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Institutional inclusion and the question of epistemic abundance in the neoliberal academy: A critical analysis



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‘Inclusion’ may be uncritically regarded as a tool that incorporates minoritized groups or individuals into the majority. As Sarah Ahmed has argued concerning the concept, “we might want to be cautious about the appealing nature of diversity and ask whether the ease of its incorporation by institutions is a sign of the loss of its critical edge” (2012, p. 1)—a similar question applies to projects of inclusion. A critical analysis of ‘inclusion’ raises such questions as inclusion for whom and to what end? Ahmed’s scholarship and that of Ashon Crawley (2018) and Roderick Ferguson (2012) provide insight into these questions. Their analyses of the implications of modern inclusion projects, as well as of that construct’s philosophical and logical underpinnings within the context of the neoliberal academy, frame this essay. Guided by Crawley’s and Ferguson’s exploration of how an ideational rupture might occur that could begin to dismantle neoliberalism’s epistemic hegemony, this essay analyzes existing possibilities for a more epistemically ‘abundant’ imagining of inclusion (Crawley’s term).

Taken together, these scholars contend that inclusion is a tool that may be wielded (intentionally or inadvertently) in the service of absolving the racial guilt of the majority, while allowing that group to ignore its responsibility to change the dominant epistemic public frame, which often permits continued othering and discrimination of specific minority groups as well as commodification of the concept of inclusion. Even more concerning, these authors argue that inclusion projects may actually act to suppress expressions of criticality, radicality and epistemic difference. This contention implicates today’s neoliberal university in foreclosing possibilities for the emergence of epistemic abundance. This essay draws on Ahmed, Crawley and Ferguson to highlight provocative questions concerning the logic underpinning otherwise benign sounding diversity and inclusion efforts in the neoliberal university. I argue that inclusion can and must be constructed in the pursuit of justice, broadly understood. It will never truly be achieved if defined as the handmaiden of neoliberalism’s cardinal claim, instrumentalized efficiency, or defined simply in symbolic terms. Grounding inclusion in epistemic justice rather than oppression allows the analyst to imagine the dismantling of neoliberal philosophic hegemony in the academy and the development instead of inclusive universities rooted in epistemic abundance. In short, these three authors raise profound questions with which universities must grapple if they wish to promote inclusivity in the service of epistemic abundance and possibility rather than as a commodity framed by an imperative of neoliberal marketing.

A critical analysis of projects of inclusion

I employ Ahmed’s concept of the ‘racialized stranger’ here to highlight the targeted subjects of modern projects of inclusion because that formulation points to the ways that black and brown bodies are depicted as ‘strange’ or ‘other’ within the context of a dominant epistemic frame that assumes the norm of a white majority, namely, “how some more than others will be at home in institutions that assume certain bodies as their norm” (2012, p. 3).

Crawley and Ahmed both point to neoliberal inclusion projects as too often absolving whites of responsibility for discriminatory conditions and social cruelties by asking those bearing those costs also to bear a disproportionate allocation of the labor of representation. That is, both authors point to the invisible labor that projects of inclusion and diversity often impose on the racialized/minoritized ‘other.’ Crawley has suggested that those labeled as ‘other’ within the neoliberal university are frequently called on to perform public relations during times of perceived social tension or crisis. Ahmed has argued similarly that “becoming the race person means you are the one who is turned to when race turns up. The very fact of your existence can allow others not to turn up” (2012, p. 5). In this sense, inclusion efforts not only impose the labor of representation on the racialized/minoritized ‘other,’ they may also absolve members of the majority (i.e., those whose bodies and thought fit easily within the hegemonic norm) from responsibility to incorporate differences. In this way, the regnant neoliberal frame is never subjected to overt critical scrutiny and potential change.

Ahmed has also highlighted the professionalization and depoliticization that now characterizes university inclusion staff and their projects. As she has explained,

… as diversity becomes more professionalized, practitioners are less likely to mobilize an activist framework … diversity practitioners have an ambivalent relationship to institutions, as captured by their use of the phrase ‘tempered radical’ to describe the[ir] attitude [to their work] (2012, p. 15).

In short, today’s university inclusion efforts often ask much of the minorities already being victimized in the name of “helping” them. In so doing, they frequently absolve the majority of any compelling need to reconsider their framing social assumptions regarding human difference. Similarly, the professionalization of such efforts brands them as apolitical, which fact tends to the same result; no compelling rationale to visit the existing and problematic framing episteme.

Problematizing the underlying logic of the neoliberal university’s concept of inclusion

All of these authors suggest that the twin phenomena of professionalization of inclusion efforts and asking the vulnerable to carry a disproportionate share of the burden of securing change has resulted in an ongoing difficulty in the academy to open possibilities for epistemic abundance. As Crawley has suggested,

In its normative function and form, then, the university exists to make some knowledges major and others minor, and then to short-circuit and extinguish minor knowledges, minor epistemologies, because they constitute an ongoing, thoroughgoing, and unceasing variation around a theme: the performative force of the critique of Western civilization (2018, pp. 6-7).

In other words, Crawley argues that universities have persistently exercised their power to categorize, translate, make legible, and validate preferred ways of knowing, to support epistemic hegemony. While re-affirming knowledges aligned with that perspective as legitimate forms of knowing (i.e., as ‘major’), it others—including those that hold the potential to undermine that view—to the category of ‘minor’ and therefore of relative insignificance.

Crawley has contended that this minoritization of knowledge and its associated risk of epistemic subjugation, if not erasure, has foreclosed the possibility for genuine epistemological abundance in university curricula and life. Referring to this outcome, Ferguson has argued that this process has allowed the academy to “beguile minorities with promises of excellence and uplift” (2012, p. 7). For his part, Ferguson has suggested that such inclusion of minority knowledges as has occurred within the academy has constituted a mechanism of taming and control rather than providing opportunities to challenge prevailing ways of knowing. In Ferguson’s view, the academy is an ‘eco-nomic domain’ (reflecting the dominance of the neoliberal frame) through both its categorization of knowledges and its admission, membership and participation protocols (Ferguson, p. 12). According to Ferguson, this process has been largely an effort “to affirm difference and keep it in hand,” (2012, p. 12) rather than to open up opportunities for any shift in dominant epistemic understanding.

Echoing Ferguson, Crawley has observed that “the presence of minoritarian difference is harnessed by the academy, not to unsettle, but to produce anew the occasion for white self-ordering, the very possibility for white thought” (2018, p. 11). Crawley’s and Ferguson’s analyses of epistemic hegemony pose critical questions regarding how a reimagined form of institutional inclusion could be developed: Given the hegemonic hold of neoliberal logic within the academy, from where might the process of reimagination and its associated possibility for the flourishing of abundance arise?

Possibilities for a reimagining of inclusion

These authors suggest that it might be possible to reimagine inclusion as efforts to promote epistemic abundance in a shared quest for justice. Both scholars highlight the possibility for interdisciplinary ethnic studies to disrupt the academy’s prevailing nomos of subjugation, exclusion and silencing. Ferguson has argued that interdisciplinarity holds promise to identify “the ruptural possibilities [for epistemic scale reconsideration and change] of modes of difference” (2018, p. 18). Crawley has likewise contended that such a shift would entail the interrogation of systems of white self-ordering that result in the continued dominance of neoliberal social norms and ordering.

The work of Ahmed, Crawley and Ferguson suggests that today’s neoliberal university inclusion project has fallen far short of addressing this goal. A diversity project that legitimated epistemic abundance would upend the self-ordering system that now legitimizes only neoliberal logics as legitimate. For Crawley, in contrast, knowledge produced in the service of the flourishing of abundance is a “practice of freedom” (2018, p. 13). These scholars agree that change within the academy generally, and inclusion more particularly, will not occur until those within it are pressed to consider their epistemic assumptions and their often discriminatory effects on minority and vulnerable populations in favor of what Crawley has called an imagined “otherwise possibility” (Crawley, 2018, p.11).

Concluding Thoughts

Ahmed, Crawley, and Ferguson have illuminated the often pernicious effects of neoliberal inclusion projects that assign the labor of public relations to those adversely affected by dominant social norms and thinking. They have also highlighted the fact that such efforts often de facto absolve non-minorities from responsibility for pondering the imperative need for epistemic change. The work of these three scholars suggests that the foreclosure of possibilities for epistemic shifts and abundance, the dominant group’s self-forgiveness and self-absolution of responsibility, as well as a companion silencing of racialized ‘others’ points to a profound need to revisit the neoliberal assumptions now underpinning inclusion initiatives within the academy.


Ahmed, S. (2012). On being included: Racism and diversity in institutional life. Durham: Duke University Press.

Crawley, A. (2018) The academy and what Can be Done?. Critical Ethnic Studies, 4(1), 4-18.

Ferguson, R. (2012). The reorder of things: The university and its pedagogies of minority difference. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Garland Mason

Garland Mason is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education. Her research interests center on the intersection of power, knowledge, race, and nonformal education. She is particularly interested epistemological politics surrounding land grant universities and their efforts in agricultural and community development. Her previous research explored participatory methodologies and the micro-politics of stakeholder participation. Garland previously worked in the areas of food equity and beginning farmer education in Vermont and served for two years with the Peace Corps in Nepal working on projects related to food security and community development. Garland holds a B.S. from Cornell University and an M.S. from Virginia Tech.

Publication Date

August 29, 2019