Why did you write Doing Politics?

Because it was there to be written about, and it wasn’t written already.

When we talk about politics, when we read, see and hear about it on the news, when we engage in it ourselves, our concern is with people and their actions, with positions taken and interests pursued, meetings held and speeches made, papers issued. It’s about who’s doing what, when, where, how and why.

The fact that, during 15 years as a reader of politician’s speeches before my stint in the Foreign Ministry, I had not thought about the complexity of the genesis of speeches, speaks worlds about how isolated from the microphysics of power one in fact is as an academic, even when one is seemingly in constant interaction with practitioners.

Iver Neumann, ‘”A speech that the entire ministry may stand for”‘, 2007

Our academic writing about politics, by contrast, seems strangely deserted. It’s concerned with power and conflict, parties and groups, governments and organizations, constitutions, rules and norms, instruments and evidence. All of these things are essential to any understanding of politics, but seem to leave something missing. Where is everybody? For all the other things – groups, organizations and institutions – must be inhabited, must be made to work, realised in the routine and critical action of human beings. What if we were to begin our investigations of politics with this ‘doing’, that is with a concept of human action and interaction?

Where action does appear in our accounts of politics, it is as a problem. Action is treated as generally unruly, and so must be qualified, as ‘rational’ action (as though most of the things people do, most of the time, were somehow not rational). That said, what is studied as rational action is in fact more about reasoning (incentives, information, calculation) than about action itself; action is reduced to the result of thought, a dichotomous choice, absolute and instantaneous, rather than uncertain and unfolding over time. For the most part, too, it’s individuals who are deemed to act, to take action in their own interests, and much work has been done to account for instances of collective action. The fundamental issue isn’t collective action, though, but interaction: all action takes place in relation to other actions.

As a mere political scientist, I had not been equipped to investigate the domestic sphere, much less intimate relationships, even if I could figure out where those sites were in international politics. In my conventional kit were tools to observe and make sense of policy processes, institutional structures, formal ideologies, public rivalries, and social mobilizations. Each of these tools seemed too blunt or out-of-scale for pursuing my new feminist-informed questions.

Cynthia Enloe, ‘The mundane matters’, 2011

On the other hand, what’s called direct action is treated as a strategy of last resort, a form of engagement outside the scope of ‘normal’ politics. This is really interesting, because it’s to imply that political action is almost always otherwise indirect. Why should we think of all the activity of politics as somehow shielded or tempered, remote? What kind of action is it that we think of as indirect yet so important? How do we act ‘indirectly’?

Meanwhile, there’s a body of more recent work in fields close to politics, including international relations and policy studies, which describes and explains political processes in terms of the practices of which they are composed: politics, in any given instance in any given domain, is realised in practice. That seems profoundly important, and obviously germane to what I’ve been trying to do. I’ve simply wanted to ask the next question, which is ‘What are the practices of which politics is composed?’ Why these actions and practices, and how and why do they work?

This action is surprisingly difficult to grasp and understand. Politics is often hidden, obscured, almost secret, taking place in what were once smoke-filled rooms, in closed session and corridor conversation, in private phone calls and confidential memos. Politics is disguised, not only in elite behavior but in the small acts of those who seek to resist them.

Society hides from its members its activities of organization and thus leads them to see its features as determinate and independent objects.

Harold Garfinkel, Studies in Ethnomethodology, 1967

The two things that civil servants do is write papers and have meetings… From that, things happen. Extraordinary though it might seem.

Civil servant, in Jo Maybin, Producing Health Policy, 2016

And even when we find it, action remains somehow mysterious, both in its high and low forms. We might ask ordinary questions even of very ordinary politics only to find that nobody quite knows how it works. This is partly because any given actor can only ever know part of the action, and partly because people don’t always know what they do, because for the most part they are doing rather than knowing, that is acting to the best of their understanding appropriately and efficiently – even in some sense automatically – rather than reflecting on what’s going on. The politics we want to know about – the politics people are doing – is ‘hiding in plain sight’.

Behind and beyond all this, our public discussion is both troubled and fascinated by politics. Public understanding of politics is distanced, heavily mediated and imbued with distrust and dissatisfaction. Publics are frustrated with those who represent them, and not necessarily with what they seem to stand for but with what they do and don’t do, with how they act, how they behave. At the same time, politics is flooded with the energy, imagination and innovation of new and differently-organized participants. That ‘politics is back’ has taken both politicians and political science by surprise. Ambivalence, uncertainty and contradiction are difficult things, and we need to address if not resolve them.

The American Presidency is a formidable, exposed, and somewhat mysterious institution. It is formidable because it represents the point of ultimate decision in the American political system. It is exposed because decision cannot take place in a vacuum: the Presidency is the center of the play of pressure, interest, and idea in the Nation; and the presidential office is the vortex into which all the elements of national decision are irresistibly drawn. And it is mysterious because the essence of ultimate decision remains impenetrable to the observer – often, indeed, to the decider himself.

John F Kennedy, foreword to Theodore Sorensen, Decision-Making in the White House, 1963

Quoted material is from Iver Neumann (2007) ‘”A speech that the entire Ministry may stand for,” or: why diplomats never produce anything new’, International Political Sociology 1 183–200, p 192; Cynthia Enloe (2011) ‘The mundane matters’, International Political Sociology 5 (4) 447-450, p 448; Harold Garfinkel, Studies in Ethnomethodology, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1967, p 182; Jo Maybin, Producing Health Policy, Knowledge and knowing in government policy work, 2016, p 1

Reference to small acts of resistance is learned from James Scott, Weapons of the Weak, Everyday forms of peasant resistance, New Haven: Yale UP, 1985. Kennedy’s reflection, made in his foreword to Theodore Sorensen’s Decision-Making in the White House: the olive branch or the arrows, New York: Columbia UP, 1963, subsequently gave the title to Graham Allison’s classic Essence of Decision