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Political Economy, Race, and Gender: Intellectual History and Contemporary Research

No one course—especially on the quarter system—could cover the richness of the history and contemporary reality of race, class, and gender theory. This seminar’s mandate is thus limited, but I hope it will be intellectually productive.

“Official” feminist theory began to be represented in the Western academy with the establishment of Women’s Studies programs in the 1970s. In the US, burgeoning African-American and other ethnic studies programs actually were the template from which feminists borrowed, just as first and second-wave feminists borrowed theoretical frames and political strategies from the abolitionist and civil rights movements respectively. (And the 20th century gay rights movement borrowed from both.)

We now have had more than three decades of institutionalization and scholarly production in the two fields. We also have seen scholarship and activism largely part ways, as Gender Studies, African American, Latino, Asian American, etc Studies and queer theory have become academically respectable. Part of that process was the muting of attention to the class processes that always inherently suffuse gender, race, etc stratification processes. Marxist perspectives were strongly represented in 1960s-1970s feminist and race scholarship. But with the rise of postmodernism/poststructuralism in the 1980s, and the related phenomenon of rightist renaissance in the US and Europe, left analyses lost academic adherents, and scholarship in the “X Studies” fields tilted towards an overwhelming focus on hived-off discourse analysis and an ironically foundationalist—and thus anti-postmodern--identity politics.

With the excursions and alarums of the new millennium, the scholarly pendulum has been shifting slowly away from postmodernism/pure discourse analysis as we focus ever more anxiously on global economic and environmental devastation, and on rightward, racist/xenophobic, and misogynist tilts in politics across a wide swathe of nations. Nevertheless, we have not yet returned to the unified focus on the “holy trinity” of race, class and gender that characterized so much earlier work and pedagogy. And students are not often given the chance to trace the Western theoretical sources of our modern-day concerns— Gender Studies theory curricula, for example, frequently go back no farther than the 1980s. And students are rarely anymore exposed to Karl Marx’s actual writings.

This seminar will help to fill in these elisions and counter these trends in two ways. First, in the first four weeks, we will be reading key texts by ten under-taught late-18th to mid-20th century Western theorists whose work on class, race, gender and/or nationality divisions has had a major impact on subsequent global thought. Then, in the following weeks of the seminar, we will be reading three excellent, relatively recent works by scholars that focus on race and/or class and/or gender stratifications around the world, and the fights against them. We will read these texts with appreciation, with consideration of the ways in which they use and build on the themes articulated in our classic theory texts, but also with a critical eye for how they could improve consideration of (or even mention) their “missing Xes.” Thus, for example, I now see ways in which I could have accounted for shifting class formation in the United States far better in my own Exotics at Home.

Then each seminar participant will choose and report on her/his own fourth text in order to fill in missing geographic/topic areas, and to give you the opportunity to delve into work closest to your own research fields.

Our final seminar work will then involve using classic social theory to understand the shifting frames of race/feminist/class analyses, especially in social scientific and historical work; and considering the legacies of certain early tendencies (e.g., functionalism) and enduring antinomies (sameness/difference, resistance/consent, agency/victim) in “X Studies” scholarship and political discourse. It is my hope that this combination of conceptualized intellectual history and critical readings of recent work will enable each of you to turn to your own intellectual/pragmatic projects with improved intellectual background and fresh insight.