“Geo-Academic Inequalities” in Philosophy


Ingrid Robeyns, professor of philosophy at Utrecht University, recently came across something that captured extraordinarily well a problem she had long been aware of, and was prompted to write about it:

On Tuesday, I discovered that the Oxford Handbook of Political Philosophy has 23 chapters (the introduction included), of which 20 have been written by political philosophers based in the USA, 2 by political philosophers then based in the UK who have in the meantime moved to the USA, and 1 chapter by a duo of political philosophers based in Oxford. And while this is a pretty striking case, in many if not most handbooks authors from the USA and the UK are numerically dominating.

The geographic exclusiveness of this volume is hardly unique. As she notes, it manifests itself in other, related professional ways:

Most of the time, editors of such overview books are based in the USA or the UK; most of the time, they get asked for those roles. They face many barriers in knowing what political philosophers do who are from/based in countries outside the Anglophone academic centre—the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The philosophers that are not based in that academic centre are less often published in the journals that those editors read. They are less likely to (be able to) attend the conferences that those editors attend. They are less likely to be among the seminar speakers. And, as we can infer from the above pretty striking example, they are less likely to be invited to contribute to standard works in their field.

Jasper Johns, “Map (Based on Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Airocean World)”

It’s a self-reinforcing phenomenon—“a vicious cycle of ignorance and exclusion”—that produces a rather limited view of philosophy:

Edited volumes, conferences, seminar series with only speakers from the academic centre of philosophy transport an image: that ‘good’ philosophy is done in the USA and other Anglophone countries, and that if one wants to be successful, that’s where you have to be. This image, however, narrows and impoverishes philosophy, as it excludes valuable knowledge produced elsewhere.

The foregoing excerpts are from a post by Professor Robeyns at Crooked Timber. In it she solilcits suggestions, and calls for a geographic equivalent to the Gendered Conference Campaign, which publicized events, edited collections, etc., that lacked women as a way of drawing attention to systemic patterns of exclusion in philosophy. She also recommends that we:

read (more often) the works of those who are not working at universities in Anglophone countries. Read their papers and books. Make sure your library has a subscription, e.g. to the South African Journal of Philosophy. Invite political philosophers from outside the academic global centre to give talks at your department. Invite them to be visitors. Attend their conferences (which is now often even possible without travelling). If you’re involved in running a journal, try to free up fonds to help papers originally published in languages other than English to be translated.

She also suggests, in a comment, making use of the “UP Directory,” a listing of philosophers from underrepresented groups in philosophy, including those not citizens of an anglophone country, now hosted by the American Philosophical Association.

One thing to note is that, owing to today’s communications technology (among other things), philosophers around the world are better equipped to overcome geographic and linguistic constraints than ever before. Yes, such connectedness can facilitate and perpetuate patterns of inequality and domination, but may also provide the means for interactions which could upset those patterns. The “UP Directory” is one example of this, but so, too, are the many online events now taking place—not just conferences and summer schools, but forms of cooperation such as the Virtual Dissertation Writing Groups.

Further discussion and suggestions welcome.

Related: “Analytic Philosophy, Inclusiveness, and the English Language“, “Levelling the Linguistic Playing Field within Academic Philosophy“, “Dominance Of The English Language In Contemporary Philosophy: A Look At Journals“, “Language, Philosophy, and the Allure of Ignorance“, “Virtual Dissertation Writing Groups“, “Open, Live, Online Philosophy Events

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Carl Knight
1 month ago

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, the geographical distribution in that volume is quite striking. On the other, I find the proposal for ‘Redistributing attention and authority in political philosophy’ (as Ingrid’s title has it) undermotivated.

In the first place, philosophers in Anglophone African countries are surely disadvantaged compared to their EU counterparts, yet would suffer under a regime of preferential treatment for non-Anglophone countries. Ingrid may anticipate this when she mentions the ‘Anglophone academic centre – the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand’, but well intentioned attempts to distribute attention and authority away from this centre may, as a side effect, disadvantage those in other Anglophone countries. For instance, the UP Directory category is ‘Not a Citizen of an Anglophone Country’, so presumably it will pick out the Dutch and Scandinavians for preferential treatment but not the Anglophone Africans. Consider as well that African philosophers are so much more disadvantaged than Europeans that even a small risk of deepening their disadvantage may outweigh a certain gain for Europeans.

Supposing that this issue could be resolved, there is the further problem that not all members of ‘the Anglophone academic centre’ really are hogging the limelight as is supposed. After all, there were no Canada, Australia or New Zealand based philosophers in the volume in question, nor any philosophers currently based in the UK outside Oxford. So it’s unclear why these groups are considered to be more advantaged than Europeans. Additionally Australia and New Zealand-based philosophers often face very significant career obstacles due to their geographic remoteness from Europe and North America, where the jobs and events are concentrated.

What, then, has happened with this volume? I suspect a big part of it is the confluence of (1) the editor knowing people in their country better than people outside their country (like most people do) and (2) the fact that there are far more analytic political philosophers based in the US than anywhere else. (Suppose (1) applied to a Dutch editor – they still would not have many Dutch in the line up, because there is not a huge pool of Dutch political philosophers that can naturally fill each spot in the volume.) I’m not sure that (1) or (2) really call for redistribution of attention and authority.

But I suspect there are also (3) prestige effects, which is perfectly common though regrettable for non-blind processes like this. While these may call for redress, they are much more subtle than an Anglophone centre/non-Anglophone periphery model would suggest.Report

EFB
EFB
Reply to  Carl Knight
1 month ago

I suspect it is the editor’s location that is to ‘blame’ in this case. Looking at our recent Oxford Handbook of Population Ethics, the contributors are about 50% anglophone countries (mainly the US, but also some from the UK) and 50% elsewhere (Europe). The editor(s) in this case were based in Sweden.Report

Ingrid Robeyns
Reply to  Carl Knight
1 month ago

Carl, thanks for your thoughts (though come and debate with us at Crooked Timber 😉

I thought it should be obvious from what I wrote that political philosophers in “Anglophone Africa” are NOT part of the Anglo-center; moreover, they often have another language that is their mother-tongue, and use English as a second/professional language, just like virtually all continental European philosophers do. I’ve also said that this is not a black-white issue, there are degrees of ignorance/excludedness, and that means that, for example, West-European philosophers should make efforts to pay attention to what their colleagues in Eastern Europe and the Global South are doing (and I mention at the end the strategy I use to counter my own biases/ignorance in this respect, but I would love to hear from others how they deal with this issue).

Prestige is of course directly related to what I discuss; if you want to use that lens, then my claim could be restated that there is a very strong correlation between geographical location and prestige.

As to the question whether all non-Elite-Anglo-philosophers are not equally excluded: Since this is an empirical question, the answer would be in looking at handbooks/textbooks that are put together. I haven’t done that work, and won’t have time to do this, but hope someone will take this up. Incidentally, on the day I discovered the composition of the contributors of the Oxford Handbook, I also saw that the 2013 edited volume ‘Women in Philosophy. What Needs to Change?’ has 13 contributors, all based in the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. In her endorsement on the cover, Sally Haslanger was right to name it a collection “on the gender imbalance in Anglophone Philosophy”. A missed opportunity for the title.

Finally, what you write about how editors select their contributors: I don’t think it is just fine to go with the people you know. That’s part of the problem, in my view, at least as long as we don’t make deliberate efforts to get to know a wider circle of philosophers.Report

Carl Knight
Reply to  Ingrid Robeyns
1 month ago

Thanks for the reply, Ingrid!

I get that you don’t include Anglophone Africans in the ‘Anglo-center’. My concern was that they might be caught in the Anglophone net regardless, which seemed to be confirmed by the reference to the UP Directory category ‘Not a Citizen of an Anglophone Country’.

I certainly don’t think editors should just go with who they know! I should have been clearer that they should aim for a somewhat broad selection.

PS – I’ll be sure to dip in to Crooked Timber at some point 🙂Report

Siddharth Muthukrishnan
1 month ago

Thanks for this post. ‘Geo-academic inequalities’ is a useful phrase. Such inequalities are significantly underdiscussed relative to their importance in philosophy.

One of the biggest sources of such inequality is passport power. To be concrete, ask yourself how easy is it for you, using your current passport, to go for a short academic or conference visit to Europe, US, Canada, UK, Australia etc. I’ll describe below what it’s like for me. I am from India, but I know that what I’m writing below is true for students from countries like China, Iran, Sri Lanka, Pakistan.

I’m glad to be studying in the US. But making a short visit for a conference in Europe, Canada, UK, Australia, or NZ is ridiculously onerous. Even I secure funding for travel, I have to apply for a visa for the country I plan to visit. The application requires reams of paperwork meant to demonstrate, inter alia, why I’m visiting (conference invitation), how long I’m planning to stay (entry and exit flights), where I’m planning to stay (hotel bookings or letters from your host), where I will be traveling within the country (domestic train/flight tickets), whether I have financial resources for the stay (bank statements going back months and/or funding confirmation), whether I have health insurance if if something happens (so I need to buy travel insurance), and on and on. Moreover, if you are studying in the US, and if your US visa has expired (as happens to many international students, especially during the pandemic because they weren’t able to leave the country to renew their visa), it is even harder to get a visa to Europe et. al. To do these applications I’ll have to go to a city — usually major cities such as NY, LA, Chicago — which has a visa processing center (and not just a consulate) of the destination country; that requires forking out for domestic flights and hotels to just apply for a visa. Of course, there’s a visa fee as well. And usually, no matter how careful you are, there’s always some extra paperwork that they ask for, so you have to mail extra documents in. Doing all this requires days and days of effort.

Essentially all this means that if there’s a conference/workshop in, say, Europe (and there are many in my chosen field: philosophy of physics), I basically don’t go for the energy barrier is so high. (Aspects of these difficulties also extend to making visits back to one’s home country to see family/friends, and have consequent financial and psychological costs.)

All these difficulties are multiplied of course if you are both a citizen of and working in a passport-disadvantaged country.

I’m not sure what the solution to this problem is. Long-term, it requires Western governments to stop viewing people from non-Western or poor countries as simply ‘immigration-threats’, for the worry that people from these countries will immigrate if given half the chance is what drives the onerousness of the visa procedures.

But short-term, if philosophers want to tap into the global talent pool, then they would do well to at least keep in mind the difficulties facing people from passport-powerless countries. My sense is that scientific fields are much more aware of these difficulties, as science is closer to being truly international than philosophy.

More concrete suggestions: Perhaps travel funding offers can include funds for visa application costs? Or more cheaply: Now that we’re all used to Zoom, perhaps more conferences and workshops can offer options of online attendance and presentation. This would make a huge difference to passport-powerless people.Report

F F
F F
Reply to  Siddharth Muthukrishnan
1 month ago

Nice points! However, I think one of the points is really more general, and has to do with visa-free travel. For the record, while I’m a citizen of a country with one of the most “powerful” passports in the world, and one of the richest, I constantly have (well, had) to apply for visas to go to conferences in places like Russia and China, and for research visits in the USA, also proving funds, vaccination status (before covid), etc. The USA also saw me as an “immigration-threat“, which is really bizarre.Report

g
g
1 month ago

And South Africa!Report

JTD
JTD
1 month ago

This is one part of a more general problem when it comes to putting together edited volumes or important specialist conferences. The problem is that often the one or two people who decide who gets invited just invite people in their circle and thus you end up with an undesirably narrow pool of authors/presenters. For example, I recently noticed an Oxford Handbook on another topic where almost all of the contributors were scholars in their fifties, sixties, seventies, or late forties. The editor was in his sixties and had clearly invited a lot of his friends, or people whose work had influenced him when he had done his main work on this topic 20 years ago. However, many of these contributors hadn’t published anything on the topic for more than a decade. Meanwhile, several younger scholars who had, in the last 5-10 years, published innovative new work on the topic were not invited. Of course, this bias made the volume much weaker and more out of touch with the cutting edge debate than it might have been. It also lowered my professional opinion of the scholar who put together the volume.

There are a few things we can take away from this. First, the editors from the presses that publish these volumes do not seem to be doing their job properly. For example, having an Oxford Handbook where almost all of the contributors are from the US or almost all of them are retired or approaching retirement age is clearly a problem that effects the quality of these volumes. The OUP editors managing such projects should have noticed these biases and discussed it with the volume editors before the invitations went out to contributors. Indeed, the presses should actually include in the guidelines they send to the volume editors a directive to include a diverse pool of contributors and eliminate the “inner-circle” bias.

Second, the scholars who edit these volumes need to do better. Some are probably intentionally exhibiting these biases (either because they’ve convinced themselves that all the best work is being done by scholars in their small circle or because they don’t feel that they have an ethical/scholarly obligation to choose the best group of contributors and instead treat editing as a chance to hand out opportunities to their buddies). Others, are probably doing it unintentionally and are just inadequately sensitive to their own biases and the need for diversity (particularly where it corresponds to quality). But in either case, the result is that they do their job poorly and this is noticed by many who are sensitive to these issues.

Finally, I just want to note that I have also seen firsthand a case where an editor (with significant professional prestige) has gone to great lengths to ensure diversity among all of the major axes, including sex, ethnicity, region, age, and institutional prestige, and did this in a way that did not compromise quality but actually enhanced it. So here’s a shoutout to all those good actors doing the right thing!Report

Efb
Efb
Reply to  JTD
1 month ago

Maybe worth mentioning also that untenured and grad students are often actively discouraged from publishing in edited volumes, including handbooks. I was told by multiple people to save my ideas for papers because edited volumes aren’t read as much and also papers carry a lot more weight in job applications and tenure files. I don’t know if younger people are not being invited or whether they’re turning invitations down.Report

JTD
JTD
Reply to  Efb
1 month ago

No, I think that gets the standard advice wrong. The advice for early career scholars is don’t publish something in an edited volume that you could instead publish in a peer-reviewed journal of a reasonable standing. If you have already published some journal articles, publishing a book chapter (that couldn’t have been a journal article instead) does not harm your CV and in fact slightly improves it. Furthermore, in many places publishing an Oxford handbook chapter on your primary topic of research expertise is a helpful addition to your tenure dossier. It helps to establish that you are regarded by your peers as an expert on that topic. Therefore, I think it would be rare for a junior scholar to pass on the opportunity to write an Oxford handbook chapter. So, your speculation seems incorrect.Report

Efb
Efb
Reply to  JTD
1 month ago

Maybe I am, but it is the advice I was given.

I do agree there’s a difference between any old volume and an Oxford handbook, but my comment was on the general case. I had also said in my comment that the advice was don’t publish something in a volume instead of a journal which differ from what you said. However, there’s also an opportunity cost because spending time on a chapter is time you could have spent on an article.

For what it’s worth I am now TT and have a chapter in an Oxford handbook that has been waved away in my annual reviews. I’m also an editor of an Oxford handbook (see comment above), and that was also tepidly received, despite my excitement at its final publication.Report

Arudra Burra
Arudra Burra
1 month ago

As a US-trained philosopher based in Delhi I agree that there are “geo-academic” inequalities, and the costs of travel plus hassles of applying for visas etc make it difficult to participate in conversations located in the US and UK. The one good thing about the pandemic for philosophers outside the Anglo-American academy was the way in which it flattened the academic world, and allowed people from all over the to participate in philosophical conversations regardless of where we were located. It was particularly nice to see some sensitivity towards different time-zones, as well.

I can understand why much of the world would prefer to return to the pre-covid days of exclusively in-person talks, seminars, and conferences. But I think from the point of view of accessibility (not just in geographical terms), it would be great if there was a commitment to make as many events hybrid as possible, as a default.

Arudra Burra

Indian Institute of Technology-DelhiReport

Filippo Contesi
Reply to  Arudra Burra
1 month ago

With Mich Ciurria and Philosophers for Sustainability, we are about to launch an Online Accessibility Pledge. This is the current draft:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1asqBzwb9MWf5pguNDWtC6QNe-LKIUEgsGJIa1K4_ba8/edit?usp=sharing

Anyone interested in being an early signatory please email me.Report