Honig: Scholar Behind the Uproar

Associate Professor of Government Bonnie Honig is known in political theory circles as a quiet scholar whose work takes a fresh look at issues such as equality and justice.

It is somewhat ironic, then, that she was thrown into the national spotlight after being denied tenure last month by the University.

Honig grew up in Montreal, where she attended Orthodox Jewish elementary and high school. Her background, she says, stimulated her later interest in political theory.

"I was very attracted to the intellectual dimensions of Orthodox Judaism," she says. "But there weren't many avenues for women to do the interesting things within Orthodox Judaism."

Honig says she was initially attracted to political theory because she found it "intellectually challenging," much like Orthodox Judaism.

"Given my training, there are very familiar reasoning techniques involved," she says.

Honig says she has continued studying political theory because it tackles the subjects of "equality, justice, power, democracy and gender."

"The latter [issues] are what have kept me in it, because there is still a lot of work to be done, both in theory and in practice," she says.

Towards Gender Issues

During her time at Harvard, Honig says she has become more involved with feminist issues.

"When I arrived at Harvard, I wasn't actively doing work in feminist theory," Honig says. "It became obvious to me that you can't do democratic theory without addressing gender equality, and that's why I started teaching a course in women's studies a little after I arrived here."

Women's Studies 150: "Moral Dilemmas," a medium-sized lecture course, centers around the question of whether "women and men experience moral conflict in the same ways," Honig says.

"We use literature, film and plays to think more about the subject of moral dilemmas than moral theory courses usually do. And we try to take theory to practice," she says.

Honig says the tenure denial has done little to change the way she views gender issues.

"It proves that my work on gen- der politics is right, so maybe it emboldens me to continue the work that I've been doing," she says.

Honig and the Decision

Honig says the events surrounding her tenure denial "have changed [her] research agenda a bit."

"I was planning to write a book about professional identities and how they can mobilize people into international political action, as opposed to the more familiar national varieties," she says.

Honig says she is "still going to write that book," but will first write a book about accountability.

"Oddly enough, you will never find accounts of accountability" in the field of democratic theory, Honig says.

"In my mind you can't ensure democratic equality by tinkering with the decision making procedures," she says. "The only way to secure the possibility of democratic equality and justice is by ensuring that people can call decision making institutions to account."

Honig says she is "uneasy" with her newfound role as a symbol for the fight for more tenured female faculty at Harvard.

"I wish that symbols weren't necessary. I wish that processes and procedures were always fair and rewarding of merit," she says.

"But because my research is about symbolic politics, I know that symbols are very powerful," Honig adds. "I do hope that something positive comes out of this for other people, especially junior women coming up in the ranks at Harvard."

Harvard and Honig

Honig's colleagues in the Department of Government say her largest influence has been to facilitate communication among people from different subfields.

"One of the problems in any department is that there are a lot of specialists and not a lot of communication between them," says Thomson Professor of Government Morris P. Fiorina Jr., who has an office across the hall from Honig in Littauer Hall.

"She brings these people together since her work and interests are so broad-ranging," he says.

Honig says Harvard has helped increase the depth of her academic work.

"My work has broadened in its appeal, and is much more interdisciplinary in its sources than when I initially came out of graduate school," she says.

Family and Career

Honig says that juggling an academic career with a family has proven to be "really, really busy."

She met her husband, Professor of Economics Michael D. Whinston, during her first term at Harvard.

"I guess you could call it a Littauer romance," Whinston says. "I went to a political economy seminar, and the seminar shared a wine-and-cheese hour with the political philosophy seminar in the government department."

Honig and Whinston have a two-and-a-half-year-old son, Noah Whinston.

"I carve out a lot of time for him during the day, and work during the evening," she says. "He has a working mother, but he has a working mother."

Honig's denial of tenure has forced the couple to reassess their priorities for career and family.

Honig and Whinston have both received full tenure offers at North-western University. Honig says they have not made a decision about whether to accept the offer.

"I think it's always disruptive if you have to move," Whinston says. "I think it's harder in a circumstance like this, when you feel you're moving because of such a poor and unjust decision."

Honig says, however, she is grateful for the flexibility of an academic career.

"The nice thing about academic work is that it's portable--you can take it with you," Honig says. "That's the stable part of my life."

Honig says that in the short-term, she will continue "tinkering" with the final version of her third book, which is about notions of foreignness.

"In political theory and cultural studies right now, all of the contemporary books that deal with diversity treat foreignness as a problem that needs to be solved," she says.

"This book flips the question around," she adds. "[It asks], what problems might foreignness solve for us?"

The book, titled No Place Like Home: Democracy and the Politics of Foreignness, will be published by Princeton University Press