6 Jan 2017
by Laura Sjoberg
(A really long caveat): I have nothing but respect for David Lake. In the last few years, I have interacted with him professionally on a number of occasions. I have found him to be generous, open-minded, and self-reflective. I have found him to intend inclusion at every time possible. Many people in David’s position of privilege in the field either fail to reflect on the issues that David does or fail to take the risk of sharing their reflection. Many people in David’s position of privilege in the field fail to do the hard work to make the field better that David does every day. I have rarely met a more thoughtful leader, and appreciate the work that he does in the field. I think that the field is better off for David’s leadership, and significantly so. I say this because I think David’s piece is a brave thing to have done, and something he did not have to do – and it is important to note that the critique that comes here is only possible because David took that risk, and that my critique should be (and is) louder towards those who failed to take the risk. That said, I couldn’t read David’s confessional and not react. My reaction is partial – it is my experience and my confessional, rather than a full-scale engagement with the argument. Particularly, I didn’t comment extensively on the discussion of race in the confession, because I don’t think I would/could do that justice. Like David, I benefit from many of the discipline’s axes of power, and its important then to recognize that this critique can always be only partial. RelationsInternational would be happy, however, to publish both further discussion and any engagement David might want to have with this conversation.
David Lake’s “White Man’s IR: An Intellectual Confession“ suggests that the exclusion of women and minorities from the field of IR results in intellectual convergence, “leaving other questions unasked because they do not appear relevant, other theories unexamined because they do not resonate with our intuitions, and other predictions untested.” Dr. Lake then suggests that he would be a better scholar, and IR would be a better field, if it had more a more diverse representation of scholars. As he critiques the “practices and privileges” that keep IR largely white and largely male, Dr. Lake admits to having been complicit in those practices and privileges, and benefitting from them. He then also suggests that little he writes about making the field more diverse is new, suggesting that “it is precisely as a beneficiary of the ‘system,’ however, that I hope my remarks might have some impact. I apologize nor for the lack of originality in this essay, only for my tardiness in understanding the issues and why they are important.” Lake goes on to recognize that disciplinary hierarchy and gate-keeping reify a lack of diversity, and should be questioned – “white man’s IR begets white man’s IR.” He suggests that, even when it is non-white or non-male scholars doing IR, they are constrained by disciplinary and job-related incentives.
This premise for the article, I think, is impressive: a recognition of the substantive need for diversity and an apology for not coming to that conclusion earlier. It is when Lake goes on to explain why he sees diversity as substantively important that I stop being on board with the article. His argument (paraphrasing here because this is likely already going to be a long blog post) is that lived experience shapes intuition, and intuition shapes theorizing. Because “the lived experience of white males in the US during the twentieth century, for instance, share similarities that are different from those for women, blacks, Hispanics, and other racial minorities,” their different lived experiences will cause them to contribute different theorizations.
It is true that lack of representational diversity makes for a lack of substantive (and, though not recognized by Lake, epistemological and methodological) diversity. But that realization does not necessitate an essentialist claim that women, blacks, Hispanics, and other racial minorities (either across groups, which could be read into the comments, or, more likely what Lake meant, within groups) necessarily have something in common. There’s a reason there aren’t a lot of standpoint feminists left in academia – because of the realization that there is violence in assuming that there is a standpoint which women have. That violence is three-fold: first, it suggests standards that legitimate (and therefore delegitimize) claims to womanhood exist and can be deployed; second, it suggests that biological sex is a clear and primordial thing; third, it suggests that gender maps onto sex one-to-one.
So, in one sense, I’m exactly the woman that Dr. Lake is talking about – someone whose intellectual interest is in gender, which is a topic that was traditionally ignored by the white men who constituted the field, and is getting more attention as the field gets more (but still embarrassingly not enough) diversity of scholars. On the other hand, my interest in gender in global politics comes less from being a woman than from being a person who was labelled a woman but felt intensely uncomfortable with that label itself and the expectations of femininity that come with it.
Why does that matter? Is it just that one confessional deserves another?
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