The 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.
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.