‘Politics and reflexivity when studying conflict’: Responses and reflections by Hana Sandhu (SOAS)

This piece is a response to a seminar on ‘Politics and reflexivity when studying conflict’ organised by doctoral students from the Courtauld Institute of Art that took place at Birkbeck University on the 19th March 2019. This issue is suggestive for my doctoral project because I am looking at the representation of the First and Second Congo War in popular culture but I am neither Congolese nor of African origin. Throughout the seminar, many questions circled around the idea of what it means to be ‘reflexive’ when producing research although, at other times, it boiled down to a set of very simple and direct questions. For example: do you have the right to research a region from which you do not come? Or, phrased in another way: can you teach queer studies as a straight, cisgendered individual? There are no straightforward answers to either question, and regardless of whether one considers identity as socially constructed or as biologically determined, it remains the case that when we step into the role of researcher we occupy a space and a speaking position that is moulded by the social, economic and cultural hierarchies that form our social world.

Questions such as why I have chosen to study this particular topic or what I hope to contribute through doing this research, are in many ways typical reflexive questions that are commonplace in a PhD, or any research project. Audrey Alejandro has, however, expanded this perhaps periodic dialogue into a critical methodology encompassing everyday sociological praxis. She explained in her presentation that there is always the risk of ‘reproducing and legitimising the prejudices we have unconsciously been socialised into.’ (Alejandro 2019, p. 10) The traditional relationship between subject and object is here substituted with the analytical frame of ‘everyday’ praxis, so that subject and object become constitutive of one another. She uses the term ‘auto-objectivation’ (2019, p. 12) to describe this form of engagement whereby the self, in producing knowledge about an object, undergoes the same process of consideration. She outlined reflexivity as the following:

[…] the practice of putting our everyday behaviours, beliefs, values, and discourses into perspective. By highlighting the social origins and consequences of our activities, we enable the denaturalisation of what appears to be “normal” and “usual”. At the individual level, reflexivity thus gives a broader understanding of the choices available to us. (Alejandro, 2016)

As somebody born in the UK and pursuing research that examines the representation of Africa in the media and popular culture, I think it is incumbent that such questions be rigorously interrogated. I have always been explicit about the fact that I want to challenge and resist the new forms of colonial violence and rationality that have converged around Congo and the wider region, however, simply admitting to the political agenda of one’s work should not exempt one from addressing these questions. All research is political and subjective yet, all too often, the subject position of the researcher is given de facto authority.

The historical role of Africanists and Asianists in gathering ‘intelligence’ to aid imperial conquest is the intellectual and economic legacy of my own university, SOAS and, more recently, we saw Somali scholars calling out the all-white editorial panel of the newly launched journal Somaliland Journal of African Studies with the hashtag ‘cadaan (white) studies’. (Aidid, 2015) These historical and contemporary examples of imperialism and epistemic hegemony must be taken into account as agentive contexts that affect the everyday politics of doing research and determine who is given a platform to speak and who is mediated or silenced.

In the seminar discussion, identifying what is reflexive writing and what is not proved to be a challenging task. Participants noted having directly opposed opinions on which of the three texts were most reflexive. Andrej Grubačić’s ‘Remaining Yugoslav’, a foreword to a collection of Noam Chomsky’s essays on Yugoslavia is a piece of historical narrative that is unabashedly autobiographical. The title states the author’s commitment to a political-national identity that no longer ‘officially’ exists.

For some participants, this piece represented the apex of ‘unreflexive’ writing and showcased instead the personal and autobiographical mode. The question which occurred to me, however, on reading the piece, is whether it is as easy to practice reflexivity in posterity? Indeed, Grubačić seems far more concerned to reconstruct the memory of his socialist childhood and political coming of age and convey this to the reader in a realist form. He writes for example ‘this preface aspires to be one glimpse of the interior life of former Yugoslavia from the perspective of a Yugoslav.’ (2018, viii) The connection to Yugoslav identity is celebrated throughout the preface. On the surface, such demonstrations appear unreflexive. However, writing from a position of exile after the Balkan conflict complicates this question of reflexivity. How can one be reflexive with an ‘object’ that exists in memory form as opposed to a contemporaneous social reality? Moreover, is reflexivity and self-critique, with its focus on the individual, as opposed to the collective, a particularly Western philosophical mode of thought? Something of an irony perhaps since reflexivity is widely regarded as a tool for challenging eurocentrism within the academy. (Alejandro, 2018)

We compared this text to the introductory chapters of Ariella Azoulay’s The Civil Contract of Photography and Marie-Bénédicte Dembour’s Recalling the Belgian Congo: Conversations and Introspection. The fact that all three texts were introductions to a longer form piece is in itself interesting. The paratext is often where we see the author at perhaps her most unguarded and reflexive and its separation from the ‘real’ text is interesting in how we connect reflexivity with its written expression and form.

Azoulay’s piece intriguingly connects childhood memories with her method of analysing photographs. Reflexivity, methodological praxis and personal memory are interwoven throughout her piece:

My mother wouldn’t allow me to go to the beach on Fridays. That’s the day the Arabs go. “They go in with their clothes on,” she muttered. Ever since, I’ve carried around in my head an image of Arabs half-submerged in the middle of the sea, struggling to get up, with the weight of their wet clothes pulling them down. While I remember this image as if it were a photograph I actually saw, I know it was planted in my brain, courtesy of my mother’s tongue as she tried to embody her warnings. (2008, p. 10)

There are multiple ways of interpreting this piece of text. The formal object of her research is photography, yet this self-created photograph that is the foundation of her intellectual inquiry is in fact the product of her ‘mother’s tongue’. Here, the disturbing normalisation of the Israeli Occupation blurs language, memory and visual reality. What the young Azoulay is forbidden to do − play on the beach with Arab children − is replaced with a nightmarish vision of Palestinians drowning in the sea with the ‘crisp white shirts’ of Jewish Israelis (2008, Ibid).

The photograph is thus ‘denaturalised’ as an object and becomes instead the result of subconscious imagination within a political context of systematic violence and racialised exclusion. Azoulay goes on to theorise a ‘civil political space’ through the use of photography, a space of political relations not ‘mediated exclusively by the ruling power of the state’ (2008, p. 12). Azoulay’s ‘civil political space’ widens reflexivity beyond the self in order to imagine and mediate alternative political relations between Palestinians and Israelis. Or, from a different perspective, one could argue that it is at this point of movement beyond the self to a collective political agenda that her work ceases to be reflexive. Who exactly curates and mediates Azoulay’s ‘civil political space’? The concept is to a degree an idealisation that overlooks who has agency to affect such alternative relations.

And, finally, to Dembour’s Recalling the Congo, which, of the three, was received as the most reflexive piece of writing. Upon reading the article, I was struck by the opaque critical terms the author used, words such as ‘conversations’, ‘introspection’, ‘recalling’ and how this critical terrain enables, to a certain extent, the author to engage in an exercise of colonialist apologia. (2000, ix-x) She explains further:

When I embarked on my research project, I thought I knew what colonialism was about - economic exploitation and cultural oppression. I was also quick to pass judgement on the people who had participated in what appeared to me as a politically and morally dubious enterprise. The conversations I held with former colonial officers made me question my initial assumptions. What was it that I knew so well? And who was I to pass judgements on others whose experience I found touching? By analysing our conversations, this book traces my own efforts towards introspection. In doing so, it invites the reader to re-call the Congo i.e. to apprehend it in other terms than the bad name by which it generally known. (2000, x)

Reflexivity? In theory, yes. But, we are still left with the problems of historical rehabilitation and revisionism of Belgian imperialism. Her initial position as ‘naively anti-colonial’ is the unreflexive starting point to her research. From here, Dembour constructs a false binary between ‘anti-colonialism’ as a morally intuitive knowledge, and introspection with those who oversaw the colonial administration, as reflexivity. What is notably lacking from her account is why she finds it necessary to apprehend the Belgian Congo in presumably less ‘bad’ names in the first place.

This is a text about the reflexivity and transmission of knowledge in which the object of inquiry are the oral histories of those colonial officers still living. It is important to note that Dembour is writing this in 1998 just before the publication of Ludo de Witte’s international bestseller The Assassination of Lumumba prompts a parliamentary inquiry and forces Belgian society to wake up to its colonial past. Up until this point, the crimes of Belgian colonial officials were quietly swept under the carpet. The denial and suppression of knowledge about the Belgian Congo make the legitimation of these sources particularly troubling. Also, it is striking that while she elects to keep her interviewees' identities anonymous, she is unable to resist emphasising the ‘touching’ aspect of their testimonies. (2000, x) Finally, her explicit use of reflexivity becomes somewhat ironic when we note the total omission of Congolese texts and histories. What is absent from Dembour’s interpretation of reflexivity is a wider recognition of the reflexivity of states and public institutions in controlling discourses and access to knowledge about colonial history and how this shapes and influences our own values and subjectivity. Dembour’s representation of reflexivity as a binary between morally intuitive ignorance and critical introspection belies its radical potential to interrogate the ‘everyday politics’ of research and challenge the discursive reproduction of the dominant order.

Alejandro argues that it is important to stress that reflexivity is not autobiography. Personal history alone does not meet the requirements of reflexive praxis because it does not demand the deconstruction of the self. Although I can see the logic at work in foreclosing these two concepts, so that the insertion of the self does not become an easy shorthand for ‘reflexive praxis’, this dichotomy risks closing down a potentially very interesting area of thought. The questions raised by the tensions between autobiographical and reflexive praxis are worth pursuing since they tell us a lot about different contexts of selfhood.

It is a literary truism that all writing is autobiographical. Historically, autobiography has been the chosen form of the oppressed including, for example, women’s life histories, slave narratives and prison diaries. In writings on Congo, the great swathes of biographies, travel diaries, adventure fiction that celebrate colonial figures like Henry Morton Stanley are ubiquitous in popular literary culture and stand in stark contrast to the fragmentary literary afterlives of Patrice Lumumba’s prison writings or Andrée Blouin’s My Country Africa: Autobiography of the Black Pasionara—to name but a few. The relationships that exist between autobiography, memory and praxis undoubtedly influence our understandings of ‘history’. As readers, we are curious to know a writer’s motivations, yet the disclosure of will and motivation as writers and researchers can often feel dangerous and uncomfortable. This tension between autobiography and reflexivity brings the central questions of selfhood, knowledge and authority directly forth and into the frame.


Aidid, S. (2019). Can the Somali Speak? #CadaanStudies. [online] Available at: https://africasacountry.com/2015/03/can-the-somali-speak-cadaanstudies [Accessed 28 Mar. 2019].

Alejandro, A. 2019, ‘Politics and Reflexivity when Studying Conflict’, Birkbeck University, delivered 19 March 2019.

          2016, Walking the Reflexive Talk. [online] E-International Relations. Available at: https://www.e-ir.info/2016/09/17/walking-the-reflexive-talk/ [Accessed 28 Mar. 2019].

Azoulay, A. The Civil Contract of Photography, NY: Zone Books, 2008.

Blouin, A. My Country Africa: Autobiography of the Black Pasionara, Westport: Praeger Press, 1983.

Dembour, M.B, Recalling the Belgian Congo: Conversations and Introspection, NY: Berghahn, 2000.

Grubačić, A. ‘Remaining Yugoslav’, in Noam Chomsky & Davor Džalto (ed.) Yugoslavia: Peace, War, and Dissolution, Oakland: PM Press, 2018.

Lumumba, P. (2019). Letter from Thysville Prison to Mrs. Lumumba by Patrice Lumumba. [online] Marxists.org. Available at: https://www.marxists.org/subject/africa/lumumba/1961/xx/letter.htm [Accessed 28 Mar. 2019].