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?

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