Introduction to The Politics of Representation Special Collection


By Lakshmi Bose and Rebecca Gordon

From #oscarssowhite to #rhodesmustfall, #dontpinkmydrink and the recent criticisms of Comic Relief’s fundraising campaigns, we are watching a tide of conflict that questions who is represented in the public sphere, which spaces matter, and how modes of depiction are inherently powerful and political. At the core of this debate are unresolved tensions about whether we can disentangle identity from representation, and if so, how. With this in mind, we discuss how we can grapple with these issues, and how the crossovers between academia, journalism, the media, and the world of NGOs create space to reflect bravely and honestly on the particular complexities of representation in research.

Moving our gaze to the practice and culture of research in the academy and beyond, we see a re-emergence of decolonial movements along with calls to diversify the curriculum. These bring forth new discussions on representation in the context of belonging, the legitimacy of entrenched thought and knowledge, and the erasure of marginalised voices.

In many ways the politics of representation is a slippery concept, difficult to pin down and attach to a specific meaning; in part we see it as the contested space between the subject, the representation of the subject and self-representation. This conceptualisation leads us to ask: is there a way to do representation ‘right’? And importantly, who gets to decide what is ‘right’?

Inspired by a conference we hosted at the University of Cambridge entitled ‘The Ethical Debates of Representation in Research’ we found a stark need and desire amongst researchers to openly discuss these particular issues with sensitivity, reflexivity and democratic engagement in order to better address and conceptualise the meaning and ramifications of representation. At the core of this conversation is an intent to ensure that our scholarship is cognisant of the politics of representation, which in turn requires the further development of inclusive and open spaces for deeper and more nuanced analysis.

Focusing on contestations and innovations in the social sciences, we aim to use this special section to draw attention to different challenges related to representation. We begin with two conceptual pieces, exploring representation and identity within feminist movements and the politics of refugee representation. Over the coming month, we will move to more practical issues of representation: representation of people within policy and data, representations by humanitarian agencies and within literature. We will then examine the ways in which researchers have engaged with ideas of representation within their research that aim to navigate the structural issues addressed previously. The final piece questions who is able to participate in conversations about representation, whilst exploring pragmatic considerations of positionality within activist movements.

As this collection is part of a continuing conversation, we are simultaneously launching it with a new collective ‘The Politics of Representation’, based out of the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. We aim to expand this conversation, build networks across the UK and globally, and encourage shifts in institutional culture and practice.

Lakshmi Bose is a PhD Candidate at the University of Cambridge working on securitisation and transnational female activism in South Africa and Turkey. Lakshmi tweets @LakshmiSBose

Rebecca Gordon is a PhD Candidate at the University of Cambridge exploring the work of a grassroots microfinance organisation in rural India, impacts on women’s lives and girls’ education. She also focuses on feminist epistemologies and methodologies in ethics and research. Rebecca tweets @R37G

They are both editors at the Politics of Representation collective.

This blog is reposted from a special collection published by The Sociological Review.