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.

boat

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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Intervention, Protagonismo and the Complex Sociology of Difference: 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]


amyAmy Niang is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Her research is informed by a broad interest in the history of state formation, peace and conflict, and Africa’s international relations. Her work has been published in Alternatives, Politics, African Studies, Journal of Ritual Studies, African Economic History, Afrique contemporaine and many edited collections. Her forthcoming publications include “Rehistoricising the sovereignty principle with reference to Africa: stature, decline, and anxieties of a foundational norm”, in Zubairu Wai and Marta Iniguez de Heredia (eds.) Bringing Africa “Back In”: World Politics and Theories of Africa’s Nonfulfillment (Palgrave Macmillan).


A Methodology of Critique

In Decolonising Intervention, Meera Sabaratnam shows how putatively critical perspectives in the intervention literature are not immune to complacency, in part because of an obsession with the intellectual endeavour for its own sake, and their tendency to revisit “the genealogies, contradictions and trajectories of intellectual traditions associated with the West” (p.23) as the key object of intellectual concern. Such conceptualisations of intervention often paper over, if they don’t ignore or invisibilise people as targets of intervention.

Often justified by methodological rationales based on flawed assumptions, these accounts reproduce, intentionally or unintentionally, very bad habits. By doing so, they reinforce the status of Western agency “as the terrain – or ontology – of the political” (p.25). But one’s methodological choices are inseparable from one’s ontological commitments, and therefore one’s political and ideological outlook. Sabaratnam uses a multidimensional, decolonial approach, beginning and ending with ethnographic and empirical recalibrations that are attentive to the life-worlds of targets of intervention, a methodology often scorned in international relations scholarship for its lack of “objective” scientificity.

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Mario Macilau, A Falha Humana (human failure), 2014

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The Limits of Decolonising Intervention: A Response to Sabaratnam

This post is part of a syposium on Meera Sabaratnam’s Decolonising Intervention. Meera’s original post, with links to the other contributions, is here. If tweeting, please use #DecolonisingIntervention!


Postcolonial/ decolonial research seems to be entering into what might be called a “second generation”, moving past early, de-constructive critiques of the IR discipline as racist and colonial, and into showing the “value added” of a decolonial approach in studying concrete problems in international politics. Decolonising Intervention is an important contribution to this effort.

Sabaratnam’s basic argument is quite straightforward. Like many critical scholars of intervention, she documents multiple failures of Western statebuilding interventions (SBIs) to resolve the problems they (allegedly) seek to address. Unlike them, however, she attributes these recurrent failures – persistent, despite widespread acknowledgement, even among interveners, and within a gargantuan “lessons learned” literature – to the “colonial” structure of global politics. Put simply: Western donors feel superior to the targets of intervention, and so simply cannot learn from their mistakes. They are obsessed with their own starring role (protagonismo), making them congenitally incapable of deferring to their targets’ concerns, ideas, knowledge or demands. They garner the lion’s share of donor funds, scarcely caring if interventions work or not, implicitly seeing targets’ time and resources as “disposable”. Dependent recipients have little choice but to engage, or lose what resources are offered.

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