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Feminist Science Studies

Intersectional Narratives of Persons in Gender-marginal Locations in Science

Feminist science studies (FSS) is a field of study that is interdisciplinary. It draws upon the philosophy, historiography and sociology of science.1 It also has to necessarily draw upon the practice of science itself. While social scientists might gain insights into the practice and culture of science through their research, the insider story is best told through the narratives and accounts of practitioners of science.

We would like to thank the guest editors Gita Chadha and Asha Achutan, and the members of the editorial advisory group of the Review of Women’s Studies Mary E John, J Devika, Kalpana Kannabiran, Samita Sen, and Padmini Swaminathan for putting together this issue on Feminist Science Studies.

Feminist science studies (FSS) is a field of study that is interdisciplinary. It draws upon the philosophy, historiography and sociology of science.1 It also has to necessarily draw upon the practice of science itself. While social scientists might gain insights into the practice and culture of science through their research, the insider story is best told through the narratives and accounts of practitioners of science.

FSS has developed at the intersections of science studies and women’s studies across the world. It required the maturation of two independent fields, science studies and feminist theories (Keller 2001). Both of these were inspired by social movements, like the feminist, the environmental, and the pacifist movements. These movements were challenging the outcomes of a science deeply embedded in European modernity and implicated in what Ulrich Beck (1992) calls the “risk society.” The movements articulated alternatives for a different, more just, more sustainable, and more inclusive world. In India, a third development was necessary in order for feminist science studies to germinate—the critique of development and modernity from postcolonial locations in the global South (Chadha 2015). FSS also developed due to academic challenges from philosophy, history and sociology, which critiqued the power, domination and paradigmatic hegemony of science as a knowledge-making system.

FSS traverses complex registers and domains. Often, and unfortunately, these registers churn out a “pro-science–anti-science” polemics. We take the position, in this issue, thatFSS must do two definite things. It must (i) place science within society and at the centre of critical scrutiny, and (ii) examine science from the standpoint of women’s lives and other marginal locations in order to present a “different picture” of what is “taken for granted” as science. To complicate gender, we recognise that gender, as an analytical–political category, needs to be spelt out more carefully, and would involve more than the act of rescuing “women” from the gender binary.

Further, within the context of feminism, we recognise the role of intersectionality in the making of marginalities. Gender marginalities and privileges are linked to caste, class, ethnic, regional, and language locations, to name a few. What this means, for example, is that women’s marginalisation from science on account of their gender identity is linked not just to their being located at a certain fixed point on the gender spectrum, but also to their being from a certain caste, class, and ethnic, regional, and language groups. Their access to science also depends on their social locations, so that the idea of gender marginality itself, to further belabour the point, cannot only be understood as gender identity. It is linked to binary constructions of both gender and sexuality, whereby heteronormative, reproductive, and cisgender privilege within marriage, to name a few locations, that primarily determine who is normatively located in the position of researcher/expert and who is typically likely to be the object of study.

These, and other locations, are also at different points in conflict or convergence with one another, so that stories from these locations are a mosaic of both disadvantage and privilege. FSS asks questions like: What is it that keeps women and persons in non-heteronormative gender locations out of science? Why do we see a pyramidal structure in the pattern of the presence of women in science? What is the nature of the glass ceiling in science? FSS then aims to link these understandings to the nature and culture of science. FSS suggests that, unlike its image and its metanarrative, science is deeply implicated in social hierarchies related to gender, and that it serves to reproduce these hierarchies and the underlying ideologies at every level. For instance, despite their merit-based rhetoric, scientific institutions are often found to be gated universes that are accessible largely to upper-caste, middle-class people in India. Yet, we submit that FSS is an effort to recast and reimagine science at multiple levels, and not to debunk it.

FSS largely addresses three sets of questions. The first set of questions is formed around the low representation of women in science—at all levels, from school to research—and the gender-based discrimination against them. The second is a related set of questions critiquing the organisation of science as an institution that is deeply situated in Western modernity, with the ideas of rationalism, development, progress, utilitarianism, and nationalism that are associated with it. The third set of questions is about the foundational—and paradigmatic—nature of science as a knowledge-making system, with its epistemological and ontological assumptions about knowledge and the nature of its method and the substantive content of its theories. These questions intersect and overlap in many complex ways. The articles in this edition of the Review of Women’s Studies focus on the first set of questions, but suggest the need for a critique at the other levels as well.

Paired Autobiographical Narrative as a Tool

As people working in FSS, we began to recognise that in order for science to be altered by a feminist consciousness, it is critical for those occupying marginal gender locations in science to attain reflexivity and a capacity to critique their discipline and its practice. This, we recognised, can happen through shared dialogue. Drawing upon our own histories of having done that with medicine (an “applied” science) and sociology (a “social” science), we realised, that this process is neither easy nor ever complete.2 Our choices of either “leaving” the discipline or “inhabiting” it after recognising its gendered character were instructive. They told us different stories about ourselves and our disciplines. These stories, like histories, were as much about us as they were about our disciplines. They were, as C Wright Mills (1959) would argue, links between the private and the public, between the biographical and the historical. This was the intellectual impulse that led us to conceptualise, and curate, this issue.

Using a feminist and phenomenological position, we invited autobiographical “paired” narratives from persons of science occupying marginal gender locations, those in research at premier institutions of science, at universities, and those outside of it. We invited these from the three “hardest” and “purest” of positivist sciences: mathematics, theoretical physics, and biology. We wanted to draw out narratives of how these persons have lived through science, and experienced it. The pairs we formed were based on a dialogic rationale. Women “in” science, we knew, had just about begun speaking of gender discrimination in science. As opposed to the earlier generation, who felt that science did not discriminate, women in the last decade have started speaking out about the gender discrimination in science, though not in an autobiographical and experiential manner.

We also knew of other women in science—friends in the women’s movements—who had “left” science in order to teach science or move into science education. These women, we knew, had begun articulating a fairly strong critique of science, at all the levels we mentioned earlier. They were, in many ways, allies, with us in the social sciences who were developing FSS from a social science perspective. Given this, we thought that a “paired conversation” with people across the two groups would help discover a shared intersecting universe between them, hitherto unarticulated. We paired Sumathi Rao with Chayanika Shah; Sujatha Ramdorai with Jayasree Subramanian and Geetha Venkataraman, and Vidita Vaidya with Bittu Karthik Kondaiah. Kondaiah brought in Maranatha Grace Tham Wahlang and Shalini Mahadev to co-author his article.

In this exercise, we hoped and worked with the assumption that the persons “out” of science would be able to share a language of critique with those “in” science, and those “in” science will throw light on what it means to be an insider. We also hoped that this exercise in contrast would generate important texts to “read” in the field of FSS. What we had, as research and writing in the field of women’s experiences of doing science in India were either not in their own voice, or were in the “role model” genre. We wanted “thicker” narratives of how gender is experienced in science. We sought autobiographical paired narratives of persons in the basic sciences—mathematics, physics and biology—which are the hardest to “alter;” all in the aim of building dialogues between gender-marginal practitioners of science and those in FSS. Did the paired narrative exercise work? In one case, with Shah and Rao, it did, especially since they had a shared history. In the other cases, the pairs provide us interesting studies in contrast.

Further, the device of seeking autobiographical paired narratives, using contemporary feminist epistemologies, sought to gain responses on two axes: intersectionality and reflexivity. Narrative, with respect to orthodox understandings of the sciences, is an anomaly. Whether we speak of the content of the sciences themselves, or the gaps in content and practice, the expectation is towards factual accounts. Gaps, however, are rarely available as discrete factual nuggets. Be it a gap in access (to networks, educational spaces of science), presence (of women in science), or knowledge (what lines of research are pursued, and whether these decisions are gendered), an account of its experience is likely to be alongside the experience of access, presence, or knowledge, in some form. Narrative, then, is a method that comes closest to holding an account of that enmeshed experience of inclusion alongside marginalisation or discrimination, and so is most likely the form within which the gap can be measured. Needless to say, the meaning of measurement changes as we say this.

This set of articles was commissioned as narratives of gender and science, and what has emerged both in form and content has been somewhat unexpected, in the nature of the Kuhnian anomaly (Kuhn 1962). What we expected, based on our previous work on gender and science, was the emergence of gender as an anomaly in the accounts of active practitioners of science (anomaly not as abnormality to be shut down, but as the silent constituent of paradigm). What did happen was that multiple anomalies emerged, or more accurately, a connected, but sometimes contradictory set of anomalies emerged, each of which carried the possibility of bringing the discipline to a crisis. This was not unexpected, but it did arrive in forms that revealed omissions in regular work in the gender critiques of science. The caste-privileged nature of the collection is an example of this. Caste, thus, emerges as an extremely significant frame for thinking about gender and science in India today.

The “anomaly” of gender has persisted in the Indian context mostly without bringing the discipline to a crisis. The idea is to “hear” the gender-marginal in science in India. Hear them—in a form of reflection unfamiliar in both the physical/natural sciences—in their own voice, and not necessarily in the academic language of the social sciences. These autobiographical paired narratives do not become the “readymade”—a term we borrow from Marcel Duchamp—for social science (Obalk 2000).3 To many in the social sciences, these voices do not say anything that is new about the gender politics of knowledge-making systems and institutions. However, while they may be saying what we already know, they say it from another context, that of science. And, that is quite a significant story because they tell us that science is not “above” society.

Emergent Themes

While the articles, when read closely, provide multiple insights into the relationship between gender and science in the Indian context, there are some we flag off as pivotal.

First, it is instructive to see how seven out of the nine voices speak of the experience of diminishing self-worth as they enter into science as young researchers or professionals. Feminist readings have rearticulated this as absence, invisibilisation, and discrimination, and this exercise has, as have others, shown the enmeshed nature of the relationship between each of these and the need to belong. The “absence” question has been dealt with differently by each of the authors in this collection, sometimes tied to the question of invisibilisation, or outright discrimination. In a close replication of Gayle Rubin’s “charmed circle,”4 the non-familial, non-conforming, “ascetic” woman remains either invisibilised within or edged out of orthodox science. While it is definitely a feature of its heteronormativity, perhaps this may be read too as a facet of its Brahminical character. It is this insidious understanding of discrimination that this collection offers as a site of learning. In the context of the physics pair of Shah and Rao, very different experiences of peer networks, isolation or alternative networks than science seem to emerge, along with coping mechanisms. This thread of invisibilisation can operate very differently in the same disciplinary location, as also the opening up of avenues, not only for women and men, but for women at different degrees of distance from the centre of the normative family.

This is further articulated across age. While on the one hand, Rao and Kondaiah indicate, with varying degrees of intensity, how women of colour are pushed to the margins in a way that they feel invisibilised or feel that they do not belong when they go as women from India to do science in the United States; Mahadev and Subramanian, on the other hand, though at different poles of the caste spectrum, both speak of how their self-worth gets negatively affected in the world of science. Both speak of how the romance with science breaks when they enter the world of professional science. Though the childhood experiences of both Subramanian and Mahadev differ due to their caste locations, their experiences as women in science look similar in terms of the humiliation they experience as women. The sense of being in an abject state is so visceral that it almost seems like a physical diminishing of the self.

This is further corroborated in what Shah says happens to women when faced with so much doubt regarding their abilities that they begin to question themselves and wonder if they are “cut out” for science at all. This begs the question: Do men not go through a similar process? We would argue that this is not just about men and women, but about the larger culture of science, which focuses on aggression, competition and production at the cost of everything else. Any indication of uncertainty in manner or behaviour is construed as “weakness,” as Rao suggests. Shah’s subtle play with the metaphors of heteronormative intimacy, on the other hand, brings a different lens to the questions of absence and belonging, indicating the vital role of contexts in becoming a “person in science.”

Following on the question of absence as discrimination, the second issue we wish to flag is that of caste. Out of the nine contributors in this collection, six are Brahmins, out of which five are Tamil Brahmins. We read caste in these articles at many levels. For one, “pure” and “abstract” sciences are densely populated by the Brahmin community in India. The predominance of Brahmins—particularly from Tamil Nadu and West Bengal—in the foundational pure sciences is remarkable.5 While we can argue that it could be because these communities were the first benefactors of English education, it requires a different lens to explain how this has continued till today, especially in a community that prides itself on being critical, rational and given to scientific temper. The histories of upper-caste nationalism and continuing control over educational and other institutions may provide that lens.

Kondaiah, Wahlang and Mahadev, in their collectively written article critique the domination of middle-class, male, Brahmin role models in science. All the articles indicate how caste not only operates in who gets to do pure science; it also effectively decides what kind of science is valorised. Taking the example of the three articles from the field of mathematics, it is clear that the “preference” for “abstraction” in many ways is associated with a Brahminical mode of knowing. Kondaiah and others also argue that Brahminical cultures find their way into the pedagogic and mentoring cultures of the sciences. They suggest that the collective consciousness of the “guru–shishya” practice persists in the scientific community in complex ways. The acknowledgement of having been a “good” student, reflected upon in varying degrees of reflexivity by the authors, also recalls the entire debate on caste and merit to which higher education in science in India has been historically a witness.

The divide that Vaidya identifies between teaching and research—and as Venkataraman says, research places higher than teaching in the hierarchy because the latter is seen as sharing and reducing the exclusive character of science itself—could also be read as indicative of the presence of a dominant Brahminical culture. In fact, looking down upon teaching could also arguably be the reason why so many women move into the teaching of science. Having said this, we would like to suggest that the heart of any knowledge-making practice lies in an engaged pedagogy that includes learning. Interestingly, while caste as culture seems to pervade scientific communities, caste as identity could, as Venkataraman’s narrative suggests, drive one to choose pure science or mathematics in order to distinguish oneself in a mixed regional and linguistic context.

The third issue is the question of the representation of women and other marginal groups in science. Vaidya takes a liberal feminist perspective, leading to feminist empiricism. She argues that science is characterised by “fairness” and criticality, which the practitioners of science are supposed to inhabit through a process of socialisation. Vaidya puts the onus—to change and correct the bias—squarely on the scientists and the scientific community. In fact, Vaidya and Ramdorai, both insiders to the scientific community, seem to suggest that the first problem is that the scientific community does not recognise the woman question in science. Vaidya further suggests that one of the necessary preconditions for this is a dialogue, an interaction between the natural scientist and the social scientists. She deplores the separation of the university and the research organisations that largely disallows such interactions. Ramdorai also formulates the need for women in science to be in close interaction with women’s groups in order to develop critical ways of thinking about the woman question in science.

Interestingly, Vaidya points towards ways in which scientific research on gender can help pave the way for opening up such a space. The role of a critical mass is crucial in her narrative, for which she would argue for affirmative action, perhaps not as strongly as her paired partner Kondaiah would. Both these narratives suggest the need for critical diversity within the community to ensure a larger representation of women and other marginal groups. Kondaiah, in his account as a transperson of colour, argues more robustly from a location of political awareness, along with Wahlang and Mahadev, that science, due to its casteist and Brahminical character in India privileges upper-caste men. Providing a more radical critique of the scientific regime, the three argue that though the critical mass of large numbers of women is required to change the practices of patriarchal science, a larger number of women does not ensure this.

The last point is about the “defectors” versus the “loyalists.” For as long as FSS across the world has grown in the soil of a certain positivist division between disciplinary cultures of the natural and social sciences—with the social sciences (a good host to FSS) occupying the space of necessary critique of the natural and physical sciences—the only place to be in a critical relationship with the sciences was on the outside. We have, in this collection, attempted to not only draw out narratives from those at the forefront of science as well as at the margins, but also demonstrate, partly, how scientific cultures can push people to defect. In the Indian context, pre-globalisation, with the sciences occupying a sacred place in the nationalist imagination, and with interdisciplinarity being neither the buzzword it is today, nor an available mode of academic work, defection then would be the norm. Post-globalisation, however, with niche work emerging within and amongst disciplines, and privatised higher education capitalising on the possibilities thereof, loyalists may be better rewarded. We must also understand our contributors who became persons in science in pre-globalisation India, and who stayed loyal or turned away, in this light.

Notes

1 We understand science as a whole to mean its method, theories, institutions and practice.

2 Asha Achuthan moved from an initial training and practice in medicine, where she tried to speak politics outside the classroom and the clinic, to a life in the social sciences and women’s studies, from where taking critical questions back to biomedicine proved to be a completely different exercise. Gita Chadha found herself, as a consequence of a feminist consciousness, gravitating towards a feminist sociology, a sociology critical of its canon and yet nurtured by it. Both argue that the scientific character of their disciplines has to be enriched by critiquing it.

3 Marcel Duchamp, the 20th century French–American artist, challenged the notion of what is art. Critical of art practice of his times, he argued that any object that the artist might pick up and place in an art gallery becomes art. He became best known for the objects he found, modified and placed in art galleries. These came to be known as “readymades.” In contrast, we are suggesting that these narratives, just by being placed in a social science journal do not become social science; they are only material for the social scientist.

4 Gayle Rubin (1998) speaks of the “charmed circle” where sexuality is socially hierarchised, as also persons’ positions with respect to the normative heterosexual family unit, based on the sexual practices and relationships they are in, so that the married, heterosexual, monogamous, private, procreative sexual unit is at the normative centre.

5 While there are no systematic studies done on this, a cursory look at the names of faculty members of premier research institutes would be sufficient to corroborate this.

References

Beck, Ulrich (1992): Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, New Delhi: Sage, translated from the German Risikogesellschaft (1986).

Chadha, Gita (2015): “Introduction,” Feminists and Science: Critiques and Changing Perspectives in India, Vol 1, Sumi Krishna and Gita Chadha (eds), Kolkata: Stree.

Keller, Evelyn Fox (2001): “Gender and Science: An Update,” Women Science and Technology; A Reader in Feminist Science Studies, Mary Wyer et al (eds), New York: Routledge.

Kuhn, Thomas S (1962): The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mills, C Wright (1959): The Sociological Imagination, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Obalk, H (2000): “The Unfindable Readymade,” Tout-Fait: The Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal, Vol 1, No 2, http://www.toutfait.com/issues/issue_2/Articles/obalk.html.

Rubin, G (1998): “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” Social Perspectives in Lesbian and Gay Studies: A Reader, Peter M Nardi and Beth E Schneider (eds), London: Routledge, pp 100–33.

Updated On : 28th Apr, 2017

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