Popular Representations of Development

Originally posted at blogs.it.ox.ac.uk onMay 22, 2014 by Martin Wynne. IT Services at the University of Oxford has decided to delete a large number of historical blogs, and this is one of a number of posts related to the Oxford Text Archive which are being re-published here, after being laboriously retrieved from the archive provided by the Wayback Machine.

A few weeks ago, I was invited to join a panel discussion at Wolfson College, Oxford, to discuss the new book Popular Representations of Development: Insights from Novels, Films, Television and Social Media, edited by David Lewis,  Dennis Rodgers and Michael Woolcock. The book aims to open up a new method of analysis for development studies by treating popular representations of development issues as a data source, and engaging in interdisciplinary research with various disciplines in the humanities to analyse these representations. See more about the event at http://www.fljs.org/popular-representations-of-development. Below is an edited transcript of what I said, or meant to say.

‘Popular Representations of Development’ is convincing on the key point of argument, that artistic and fictional representations can be useful and important data resources, since they can influence, shape or reflect public perceptions and debates. It’s fairly straightforward to see how a popular novel or film might have rather more impact than social scientific scholarship, certainly as far as popular discourses and perceptions are concerned.

Through the study of representations of various aspects relevant to Development Studies, in various media and from various time periods, the research papers in this volume make illuminating, and sometimes contentious points, about development, about the representations, and about the relationship between them and about methodologies for pursuing this question. For me, they also raise some questions about methodology in an emerging interdisciplinary field. I have some experience of participating in and studying the ways in which new methods emerge, and are contested, particularly in interdisciplinary areas which are transformed by the introduction of digital methods, such as corpus linguistics and digital humanities. I will try to bring some of this experience to bear and make some observations about how this new field might grow.

At the risk of some oversimplification and crudeness, I would say that the research showcased in this volume demonstrates a methodology whereby the researcher hand-picks an example and analyses it according to their chosen methodology, throwing in an overlay of their chosen ideological approach. This raises questions about these choices: questions about bias, representativeness, balance, scope, sampling, and the importance and impact on perceptions and debates of the representations chosen for study. What is an important film or novel? High relevance, popularity, critical acclaim, artistic merit, sociological integrity? Any given representation is unlikely to tick all of these boxes. What is more, now we are at a time when we have the opportunity to use the opportunities presented by the large amounts of available texts and media, applying approaches currently characterized by buzzwords like big data, linked data, smart data, and enabling us to ask different questions, develop new methods, and engage in different types of interdisciplinary collaboration.

I will now examine a little more depth what I mean by these points.

How representative are the works examined? Aren’t they just hand-picked examples to back up your points? To take one example from the book, MissingUnder FireThe Year of Living Dangerously, and Salvador do clearly constitute an interesting tendency, a new sub-genre starring the investigative journalist or war reporter amid political turmoil in the Third World. The chapter in question convincingly relates the emergence of this sub-genre to the early stages of the break-up of cold war certainties in the Third World. But do they help us to understand these processes better, or are they just crude popularizations of certain aspects (from the point of view of the Western media)? What about the influence of other mainstream adventure films with more conventional (and maybe more misleading) narratives? How representative are these films of Hollywood output, and what are the norms that they diverge from, and what are the dominant forms of discourse and representation that they react against?

A further question begged by this new approach relates to the scope of representations of development. There are many places and time periods to examine, various different media, different artistic forms, many theoretical approaches. It’s possible to construct a powerful argument to justify the inclusion of outliers like The Wire by defining urban decay in the USA as a development issue, but it might be difficult to connect the debate about that with studies of popular film in India, and with poster campaigns in 1930s Britain, and then also with representations of genocide and war in central Africa. With such diversity, and particularly when there is a lot of focus on outliers, marginal and non-prototypical cases, no coherent picture of the central representations and discourses is built up, and the findings of each research project or paper don’t necessarily relate to each other in any way. It’s difficult to build an academic discipline on the basis of a series of largely unconnected research studies. This is a problem shared with the digital humanities, where the objects of study and the methods are so wide and varied that there is little possibility to move forward in understanding in any useful way.

An interesting question is raised, either explicitly or implicitly, by a number of the chapters. Do artistic representations and other narratives merely reflect opinions and debates, or can they somehow provide special insights? Do they inevitably just reflect dominant (and occasionally minority or marginalised) discourses? And if not, how can they do that? Do novelists and film-makers have better insights than social scientists? As noted by the authors, representations emanating from the developing countries in question might be based on more local knowledge of everyday life than the social scientists can muster. One could add that writers of fiction have better story-telling skills. So you can argue that representations can easily be more popular, and more engaging, but can they be more right?

It is an interesting parallel to compare debates around the nineteenth century realist novel. One popular theory is that the great realist novelists such as Balzac, wove stories that told in narrative form the story of how industrial capitalist society worked, dramatizing the interplay of economic and social forces and the effects on people’s lives, and the role of the human subject and the ability to shape their destiny and that of society. And in an era before sociology, such fictions are often seen as key texts to understand society. I think that The Wire aims to do something similar (although now also partly informed by sociological literature), and it partially achieves this, although I would argue that the wrong conclusions can be drawn if you treat it as a data source. The chapter on this topic asserts several times that it is the withdrawal of the state from US post-industrial inner cities that is the problem. An alternative narrative, with a wider scope and drawing different conclusions, could draw attention to a longer historical trend which includes the story of the state’s attempts to overcome the exclusion of the black population by intervention, with the effect of undermining traditional forms of civil society. This alternative story point to the eradication through state intervention of the effective mechanisms for the exercise of autonomous action by ordinary people in the inner cities, and draw attention to this as the more fundamental problem? And is this not a possible reading of The Wire in any case?

A further general problem with interdisciplinary studies is the difficulty of engaging with the cutting edge of research methods in all fields, and the danger of adopting a rather conservative or simplified method in the field in which one is dabbling. In some cases, the studies in this volume could be said to be a little conservative in their methods. The humanities are now grappling with new methods of investigation and interpretation which are being made possible by the availability of massively larger amounts of the human cultural record now in digital form, and the possibilities of searching and analysing these records with computational tools. So there is the danger here of only using the microscope to look at tiny details when we have the opportunity to use new instruments which can show us big pictures, and significant patterns and tendencies which appear when we look at lots of representations at the same time.

I am not suggesting a return to a quantitative approach, which is partly what this new approach is trying to get away from. In my view there seems to be rather too rigid a divide between qualitative and quantitative approaches in the social sciences. In the humanities, I think that it is rather taken for granted that all research needs to be qualitative in some sense, to be soundly based on a firm understanding of sources, of their provenance, contect, value and meaning. Digital and quantitative contribute as an additional set of tools and approaches, not as a replacement. Digital humanities, at its best, is developing techniques which can blend qualitative and quantitative approaches. Scalable reading is now much discussed as an approach which makes use of tools to analyse the big picture, patterns and trends (distand reading), with the ability to zoom and and examine meaning in texts in detail (close reading). In linguistics we have found the need for instruments that can count frequencies, spot trends, but also support close analysis and the interpretation of meaning.

We should also be open to the opportunities to trace present debates in the past, via digital records now coming available and online. Apart from anything else, historical data is often more easily available, thanks to lapsed licensing restrictions and intellectual property rights.  But there are new possibilities not being properly exploited now. Culturomics using Google N-grams is bad social science (and bad linguistics). New, more scholarly initiatives such  Red Hen Lab might show some possibilities for media studies. CLAROS shows how you can do different studies of ancient art when you have all of the data in one place online; CLARIN is starting to show how literary, linguistic and historical studies are being transformed by the possibility of asking new questions of large datasets, and linking data in new ways, as well as old questions in new ways, more systematically, more authoritatively. This opens up the possibility to ask important and central questions – not just the hidden voices, the unusual cases, the margins – and this is necessary if we are to build a research community where it is possible accumulate knowledge, contest and debate issues, to conduct research which builds on earlier findings.

We might look back at this in a few years time and say, “Hey, do you remember, that was when we used to look at one film, or one novel, or just a handful of posters at a time, in order to try to understand development?”.