The Other Dimensions of Inclusion (and Exclusion) in Political Science

by PM

16 August 2013, 1229 EDT

Dan’s post on his self-experiment in raising citations to female scholars has drawn a critical comment from someone who wonders about whether similar patterns exist with reference to minority scholars and scholars from outside North America. The issues of gender, race, and national (regional) origin are distinct, but if we’re going to have a wide-ranging discussion about inclusion and exclusion in the field then we ought to address these issues squarely.

Just to be clear about the parameters of this discussion: it seems clear to me that we need to discuss the recruitment, retention, and recognition of scholars as distinct topics. Within each sphere, we are also discussing what we view as legitimate conduct as well as the allocation of resources. Talking about what we view as morally desirable is much easier than talking in particular terms about how those norms should result in an actual reallocation of scarce graduate student slots, faculty lines, citations, and honors.

We should also be bluntly clear about what we take as legitimate subjects for discussion. In the 1930s, a similar discussion would have been required to discuss the status of people of Jewish affiliation/heritage/confession (and probably of Catholic confession or heritage as well) in ways that are no longer appropriate. Similarly, it appears reasonable to me to suppose that there are differences between the challenges facing someone who is of Asian or Asian-American heritage and those facing someone who is of African or African-American heritage. Both are presumptively disadvantaged, but the structures that have generated that disadvantage within the United States context (which is the context I know best and to which I will restrict my discussion) are vastly different and the implications of those disadvantages for working scholars are similarly different. With that said, some research does indeed suggest that the relevant distinction is not white/black/Asian/Hispanic/etc. but rather white/non-white–that any process that challenges white Americans’ status as a distinctively privileged group, regardless of the racial identity of the group undertaking the challenge, will lead to white Americans’ increasing their propensity to resist that tendency.

Moreover, the study of intersectionality should remind us that the effects of different structures of oppression are not necessarily additive and linear but are instead nonlinear and slightly unpredictable. The opportunities for and challenges facing a white homosexual male are, it seems plausible to assert, vastly different than those for a black homosexual female. If nothing else, the black homosexual female will likely have an incontrovertibly smaller range of faculty jobs that she can accept, since (again, in the United States) the sorts of social circumstances (not only in “town” but even on campus) that will sustain her are much more straitened than those for someone who looks like a member of the dominant group.

Why consider race, gender, and national/regional origin as distinctive sources of privilege and oppression? If we adopt a radically uncotenable counterfactual, it seems reasonable to believe that any of these sources of inclusion and exclusion would be able to persist on their own. If the United States consisted solely of African-Americans, for instance, then it is likely that there would continue to be gender disparities. Similarly, a United States that consisted of blacks and whites of both male and female genders (e.g., something pretty close to the United States of 1940) would nonetheless still have racism and sexism. Each construct, in other words, is analytically separable from the others, even if we should be aware of their interactive effects.

I have not dwelt as much on the non-North American/non-European source of privilege that the commenter mentioned because this is something that is more pertinent to scholarly communities as such. If I identify as part of the X School, and citations are meant (ideally) to show my intellectual debts, then for me to cite members of the Y School (or the JJ discipline) in a piece of “normal science” would be odd indeed. In other words, for me to not cite someone from outside of my epistemic solar system (or, if the piece is written in a language I don’t read, an entire epistemic galaxy) is distinctive from what Maliniak, Powers, and Walter have found. They have uncovered evidence that is consonant instead with a widespread failure to cite scholars who, were the male, would likely have been cited instead. Noncitation and failure to cite are different topics.

The first of the areas for us to discuss is the question of recruitment into the field. I mean recruitment to include anything we believe is part of the process of forming scholars, from understanding the rules of the research university (something difficult even for students whose parents, grandparents, and beyond attended college, much less for first-generation college students) to the process whereby research or at least some body of knowledge entrances a student enough to want to go to graduate school to the early stages of professionalization of a graduate student into a full (junior) member of the profession.

Plenty of research has been done on this subject (how to affect minority enrollment in graduate programs, the financial and other challenges minorities face once they enroll) and a variety of disciplines take this mission seriously (e.g. the American Physical Society). Ironically, it was a post about precisely this stage of the career in which Brian Rathbun triggered the Duck’s conversation about these issues. The power asymmetries that he attempted to address are matched by a variety of cultural gaps and information asymmetries. Practically all of us have suffered from cognitive balking at trying to process “a rhetorical and discursive etiquette as mind-blowingly arcane as table manners at a state dinner in 19th Century Western Europe”; without additional coaching and mentorship for those of us who do not come from academic backgrounds, let me assure those of you who did that the stilted and sometimes inhuman ways the profession (any discipline, really) behaves are utterly unlike the ways that people believe in many other parts of the adult world–always in form and usually in substance, too.

In some ways, recruitment is the easiest part of the process to fix. But as reflection and perusal of the relevant literature will soon suggest, it is in other ways the hardest. Graduate school continues to operate on the presumption that students can be paid poverty wages but live in acceptable (for minimal definitions of “acceptable”) circumstances because graduate students will naturally and routinely move upward from their pupal state and become faculty members. This was probably never a fair assumption but by this point any administrator or faculty member who believes that their students will get a job in academia upon completion of a dissertation under ordinary effort–and I here include administrators and faculty at Harvard–is delusional. The structure of graduate school favors precisely those students who have families of some means and the ability to defer childrearing or defray their costs somehow. That hardly helps with recruitment. Fixing this, in other words, requires not just a nebulous “commitment” to “diversity” but real steps to make being a graduate student an affordable endeavor.

Retention is the continuous process whereby scholars decide whether to remain in the profession or not–and whereby the profession decides to retain the scholar or not. There are obvious landmarks along the path (being hired into a faculty job, being tenured) but the process itself is more continuous than simply looking at discrete outcomes would suggest. Retention is in part a question of climate and atmosphere. The tenure process is stressful for everyone, or so I’m told (one day, perhaps, I’ll understand this at first hand), but it seems reasonable to believe that there are questions of allocation of resources (in this case, perhaps, more time than money) that could help the retention of female academics, in particular (see e.g. but the relevant articles are sadly too numerous to list).

Yet retention also requires sensitivity. Lack of sensitivity can be expressed in a number of ways, but failing to reflect on language choices and other symbolic acts is an important cause of both acts that are taken to be insensitive and those that clearly are. (A minor example, and one that does not involve a faculty member: when my institution delayed paying me several thousand dollars over the course of months last summer, administrators suggested I ask my parents for a loan. There’s clearly something inscribed in their expectations about what family circumstances for a graduate student are like.) Aggressively gendered language choices, particularly in a written context, are likeliest to aggravate these problems. The failure of a moral imagination to comprehend that such choices are likely to be perceived as hostile–can, in fact, be actively hurtful and discouraging–is perhaps a sign that even the academy needs more sensitivity training, either formally or (more likely) informally. In particular, it is never the “job” of a minority group to instruct members of a dominant group about proper behavior; in fact, the obligation rests, in an ethical sense, rather entirely on the dominant group instead.

Here we come to the issue of recognition, which encompasses a broader range of issues but which can be most clearly summed up in the issue over whether we as a discipline cite and promote based on academic standards or whether such processes are meaningfully inflected by race, gender, and other sources of privilege and disadvantage. I assume that it is pretty clearly the latter. In my own work over the past year, as I’ve become more interested in work with co-authors on issues that involve both gender and religion, I’ve noticed that the default citations in comparative politics, although somewhat more diverse than the default citations in IR, are nonetheless largely to a stock of older, whiter men. When I say “default citations” I mean precisely those that Nexon describes as the kinds of citations where the precise details of the argument don’t matter, but rather the reference genuflects toward a literature or a line of argument. Many, but not all of these, could include the lines “see, for example….”

My co-author and I have tried mightily to do the same. The Maliniak, Powers, and Walter piece was a major influence, but not the only one; when writing about oil politics, gender, and the Middle East, for instance, it is rather depressingly easy to write a manuscript without once including a citation to someone who is of Middle Eastern origin and to emerge with only two or three citations to females. When we noticed this, we suspected both that we had been too lazy in our original citations and also that we were probably missing important viewpoints that could help us better understand our topic. And, in fact, on making an effort to reclaim precisely the work of women and those of non-North American origin on this topic, we discovered entire lines of argument that the political science literature (it seems to us) had not fully appreciated or even, perhaps, been aware of.

One point that should be noted, then, is that although citations are in part an allocative act–word limits are scarce and every citation “costs” about 25 words–they are also habitual. Being habitual, they are also therefore limiting. We as scholars should make a point of reading the work of people who aren’t like the traditional molds of scholars (again, in the U.S. context) not because it is a good thing to do by PC lights but because it is a good source of thinking that we should engage with in our jobs.

There are more dimensions to consider than those that I put forward here. Sexual orientation may be the most readily available one, but others (including cognitive distinctions and class origins) are no less obvious. I intend for this post to be more of a framework for discussing these issues–are we talking about recruitment or retention? are we talking about allocation or normative discussions?–than a definitive statement. But the commenter on Dan’s post and the commenters elsewhere on the Duck have pretty clearly signaled that there are folks who are interested in having this conversation.