Wednesday, 17 August 2011

After session 4

Having looked in some detail at 'women in science', we have gone on, in later sessions, to examine the terms of inclusion that operate when women are included in science, also bringing in the question of differences between women that are not taken cognizance of in these inclusion patterns. Anna Mani, Lalitha Chandrasekhar, Sunanda Bai - does the presence of these women in science in India indicate women-friendliness? Could it be, coupled with their own rebuttal of gender bias, an indication rather of the exclusivity of science, that allows limited entry - to the right caste, the right gender, the right class, with allowances being made for one provided the other criteria are met? Was Anna Mani trying to be invisible as a woman in order to be visible as a scientist? Is “women in science” then a question of numbers, or of presence? Is science therefore gender neutral? Or is it gender blind? Is it attentive to difference or not? Longino will say - be attentive through contextual empiricism. This is meant to be about improving the practice of science-making through introducing what she calls ontological heterogeneity, by changing the composition of knowers. But ... did these women change the face of science? So does the mere presence of women change the picture? They may trangress boundaries but do not rebel against conventions – either of science or of culture. This then is a challenge to [a simplistic reading of] Longino. Is there then a feminist reading that can be done of these women's narratives? What is the work of interpretation that might be needed to make the journey from a woman scientist to a feminist critic of the sciences? Will that journey be different in different geopolitical contexts? The reading of Evelyn Fox Keller helps us ask these questions, as also pertinent questions about the language of science. Writing as a woman scientist who makes the journey to being a feminist critic of the sciences (consider the range of her writing - from addressing texts of science to reading the work of women scientists like Barbara McClintock), Fox Keller asks - Why is it important to ask the gender question in science? Is it that women will do science differently by virtue of being born biological women? Masculinist science would call this bad science, feminists might call it better science. But is this the reason to ask the question? This is the beginning of the conversation feminists perhaps need to have with women scientists who often perceive the acknowledgement of gender to be a pointer at biological difference, and therefore a diversion, a route to exclusion, a loss of objectivity. As a first response to "why ask the gender question at all, Fox Keller offers an account of the production of gender as a descriptive category [there are 2 genders – women and men] through science. Further, the structural, societal and cognitive division of labour between men and women that comes about through this production. So Keller is pointing to - 1.the production of gender in science 2.the role of gendered metaphors in the framing of scientific language. Keller goes on to ask the question of an alternative language – one premised not on “the domination of nature, but on “a feeling for the organism””, as Barbara McClintock, one of the women scientists she studied, may have employed. Nature here is in active reciprocity with the researcher, rather than waiting for 'his' explanation of 'her' mysteries. The success of such an alternative language and vision, however, will depend not on an individual genius scientist who “sees” differently, but on “the acceptance and pursuit of their work by the community around them” [p. 139]. Keller then asks the obvious question – is everything constructed in language? Is the table in front of me a table through language? No. Rather, it is a particular organisation of metaphors – highlighting similarities on the one hand and suppressing irregularities on the other, that makes a particular reality more active. Barbara McClintock made such an alternative vision possible; and yet it was appropriated into the mainstream, raising the further question of what, then, the impact of women in science might be. Another way of putting this is – how successful can alternative visions and languages be? The question that might follow is – whose science are we talking about? Who becomes, or is, equipped, to offer these alternative visions and languages? Is there work to be done to produce these alternative languages, or are they already available and only waiting to be picked up, discovered?

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

The story so far

We have initiated the course with asking the question of the possibility of dialogue between such seemingly unrelated, indeed antagonistic fields - as feminism and science. 

Traditionally, one has understood feminism to be something political, something with transformative potential, something about change. That has meant the ability to bring about justice, equity, freedom from oppression, empowerment, for women, presuming a global sisterhood among women - a commonality. An underlying assumption then is of a linear connect between feminism and women.

Traditionally, one has understood science to be about knowledge, and to be the only kind of knowledge that is universal, accurate, objective, and therefore valid. 

So what does a political practice - feminism, have to say to a knowledge system - science?

But feminist practice in various parts of the world has indeed talked about the power exercised by systems of knowledge on their constituencies. In this course, we look at a field - feminist science studies - and its past and present attempts, again in various geopolitical contexts, to address the power of scientific knowledge and the problems this might create. This is a methodological as well as disciplinary journey, as also a tough one. It involves a fresh look at what we understand by both feminism and science. It also involves a revision of our expectations from feminism today. 

We will, in this journey, be visiting various concepts. We have so far attempted such an examination of the concept of objectivity as it inheres in scientific method. We will be revisiting this concept again and again, through the feminist lens, as the course progresses. 

If in session 1, we put on the table some of our assumptions regarding what science is, and what feminism is, in session 2 we tried to establish that feminism is seeking a dialogue with science on 3 major counts -
  1. Feminism seeks to look at the numbers of women who access the fruits of science and technology, as also the women practitioners within science, and the mechanisms that keep them out or bring them in. 
  2. Feminism seeks to look at attitudes within the scientific communities that are called scientific but might also be termed sexist. 
  3. And feminism also seeks to look at the language, at the practices of writing and reading science - practices that are avowedly objective and value-neutral but could be shown to be androcentric.
Each of these exercises is both political and epistemological. Each of these exercises brings into dialogue science's self-description and feminism's description of science. Each of these exercises also brings to crisis science's description of the world, by posing a different perspective, a different and perhaps more valid view. 

In session 3, we took an example from evolutionary discourse, to try and map critical feminist concerns onto this science's self-description and its ensuing description of the world. We went on to identify what then the role of this concern and critique might be - to merely complain about, nag at the exclusions of the scientific theory, or to also provide an alternative view, an alternative perspective, that can bring more valid knowledge into being? An example of work in FSS we used to bring this to light is the work of Helen E. Longino - her notion of feminist contextual empiricism. 

In retrospect, the session also attempted to bring to crisis the stereotypes of gender produced within science. Women as peaceful gatherers who support the man-hunter, women as occasional hunters themselves, women as indifferent to hunting - the 3 possibilities suggested in the thought experiment - which of these is accepted within evolutionary theory? And which of these, in conjunction with other scientific texts - biology and psychiatry among them - is actually put out as the 'correct' gender identity and role for women? What automatically follows as disordered genders?

We then went on to look more closely at the question of women in science, using the study of women scientists in India conducted by Abha Sur. The article brings in questions specific to science in the Indian context - the manner in which the colonial experience, the social reform movements, and the nationalist movement impinge on how science 'works' in Indian contexts. We will go into these influences in more detail in the next session. These influences are important since they help us understand the legacies that feminist approaches to science in India carry. 

A caveat here. Feminist responses to science in the Indian context are different from Anglo-American contexts. This is not to say they are incommensurable. Also, the engagements have been on a different and smaller scale perhaps. We will also go into the reasons for this difference in the next 2 sessions.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Feminist science studies at TISS: a journey

Dear all,

As we begin this course on Feminist Science Studies, this blog is a space that might help us share our confusions, ambivalences, questions, and concepts about this seemingly (im)possible dialogue - that between feminism and science. We will, here, be sharing interesting links, following up on discussions that begin in or outside the classes, and maybe more. Welcome!