Page 1


“Facts aren’t just out there. Every fact has a factor, a maker” (Hubbard 5). This claim begs the questions of who gets to say which “facts” become facts, how they come up with those facts, and what the implications of those facts are. The ways in which we come to understand and interact with the world around us have not always been consistent throughout the sordid history of science. However, the people who carry out the “making” of facts tend to be members of socially privileged groups, which leads to broad effects for the nature of science itself. Science is a powerful discourse that is often used to reinforce, ignore, or excuse systems of social oppression. Through a combination of the gendering and eventual de-gendering of Nature coupled with the emergence of mechanistic reductionism, science has become a way for masculinity to dictate “fact” as a means of social control. Western knowledge of the natural world has gone through a series of starkly contrasting shifts. Early on, the prevailing view of Nature was laid down by philosophers like Aristotle, who believed that “each natural body had its own nature, Nature had an inherent purpose, and the universe was cyclical” (Lederman & Bartsch 63). The primary method of scientific inquiry was observation and contemplation on the final causes of things, their “whys.” Nature was something that lived on its own, in harmony with humankind. Later came what would come to be known as “the scientific revolution.” Changes in scientific belief were (and to many degrees still are) marked by several new views: “Nature was no longer a living organism and humans did not live in harmony with it. Nature no longer had an inherent purpose but was considered inert and available for exploitation by Man for his benefit. Valid knowledge about nature was to be obtained by answering questions designed to elucidate mechanisms.


The Greek ‘why’ questions were replaced by ‘how’ questions, answers to which were to be found through experiment” (Lederman & Bartsch 63-4). The introduction of two primary philosophies, mechanism and reductionism, that emerged together during this period shaped this new discourse of science. “Reductionism is the view that things in the universe are arranged hierarchically, and that causation only occurs at the lower levels of this hierarchy,” whereas mechanism “is simply a causal process. A mechanical explanation is a description of the causal process that produced the phenomenon in question” (Fehr 137). The two theories are not inextricably bound, though most discourse would make it seem that way. It is only because they were introduced in tandem with one another that they operate simultaneously in science. For instance, if one takes a mechanical view of a body, one knows that a body undergoes a series of chemical and physical processes that make it grow and function. If one applies reductionist theory to this, one would believe that the existence and function of a body as a whole unit in the world can always be understood most clearly through an analysis of the smallest function processes. Much of this mindset emerged with the advent of new technologies and shifts toward imperialism. Through the Scientific Revolution, “Natural science [became]… an understanding of nature for use. To understand is not enough. Natural science and technology are inextricable, because we can judge that our understanding of nature is true only to the extent that it… can be applied and used as technology” (Hubbard 7). Not only is nature seen as something for our use, it is often in the way of the notion of progress, especially while European nations were “settling” more and more land. When the goal of “Man” is to expand the city, a place where creation of “facts” occurs, how could nature be anything more than something to employ through its


destruction? Natural resources were exploited not only to make room for industrial areas, but also in the creation of new forms of warfare. Nature is often characterized in feminine ways. The types of language used to describe Nature focuses on its beauty and mystery, and Nature itself is often referred to as “Mother Nature.” When this knowledge is coupled with the fact that new religious movements occurring at the same time as the Scientific Revolution brought “God” into play, a masculine figure whose message helped solidify the importance of the new scientific thought, because “nothing… endures past the present moment without God” keeping the world consistent and measurable throughout all time. Nothing exists without the watchful eye of God. Author Susan Bordo considers the development of these ideas, especially in the case of René Descartes, through the lens of psychological analysis. “This epistemological instability [has a] connection with Piaget’s famous experiments in the development of ‘permanent object concert’ (or objectivity) in children. That development is from an egocentric state, in which the self and world exist on an unbroken continuum and the child does not distinguish between events occurring in the self and events occurring in the world, to one in which the sense of a mutually juxtaposed self and world is distinct, firm, and stable.” (Bordo 87). Bordo’s claim, then, is that the consciousness of the philosophical and scientific practitioners of the time, rather than the practitioners themselves, was at an immature moment. Descartes posed the idea of the mind being an entirely separate entity from the body, and with a mind so separate from “distracting disruption and ‘commotion’ in the heart… [it can] see through the deceptiveness of the senses. And it would be above the idiosyncrasies and biases of individual perspective” (Bordo 91). In so doing, Descartes creates a sense of complete


objectivity, the mind being completely devoid of the influence of time and place. The mind is likened to the Godly abilities of seeing without claiming space, creating corporeal things, and having ultimate objectivity, and the mind is placed as nothing more than another element within nature. This puts the human creature in glaring opposition to the Greek notion of the soul being inextricably bound with the body, melding Nature with humanity. Mother Nature became merely nature. She was, through association with the inherently untrustable “nature” of herself, degendered. Mechanistic reductionist practice saw Her not as the piece of ourselves that had inherent meaning, but as the various elements of ecosystems, biology, chemistry, and physics. “Her godliness was expunged so that Her secrets were open for investigation and Her body available for exploitation” (Lederman & Bartsch 65). Science became masculine through its application of technology to control nature. Additionally, science became masculine in that “almost all the individuals who developed the new methodology were men… and its characteristics map onto the traits society defines as masculine” (Lederman & Bartsch 65). Even to this day, the majority of those creating science are men with other forms of social power, like whiteness and a middle-to-upper-class economic background. Though the scientist is described as a mere observer, he cannot escape the fact that “making facts is a social enterprise” (Hubbard 5). “The way language is used in scientific writing reinforces this illusion [that scientists are completely removed from their social situation and the ‘objects’ they study] because it implicitly denies the relevance of time, place, social context, authorship, and personal responsibility” (Hubbard 11). Natural scientists, especially, take the reductive mechanistic tendency of “looking upon nature (including other people) in small chunks and as isolated objects” in order to draw sweeping conclusions about such things as human nature (Fehr 140). One example can be found


in the discourse on biological determinism of gendered behavior. If one believes that causation is found in the smallest rungs of an hierarchical order, then it follows that biological factors are “the most important factors of feminine behavior” (as opposed to human behavior) (Fehr 140). If the lower order of the hierarchy are “normal,” which is to say that if a woman is “healthy,” then there is no reason that she should not exhibit all the traditional characteristics of women. Not only is this outcome inconsistent with the vast array of women’s experience, but the method “is simply bad science” (Fehr 141). This is a radical claim because “it refers to assumptions about the nature of causation… [and] reveals a foundational reductive ideology” and claims that it “not only limits the choice of problems and the recognition of objects of investigation, it also limits the methods of inquiry” (Fehr 141). It asks how one is able to fully understand the causes of something like feminine behavior when the approach that one is allowed to take is limited to starting on the most micro of levels, implying that such a method of inquiry is not only ineffective, but is a method of control. Much of the oppressive nature of science is reinforced in a vicious cycle. “Science is made, by and large, by a self-perpetuating, self-reflexive group: the chosen for the chosen. The assumption is that if the science is ‘good,’ in a professional sense, it will also be good for society. But no one and no group are responsible for looking at whether it is. Public accountability is not built into the system” (Hubbard 6-7). The way contemporary science is allowed to be carried out is quite scripted. In order to be considered a successful and meaningful scientist, one must undergo a series of landmarks: university education, licensure or certification, lab experience, measurement and practice according to a well-established set of rules, and peer review by others who have already undergone similar processes. Because there are so many individuals involved both in “discovery” and in the belief of that discovery, “making facts is a social enterprise… If


we do agree [with newly created facts], either because their facts closely resemble ours or because they have the power to force us to accept their facts as real and true… then the new facts become part of our shared reality” (Hubbard 5). In many ways, the act of science is performative. Philosopher Judith Butler defines something as performative if it “is in no way a stable identity of locus of agency from which various acts proceed; rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time- an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts” (Butler 419). Not only is there a very specific chain of events that must unfold for one to perform science, there are specific places it can be done, specific tools that can be used, specific words and phrases that must be said, and specific costumes that must be worn. Science is an arrangement of subjects and objects in opposition to one another, a scientist observing a phenomenon. This scientist has the ability to dictate fact from observation, implicating both the subject of observation and everything around it. Understanding the historical, theoretical, and political foundations of contemporary scientific discourse, how can science advance to be more equitable? Feminist theorist Sandra Harding proposes the integration of ideals from standpoint theory, which “shifts the question from how to eliminate politics from science to two different questions: which politics advance and which obstruct the growth of knowledge; and, for whom (for which groups) does such politics advance or obstruct knowledge… Feminists [aim] to change scientific practice, to produce empirically and theoretically more successful research” (Harding 30-31). There are four aspects of feminist standpoint theory that make it a particularly useful tool for change. “First… its goal is to ‘study up’” (Harding 31). This means that, rather than trying to use scientific discourse to make the life experiences of marginalized groups known, one should vocalize the practices and implications of power in science, and how these create and perpetuate inequity.


“Secondly, it does this by locating, in a material and political disadvantage or form of oppression, a distinctive insight about how a hierarchical social structure works” (Harding 31). This means that standpoint theory is used, through the mapping of inequity, to show the specific methodologies used in science are implemented in these systems. “Third, it takes more than recording what women or members of an oppressed social group in fact say or believe to identify these distinctive standpoint insights” (Harding 31). Control over political conversations cannot be handed over to marginalized groups without the risk of the marginalized viewpoint becoming the new dominant viewpoint. Additionally, one is not more apt to recognize the intricate ways in which a social system of inequality works merely because one belongs to a marginalized groups. Many oppressed individuals do not recognize their oppressions. Additionally, the onus of the scientific equity movement should not be on those who have been traditionally oppressed by scientific practices. “Finally, standpoint theory is more about the creation of groups’ consciousnesses than about shifts in the consciousnesses of individuals” (Harding 32). In talking about science, someone wishing for equitable change would do better to frame discussions on the topic around how members of marginalized groups are oppressed because of their membership in that group, rather than because they each individually oppressed. In the future, those who do science must “pay close attention to the political implications of fact-making activities, without suggesting a kind of relativism where ‘anything goes’” (Phillips & Phillips, 14). The historical, theoretical progression from the Scientific Revolution have shaped what we are allowed to call “science.” Today, “science” is a very detailed, very scripted performance in which the creation of facts carries political power, resulting in the marginalization of certain groups. Critiques should not focus on eliminating the political nature


of science, because “fact making is a social enterprise,� but should instead employ feminist tools of power analysis and consciousness raising.


Works Cited Bordo, Susan. "Selections from The Flight to Objectivity." Trans. Array The Gender and Science Reader. Muriel Lederman and Ingrid Bartsch. 1st ed. New York: Routledge, 2001. 82-97. Print. Butler, Judith. "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory." Trans. Array Feminist Theory Reader. Muriel Lederman and Ingrid Bartsch. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 1997. 419. Print. Fehr, Carla. "Feminism and Science: Mechanism Without Reductionism." NWSA Journal. 16.1 (2004): 136-156. Web. Harding, Sandra. "A Socially Relevant Philosophy of Science? Resources from Standpoint Theor'ys Controversiality."Hypatia. 19.1 (2004): 25-47. Print. Hubbard, Ruth. "Science, Facts, and Feminism." Hypatia. 3.1 (1988): 5-17. Print. Lederman, Muriel, and Ingrid Bartsch. The Gender and Science Reader. 1st ed. New York: Routledge, 2001. Print. Phillips, Patti, and Catherine Phillips. "The Nature of Feminist Science Studies." Resources for Feminist Research. (2010): 9-16. Web.

Feminist Science Studies  

Theoretical approach to how science came to be.

Read more
Read more
Similar to
Popular now
Just for you