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The struggle continues.

As I prepared for graduate school at the University of Michigan, former professors and soon-to-be graduate colleagues called to ready me for the difficulties ahead. Despite the thoroughness of these conversations, what I found to be the most persistent obstacle largely went unmentioned - the contradiction between a professed commitment to diversification and the absence of institutional structures to support research in nontraditional areas such as black politics or women and politics.

In the late 1980s, general agreement seemed to exist that research in areas such as black politics and/or women and politics was legitimate. However, very few faculty members specialized in such areas. The lack of institutional structures left it incumbent upon those of us interested in the politics of oppressed communities to build an infrastructure that could support and validate our work. While many of my colleagues were researching their next paper in the library, some of us spent enormous time and energy recruiting more graduate students of color (in search of that critical mass), pushing our department to hire faculty who could offer courses, for instance, in the areas of black politics or feminist politics, and identifying resources that might support research projects in this area.

Complementing this effort was the twin, and possibly more important, project of legitimizing such study to others. I, as well as many of my friends, can recount the endless search for faculty, colleagues, and outside sources to validate the importance of our ideas, the thoroughness of our knowledge, and the contribution of our work to the communities from which we came and cared about. It was not just extreme encounters with racism, or sexism, or homophobia that were most debilitating to my confidence, but also the unquestioned assumptions about who and what was worth studying that wore most consistently on my determination. I remember one senior professor stating in a statistics seminar, "If you can't count it, it isn't science." The class sat there in apparent agreement, while I raised my hand to confront once again a professor's narrow understanding of political science. My guess is that my professor never contemplated the fact that not all the relevant parties were represented in those "objective" databases he believed to be the foundation of good political science. Nowhere in his consciousness was there an understanding of what it meant to live in marginal communities and therefore what it meant to teach students how to study these communities.

This contradiction between superficial acceptance and the absence of real structures to facilitate and respect such work is indicative of political science in the 1990s, and it follows me and many of my junior friends to our first positions as assistant professors. However, despite my frustration with the amount of time needed to develop programs, write grants, recruit women and graduate students of color, and pressure departments to hire in areas like race and politics, feminist theory, or lesbian and gay politics, I recognize this as an essential part of my own scholarly production. I never would have made it through graduate school without the community of those of us struggling to make central the study of marginal communities. Through this community of scholars comes some of the most interesting, innovative, and important work to cross the boundaries of political science, affirming my research interests, but also the experiences of people most often discounted and excluded in political science.

Note

1. Special thanks are given to Jane Mansbridge, President, and Judith Stiehm, President-Elect of the Women's Caucus for Political Science, for their strong support and encouragement of the roundtable project that surrounds this article.

Reference

Benjamin, Walter. 1968. "The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov." In Illuminations, ed Hannah Arendt, Trans. Harry Zohn, New York: Schocken Books.

Cathy Cohen is an assistant professor in African and African-American Studies at Yale University. She is currently working on two books: an edited volume on women and politics, and a book on black communities' response to AIDS.
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Title Annotation:Annual Meeting Program Preview; political science and marginal politics
Author:Cohen, Cathy
Publication:PS: Political Science & Politics
Date:Jun 1, 1996
Words:660
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