and Absences: A Response to the Symposium on Decolonising Intervention

The final post in our symposium on Decolonising Intervention. A massive thanks to Lee for organising and editing; errors in this final part are mine.  If tweeting, please use #DecolonisingIntervention. The earlier posts can be seen here: my introduction, Marta’s response, Lee’s response, Amy’s response and Megan’s response. The whole book is available for free Open Access download here.


My sincere thanks to all the contributors to this symposium for reading the book and responding with such thoughtfulness, seriousness and robustness. I respect them all enormously as scholars and have learned a great deal from their own work – a learning process which continues through this symposium as well. Moreover, the space for deep reading, critical feedback, intellectual argument and reflection is something that the structures of the neoliberal academy increasingly accumulate against; my pleasure and gratitude is deepened by the knowledge that the contributors have all actively managed to hold the door open in spite of this.

My response to their contributions will principally focus on the questions they raise and points of contestation. However, I was happy to see that the basic argument and conclusion of the book – that intervention is intimately structured by relations of colonial difference – is one with which they appear to agree and find compelling as an explanation for the continuation of failure. A primary hope of mine in writing this up was that one could not read this book and look at intervention in post-conflict or ‘fragile’ states, and its various ‘implementation problems’, without this understanding in mind. Having done this work, I find it now very difficult to read assessments of post-conflict state-building or development practice that continue to reproduce various forms of technocratic fantasy about how exactly it is that institutions, polities and economies are ‘built’ or ‘improved’.

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This conclusion and the analysis supporting it has been reached through an engagement with the experiences and perspectives of intervention’s targets in Mozambique. Thus, the book is also concerned with how we study what we study in the field of International Relations – specifically how we cultivate what Niang deftly describes as the ‘value of uncanonical insights of subjects whose absence would otherwise give an incomplete account of the game of intervention’. The contributors had different reactions to this proposition and the way it was taken forward in the book, which I will look at below. Notwithstanding the challenges and complexities of this, I feel that if we are to practice a scholarship which is both more ‘scientific’ and more democratic, this kind of epistemic and methodological re-positioning of scholars vis-à-vis structures of power is absolutely critical. Continue reading

Is it Time to Abandon International Interventions and International Relations? A Response to Sabaratnam

This post is part of a symposium on Meera Sabaratnam’s Decolonising Intervention. Meera’s original post, with links to the other contributions, is here. If tweeting, please use #DecolonisingIntervention! [Photo selection – LJ]


Megan MackenzieMegan Mackenzie is an Associate Professor in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. Her research is broadly- and humbly- aimed at reducing and, eventually ending war; it bridges feminist theory, critical security studies, and critical/post development studies. Megan has contributed research on topics including sexual violence in war, truth and reconciliation commissions, military culture, images and international relations, and women in combat.

 


When I was briefly living in Sierra Leone I was invited on a boat trip off the coast of Freetown with a range of women, including a translator at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, a “high-ranking” official within the World Bank who was visiting for three days, a photographer, and a “low-ranking” UN staffer. At one point on the boat trip, we passed what is known as Kroo Bay or Kroo Town, one of the largest “slums” in central Freetown. The Nigerian World Bank official clucked her tongue, seemingly irritated, and said “things just don’t get better here – I don’t get it.” The rest of us sat in silence, including the local male boat driver, who may in fact have lived in the area. This woman was not asking why things “don’t get better,” what “better” might look like, or for responses from those of us in the boat – not least from the driver, who was silent the entire trip. She was making a declaration: “things just don’t get better”, period.

I’ve often thought back to this trip and wondered what this woman did for the rest of her three-day visit to Freetown and what other “poor” country she visited afterward. This small interaction remains a signal to me of two endemic features of both international intervention and international relations. First, it is easy to ask silly questions and draw simple conclusions when you are sitting in a boat looking into a community from the outside. In this story, we were a group of privileged women floating by Freetown. Similarly, I often think of the “discipline” of International Relations (IR) as this boat. IR scholars rely on the stability of “established” knowledge and approaches from which to ask questions and observe “the international.” Second, the encounter signalled the complex relationship between “interveners” and “locals.” The World Bank official was objectively the most powerful person in the boat. Her confidence was impressive, yet she asked no questions, stuck to her set research and work agenda, made many assumptions, and dismissed the local Sierra Leonean as an ignorant worker who should, and did, remain silent. When it comes to powerful IR scholars and approaches, I still can’t help but see the comparisons.

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Meera Sabaratnam’s Decolonising Intervention: International Statebuilding in Mozambique calls out IR scholars for continually floating by “case” countries and concluding, with a “tsk, tsk”, that “interventions keep failing”. What is remarkable and inspiring about Sabaratnam’s contribution is the way she weaves several rich intellectual contributions together. First, she makes the case that existing work on international interventions (including critical, “edgy” work) conducts uninspired, repetitive, and theoretically light analyses that ignore the history of intervention and its roots in imperial, racist logics. Second, Sabaratnam speaks back to the discipline of IR by mapping out IR’s commitment to a) Eurocentrism, b) “core” approaches, c) a laughably generous reading of its own history. Sabaratnam argues that these features of IR limit the study not just of international interventions, but of – well, international relations. In other words, Sabaratnam reminds us of the ways that IR scholars remain fiercely committed to a discipline that is parochial, provincial, and often unhelpful in understanding global politics. In short, IR often doesn’t help us understand international relations. This echoes Ann Tickner infamous conclusion: “International Relations is neither international nor relational.”

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