Book notice: The Limits of Identity Politics

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Dec 12 14:57:44 UTC 2006
>>From the issue dated December 15, 2006

The Limits of Identity Politics

Michaels questions the ability of a program in African-American studies to
recruit black students (or faculty members). Marketing to undergraduates
may indeed be a new rationale behind the creation of such programs at
Princeton and elsewhere. However, there were  and still remain  at least
two rationales for ethnic-studies programs in general and
African-American-studies programs in particular. The first is that the
African-American (or Asian or Latino) experience is not adequately
represented elsewhere in the university (or outside the halls of academe,
for that matter). The second rationale is that there is something unique
to the experience of each group worth studying in its own right.

Identity-based programs have been mushrooming across American campuses
since the late 1960s. Some academics have even been pushing for programs
in whiteness studies. Perhaps it's time to say enough is enough: As the
whiteness-studies movement shows, there is no end to the potential list of
identity-based programs. This has nothing to do with power-hungry
academics and everything to do with the nature of identity in modern

According to Georg Simmel, one of the founders of sociology (born a German
Jew, in case you're interested, but raised a Roman Catholic), premodern
society is characterized by concentric affiliations. That means that
everyone in my family lives in my village; everyone in my village lives
under the same king; everyone in the kingdom shares the same ethnicity,
religion, and so on. By contrast, modern society is characterized by sets
of overlapping affiliations that may be unique to each individual. Our
town and our family may not coincide, for example. Nor might our nation
and our religion. In fact, not everyone in a given family may even share
citizenship (my kids are Australian, for example, even though I am
American). If any one of us were to list all of our affiliations, we'd
probably find out that we are unique  voil: the birth of the individual.

What does all this have to do with African-American studies? First, it
suggests that while certain social identities are more important that
others, no one group perspective will ever capture the nature of identity
in modern (or postmodern) society. From a more pragmatic point of view, it
also suggests that identity-based departments are probably not a good way
to go in modern society, where the potential list of identities  and
intersections of identities  is limitless.

There is another, perhaps more important issue at stake here:
Identity-based programs tend to marginalize the very scholarship they are
meant to support. The history of American slavery becomes African-American
studies rather than history. The English-language literature of the Asian
diaspora becomes Asian-American studies rather than English. Even with
joint appointments, such marginalization has the effect of elevating the
unnamed default identity  whiteness  even more through its location in
traditional disciplines.

A much better use of resources by Princeton  or anywhere else  would be to
eschew special labels and instead hire folks who study the intersection of
race and class (to take an example Michaels offers us) in existing
disciplines. Otherwise, if we really want to level the playing field by
making everything "identity based," we'd better combine history, English,
and sociology into one big "White Men's Studies" department and make it
all explicit.

Dalton Conley, chairman of New York University's sociology department, is
author of The Pecking Order: Which Siblings Succeed and Why (Pantheon,
2004). Section: The Chronicle Review Volume 53, Issue 17,
Page B11


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