Mollishka writes to ask plaintively:
“Feminist theory of science”?! Other than a nice set of buzzwords, what does that even mean??
So I thought, why not go ahead and launch the Basic Concepts idea now?
On the super-secret Scienceblogs back channel, we have been discussing the idea of each doing a series of “Basic Concepts” posts on our blogs; some of my SciBlings are already doing them. You know, choose a few fundamental concepts or terms in your field, write a post describing/defining/delineating their use, label it Basic Concepts, and voila! A series is born. We thought that in addition to things that we felt were basic concepts we’d want anyone to know about our field, we might encourage readers to make suggestions for things they wanted defined or felt should be included in the Basic Concepts category.
I was planning to start out with something more basic than Feminist Theory of Science. But since Mollishka asked – even if the asking was a bit snarky – I’ve decided to elevate my answer from the comments section to a Basic Concepts post.
Please note I’ve also decided that, if someone else has already done a great job at defining a term, I’m going to feel quite free to borrow their definition (with attribution, of course).
Feminist theory of science. Well, what makes this so confusing to the novice, I think, is the following. We are used to thinking of science as the tool we use to ask questions with. Science is the method by which we investigate the world and figure things out. We are not accustomed to thinking of science as something we ask questions about. Unless we are philosophers of science, of course. But that seems easier to take – we think of philosophers of science as explaining back to us how science functions, how it achieves its mighty works.
What does feminism have to do with all that? Aren’t feminists those hairy-armpit man-hating humorless dykes? What could they possibly have to do with science? Science is objective and rational and there is nothing feminism has to say about it. Beyond, of course, the noble and worthy goal of working to get more women in science. But that has nothing to do with science itself, right?
Feminist theories of science seek to explain how the exclusion of certain groups from science – women, other underrepresented groups – has affected the practices and outcomes of science. How might the entry of these excluded groups into science affect scientific practices, goals, outcomes? At this point, skeptics commonly sneer, “Well, would a feminist airplane still fly?” This indicates the level at which they totally refuse to engage with what feminists are actually saying and doing with regard to their inquiries about science. Feminist airplanes would still fly. But feminist engineers, for example, might choose not to build Stealth bombers.
Feminist scientists might ask different questions. A really wonderful description of this approach to thinking about science is given in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Feminist epistemology and philosophy of science studies the ways in which gender does and ought to influence our conceptions of knowledge, the knowing subject, and practices of inquiry and justification. It identifies ways in which dominant conceptions and practices of knowledge attribution, acquisition, and justification systematically disadvantage women and other subordinated groups, and strives to reform these conceptions and practices so that they serve the interests of these groups. Various practitioners of feminist epistemology and philosophy of science argue that dominant knowledge practices disadvantage women by (1) excluding them from inquiry, (2) denying them epistemic authority, (3) denigrating their “feminine” cognitive styles and modes of knowledge, (4) producing theories of women that represent them as inferior, deviant, or significant only in the ways they serve male interests, (5) producing theories of social phenomena that render women’s activities and interests, or gendered power relations, invisible, and (6) producing knowledge (science and technology) that is not useful for people in subordinate positions, or that reinforces gender and other social hierarchies. Feminist epistemologists trace these failures to flawed conceptions of knowledge, knowers, objectivity, and scientific methodology. They offer diverse accounts of how to overcome these failures. They also aim to (1) explain why the entry of women and feminist scholars into different academic disciplines, especially in biology and the social sciences, has generated new questions, theories, and methods, (2) show how gender has played a causal role in these transformations, and (3) defend these changes as cognitive, not just social, advances.
The central concept of feminist epistemology is that of a situated knower, and hence of situated knowledge: knowledge that reflects the particular perspectives of the subject. Feminist philosophers are interested in how gender situates knowing subjects. They have articulated three main approaches to this question: feminist standpoint theory, feminist postmodernism, and feminist empiricism. Different conceptions of how gender situates knowers also inform feminist approaches to the central problems of the field: grounding feminist criticisms of science and feminist science, defining the proper roles of social and political values in inquiry, evaluating ideals of objectivity and rationality, and reforming structures of epistemic authority.
You can read more at the Stanford site about Situated Knowers, Feminist Standpoint Theory, Feminist Postmodernism, Feminist Empiricism, Feminist Science Criticism and Feminist Science, Feminist Defenses of Value-Laden Inquiry, Feminist Critques and Conceptions of Objectivity, and Trends in Feminist Epistemology. There is a bibliography and links to other resources. Another extensive bibliography can be found here, along with links for various well-known feminist theorists of science.
Let’s consider some of those points in the excerpt above:
(1) excluding them from inquiry Well, I think this is quite clear. We haven’t reached anything like parity in the sciences and engineering, certainly not at the faculty level or in industry. Some undergraduate programs (biology, mathematics) have done so. But for the past millenium, women have been systematically excluded from scientific inquiry – quite formally and explicitly until only very recently.
(2) denying them epistemic authority Here I need only mention an example like Female Science Professor’s interaction – or should I say, non-interaction – with the Distinguished Schmuck the other day. He not only denied her epistemic authority, he denied her entire existence as a scientist. When women have to publish more to be considered barely as good as men; when their words are ignored in meetings; when they are not chosen to be on panels or invited to be speakers at meetings; when they are not nominated for prizes, this is denial of their epistemic authority. It comes in so many packages, big and small.
(3) denigrating their “feminine” cognitive styles and modes of knowledge For example, when I wrote my thesis, one of my committee members belittled it for being “too right-brain”. The evidence? I had a paragraph in the introduction with several long sentences. He insisted that I must develop a proper “scientific” writing style or I would never make it as a scientist. Meh.
(4) producing theories of women that represent them as inferior, deviant, or significant only in the ways they serve male interests I have two words for you: Lawrence Summers.
(5) producing theories of social phenomena that render women’s activities and interests, or gendered power relations, invisible Gender issues in science? What gender issues? Just try to talk to your male peers about harassment and discrimination; they don’t “see” it, so it doesn’t exist. Everytime we discuss something on this blog, it’s not long before some male pipes up and says, “maybe it isn’t really about gender; maybe it’s just…” There’s always some guy ready to rush into the breach with his Theory of Why It Is Never About Gender.
(6) producing knowledge (science and technology) that is not useful for people in subordinate positions, or that reinforces gender and other social hierarchies. This would be, in my opinion, almost anybody who’s doing evolutionary psychology and almost anybody who’s doing sex differences research. The sex differences research just always seems to come out with the men somehow being “better” on whatever the difference is. The evolutionary psychology stuff – well, it just seems like so many “just so” stories to me, and amazingly, the “just so” stories are all about Mighty Man the Hunter and his incredible need to spread his seed all over the place, which means modern man just can’t help himself from being a sexist asshole; it’s his evolutionary heritage. If I were I man, I’d be insulted by these stories but they seem to lap it up and love it.
Feminist theory gives us a way to talk about all these kinds of things more systematically than just complaining; it gives us a way to link them and make sense of them in a context, rather than being bothered by them as a never-ending stream of isolated events. It goes a lot deeper than the examples I have given above but I think those are good entry points for seeing where and why feminist theory begins the discussion about science.
Here are the things I think about: Science is exclusionary. Why? How does this operate – systematically, structually, socially? Some science is bad – oppressive. How and why does this science get done? How could we change things? Some science that should be done isn’t done. How could we change that? Would it make any difference if there were 50% women in all science fields? Or would they all just get socialized into science-as-the-way-it-is-now and nothing would change?
I don’t consider myself to be a feminist postmodernist, or a feminist empiricist, or a feminist standpoint theorist. I more consider myself to be a Longino-est, in that of all feminist theorists, the work of Helen Longino is what I have found most meaningful and useful. Oh hell, I think she’s got it right. Science As Social Knowledge is just brilliant.
Longino argues that science is not value-free; on the contrary, the inclusion of values is necessary to make science objective. What is needed is a diverse set of values applied to the interpretation of data and the object of inquiry, to assure objectivity. She argues her case very convincingly, and in the end one can only conclude that anything which increases the diversity of values and perspectives brought to bear on scientific problems will serve to strengthen scientific objectivity.
Which means: science isn’t as healthy as it could be if it’s mainly practiced only by white males. So I conclude: science would be different if it were practiced by a more diverse group of individuals. The nature of that difference is something I’m less certain of.