Feminist labour at the ISA: White manels, the politics of citation and mundane productions of disciplinary sexism and racism

This piece is co-authored by a Feminist IR collective (Linda Åhäll, Sam Cook, Roberta Guerrina, Toni Haastrup, Cristina Masters, Laura Mills, Saara Särmä and Katharine A. M. Wright).


At the International Studies Association (ISA) Annual Convention in San Francisco this April there were, as usual, many all-male panels. However, while they remain prevalent, the number appears to be decreasing at ISA at least. At the same time as ‘manels’ have been challenged both within the discipline and more broadly, attention has been given to the gender citation gap, whereby men benefit from ‘a significant and positive gender citation effect compared to their female colleagues’. International Relations is no exception here, women tend to cite themselves less than men, and men (already overrepresented in the discipline) are more likely to cite other men over women.

We were surprised then to find that a panel titled ‘Citation Is What We Make of It! Towards a Theory of Citation and the Implications of Citation Practice for IR Knowledge and Production’ at ISA featured not only no women on the panel, but, as it later transpired, no discussion of the gendered or racialized geographies of citations. Moreover, one of the panelists has published in International Organization on this very issue. As a result, the politics of citation practice was mysteriously absent. Laura Mills’ tweet questioning whether this was ‘some subversive performance art beyond [her] ken’ received significant attention. We attended the panel, some due to our interest in citations and others out of curiosity about subversiveness at ISA. Our presence as feminist scholars was noticeable, since we far outnumbered the four other audience members. From our perspective, the interactions around this panel were illustrative of the ways in which even those who on the surface appear to address such issues, can fall into a trap of talking past them. They can in fact reify a pernicious politics, which characterises IR as just the sum of its citations.

A Limited Vision of International Relations

The vision of IR the panel presented was both particular and exclusionary. It focused both on a narrow understanding of what IR is and of who is seen to ‘do’ IR. As Jess Gifkins has pointed out, IR more broadly is “‘cannibalistic’ (of other disciplines) and ‘slow’ (amongst other things)”. It creates ‘new turns’ without acknowledging that this knowledge has already been produced in cognate disciplines. These traits were exemplified in this space not only through the composition of the panel, but just as pertinently through the myth of IR they spoke to. An elitist IR where citation practices are the measure of contribution, and one whose contributions are siloed away from other relevant knowledge which might challenge them. Yet, the panel title and the questions posed in the call for papers for the panel suggested this could have provided an important space to address these issues.

The panel title – ‘Citation is what we make of it!’ – prompts consideration of what was being ‘made’ on a panel on citation practice and its implications for knowledge production in IR. How ironic that the panel not only failed to consider the politics of their own citation practices in the papers presented, but also failed to consider the very idea of IR produced as an effect of such utterances! Arguably an IR premised on exclusion, silencing and erasure when no mention of race or gender appeared in any of the presentations. Outside of our prompting during the Q&A, there was little to no reflection of why they began and ended their reflections on citation in IR where they did, why these might be the ‘most pertinent’ conversations, and what ‘vision’ of IR was being produced as an effect. Surely a panel title invoking critical reflection on citation would also prompt some kind of self-reflection. Therefore, the title also prompts consideration of what the implications of these practices are for what ‘counts’ as ‘legitimate’ ‘knowledge’. It points to the incessant gatekeeping of particular kinds of scholarship as ‘knowledge’. For who is this ‘we’ that has the privilege to ‘make’ of citation what it will?

All-male, all-white panels cannot be separated from the broader structural inequalities of our discipline which manifest themselves in particular and pernicious ways at ISA. Why? Because when women and people of colour are absent from the stage, their contributions are also made invisible. Manels reinforce the notion that white men are ‘experts’, marginalizing the authority and experience of others. The racism, sexism, and ableism embedded within IR as a discipline become all the more visible at this conference. This particular and exclusionary vision of what (and who) IR is communicated by the panel support, rather than challenge, these wider inequalities. As Marysia Zalewski writes in reference to all-male panels at the ISA in 2015: “Why is it that resistances to curtailing sexism, misogyny and racism remain so strong? Few in a field of study such as IR would simply say “no” to the call to curtail these violences. But many choose not to notice and not to think. Or to choose to be unthinking, even offended when such violences are pointed out. And in effect to not see the violence at all or acknowledge its viscous place in our power-drenched institutional structures.”

Indeed, the very use of the language of violence to describe manels could be met with further resistance. It would be all too easy to respond that to speak of violence as enacted in and through the ‘mundane’ site of the conference panel is to descend to hyperbole. Continue reading

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