Why Does Representation Matter?


Photo by Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash

The significance and timeliness of the launch of our blog has become apparent through numerous public controversies surrounding representation in the media, such as #oscarssowhite, in academia #rhodesmustfall and reflections from the NGO sector and the arts. In 2018, National Geographic magazine reflected on their historical coverage and its racism, whilst in the last few months, the particular use of photographs and images in NGOs has been hotly debated. This really came to the fore in the engagement with these issues raised by David Lammy in 2017 and more recently in relation to the “tired and unhelpful stereotypes” shared on social media as part of Comic Relief’s campaigns.

The issue of representation has been explored by researchers alongside considerations of the changes that need to be made in how images are used in academia and beyond. However, the concept of representation goes beyond purely visual representation, and has long been deemed an essential part of the process by which meaning is produced and exchanged. The necessity of broadening and deepening this conversation in academia, as well as more widely, was highlighted at the recent interdisciplinary conference we organised at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge titled ‘The Ethical Debates of Representation in Research’ (November 2018). From this event, we gained an insight into the increasing need for a forum to address the way in which we represent those we work with and write about, whatever our sector.

What is representation?

“Representation is first and foremost an act of performance, bringing forth in the mode of staging something which in itself is not a given” Wolfgang Iser

The politics of representation has been defined as who represents whom, from where and how. Our definition is strongly premised on the work of postcolonial scholars. Said’s work on representations of the ‘Orient’ being structured by political forces underlines our understanding of representation as being inherently political. Representations and misrepresentations can be used to reinforce systems of inequality as they relate to issues of power. Said also emphasises the fact that representations can never be fully realistic, real or objective, but need to be interrogated for their ideological content. Thus, if representation is capable of telling the ‘truth’, it is also capable of distorting and misrepresenting it.

Drawing on the work of Spivak and Mohanty, among others, we see two key ways through which to conceptualise representation:

  • To re-present in reality, in literature, in research — the way in which people or ideas are either represented in writing or through visuals.
  • To represent, as in to stand in for or to speak for, which encompasses debates around speaking to, as opposed to speaking for.

Spivak makes a distinction between these two different types of representation and also the differences between self-representation and the representation of others. Spivak recommends ‘persistent critique’ to guard against ‘constructing the Other simply as an object of knowledge, leaving out the real Others.’ In line with the need to constantly question and interrogate representations, our perception is that representation is one of the most significant issues that academia is facing and given the rising debates on representation and numerous different perspectives on what representation means in the media, in international development practice and in institutions more broadly, the importance of persistent critique is vital. This is what this blog aims to achieve.

Questions about the ways in which researchers represent others in their work and the ethical considerations that underpin these decisions lag behind other aspects of ethical social scientific consideration. Researchers are engaged in the task of representation: of their participants, of themselves and of their social worlds. Despite previous thoughtful and reflexive work on the ethics and politics of representation, there is a need to continuously engage on new methods and practice in ethical representation.

Call for Papers: Representations in Research, in the Institution and Beyond

In light of the need to critically engage with these issues, articles are invited to respond to questions such as:

  • What are the differing perceptions on what representation means? Are there contestations, and why?
  • What are different methods of representation in academia, the media, in NGOs (and other sectors)?
  • What are the correlations between academic representation, representation in policy, and representation in practice (for example representation in the use of NGOs communications), and the wider communication of research results?
  • What role do individuals play in the representation of others?
  • Can we represent the other without constructing ‘otherness’?
  • What are the competing forces that shape the politics of representation (economic and social forces, such as neoliberalism)?
  • How does the act of representation reify or dismantle hierarchies of race, gender, class, and belonging?
  • Who benefits from new forms of representation?
  • Can we disentangle identity from representation?
  • Is representation a Western concept?
  • How do we understand the connection between the vulnerability of the subject and its academic and visual representation?
  • What are the most important reflections/considerations for representation in the dissemination/communication process of work?

Please submit a short abstract (100–200 words) to PolOfRep@gmail.com along with a proposed word count and short bio (and if appropriate, institutional affiliation). We aim to provide an initial response to all potential contributors within two weeks.

We use the UK Creative Commons Licensing agreement for all pieces. However, all rights to the submissions are retained by the author(s), which permits the author(s) to request for the submission to be deleted from the TPOR platform at any point, and/or re-posted with another publisher that mandates sole publishing rights.

Editors*: Lakshmi Bose, Rebecca Gordon, Arif Naveed & Sharon Walker

Please direct enquiries to: PolOfRep@gmail.com

*Editors are listed alphabetically