It was a typical academic workshop. “Madhu Madhu” was the next presenter. This Indian female academic came on stage and started to explain the politics behind her name and how it went wrong. Her name was just “Madhu.” Not “Madhu Madhu.”
In India, you can tell a person’s caste by his/her last name. There is pervasive discrimination based on the caste to which you belong. Since you are born into a caste, there is absolute immobility. This is a barrier to social equality, also in academia.
For these reasons, she was politically motivated to drop her last name.
When she applied to do this workshop in the United Kingdom, she explained her name change multiple times to the organisers. However, columns needed to be filled and this diverged from academic protocol. Hence, the organisers gave her the name “Madhu Madhu.”
One might argue that whilst her politics are relevant and convincing in her local context, academic standardisation exists to avoid exceptionalism. It would be a privilege for Madhu to change bibliographic standards. It would emphasise her social capital against all those who do not have power to enforce their own name politics. A worthwhile case for academic democracy.
Meanwhile, an accomplished American academic Danah Boyd has succeeded in establishing her name in small letters. Many academic editors and scholars respect her decision, defying citation rules. A few years ago, when I insisted on publishing my paper in a top journal with her name in capital letters (as I am against any kind of exceptionalism), the editors threatened that if I did not subscribe to this format, my article would be rejected.
The reason for her name change? In her blog, she explains that it is for aesthetic and political reasons. She argues that capitalisation is “self-righteous.” She argues for “minimalizing the individualization.” She is indignant to follow any template, after all “it’s my name and I should be able to frame it as I see fit.”
This well meaning political statement has inadvertently over-emphasised her individualism. Through her act of demanding the right not to subscribe to the system, she has forced those with less status to subscribe to her system.
Whilst there are good arguments for re-examine naming in academic citations, making specific allowances for certain scholars over others reminds us that academia continues to be elitist.
Payal Arora is an Associate Professor at Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication