On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life

Ahmed, Sara
Duke University Press, Durham, NC
9780822352365 (pb)

Order this book?

Cover of book The language of diversity through words such as 'equality', 'equal opportunities' and 'social justice' has institutional appeal in higher education. In On Being Included, Sara Ahmed develops earlier themes of race and difference by seeking an answer tothe straight forward, yet thought provoking, question: "what does diversity do?" Sara Ahmed proposes that the ideological function of diversity manufactures the impression of more diversity than actually exists; "…diversity can participate in the creation of an idea of the institution that allows racism and inequalities to be overlooked." (p. 14) Ahmed examines this idea by skilfully interjecting the reader through sociological theory and her professional experiences, including her research with diversity practitioners, in order build a persuasive empirical argument.

The first chapter uses sociological theory (Berger and Luckmann, 1967; Husserl, [1936/54] 1970); Althusser, 1971; Arendt, 1978; Durkheim, [1901] 1982; March and Olsen, 1989; Nee, 1998; Weber, 2001) to underpin a discussion on the institution in the abstract, and the intended (and unintended) role that diversity plays in the contemporary institution. This leads nicely into the second chapter, which examines the paradox between the attachment to diversity and the experiences of indifferent attitudes toward the processes that are put in place to achieve it. Ahmed suggests that this occurs, in part, because of the way that the word 'diversity' is attached to pre-existing organisational values. For example, this can be seen in many university mission statements that link diversity to the pursuit of academic excellence. Ahmed suggests that this illustrates that diversity is derived from what is already valued, and acts to maintain rather than transform organisational values.Subsequently diversity is said to lack a coherent identity.

In the third chapter Ahmed illustrates that diversity work has become a legitimising performance indicator,but that to document diversity is not to necessarily do diversity. The supposed detachment that is brought about by continuously documenting diversity in policy documents is illustrated by examining real examples of diversity practice. For example, the box ticking nature of complying with standardised diversity exercisesis suggested as creating a sense of arbitrariness and indifference. Chapter four seeks to discuss the questions that have been raised in the previous chapters. Although this tends to reinforce the thread of the previous chapters - that the bureaucratic nature of diversity often does not correlate to the original well intentioned commitments - some interesting, but ultimately opaque, solutions are proposed.Commitment is said to bemissing from, what is referred to as, the "shiny veneer of diversity" (p. 113). A 'hearts and minds' solution is proposed to elicit commitment andto minimise the performance culture of diversity. However,although there is an attempt to explain what this is, the 'hearts and minds' solution is suggested by the author as being difficult to define.

In chapter five Ahmed discusses the use (and non use) of the term 'racism' in her research. This discussion is introduced because the term 'racism' was rarely used by the participants in Ahmed's research. Although interesting, it fails to dovetail with the themes of the previous chapters. Consequently, I think, this discussion fails to add to the salient points that are previously delivered. In the conclusion, Ahmed uses a phenomenological approach (Husserl, [1913] 1969) in order to guide the reader through her experiences of everyday instances of poor diversity practice that, despite probably being the subjects of a policy document, require urgent attention. This strikes me as a powerful and poignant place from which toconclude from. Although no substantial solution is offered, Ahmed leaves the reader in no doubt that institutional diversity has a long way to go in order to fulfil its promises.

On Being Included is predominately well structured, thought provoking and readable. Ahmed refers to her work as being part of the emerging "Black British Feminism" literature. The full title of the book, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, might lead you to think that the text is a critique of the means toward diversity in the contemporary institution. However, Ahmed is specifically concerned with diversity policies in higher education. Having said that it would be unfair to suggest that On Being Included is exclusively written for higher education diversity practitioners. The concise style of the 187 page text, which for the most part is jargon free, explores a diverse range of theoretical and practical issues. Subsequently the book will be of interest to academics, professionals, and perhaps some studentsoffeminism, philosophy, sociology, education and management.

Andrew Harding
Bournemouth University


Althusser, L. (1971) Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster, London: New Left Books.
Arendt, H. (1978) The Life of the Mind, Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace and Company. Berger, P. & Luckmann, T. (1967) The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, London: Penguin.
Durkheim, E. [1901] (1982) 'On the Objective Method in Sociology,' in The Rules of Sociological Method and Selected Texts on Sociology and Its Method, trans. W.D. Halls, London: Macmillan.
Husserl, E. [1913] (1969) Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, trans. Boyce Gibson, W.R. London: George Allen and Unwin.
Husserl, E. [1936/54] (1970) The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy, trans. David Carr, Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
March, J.G. & Olsen, J.P. (1989) Rediscovering Institutions: The Organizational Basis of Politics, New York: Free Press.
Nee, V. (1998) 'Sources of the New Institutionalism,' in The New Institutionalism in Sociology, ed. Brinton, M.C. & Nee, V. Stanford University Press, 1-16.
Weber, S. (2001) Institutions and Interpretation, Stanford: Stanford University Press.