The nature of feminist science studies.In this special issue of RFR/DRF, entitled 'The Nature of Feminist Studies,' we are pleased to include papers by authors writing in the emerging area of feminist social studies of science and technology (STS). Two interrelated themes guide the issue: first, a critical exploration of the status of nature and/or the physical world within particular scientific contexts and second, reflections on recent feminist theorizing about STS. The use of the double-entendre introducing this issue is meant to provoke discussion about the nature of differences that are said to define specifically feminist approaches within the interdisciplinary field of STS. Of particular interest to us were papers that explored the social relations in which science and technology are embedded, as well as the possible worlds that science and technology bring forth. The issue was conceived from our reflections on Emma Whelan's (2001) overview of the field in which she concluded that there is a lack of "cross-fertilization" between feminist and mainstream science studies.
Although there is no single origin story that unites mainstream STS, the impact of critical science studies over the past three decades is evident in the unsettling of boundaries between, for example: inside/outside (of science), science/social, natural/cultural, and objective/subjective to name just a few. Earlier boundary work between the natural and social sciences created distinctions between those who studied non-human objects and those who focused on interpretive subjects, what Bruno Latour (1991) called the "soft social periphery rather than the hard, natural center." But as he noted, nature is not waiting like a good parent to see who figures it out, "[N]ature waits to be fleshed out and decided upon by the struggling collective" (Latour, 1991, p. 9). Latour has argued that the science of texts and natural science both deal with traces; the historian deals with archives and clues while the scientist in the lab interprets instruments, fossils, faint parchments and polls (1991, p. 10). Moreover, Ian Hacking (1983) has shown that the uniqueness of the lab sciences is their interference with nature a perspective shared by Karin Knorr-Cetina (1995) who proposes that we expand the reach of "the lab" to use it more as a theoretical notion, which involves both the configuration of subjects and objects. Her reconfiguration model extends the notion of the lab, calling it a process of "upgrading the social order." However, one of the "nagging" questions more closely associated with feminist STS is: what makes some translations (of nature, culture, society) more durable, stable and oppressive than others? (Haraway, 1996) Indeed Donna Haraway has shown that many science studies scholars treat gender and race as preformed, preconstituted categories; despite heated debates in all fields about how all entities are constituted in the "action of knowledge production, not before the action starts" (1996, p. 433). She then asks: how do we document the unequal social consequences of "material-semiotic" translations while seeking to change them?
In her review of "Science as Culture, Cultures of Science" Sarah Franklin (1995) suggested that the rise of STS in the 1990s came alongside the shift from gender studies to "science studies," which she argues was the result of incorporating postmodern and postcolonial critiques. She explains how postcolonial critiques of anthropology were brought to bear on science, challenging the assumed distinction between natural and social facts which she says moved the focus from gender and kinship to "science and biogenetics" (Franklin, 1996). But as already stated, feminist STS writers like Haraway and Elizabeth Potter suggest that many mainstream writers in STS appear not to have heard, or perhaps do not understand, the implications of feminist and post-colonial critiques.
The contributors to this issue of RFR/DRF begin from social constructionist understandings of nature and the body but also address more recent concerns closely identified with cultural studies approaches within STS; these are concerns about simply replacing natural explanations of phenomenon with social ones. The result is a collection of articles from authors who, taken together, foreground the material, discursive and socio-cultural aspects of scientific knowledge and practice, a perspective that feminist physicist and STSer Karen Barad calls "meeting the universe half-way" (1996).
Historian Ludmilla Jordanova (1995) provides a valuable starting point for understanding social constructionist approaches more generally as those which direct attention to the space between the material world and representations of it. As a corrective to caricatures of social constructionism, where opponents accuse constructionists of dismissing the material, she states that the recognition and description of this mediating process is what really interests and distinguishes constructionists, rather than a dismissal of "the material."
As another version of constructionism, Knorr-Cetina points out that laboratory studies were considered radical in their claim that not just social concepts such as kinship or gender are constructed; nature, science, and technology are also constructed (1995). The continued significance of these approaches is in determining which relations to nature are implemented in particular locations (Knorr-Cetina, 1995, p. 150). Where previously social constructionist perspectives dominated much of the work in feminist STS, the place and function of "nature" or "matter" is being rethought with concepts such as Barad's "agential realism." Barad, who hails from the "hard" science of physics, is one of many theorists who have come to represent new feminist work in STS--and three of the authors in this issue draw on her theorizations. Barad argues that science must be theorized as a material-semiotic practice, meaning any STS analysis must give equal attention to both discourse and the question of "how matter comes to matter" (1996).
Writers in the cultural studies of science emphasize the porosity of boundaries between scientific and social worlds and shift the focus towards an analysis of the process and outcome of boundary-drawing activity itself, while locating these processes within their social, historical and political contexts (Bowker & Leigh-Star, 2000; Ormrod, 1995; Picketing, 1992; Reid and Traweek, 2000). A focus on boundary-drawing draws together themes in the articles found in this issue: the temporary boundary-cuts that give meaning to biological and social entities as well as processes, the boundary-drawing work or exclusion processes that demarcate non-scientists from scientists, and finally the theoretical and political boundary-work between feminist and mainstream STS.
Barbara Marshall, in her paper "The Nature of the Body": Anatomizing Heterogender in Sexual Medicine," explores the "nature" of the body and its construction and representation in sexual medicine. Her particular focus is on the biomedical discourse surrounding "female sexual dysfunction," and she analyses the clinical literature and describes the ways that visual technologies are used to represent it as a physiological problem. Marshall's discussion highlights the ways that cultural expectations, shaped by heteronormative logics, are thoroughly embedded in biomedical approaches and explanations.
Her discussion is located in the nexus between culture, politics and the body. Working with Haraway's concept of "corporealization," Marshall suggests that the insights gained from "feminist science studies ... demonstrate that biological bodies materialize gender in dynamic ways." The materialization process she describes includes traffic between those inside and outside the lab, for example, in the marketing of solutions by pharmaceutical companies and their representation of sexual problems.
Marshall, like Barad, suggests that leaving the "fleshy material of the body" to scientists while social analysts focus on discourse has permitted "new forms of biological determinism to flourish." Her point is not to once again say, "it's all in your head," but she asks: what current social conditions are fueling the new biological reductionism which simplifies and commodities women's sexuality?--question also raised by Martin in this issue.
In her paper, "'Your mother's always with you': Material Feminism and Fetomaternal Microchimerism," Aryn Martin critically examines scientific research on the phenomenon of "fetomaternal microchimerism," described as a process in which the two-way traffic of cells between women and their children is found to exist well after pregnancy. She considers the social, political and ontological implications of this research, particularly in relation to feminist analyses of "compulsory motherhood." She shows the imaginative possibilities for meanings of womanhood, motherhood, fatherhood, and fetal personhood as they are re-imagined and reified through representations of technoscientific research. Martin follows the "public life" of this research beyond the lab, describing the "conflation of persons with their cells." She argues that the phenomenon of microchimerism has provided a new context (and revived life) for old forms of reductionism common in sociobiological discourse during the 1970s and 80s, and soundly critiqued by early feminist STS. Like Marshall, she asks why now, and what potential commitments are entailed in these new understandings? As she writes, "women's compromised individuality lasts much longer than pregnancy."
Both Marshall and Martin provide original examples which show that science, as a particular form of culture, has always depended on these translation relationships between scientists and non-scientists (Fleck, 1979; Martin, 1998; Rapp, 1995). For Haraway, the purpose of feminist STS is to study how scientific knowledge is linked in "discontinuous, nonlinear ways" to other cultural processes outside its domain (Martin, 1998). Martin has argued that the interactions between non-scientists and scientists should be re-theorized as a complex historical process of "forging ways of acting, being and thinking in the world, or in other words, forging what anthropologists call cultures"(1998, p. 28). It is not only scientists who determine what is relevant, or what pertains to "scientific knowledge and practice" but also those who contribute to and make use of scientific materials (Martin, 1998, p. 29).
Martin shows the usefulness of a material-semiotic approach for showing how science is thoroughly embedded in the socio-cultural world, without discounting, rendering passive, or speaking for "nature." Rather than trying to unmask "non-scientific" biases in both popular and scientific representations of this phenomenon she suggests that instead we consider how social and cultural tropes are both "constraining and creative" features within scientific research and practice.
Although today it is a widely accepted that science occupies its own intellectual niche, this was not always the case; it required (and requires) a continuous process of what Thomas Gieryn calls '"boundary-work" to maintain its professional and institutional niche (Gieryn, 1983, p. 783). In this issue, in her article "Science Culture in the Nineteenth Century: Women and the Botanical Society of Canada," Kerri Kennedy addresses two themes found within feminist STS, the recovered history of women in science and the examination of the processes for excluding women from scientific, medical and technological work (Traweek, 1993). One of the assumptions shared by sociologists and science studies writers is that "science carries its own intellectual authority" and Gieryn has provided a history of how it acquired that authority (1983, p. 781). He has suggested that one of the long-standing problematics in philosophy and sociology is how to distinguish the characteristics of science from non-scientific intellectual activity, and he describes the way that early "images of science" were used to "promote their authority over [other] designated domains of knowledge" (Gieryn 1983, p. 783).
Kerri Kennedy begins to document one such struggle for credibility in the founding of the Botanical Society of Canada during the late 19th century. She narrates the story of two women whose research on the rearing of silkworms "pre-dated" the Society but who continued to negotiate their position within it. The social relations of gender, nationality and class are shown to be fundamental features in the evolution from amateur to scientific societies. Drawing on Judith Butler's work on gender, Kennedy describes the strategies these two particular women used to participate and engage in the production of scientific knowledge while appearing or performing in appropriately feminine ways. Rhetorical strategies such as disclaimers were used to suggest an "unassuming contribution to science" in order to have their works considered and published. As shown in Londa Schiebinger's (1993) earlier historical work, Kennedy demonstrates the role of science in defining gender and culture, as well as its converse: "Botany came to be particularly associated with women for much of the 19th century particularly because botanical activities fitted neatly with gendered assumptions about feminine characteristics.... [B] otanical studies were considered an antidote to women's frivolous nature." The Society is also portrayed as a means of elevating one's self by participating in this "higher form of culture," and as a form of colonial practice--yet another tentacle of the British Empire where science, gender and botany were a mark of civilizing culture.
In the final contribution to this issue, Annette Burfoot, in "Feminist Technoscience: A Solution to Theoretical Conundrums and the Wane of Feminist Politics?" maps out her own cross-disciplinary and theoretical trajectory through the emerging interdisciplinary field which she weaves together with an examination of wax anatomical models. The difficulty of distinguishing the characteristics and issues that define the heterogeneous bodies of scholarship that are included in feminist studies of technoscience and cultural studies of science have been amply illustrated across a range of disciplines (Franklin, 1996; Rouse, 1992; Roddey and Traweek, 2000; Traweek; 1993). Burfoot's cultural studies approach takes "reflexive questions as an invitation to consider [her] own complex epistemic and political relations to the cultural practices and significations they study" (Rouse 1992, p. 10). She divides her account into three moments in order to underline the methodological, epistemological and ontological questions that emerge. The cumulative effect is a cultural analysis of the two-way "traffic across the boundaries erected between science and society" (Rouse, 1992, p. 13). Rather than simply seeing these anatomical representations as a product, the result of shared social interests, she proposes that we think of them as more active, as a process that "both hides and illuminates." She argues that the museum that houses these wax models created "a sort of reverse cinema--the picture doesn't move but the people do."
Burfoot vividly describes the materialization of gender in the often horrifying display of particular bodies and parts, and speaks to the relationship between internal, local scientific practices in the museum and "external" cultural processes as she suggests that the bodies appear to "speak" of "medicine-readiness and more specifically gynecology." As to their contemporary ontological significance, Burfoot asks how these models might translate today; they "draw disturbing, and thus illuminating boundaries around "realness" and "embodiment" and are an early modern and pre-gene version of what Sarah Franklin calls "life itself." She draws parallels between the past and present in the relationship between visual techniques and technologies and the desire to explore greater kinds of interiority (inside the female body, inside the gene), while still leaving possibilities for that which always escapes vision.
Where is nature going?
Feminist cultural approaches in science studies focus on the processes that flow both in and out of scientific domains and between scientists and non-scientists (Martin, 1998). These cultural approaches challenge views of "science" as a unified monolithic entity, believing instead that cultural negotiations over the meaning of science come from a range of locations which are equally contested and engaged in transforming what subsequently gets taken as "fact" (Fleck, 1979; Martin, 1998; Rapp, 1995). The feminist contributors to this issue pay close attention to the political implications of fact-making activities, without suggesting a kind of relativism where "anything goes." The more open-ended question that is implicitly taken up in this issue, articulated most clearly by Marilyn Strathern (1992, 2005) is: "what comes after nature?" once we accept that nature does not speak clearly and directly through scientists (Franklin, 1995).
While there are certainly differing and contesting perspectives within feminist STS, recent writing has directed us toward commitments in science proposing that critical activity become centred on the question: What kinds of commitments do we want to make? As Joan Fujimura has shown in her own work on bioinformatics, instead of speaking of inside or outside forces creating change, she directs us to think of experimental systems as "incorporating and representing particular commitments" (Fujimura, 1999). Once technologies and concepts become standardized they shape future actions. Given the stakes, she wants as much power to represent humans as a biologist for the Human Genome Project as well as the inclusion of more and more perspectives (Fujimura, 1991).
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Bowker, Geoffrey and Susan Leigh-Star. Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. Cambridge, MA/London: MIT Press, 2000.
Fleck, Ludwig. 1979. Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1935.
Franklin, Sarah. "Science as Culture, Cultures of Science." Annual Review of Anthropology no. 24 (1995), pp. 163-84.
Fujimura, Joan. "The Practices of Producing Meaning in Bioinformatics." Sociology of Science Yearbook no. 19 (1999), pp. 49-87.
Gieryn, Thomas F. "Boundary Work and the Demarcation of Science from Non-Science: Strains and Interests in Professional Ideologies of Scientists." American Sociological Review no. 48 (December 1983), pp. 781-795.
--. Cultural Boundaries of Science: Credibility on the Line. Chicago/ London: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Hacking, Ian. Representing and Intervening. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
Haraway, Donna. "Modest Witness: Feminist Diffractions in Science Studies." In Peter Galison and David J. Stump, eds., The Disunity of Science: Boundaries. Contexts, and Power. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996, pp.428-441.
Jordanova, Ludmilla.. The Social Construction of Medical Knowledge. Social History of Medicine. No. 8 (1995), pp. 361-381
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Latour, Bruno.. "The Impact of Science Studies on Political Philosophy. In Science, Technology and Human Value. vol. 16, no. 1 (Winter 1991), pp. 3-19.
Martin, Emily. "Anthropology and the Cultural Study of Science: Citadels, Rhizomes and String Figures." Science Technology and Human Values vol. 23, no. 1 (1998.), pp. 24-45.
Ormrod, Susan. "Feminist Sociology and Methodology: Leaky Black Boxes in Gender/Technology Relations." In Keith Grint and Rosalind Gill, eds., The Gender Technology Relation. Contemporary Theory and Research. London: Taylor & Francis, 1995, pp. 31-47.
Picketing, Andrew. "From Science as Knowledge to Science as Practice." In Andrew Pickering, ed., Science as Practice and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992, pp. 1-26.
Rapp, Rayna. "Heredity, or: Revising the Facts of Life.'" In Sylvia Yanagisako and Carol Delaney, eds., Naturalizing Power: Essays in Feminist Cultural Analysis. New York: Routledge, 1995, pp.69-86.
Reid, Roddey and Sharon Traweek. Doing Science + Culture. How Cultural and Interdisciplinary Studies are Changing the Way We Look at Science and Medicine. New York/London: Routledge, 2000.
Rouse, Joseph. "What are Cultural Studies of Scientific Knowledge?" Configurations no. 1 (1992), pp. 1-22.
Schiebinger, Londa. Nature's Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.
Strathern, Marilyn. Alter Nature: English Kinship in the Late Twentieth Century. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Traweek, Sharon. "An Introduction to Cultural, Gender, and Social Studies of Science and Technology. Journal of Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry no. 17 (1993), pp. 3-25.
Whelan, Emma. "Politics by Other Means: Feminism and Mainstream Science Studies." The Canadian Journal of Sociology vol. 26, no. 4 (2001), pp.535-581.
University of Plymouth
(1.) She also reflects on the kind of boundary-drawing and possible reifications of theory this suggests.