How ‘Legitimate’ Pursuits of Knowledge are an Expression of Power (2019)


Reid, Rebecca A., and Todd Curry. 2019. “The White Man Template and Academic Bias: ‘Legitimate’ Pursuits of Knowledge are Expressions of Power.” Inside Higher Ed.  April 12, 2019. <;.

Political science, despite its efforts to diversify, fails to represent and include scholars of color and women. As of 2017, over 61% of political scientists identify as non-Hispanic white, with no ethnic or racial group even approaching the double digits (APSA 2018).[1] Hispanic and Latinx individuals comprise 4.76%, African Americans and Afro-Caribbeans comprise 3.59%, Middle Eastern and Arab Americans comprise 1.18%, East Asian and Asian Americans comprise 5.89%, South Asian and Indian American comprise 1.77%, and ‘other’ comprise 2.03%. Less than 35% of our discipline are women, and APSA does not report data on women of color, as they only account for women or people of color separately.[2] Despite the fact that scholars have been identifying this problem for decades, political science still seems surprised that it has not made the progress it promised/hope. While we recognize the solutions to recruit and retain women and scholars of color are difficult, the problems are obvious. For instance, we know that we need to fix the ‘leaky pipeline’ (Evans and Moulder 2011; Monforti and Michelson 2008; APSA Task Force 2004), eliminate promotion disparities (Mershon and Walsh 2015; Ginther 2004; Wolfinger, Mason, and Goulden 2008; Perna 2001), equalize current salary disparities (Ginther 2004; Bell 2001; Henehan and Sarkees 2009); reduce experiences with discrimination (Hesli 2013; Novkov and Barclay 2010; Hesli and Lee 2013), and address hostile climates in research and teaching (Alexander-Floyd 2008; Dion 2008; Sampaio 2006; Mathews and Andersen 2001; Breuning and Sanders 2007; Monforti and Michelson 2008; Wolfinger, Mason, and Goulden 2008; Anonymous and Anonymous 1999). These are all problems. Yet, the underlying paradigm of academia is itself a problem too. It is more insidious and ubiquitous, and it requires some serious thought on the part of political science to figure out what is it that we are really trying to do.

Academia and higher education are exclusionary by design and reproduce the same discriminatory barriers observed throughout American society (Rampogal 2017; Thomas 2017a, 2017b; Matthew 2016). Knowledge and the pursuit of knowledge is “always driven by ideology and power” (Smith 2007). All of us in higher education have inherited a white, hetero-normative, male template. And, thus far, we have perpetuated it. Despite the fact that this tradition directly undermines and contradicts the acclaimed mission of education to empower, enable social mobilization, and promote (and make accessible) knowledge, no real mainstream discussion has occurred. Instead, academia—especially political science—has remained static in its approach to diversification and inclusion, where its policies are either assimilationist or meaningless. Without having this discussion and implementing solutions, political science (and academia) will never appropriately progress. And not having this discussion means that we do not sufficiently want to change.

Academia’s “white male template” (Thomas 2017b) insidiously produces barriers for scholars throughout their entire careers and disproportionately affects people of color and women. The white man template dictates certain research agendas, epistemologies, and methods as ‘legitimate’ while discarding or marginalizing those that do not fit neatly within this framework. Scholars who focus on critical theory, race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and identities (among others) are marginalized because these research agendas are criticized as not being science, as only attractive to specialized audiences, as self-serving, as voluntary marginalization through identity politics, as confusing one’s professional and personal lives, and as political advocacy and lobbying masquerading as scholarship (Alexander-Floyd 2015; Hesli and Lee 2013; Brettschneider 2011; Mucciaaroni 2011; Seifert and Umbach 2008). Methodologically, qualitative scholars and theorists are marginalized because their scholarship is perceived to lack credibility, objectivity, and purpose. Because people of color and women are more likely to pursue these avenues of research (Tele and Thelen 2017; Evans and Moulder 2011; Breuning and Sanders 2007), these biases disproportionately discriminate against them. And they discriminate against them for their entire careers. These scholars face barriers on the job market and in tenure/promotions since both systems prioritize mainstream research epistemologies and agendas.

The substantive importance to this systematic bias is multifaceted, but for our interest we focus on two interconnected problems.  First, the discounting of scholarship outside of the white male template functionally increases the likelihood for women and people of color to leave the discipline early (Jayakumar, Howard, Allen, and Han 2009).  This negative racial climate is communicated, sometimes explicitly, sometimes more “subtlely,” through Ph.D. institutions, resulting in substantially higher attrition rates for graduate students whom do not fit the template (Gardner 2008). Recruitment and retention of a diverse faculty is thus hindered, but the problem in academia does not end there.  Second, it feeds back to our undergraduate students.  It is glaringly obvious to the two of us who teach at a minority serving institution that our discipline’s membership does not reflect our student population. This becomes problematic in that it tacitly implies that our discipline does not welcome them or that our non-white students do not fit in. In addition, students of color are much more likely to seek out mentoring from diverse faculty (Brown, Davis and McClendon 1999), which according to APSA memberships, are in low supply.  Students of color nationally have low retention rates and are significantly less likely to drop out when they are mentored (O’Keeffe 2013). Considering undergraduate students are the crop from which future faculty are drawn, our white male template in political science leads to us losing diverse voices from the top (faculty) to the bottom (undergraduates).

These biases again marginalize college graduates based upon their selection of graduate schools that best fit their interests because it places students with non-mainstream interests at less ‘prestigious’ graduate departments. This selection determines students’ opportunity for mentorship as well as access to networks and resources. The combination of specialized research agendas, with sidelined professional networks makes publication extremely difficult. Hence, from the point where a student selects research interests and a graduate program, that student experiences a chain reaction of marginalization that continues throughout graduate school and into the job market. That student is disadvantaged by the (perceived) lack of prestige of the graduate program, lack of mainstream professional networks, and absence of top tier journal publications. All of this makes success on the job market precarious—both in terms of not being perceived as sufficiently qualified or as not being the ‘right fit’ for the interviewing department.[3]

These issues continue even if the scholar finds a tenure-track job, since the cycle of marginalization weaves throughout tenure and promotion process via the same ‘objective’ metrics as the job market. The fundamental problem with colorblind, ‘objective’ evaluations is that they simultaneously hide and fuel privilege and the white man template that further favors of certain research over others (MacNell, Driscoll, and Hunt 2015). Despite our presumed intentions, the result of this system is not a meritocracy. This template disproportionately penalizes people of color and women with its strictly linear and narrow structure and metrics, which allows little space for creativity, innovation, and anything outside the traditional framework. It is no wonder that academia suffers from a ‘leaky pipeline’ where scholars, predominantly people of color and women, leave the discipline at alarming rates—especially when combined with the salary inequalities (Henehan and Sarkees 2009), invisible, unaccredited labor in student mentoring (Whitaker 2017; June 2015), decreased likelihood to see their papers published in prestigious journals (Teele and Thelen 2017; Evans and Moulder 2011; Hesli and Lee 2011; Breuning and Sanders 2007), less likely to be invited to contribute to edited volumes (Mathews and Anderson 2001), lack of research credit in terms of citations to their publications (Beaulieu et al. 2017; Maliniak, Powers, and Walter 2013; Mitchell, Lange, and Brus 2013), biased student evaluations (Uttl, White, and Gonzalez 2017; Boring, Ottoboni, and Stark 2016; Lilienfeld 2016), and additional service expectations where women and scholars of color end up serving as ‘tokens,’ being overwhelmingly relied on for service in committees (Mitchell and Hesli 2013; Pyke 2011; Turner 2002; Turner and Myers 2002; Milem 1999; Padilla 1994).

Perhaps the lack of adequate discussion and reform is due to the fear that including alternative research agendas, epistemologies, and methodologies would undermine the excellence and rigor of the scientific endeavors. More simply, since the perception that alternative (i.e. non-mainstream) scholarship is not ‘real’ science, or that the only way to study them is through a quantitative approach, including them would taint the discipline. In this framework, the exclusionary nature of academia is intentional to safeguard the discipline’s scientific credibility, validity, and objectivity.

This presumption is mistaken. There are three related assumptions that largely drive this erroneous argument. First, while political scientists know better, they typically equate ‘objectivity’ with quantitative methods. Yet, quantitative methods offer only a false veneer of objectivity. All numerical data is derived from qualitative input and theory. Numbers do not generate validity, much less objectivity. Political science has had this debate since positivism emerged in the discipline, but somehow we never settle it in term of how we behave and incentivize behavior.

Second, poor quality research is determined by the peer review process and not an inherent feature of any research agenda or methodology. Mainstream scholars seem to assume that specialized scholars got a free pass into their faculty position and are therefore under-qualified. However, these scholars have gone through the same academic coursework, training, and professionalization all the while facing more obstacles at every step of the way. Their scholarship goes through the same blind peer review and criticism as every other reputable, published work.

Relatedly, scholars may assume that because these research paradigms do not appear in prestigious journals, that they must be inferior. Though journals represent the main heuristic for evaluating scholarship ‘quality’, the underrepresentation of non-mainstream research in prestigious journals is due to self-enforced and pervasive bias reinforcing the white man template. The American Journal of Political Science and Journal Of Politics publish almost no qualitative articles  (Teele and Thelen 2017). Less than 20% of the work published in the American Journal of Political Science were by women, and of ten prominent political science journals, women are underrepresented in work across all methods except qualitative work and political theory (Teele and Thelen 2017; see also Breuning and Sanders 2007; Evans and Moulder 2011). These publication preferences force these scholars to publish in more specialized journals, which are often considered less prestigious and thus discounted.

In short, political science’s metrics of quality and merit inherently incorporate and exacerbate privilege and perpetuate the white man template of research. Increased inclusivity would offer a wealth of benefits—at no cost to the prestige and rigor of the discipline. Better (i.e. meaningfully) including marginalized scholars means that higher education will enjoy richer data analysis that combines contextual and theoretical knowledge with positive empiricism to facilitate greater analytical insight. In addition to being valuable in its own right, this scholarship can help propel fixed, narrowly construed, theoretically unsophisticated concepts and relationships into more appropriate, enriched, and dynamic ones. This scholarship thus helps political science scholarship to challenge deep-seated notions, beliefs, assumptions, and definitions. These features increase the influence, excellence, and relevance of political science.

In addition, the inclusion of faculty of color and women lead to better education. Faculty of color and women are more likely to employ active learning techniques and student-centered approaches than their colleagues (Milem 1997; Milem and Wakai 1996; Milem and Astin 1992) and more likely to include perspectives of minorities in their curriculum (Milem 2003). They are more likely to use innovated and effective educational techniques (Umbach 2006). Female faculty are more likely to encourage students’ input and independence, viewing students as active collaborators in the learning process (Statham, Richardson, and Cook 1991). These student-oriented climates produce “more positive student outcomes than almost any other environmental variable” (Milem 2003). Scholars of color and women are further more involved in individual student mentorship and advising (Whitaker 2017) and service-related activities than their colleagues (Milem 1999).

In sum, eliminating the white man template from political science is not only morally right but offers a wealth of benefits. The decision of what scholarship and methodologies we neglect or accept is a political one. This political decision has perpetuated discriminatory traditions, so if we are serious about diversification and inclusion, then we have to do more than pay lip service and go beyond quota-style assimilationist policies. Current piecemeal policies only exacerbate exclusionary tensions and unfairly burden or punish valuable members of our discipline. We suggest that it is time to explicitly acknowledge our white male template and heritage, and then actively, consistently, and completely reform it. The future of political science, its ability to contribute to the real world, and its perceived value in society depends on it.


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[2] The APSA dashboard does not allow users to examine two different subsets of data simultaneously (i.e. women of color).

[3] The ‘right fit” is often simply code that the department or hiring committee does not view the candidate as a real scholar, that they do not want or cannot see themselves working with the candidate, and/or that, if hired, the candidate is going to be lone minority member and thus token, which means that candidate will likely leave.