What’s a Feminist Theory of Science, Anyway?

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.

  1. January 31, 2007 at 5:15 pm

    But feminist engineers, for example, might choose not to build Stealth bombers.
    Only part I disagree with. Unless we want to fall into the whole “no true Scotsman” thing. Women aren’t inherently less likely to be able to distance their jobs from the moral consequences. They’re just as good at lying to themselves about things as men are.

  2. Greco
    January 31, 2007 at 6:01 pm

    The sex differences research just always seems to come out with the men somehow being “better” on whatever the difference is.

    What I have seen of the “science” of sex differences are assertions that men are inherently and inescapably immature, speech-impaired, borderline-autistic, simple-minded dependent brutes. I don’t know how that counts as “better”.

  3. January 31, 2007 at 7:02 pm

    How is this specific to science? What differentiates this from “feminist theory” full stop? And as for stealth bombers, would that not be politicians and the military?

  4. Carrie
    January 31, 2007 at 7:37 pm

    Brian, you imply that a gender-neutral environment isn’t important. How would a feminist approach to science change the outcomes/practices of science aside from applying a more gender-neutral environment?. But it IS important. Most research into exercise physiology and hydration has been done on male athletes. It wasn’t until some athletes (most women) started DYING from overhydration that the effects of hydration during strenuous exercise on WOMEN was evaluated. Is this important science? I like to think so, since I’m one of those women trying to determine how to properly eat & drink during my long runs on really hot and humid days!

  5. February 1, 2007 at 12:00 am

    Thank you, Brian. I was getting bored with the spate of “there are no gender issues at all” stuff as the typical knee-jerk response to anything I posted. It’s refreshing to see the “yes there are gender issues but they aren’t as important as (fill in the blank), which I am concerned about, which shows that I have a much more global vision than you parochial feminists.” It’s a variant of the “yes, there are gender issues, but you can’t do anything about them until you first solve racial issues/class issues/religious strife etc. etc.”
    Never, ever, ever is there a dearth of reasons why we should pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

  6. Brian
    February 1, 2007 at 12:53 am

    Ok, seriously, I love your stuff, Zuska, but you get a little defensive at times. My point was that introducing women into science should not be based on the diversity of viewpoints that they bring to the table, as it were. Women should be in science because otherwise we’re missing a fully capable 50% of the population.
    Because we are always going to be missing most, if not all of the spectrum of global viewpoints in science. Bringing in more Western women to increase the viewpoint diversity is going to do very little to change the underlying bias of Western science. Which is why my original question came up – how is a (Western) feminist outlook on science really going to change how science is done?
    Instead, we should be trying to address the underlying scientific bias (which is complimentary to, but not the same thing as addressing the workplace gender bias). When you say something like “feminist scientists won’t build stealth bombers” or “women scientists bring a unique perspective to primatology,” you’re falling into the same trap that you chastized Razib about a few months back. Address the gender gap because it is inherently unfair and counterproductive. Don’t address it because science “needs” the diversity that social constructs of gender provide. Otherwise, you’re validating the ability of white male Western scientists to ignore everything but prostate cancer and impotence as legitimate fields of study.

  7. Thony C.
    February 1, 2007 at 6:32 am

    One would have to be blind, ignorant and deaf (i.e. a man) not to recognise that,in everyday life, in general women find different subjects and themes significant and worthy of note than men do. This is almost certainly also the case in all areas of science and technology. I for one find it highly significant that most of the really interesting work being done in my field, history of the mathematical sciences in the early modern period, is today being done by women and in areas that have been traditionally ignored by male researchers.
    P.S. I am a man!

  8. catswym
    February 1, 2007 at 9:00 am

    um, brian, why is “feminist-specific” not egalitarian?

  9. jeffk
    February 1, 2007 at 12:13 pm

    I’ve found that some feminisms are egalitarian and some are frustratingly not. I call myself one if we mean the egalitarian type.

  10. Carrie
    February 1, 2007 at 2:13 pm

    Brian, I just don’t ‘get’ your arguement. You state: “Don’t address it because science “needs” the diversity that social constructs of gender provide. Otherwise, you’re validating the ability of white male Western scientists to ignore everything but prostate cancer and impotence as legitimate fields of study.“.
    I say, if white male Western scientist want to study prostate cancer, go for it. However, ‘good science’ DOES need gender diversity. Because I, for one, am not trying to stop US and European scientists from studying what is relevant to them. However I do strongly believe that that work needs to be counterbalances ON EQUAL FOOTING with research that is relevant and interesting to women. (And in your arguement, Asian and Southern Hemisphere scientists).
    I believe that we cannot have unbiased research. I think it’s a pipe dream. But I DO think that if we have a diversity of ideas on the table, we are closer to getting a full picture of whats going on. Hence the need for equality in research and respect (and the feminist study of science too).

  11. Matt
    February 1, 2007 at 7:42 pm

    The number of individuals in a particular discipline is not a zero sum game, so an increase in the percentage of the total S&T professionals that are women does not mean a decrease in the total number of men in S&T fields. Encouraging more women to enter the technical disciplines is a good thing, just because of the fact that there will be more talented individuals doing work in that field. This is irrespective of discipline.
    Beyond the base argument of “diversity is a good thing in and of itself,” there are particular disciplines where women bring very important perspectives due to their personal experience. This is most prominent in biological, psych, and sociological studies, as one can note from the comments above.

  12. Matt
    February 1, 2007 at 7:57 pm

    Feminist theory of Science from what I have read and studied is a condemnation of the current methodology of scientific investigation. Authors claim that the reductionist and deconstructive tendencies in science are inherently masculine, and that a new “feminine science” will right those wrongs. This is absolutely absurd.
    Women, as I have said above, have much to contribute on both basic and specific levels. What these feminist authors attempt to do is to conflate the problematic gender power structure as having infested the scientific methodology to its logical core. I don’t mean that researchers fail to live up to the ideal, but that the ideal itself is flawed.
    Let us speak of stamping out gender prejudice, provide adequate health care for pregnant women, and realize the crappy scientific theories for what they are. Crappy scientific theories. Clamouring for a new feminist science is just wasting our time, and we have experiments to run.

  13. Axe
    February 3, 2007 at 3:55 am

    Sad . Only the troll will represent the troll , huh .
    No seriously, feminist scientists would not have built the stealth plane . Wowie . On further elaboration
    “I am talking about a conscious, chosen approach to work that says “these are my values, these are my morals, for these particular reasons; since I hold these values, I choose not to work on certain kinds of things and to give my labor instead to other kinds of projects.””
    So you say that feminists dont have an inherent sense of “better” morality, but they have a cultivated attitude of … hmmm .. sticking to their moral values .
    Wowza .
    Seriously – briallant. A very not-so-subtle-use of the differentiation between action and intent.
    Ok, sorry – i got carried away . But you have to admit, that explanation of yours, further muddies water up. You are equating the term “feminist” with a mindset with which it is generally not associated.I mean feminists are traditionaly held to be fire breathing dragons who guard treasures, wait – was that Smaug ? Anyways i would be interested in ur def of a feminist – becoz ur attributing certain qualities i didnt know automatically came along with being a feminist. I wonder how being a feminist gives you a diferent viewpoint, and zen like focus. I can see how being a female would grant a different view and understanding , but just – and by just i dont mean just just – being a feminist doesnt necessarily mean a straight line between intent and action.
    > End Of ramble – Apologies if any percieved insult –

  14. Nicole
    February 3, 2007 at 2:54 pm

    No Ronald, if you say something stupid you are figuratively flagellated. If you read the actual transcript from the Summers speech, you will find it is worse than the media portrayed it. Mr. Larry did not suggest 3 scenarios, he said in his opinion the lack of women in science is due to, in order of importance, (paraphrased) “women don’t want to work as hard as men”, “women lack the aptitude”, and “women are discriminated against. That’s what he said. You can find it by googling “larry summers transcript”.

  15. February 5, 2007 at 5:44 am

    If feminist engineers don’t take stealth bomber jobs, then are they truly equal? What if those are the best paying jobs, or the jobs with the best maternity leave? Also, might I remind you that “fighter pilot” was one of the first combat roles in the US armed forces that women managed to break into?
    As for the crusty old man factor, I think that this is one of the things that drives all people, men and women alike, away from science. As a result, science is now so uncool that the only people majoring in hard sciences in Australia are dropouts who couldn’t make the grade for fashion and physical education.
    For my take on this, see http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com/2007/01/cant-hack-fashion-try-chemistry.html

  16. Drekab
    February 5, 2007 at 7:37 pm

    I think we can all agree that evolutionary psychologists are full of it, but
    “…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.”
    That’s a little off base I think, sure the conclusions of some researchers might be bull, but there are differences between men and women and it is an important point of research, consider your example of the hydration differences between male and female atheletes.
    I also disagree with the stealth bomber bit, but that was clearly a humorous aside and it seems unfair to over analyze it. But I did love your comment about primate research, I hadn’t considered that before and its an interesting viewpoint.

  17. studentmedic
    February 6, 2007 at 5:31 pm

    I think it is dangerous and sloppy to say that feminist scientists wouldn’t have built a stealth bomber. Women can be just as disgusting, violent and daft as men…
    I think that the feminist theory of science is really just an extension of feminism – it doesn’t really ‘deserve’ to be a specific discipline because I don’t think it is adding anything major that hasn’t already been said.
    I am completely for positive discrimination in science, I think it is gross that women are so unrepresented – but I don’t agree that science itself would be fundamentally different if women had a more active role (the fact that discrimination is fundamentally opposed to the idea of rational science comes to mind). I don’t care if some talented male scientists loose out here, the other choice is that some talented female scientists loose out (unless someone can show me proof that men are somehow more gifted at science (!), the fact that women are underrepresented shows that we are actually preventing some of the best people from pursuing careers).
    The biggest difference might be that a little bit more research would be done into areas directly affecting women (although there is no lack of research into ‘female cancers’)… The fundamental ideology would remain the same.
    That’s my 2 cents anyway.

  18. February 7, 2007 at 2:15 pm

    Studentmedic…I think this has been said before above, but “feminists” and “women” are NOT the same thing. Women, as a group, on average, are capable of just as much stupid and/or malignant behavior as men (albeit such behavior may take different forms). Feminists however, represent a different category than women in general. Feminists, I argue, might not choose to work on a Stealth bomber because to do so would clash with their consciously chosen value system.
    Please note also the language that I used regarding choice: feminists might not choose to work on a Stealth bomber. This does not imply in any way that there is something inherent in feminists, something in their biological makeup, that renders them inherently morally superior to men, or to all other groups of human beings. All I am saying is that, upon conscious reflection, a person (male or female) who ascribes to a feminist worldview, may come to the conclusion that working on Stealth bombers is something that is in direct conflict with that feminist worldview, and so would choose to lend their talents to other sorts of work that does not clash with their worldview.
    People make these kinds of choices all the time. Deeply religious women don’t often choose to work in strip clubs, even if they like to perform in public. Atheists don’t often choose to work in Christian bookstores, no matter how much they love books. It’s not a huge leap to imagine that a feminist might not choose to work on a Stealth bomber.

  19. March 7, 2007 at 4:44 pm

    Could you please go into a little more depth explaining the distinctions between the empiricists, postmodernists, and standpoint-ists as they pertain to the feminist theory of science? That was the first question that popped into my mind while reading your post, and judging by the comments, it seems I’m the only one that doesn’t know.

  20. April 6, 2007 at 7:08 pm

    What if the feminist engineer were assured that the Stealth bomber would be used to hit Taliban positions?

  21. April 5, 2008 at 8:45 pm

    yeah, well, vinchuco, you’ve just come out as a moron on this blog.

  22. April 7, 2008 at 5:41 pm

    Nice try, but it doesn’t work in reverse. Commenting on a blog that deals specifically and centrally with science and gender in the manner you did is exposing one’s self as a moron. Saying nyah, nyah, you too is hardly redeeming, or demonstrative of any ability to understand what this blog is about.
    Or maybe you do understand, and it threatens you so much that you feel compelled to post moronic comments. Whatever.

  23. D. C. Sessions
    January 4, 2009 at 9:58 am

    A bit of a labeling problem, it seems. None of the topics under discussion are actually “epistemology” or “philosophy” of science, but rather sociology of science.
    I’ll preempt the inevitable reply by asserting that categorizing them as “sociology” does not in any way belittle them. Then again, since my daughter’s research is in gender sociology, I would think so, wouldn’t I?

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: