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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