What is your name English course

Academic guidelines, generalization and inequality

5 minutes to read
Marissa Bakx

Day in day out, we as scholars use academic guidelines like APA. This form of standardization is broadly accepted by the academic world. But have you ever thought about the system of standardization itself?

Before I read an article by Payal Arora, which shows the two sides of academic standardization: generalization versus individualism, I never even considered the possible disadvantages this system could create for minorities.

Academic guidelines and the need for unification

According to APA, the style was “first developed in 1929 by a group of social scientists who wished to establish sound standards of communication”. The aim of this system is to increase the ease of reading comprehension. APA can be considered a form of publishing policy. Within that framework, we can define the problem APA set out to solve as a need for unification. In relation to the means that can be used in the implementation process of this policy, different policy models can be distinguished.

The APA shared information about their publication style with the academic world, which reflects a communicative model. Besides the new style being preached by its inventors, we can also see an element of punishment, or a "stick", in this case. As Donald Lemaire explains: “The law, backed up with the threat of sanction, represents the “stick” used to prescribe or prevent certain types of human behavior.” (Bemelmans-Videc, Rist & Vedung, 2010, p. 59) As a matter of fact, when a scholar does not implement this particular style of referencing in his or her work, it will not get published (easily). The actors in this model have the power to indirectly ruin the academic career of scholars by refusing to publish their work.

This shows that besides the communicative model, a legal model is used as well. Last but not least, the economic model is implemented, which is "involving the handing out or the taking away of material resources while the addressees are not obligated to take the measurements involved" (Bemelmans-Videc, Rist & Vedung, 2003, p. 11). According to Vedung, subsidies are an example of this concept, the subsidies being the “carrot”. Using APA - in combination of course with writing a good article - might lead to the reward of being published, i.e. the "carrot".

Social inequality created by naming

One aspect of the APA referencing system is filling in the First Name and Last Name of the author, which I always did mindlessly. For me, it is just a standard procedure, however Payal Arora showed that it is not like that for everybody. Although she understands the need for academic standardization, she witnesses several cases in which this can be of disadvantage for some scholars.

danah boyd: “it's my name and i should be able to frame it as i see fit, as my adjective”

Take for example India, where your last name belongs to a a certain caste and as such reveals your membership of that caste. Being forced to use your first and last name in your academic life therefore creates social inequality. This happened, for example, in the case of the Indian scholar Madhu, who wished to only use her first name.

In the United Kingdom, where she would be part of a workshop, the issue of Madhu only wanting to use her last name caused a problem, as the organizers of the event had to fill both columns as part of the academic protocol. She therefore was referred to as Madhu Madhu.

Other academics 

The case of Madhu is just one example of the many more cases in which having to use your first and last name to publish your academic work is a matter of concern. It seems hard to generalize instructions regarding how to fill in names in academia, as scholars have such diverse backgrounds.

Take for example China, in which the order of your name is the opposite of the APA guidelines. Professor Emeritus of Anthropology UCSD, David K. Jordan, illustrates a common misunderstanding. As he explains, some Chinese writers in English “reverse the order and put the family name last in order to conform to English usage”. Jordan explains that this can lead to confusion when you are not aware of what the person’s first name and last name is, when they are not distinctive enough. He admits that it took him some years before he knew whether anthropologist Chiao Chien was Dr. Chiao or Dr. Chien as he saw his name in both orders.

Another example that led to confusion in the academic world is the case of danah boyd. Yes, I write her name in lower case as that is what she wants us to do. boyd is one of the authors who refuse to use capitals in their names. On her website, she explains that her decision to leave capitalization out of her name is because of political and personal reasons. The principal researcher at Microsoft Research sees capitalization of your name as self-righteous, which is also the reason why she does not want to capitalize “I” as well. She even aims to instead capitalize “we” or “they”. She says: “it's my name and i should be able to frame it as i see fit, as my adjective”, while asking herself why she should follow a guideline.

Some organizations try to adapt to the way she wants her name to be “framed” (as she calls it herself). On the cover of her book “It’s Complicated” her name is written without capitals. However the standardized categories of one of the webshops her book is sold on demand to write names of authors using capitals. In the category “Auteur” (translation: “Author”) on Bol.com, we see her name written with capitals. This can be seen as a typical example of standardization.

Book of danah boyd on Bol.com

The start of a new policy?

The cases of the Chinese professor, danah boyd and Madhu are just a few examples that show how having to use your first and last name according to the guidelines, in order to publish your academic work, is a matter of concern. It seems hard to generalize instructions regarding how to fill in names in academia, as scholars have such diverse backgrounds.

However, when for example Madhu would be allowed to only use her first name, this would be a privilege. The chances are higher that similar cases will be excluded by these same academic organizations. At first, these people can be rejected by organizations within the academic world, but as the formation of an ideology is the first step of the policy cycle, maybe these striking examples can be the start for a new policy.


Bemelmans-Videc, M.-L., Rist, R.C. & Vedung, E. (Eds.) (2003). Carrots, sticks & sermons : policy instruments and their evaluation. Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, N.J.

Bemelmans-Videc, M.-L., Rist, R.C. & Vedung, E. (Eds.) (2010). Carrots, sticks & sermons : policy instruments and their evaluation. Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, N.J.