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The Future of Minority Studies: Redefining Identity Politics

The Future of Minority Studies Project is a multi-year interdisciplinary national research initiative that seeks to explore the role of identity in the shaping of a progressive and intellectually rigorous vision of minority scholarship and education. The FMS project focuses on “identity” and “minority studies” in order to stimulate discussion about issues that are simultaneously theoretical and practical, ranging from ethics and epistemology to political theory, pedagogical practice, and political activism.

Numerous symposia, reading groups, and conferences have been held since fall 2000 at institutions as diverse as Hamilton College, SUNY-Binghamton, Stanford University, Cornell University, and the University of Michigan. Most recently, an intellectual retreat took place in May 2003 in Punta Cana, D.R. A forthcoming conference at the University of Wisconsin is slated for fall 2003.

Project Organizers

Linda Martín Alcoff, Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies, Syracuse University

Michael Hames-García, Assistant Professor of English, (member, Philosophy, Interpretation, and Culture Program), SUNY Binghamton

Satya P. Mohanty, Professor of English (member, South Asia Program), Cornell University

Paula M. L. Moya, Associate Professor of English (Director of Undergraduate Program, Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity), Stanford University

Background: Identity, Theory, Minority Scholarship

At this moment in the evolution of progressive social theory, activists and academics have arrived at a critical juncture. Postmodernist deconstructions of such key concepts as identity, experience, and knowledge, which proved initially productive, have brought us to a theoretical standstill. We can now agree that identities are not fixed essences, but this insight, by itself, does not take us far enough either politically or theoretically. Identities still matter enormously, both inside and outside the academy, and they crucially affect the ways in which scholarly work is judged both within and across disciplines. Moreover, the indiscriminate critique of all forms of identity politics has colluded with the traditional valorization of “important” theory to obscure the vital contributions being made by ethnic and other minority scholars. As a result, scholarly and theoretical developments in ethnic/minority studies have been largely ignored by scholars outside these fields. Without a serious reconsideration of the significance of identity for our knowledge-generating practices, we risk returning the academy to the halcyon days when whiteness was not a field of study but a ticket of entry. What is needed now is not deconstruction, but patient and imaginative reconstruction.

A key element of the Future of Minority Studies project has been the development of a postpositivist realist alternative to the dominant views in the humanities about such crucial topics as social identity, the status of experience, and the nature of (objective) knowledge. The postpositivist realist theory of identity argues that respect for minority identity (and hence for some forms of cultural pluralism) complements and deepens the kind of moral universalism which most people implicitly accept and live by today; such universalism is evident most clearly in the commitment to equality or basic human rights on which many modern constitutions and international legal documents, as well as progressive traditions of moral and political dissent, are based. Cultural pluralism and moral universalism can be complementary notions, realists argue, in part because social identities are often sources of objective knowledge about our world, and acknowledging the epistemic implications of identity and multiculturalism does not preclude the possibility of objective knowledge or of achieving understanding across differences as varied as race, culture, sexuality, class, and disability.

More information

An interdisciplinary bicoastal research project

FMS Internatioinal Collogquium at Cornell University, July 29-31, 2005:
NEW: FMS International Colloquium at Cornell University, July 29-31, 2005

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