Conferences, course readers and citations. Challenging the Politics of Knowledge

4 minutes to read
Ana Deumert

International is a buzzword in the neo-liberal academy: scholars strive for international recognition, conferences are positioned as international events, and institutions recruit international students and faculty in order to improve their global rankings.

In principle, internationalization should be welcomed. As The Internationale reminds us, it can build solidarity in the struggle against inequality and oppression. Yet, internationalization of the neo-liberal kind is something quite different: international recognition translates into ‘has your research been published by Euro-American publishing houses and is it cited by those who matter’; international conferences are often gatherings of mostly Euro-American scholars; the faculty for which universities compete come from highly ranked institutions in the Global North; and the international student body that is show-cased on promotional broschures are those who can pay the ever increasing fees for tertiary education. 

Geopolitics: a politics of exclusion 

Geopolitics is, as the Puerto Rican scholar Nelson Maldonado-Torres reminds us, ‘both a politics of the earth and a politics of exclusion’ .

Work on the ‘geographies of knowledge’ shows – study after study – that where one lives, where one works, where one is located, and who one is, matters. The production of knowledge remains hegemonic, with clear centres and peripheries, shaping diverse processes of ‘epistemic subordination’ (Maldonado-Torres, ibid.). 

The geopolitics of knowledge are perhaps most evident in global university rankings. These rankings are deeply problematic and contested, yet are nevertheless an important index for visibility, working conditions and access to material resources. Highly ranked institutions cluster in the USA, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. South Africa’s formerly white universities are also doing well, as are some institutions in Asia and South America. 

Yet, the broader pattern remains unchanged: the majority world, where over eighty percent of humanity lives, is invisible on these maps, which are created annually, and which shape perceptions and policies.

Citation matters: the imperial scholar 

The geopolitics of knowledge are also visible in citation practices, which are further underpinned by processes of racial and gendered exclusion. 

Already in the early 1980s, Richard Delgado wrote about what he calls the ‘imperial scholar’, noting the fact that the civil rights literature in the United States was dominated by the voices of white men. These white men belonged to an inner-circle of scholars who would cite one another, and thus controlled the legal discourse on civil rights. 

The politics of knowledge are not simply about representation. It is about our quest for knowledge

Delgado argued that this affected theory building in the legal profession: the white authors tended to focus their attention on the legal implications of overtly racist acts, such as the use of racial slurs, and often ignored ‘the more pervasive and invidious forms’ that racism can take. 

They also redefined civil rights in such a way that the redistribution of property became a non-issue. ‘Forty acres and a mule’, the call of freed African Americans in the aftermath of the civil war, was quickly silenced – just as discussions about reparations for slavery and colonialism are silenced today. 

Delgado’s article stirred controversy at the time. One of his colleagues described the article as an ‘intellectual handgranade’, thus confirming that to show how power works in the academy can be akin to going on the barricades. 


Thirty years later the debates are still ongoing. A 2018 study of citation practices in the field of communication studies suggests that little has changed when it comes to citing scholars of colour. 

Paula Chakravartty and her colleagues analyzed twelve well-known journals and their results are unambigious: authors of colour are heavily underrepresented and rarely cited, creating ‘a hierarchy of visibility and value’. Chakravartty and her colleagues argue that there exist exclusive ‘citation networks’ within the discipline, which create a scholarly world shaped by ‘citational segregation’. 

Gender matters too

Looking up the top fifty scholars in the category ‘sociolinguistics’ on Google Scholar shows that gender matters too, but in different ways. There is representation, but limited citation. 

Thus, female scholars make up almost half of the top fifty scholars in the field and have clearly claimed their place in the discipline. Yet, their citation indices are significantly lower than those of male scholars. On average female citations are about a third of those for male scholars, and the top male scholar has close to ten times as many citations as the top female scholar. 

Such disparities of representation and citation are the result of academic socialization practices which teach students from early on who matters, who is authoritative, whose work exibits methodological and intellectual rigor, etc. One way in which this is achieved is through course readers and the textbooks we use. 

Changing our practices

What can we do to change the status quo? A first step is consciousness raising.

We can turn to Sarah Ahmed’s feminist intervention and combine it with a decolonial intervention: go to the index of a book you are reading and count how many authors from Africa, South America, Asia, the Pacific and the Carribean are cited? How many people of colour? How many women? 

Just a bit over a month ago, Ingrid Pillar issued a challenge to sociolinguistics on her blog: ‘Why are you not citing any African female expert?’. She continues: 'The experts in African sociolinguistics who I can think of off the top of my head are white men, black men and white women – in this order.' 

Once we understand our own citation practices – and those of our disciplines – we can change them. Sarah Ahmed, for example, decided not to cite any ‘white men’ in Living a Feminist Life (Duke University Press, 2017). 

Why does it matter?

The politics of knowledge are not simply about representation, about getting the demographics right, mechanically adding a few citations of scholars of colour, of women, and scholars living in the global South, to our next paper. It is about more than this: it is about our quest for knowledge, our desire to understand more, to understand better, and to move beyond what we already know.

In other words, if as scholars we simply reproduce ‘citational chains’ (Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life) – chains which largely privilege white, male authors from the global North – then our work will be poorer, more limited, and more parochial. It is in our own interest to break the chains.