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More ISA Redux: Diversity Issues in the International Studies Association

February 27, 2010

A debate about the mission of the ISA Diversity Committee that started Tuesday at the Governing Council weekend and continued throughout the conference has inspired me to think about diversity issues in the International Studies Association and in a number of our other professional environments.

While I will inevitably mischaracterize the contours of this debate – I’ll try to describe it quickly as a prelude to what I want to say about these issues. The Diversity Committee (the old mission of which is still on its website, linked above), in reaction to the establishment of the Committee on the Status of Women and the (at the time pending) establishment Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Allies (LGBTQA) Caucus, suggested (and was granted) a change to its mission that narrows it to (part of) race and nationality politics within the organization, particularly:

The mission of the committee is (a) to promote the recruitment, integration, and professional development and visibility of underrepresented groups (African-American, Native Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans, Asian and Pacific Islanders) including individuals from the Global South (Asia, Africa, Latin America), and (b) to monitor and provide oversight with respect to these goals.

I think this mission is nothing short of a disaster for diversity promotion in ISA for a number of reasons (including that diversity is more than race, and that ISA’s significant European membership is entirely left out of that mission), but also provides an opportunity to think about what it would mean to value diversity in the organization. Here are some thoughts ….

It is a good and productive idea to value sex and race subordination on face. This is the work that we do acceptably now – looking for women, (sometimes) race and national minorities, “foreigners,” sex and gender minorities, religious minorities, etc. in our organization’s membership, its positions of service, its positions of power, and in indicators of opportunity, success, and staying power in the field.

However, there’s more to thinking about the diversity implications of every decision that we make then correcting discriminatory representational practices, and even correcting discriminatory representational practices is more complicated. First, to reiterate, there are more axes of diversity rights, like race, national origin, disability, sex, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc. Second, it is both a negative (neither ISA nor the profession are “diverse” enough along any of these axes) and a positive (the diversity of our community is a substantive and representational asset for us). Often, talk about diversity is in the negative (to save, take care of, emancipate underrepresented groups) to the neglect of the positive.

Even just talking about diversity in the negative sense, however, there’s a risk in what we call “essentialism” in identifying the people and groups that we want to look out for. What we mean by “essentialism” is the (implicit or explicit) assumption that groups have defined lines and that there are characteristics “essential” to membership in certain groups. In other words, we risk essentialism when we assume that “women” or “African American” or “[insert group here]” have particular personality characteristics and/or points of view because they are (perceived to be) members of those groups. Likewise, it is an oversimplified interpretation of the “diversity” project when we assume that certain underrepresented groups (for example, women) are represented in our governance structures and ideas because there is a member of that group is in a position of power. While representative diversity is an important component of making our organization more diverse and valuing its existing diversity, it is not the only (or even most important) component.

Instead, there’s a substance to diversity concerns as well. Are all our members being taken seriously as colleagues? Do essentialist notions of people underlie formal inclusion? Is there a (raced and gendered) power politics of interpersonal interactions in the organization?

These sorts of questions (which are the ones I hope the diversity committee was established to address, or at least that I hope it ultimately comes to address, or ISA addresses with or without it) require looking at diversity (even in the negative sense) as more than looking at the colors and shapes of faces. Instead, it requires seeing that the parameters, the rules, the electoral structures, the intellectual boundaries of our (and other) social and political organization(s) were established when men (and masculinity) were the majority. If we do not see that, our organization remains exclusionary even as we get better at representational diversity.

I am not advocating some sort of radical deconstruction of ISA as a policy choice or management strategy. Instead, I think that these insights suggest that we take account of both the actual and substantive diversity consequences of our decisions in more complicated ways – not only in choosing committee members or nominating ISA officers, but also in decision-making that appears “neutral” on the axes of diversity discussed above (budgeting, membership rules, etc).

Diversity is then more complicated then the (new) mission of the Committee on several levels. First, diversity about more than race/national origin, and limiting it to that is intellectually and politically both inaccurate and exclusionary. Second, the characterizations of race and national origin in this statement are United States-centric (with emphasis on minorities in the United States when 40% of our membership is from outside of the United States). While the “Global South” is included, our European and Australian members are not.

But perhaps diversity is also more complicated than the (old) mission of the committee as well. Even were this statement a “full” accounting for the axes of diversity in non-essentialist terminology, the statement would still be inappropriate, because it frames (lack of) diversity as a problem to be fixed (by adding underrepresented people to the field and aiding them in it) without acknowledging the positive side of diversity (and therefore, hopefully, the positive mission of a diversity committee) to highlight and emphasize diversity as an asset of our organization which improves its intellectual vibrancy, governance creativity, and sense of community as an organization.

Conscious discrimination (within our organization and in the field more generally) is a decreasing if not disappearing component of gender, race, disability, and other axes of subordination. The question is not now if but how to look out for diversity. In this spirit, it is crucial not to assume that gender, race, and embodied subordination disappears with the decrease in intentional discrimination or to assume that it is only “white American men” oppressing underrepresented groups. Instead, for example, men subordinate men on the basis of gender; women subordinate women on the basis of gender. Though it is not the only reading possible, I would read the current mission of the Diversity Committee as subordinating race/national origin minorities in ISA on the basis of race.

The question that we’re struggling with (hopefully) is to ask – if not this – then how? In the abstract, I think it is about asking questions about the substantive impact on diverse groups within our community of decisions that appear neutral – that is “diversity mainstreaming.” It is my contention that there is a mission for a Diversity Committee (distinct from other groups interested in minority rights in ISA) to have that does not necessarily require retreating to only thinking about race/national origin (even if it were doing so in an unproblematic way). While I don’t think that the language of the previous mission of the Diversity Committee (which privileges “women”) is particularly productive, I do think that it is dangerous to privileges some groups over others in the name of “diversity,” as well as to reify groups. If it is important to represent persons on the basis of race (which ISA doesn’t do) or national origin (which I am guessing is the idea behind the nomination of Non-North American members of the Governing Council), then I think that should be under the auspices of a body with such a mission not called the Diversity Committee (and I hope in a more nuanced way than the current language).

But I think Diversity Committee (and the ISA Diversity Committee) should have a both broader and deeper mission – to address diversity as a whole in a negative sense (how to get underrepresented groups represented both in positions of power and substantively) and (and even mainly) in the positive sense (how to see and advance our organization’s diversity as an asset in it). Can we do that? In ISA or elsewhere? I hope so.

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Laura Sjoberg is British Academy Global Professor of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway University of London and Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida. Her research addresses issues of gender and security, with foci on politically violent women, feminist war theorizing, sexuality in global politics, and political methodology. She teaches, consults, and lectures on gender in global politics, and on international security. Her work has been published in more than 50 books and journals in political science, law, gender studies, international relations, and geography.