Reviews Archive

The Sociological Review has been publishing book reviews for over 100 years. In 2018, we expanded our reviewing and moved it from the print journal onto our website. This compendium is an archive of reviews published in 2018-19. It includes 43 reviews of monographs, edited collections, film and photography that open out possibilities for both thinking sociologically and thinking differently. We take the ‘review’ of The Sociological Review to connote a process of critical engagement rather than a more or less comprehensive survey, and this is reflected in both the selection of work and the style of reviews, which range from concise to long-form reviews and review essays that bring together two or three publications. At the same time, this compendium offers a snapshot of the discipline and highlights some of the most exciting work being produced today. Click on the image to download the compendium.

Writing a Review

We welcome proposals for book reviews in connection with our themes, reviews of books written in non-English languages, and reviews of sociological fiction and film. To suggest a title for review please get in touch with our reviews editor at: Don’t forget to say why you want to review the selected title and how it connects to your own work and expertise. Our reviews are usually around 1,000 words and are published online.

Book Review: Seeing Politics

Seeing Politics: film, visual method and international relations by Sophie Harman was published by McGill-Queens University Press in 2019.

Sophie Harman is Professor of International Politics at Queen Mary University of London where she teaches and conducts research into Global Health Politics, African agency in International Relations, and Visual Politics. She has published seven books and numerous articles on these topics, most recently, Seeing Politics: film, visual method and international relations (2019). In 2016 she co-wrote and produced her first narrative feature film Pili, which was nominated for a BAFTA for outstanding debut for a British writer, producer, or director in 2019. She tweets @DrSophieHarman

Review by Dominic Hinde, 21st May 2020.

What makes Sophie Harman’s Seeing Politics: Film, Visual Method and International Relations noteworthy is that she approaches practice-as-research not from a journalism, film or media studies background but as an established scholar of international relations and global health. As Harman recalls in her explanation of how the book came to be, it was debatable whether what she was doing was IR at all. Conversely, it was this departure from the traditional arena and methods of IR that was so enticing, offering the potential to bring women who are often marginalised or rendered invisible within IR research to the fore.  

“Pili and the process of making the film reveal new insights into old questions of structure and agency, the state, transnationalism, and global governance – all core questions in IR.”

(p 218)

The result is a sprawling account of filmmaking as counter hegemonic research as Harman describes the difficulties of producing a feature length drama about HIV in Tanzania, Pili (2017). The film is a social realist account of an HIV-positive woman’s struggle for agency and medical support where the odds are stacked against her, using an amateur cast of local people on location under the direction of Harman and the filmmaker Leanne Welham. As such Seeing Politics is best understood as a companion piece to the film it describes, and though it tries to work as a form of grounded theory to provide more general insights, it ultimately returns to and is dominated by Harman’s personal experience of making Pili and experimenting with applied media practice.

HIV has become a common theme for journalists and documentary filmmakers operating in Sub-Saharan Africa, with the HIV documentary developing into a genre of itself in South Africa alongside a steady flow of North American and European films on HIV, some of which Harman references in her discussion of HIV as a subject.  A significant portion of these African-produced films have been aimed at HIV education, but for international filmmakers HIV has also functioned as a regional marker with which to approach sub-Saharan countries, whether it be to illustrate the failure of governance, the lack of educational opportunity or the position of women as Harman does.

Media work as research often yields unexpected results, and Harman herself admits she knew little about filmmaking when she embarked on the project. The film itself was received with uncertainty about what it was, right down to the confusion in reviews of whether the film ‘belonged’ to Harman or director and producer Welham. Seeing Politics establishes it firmly as Harman’s project, whereas press reviews of Pili downgrade or leave her out altogether, illustrating the friction between academia and the public media which Harman inadvertently explores. 

Harman admits in a reflective chapter that the making of a feature film is something she has little enthusiasm for repeating. Negotiating the gatekeepers of the international media landscape and the complexities of filming and producing a feature-length work on the ground, and conflicts between market demands and ideal forms come to the fore. Harman’s project finds its public on the film festival circuit, following Thomas Elsasser’s pattern of the film festival as “able to attract public attention to issues that even NGOs find it hard to concentrate minds on.”

Elsaesser’s core observation that films are not born equal plays out in Seeing Politics and in Pili as a product. The festival film is the opposite of the mass market picture, and making such films as an academic is to escape from one ivory tower to another. Within the specialist circuits of film festival (and nowadays the long tail of online film repositories curating such film) they reach similar numbers to conference keynotes or first year lecture halls.  The fundamental question, of how to make visible international relations and the impacts of current power relations across the planet, remains more complex than the elevation of experience and its placing in a marketplace of competing vignettes from the global present.

“It is not enough to just see women such as Pili; methods of seeing need to allow such women to see and represent themselves.”

(p 11)

A central theme of the practice Harman embarks upon is the materiality of media processes, in which representation is compromised in its production, but also in its distribution as the quest for transformative media comes up against the gatekeepers of media capitalism. It is of more interest as an exploration of method and of the validity of media-as-research beyond the confines of art schools and media programmes. Much of what Harman recounts in Seeing Politics will be highly familiar to those working in media-as-practice of sociological filmmaking, but whereas reflexive media ethnography working backwards from method to page can yield interesting results, Harman’s autoethnography stops short of making connections to wider media contexts, striving back towards IR rather than relating to more obvious scholarship in film and journalism studies. 

As an introduction to academic media work, Seeing Politics functions as an interesting account of the experience of a first time filmmaker, and many of the challenges negotiated in production will be familiar to those with experience of both media production and sociological or anthropological fieldwork, in which the demands to complete and produce the promised product clash with the realities of participants and interview subjects, local authorities, funding bodies and the weather. Ultimately, one of the questions emerging from the project is that whilst it is easier than ever to make media, perhaps not everyone should. In an age of coercive impact studies and the desire for public as well as academic recognition, this is a sobering reflection on the limits of practice-based research and agency for both filmmakers and subjects in the complex web of power and finance that defines global media work.

Dominic Hinde is Lecturer in Media and Communication at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh and a former foreign journalist. His research interests are based on journalistic responses to global issues and environmental change.

Graphic Novel Review: Lissa: A Story About Medical Promise, Friendship and Revolution

The graphic novel Lissa: A Story About Medical Promise, Friendship and Revolution is written by Sherine Hamdy and Coleman Nye and illustrated by Sarula Bao and Caroline Brewer.

Sherine Hamdy is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine, where she joined the faculty in the Fall of 2017, after being a professor for eleven years at Brown University. She is currently working on a Young Adult graphic novel about a Muslim-American girl’s experiences growing up in New York (with Beirut-based illustrator Myra El-Mir), under contract with Penguin. Hamdy’s first book Our Bodies Belong to God: Organ Transplants, Islam, and the Struggle for Human Dignity in Egypt (University of California, 2012) received Honorable Mention from the 2013 Clifford Geertz Prize. Her current book project Doctors of the Revolution, co-authored with Soha Bayoumi, critically engages with physicians’ roles in the political upheavals in the Arab world that began late 2010.

Coleman Nye is Assistant Professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University. She is currently working on a monograph Biological Property: Race, Gender, Genetics, which mines the epistemological relations between genetic understandings of relation and property-based models of inheritance. Nye’s work on science, medicine, and performance has been published in such journals as Social Text, TDR: The Drama Review, Women and Performance, Global Public Health, ADA: A journal of gender, new media, and technology. In 2017, she edited a special issue of Performance Matters on “Science and Performance.” 

Review by Karen Throsby, 7th May 2020.

Lissa is a graphic novel, written by anthopologists Sherine Hamdy and Coleman Nye and illustrated by Sarula Bao and Caroline Brewer. The novel centres on the experiences of two female protagonists – Layla and Anna – whose relationship bridges, and is occasionally fractured by, differences in class, nationality, religion and culture.  The novel opens in Cairo, Egypt. Layla is an Egyptian Arab whose father works as a bawab (a doorman or porter) and Anna is a white American whose family has been brought to Egypt by his job in an oil company, but in spite of their differences, they are inseparable friends. Both girls (and later, as women) have to negotiate very different, but intersecting, medical dilemmas that test their relationship and highlight the ways in difficult medical decisions are inextricable from the wider context of gender, class, religion, nationality and culture in which they have to be navigated.

The opening sections of the book follow the death of Anna’s mother from breast cancer – a traumatic loss that later leads Anna to seek out genetic testing, culminating in the discovery that she carries the BRCA1 mutation. Now a student living in the US, she opts to undergo a prophylactic double mastectomy, but feels unable to share this with Layla, who is deeply opposed to her ‘mutilating’ her (currently) healthy body. Meanwhile, Layla has to confront her father’s gradual decline from kidney failure. Trained as a doctor, she is frustrated by his refusal to seek a kidney transplant – a resistance to intervention that reflects not only his religious concerns, but also fears of the ruinous financial costs to his family as a result of the surgery, the post-transplant medication and the loss of income while recovering. These two intertwined illness narratives disrupt any attempt to dislocate health and illness from their social contexts, raising critical questions about the insidious harms of environmental pollutants and unequal access to health care while at the same time exposing the cruel constraints surrounding many of the ‘choices’ offered to those forced to make difficult medical decisions. 

This turmoil occurs against the backdrop of the political disruptions of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, which led to extensive civil unrest, the killing and wounding of civilians and the arrest and torture of protesters and activists. Layla provides medical care to wounded protesters and Anna travels back to Cairo to transport supplies to the volunteer medical teams and later, to help identify the dead and wounded. It is a cataclysm that pushes their relationship to its very limits as they wrestle with their twinned encounters with the limits of both medicine and revolution. The book concludes with their friendship restored and the cautious optimism of a political movement that endures in spite of everything, but this is no fairy tale ending. It is a complex, nuanced story of global politics, inequalities and solidarity for which there are no easy or comfortable conclusions; it is both uplifting and devastating.

The decision to use the medium of a graphic novel to tell this story is integral to its success. I am slightly embarrassed to confess that I have never read a graphic novel before – not out of some kind of intellectual snobbery, but simply as a result of the habitually text-based world in which I live and work. And so, when I started reading Lissa, I realised that I wasn’t sure how to read it. At first, I think I went too quickly; I felt like 8-year old me, galloping through the Saturday comic my Dad had brought home from the newsagents. So I went back to the start and forced myself to slow down, to relish the artfulness of the book and to register the small touches that reveal the spectacular attention to detail that characterises the work – a butterfly flit-flit-flitting across a page; the cats that appear as a continual motif throughout the book; the evocative portrayal of Cairo through long vistas and intricate ethnographic details. I particularly loved the ‘sounds’ of the book: a laptop slammed shut with a WHUMP; the FWUP of a closing book; the CLOP CLOP of shoes on tiles. The levity of the comic genre in these moments opens up evocative spaces for the serious work of the novel.

As I read, I came to realise that the organisation and craft of the genre does the work of pacing for the reader. This is explained in an intriguing Afterword to the book by cartoonist and comics instructor, Paul Karasik, who describes the techniques used to lead readers in tracking a story across panels and pages; how particular points on a page can be used to drive the reader to pause or to turn the page; and how the reader’s focus can be drawn in or moved on with only minimal use of words. I was also amazed to learn that the two lead characters were not only drawn by two different artists, but that they use different drawing techniques (digital / hand drawing), and yet still managed to produce a work that is visually and narratively coherent. But this is only one collaboration among many in the making of the book, including not only the writers and illustrators, but also a much wider cast of collaborators encountered during a team field visit to Cairo, several who appear in the novel as themselves. A further layer of collaboration occurs in the incorporation of the work of Egyptian graffiti artists, including both extant graffiti drawn during the Revolution and the creation by Egyptian artist, Ganzeer, of a composite mural relaying the book’s concluding message that not all hope is lost.

In its own terms, Lissa is a thought-provoking book that makes productive use of the graphic novel genre to explore the complexities of medical decision-making and the vast inequalities which frame those decisions. It is visually stunning and a remarkable reading experience, especially for this graphic novel novice. But the book is also much more than that, including extensive supplementary material that explores the motivations behind the project, the processes through which it came into being, a documentary about the making of the book and a useful teaching guide. Without question, Lissa constitutes a new and exciting way of effectively and engagingly communicating research across diverse constituencies. But more fundamentally, it also offers up a taste of how research can be made more collaborative, more creative and more accessible without sacrificing nuance, detail or critical edge; it is an exciting vision of how research can be done differently.

This thought-provoking intervention reflects a growing interest more broadly in arts-social science collaborations that aim to realise the manifesto call by Les Back and Nirmal Puwar to “make sociological craft more artful and crafty” (2012: 9). Exciting examples of these principles in practice abound. For example, in April 2018, Bethan Evans and I organised an event, funded by the Sociological Review Foundation, to explore the possibilities and challenges of arts-social science collaboration in relation to critical approaches to fatness. Contributions ranged from performance poetry to poster activism, and included two examples of collaborations with graphic artists: the animation Flying While Fat by Bethan Evans and animator Stacy Biasand the comic, The Weight of Expectation by Oli Williams and graphic artist Jade Sarson. Another innovative example is Imogen Tyler’s ongoing work on the Stigma Machine. This includes the Stigma Machine GIF, developed with graphic artist Tom Morris (see Tyler 2018), and the graphic comic, From Stigma Power to Black Power (Tyler and Bailey 2018). This latter was made in collaboration with graphic artist, Charlotte Bailey, and translates a published article into comic form in order to make visible the long tradition of Black critical thought on racial stigma that has been otherwise marginalised. This is just a handful of examples and in no way does justice to proliferation of innovative arts-social science collaborative work being done.

One of the key observations to come out of the Artful Fat event was that while arts-social science collaboration is replete with possibilities, it also poses many challenges. Among our participants, these included locating suitable collaborative partners; the time-consuming labour of bringing together very different work processes; and institutional barriers around prompt and fair payment for creative work. Nevertheless, Lissa stands as an inspiring example of what can be achieved by a properly resourced and genuinely collaborative team who are committed to the process of mutually listening and learning, and to finding new ways of developing our shared crafts. The fact that this is the debut publication for the University of Toronto’s ethnoGRAPHIC series, which aims to realise ethnographic research in graphic novel form, demonstrates the future promise of, and investment in, work of this kind. Lissa sets the bar high and I’m excited to see what it inspires and what else is to follow.

Karen Throsby is an associate professor in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds, and the Director of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies (CIGS). She is the author of When IVF Fails: Feminism, Infertility and the Negotiation of Normality (Palgrave, 2004) and Immersion: Marathon Swimming, Embodiment and Identity (MUP, 2016). She tweets at: @thelongswim

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