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.

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