Critical Point 3: The resistance to identity theories, or methodological whiteness

This is the third post in a series of critical engagements with Hugh Gusterson’s paper, Homework: Toward a Critical Ethnography of the University. I won’t repeat the framing of this series here, but you may want to read the introduction before continuing, or see the whole list of posts.

The corollary to Gusterson’s return to political economy is a rejection of what we could call, very broadly, identity theories. By identity theories I mean the whole set of traditions which have insisted that all thought emerges from a particular place in the social world, from a particular subject position.

Such traditions insist typically that identity matters and it matters who speaks and it matters where we speak. One version of this project is called standpoint theory. But the general rubric I have in mind is much broader, including intellectual traditions like feminist theory, race theory, queer theory, intersectional analysis, postcolonial theory, ideology theory…

Such theories question all claims — especially Eurocentric and colonial claims — to unmarked, universal reason. They call attention to the default whiteness of too much critical theory. They put in question masculinity and gender relations. They may problematize heteronormativity. They comment on the geopolitics of knowledge in a postcolonial era.

Gusterson does not let himself really engage with identity theories. As we saw at the outset of this series, his resistance to “identity” goes along with his aesthetic resistance to scholarly research that seems too “particular” or “partial,” and his general sense that “ethnic and gender relations” are merely “particular” phenomena, whereas he aspires to something more general.

As such, his work has a certain resonance with what Gurminder K. Bhambra terms methodological whiteness. Bhambra writes:

‘Methodological whiteness’, I suggest, is a way of reflecting on the world that fails to acknowledge the role played by race in the very structuring of that world, and of the ways in which knowledge is constructed and legitimated within it. It fails to recognise the dominance of ‘whiteness’ as anything other than the standard state of affairs and treats a limited perspective – that deriving from white experience – as a universal perspective. At the same time, it treats other perspectives as forms of identity politics explicable within its own universal (but parochial and lesser than its own supposedly universal) understandings.

I don’t want to oversimplify: of course Gusterson is aware in principle of the significance of racial structures of domination in U.S. higher education. But for want of a more extensive engagement with theories of race and of identity in general, he nevertheless ends up, to borrow Bhambra’s formulation, “treating other perspectives as forms of identity politics explicable within [his] own universal understandings.”

Now for the sake of fairness, my general impression of Gusterson’s resistance to identity theories does demand two qualifications.

Qualification 1: Gusterson does make a major gesture towards feminism. It’s where he gets the title of his paper. He says as much in a footnote (446n2):

[Note 2:] The title is also a reference to Kamala Visweswaran’s (1994) feminist argument in favor of a reflexive “homework” that acknowledges its own locations, blind spots, and partialities.

OK so in sum… feminism is both consecrated by citation, and consigned to a footnote.

This, I fear, pretty much sums up the token place of identity theory in Gusterson’s paper. Of course Gusterson is quite right, in his reference to Visweswaran, that we should try to “acknowledge our own locations.” Yet the problem is: by gesturing towards positionality quite abstractly, and in a footnote, he walls off this project, literally demoting it to the margins of his paper. Correspondingly, he fails to ever actually do the work of figuring out what his position means.

Qualification 2: Gusterson does think about racialization and minoritization as it intersects with his preferred style of political economy. For example, he thinks about producing inequality:

Universities have become part of an apparatus that is sedimenting inequality and making social mobility harder. Universities lean heavily in admissions decisions on standardized tests, despite compelling evidence that these tests are biased against racial minorities and those from lower socioeconomic groups. (443)

And he invokes the racialized economic discipline of student debt:

For minority students who borrow then drop out, instead of being a ladder to increased earnings and status, the university system becomes a trapdoor through which they fall to a life of increased debt without increased earnings, their ambitions for self-betterment used against them as a means of keeping them down. (444)

But it is one thing to be aware of the sociological realities of racial exclusion and another to let its existence inform one’s epistemology and even one’s sense of self. Gusterson does the former, not the latter.

Thus “minority students,” as he repeatedly calls them, are essentially Other to him, constituting his object of political-economic inquiry, rather than informing his subject position. Gusterson would perhaps say that he was just being realistic. Clearly it is not Gusterson who fell through a trapdoor into a life of increased debt without increased earnings. He is not the one whose ambitions for self-betterment were used against him. It is not he — a white Englishman whose first degree is from Cambridge — who identifies as a minoritized subject.

Now it is not that I wish Gusterson would identify “as” someone he “is not.” What I wish is that he were more viscerally aware of his own location and how it informs not just his experience but his entire system of theoretical values and categories. And I wish he had let identity theories — in all their guises — enter his own thinking more deeply.

As things stand, Gusterson does not really take seriously either his own specific social position or the vast literature on identities and standpoints. He writes in the main as someone who has the privilege of looking, and not so much the burden of being looked at. Methodological whiteness, indeed.

N.B. There may be those who wonder: Who are you, Eli Thorkelson, white North American anthropologist, seemingly unmarked subject, to applaud identity theories and denounce Gusterson’s indifference towards them? To which I would respond that the question is, of course, quite valid. This is not really the place for an autobiography (here’s a brief one), but I would at least note that I would locate myself in a structurally intermediate position, as a product of an elite U.S. anthropology Ph.D. program, yet also in precarious circumstances, and working on topics outside the mainstream of anthropological research. In any event, as the editor of Academography, I feel a professional obligation to care about the politics of representation in papers like Gusterson’s.

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Eli Thorkelson

Eli Thorkelson edits Academography and also keeps a research blog at decasia.

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