Feminism, Science & Materialism

The new feminist materialism is popular — see the range of papers from a February ’13 conference. It positions itself by claiming that science and technology studies (STS) has neglected something significant, which needs to be remedied by paying more attention to what scientists show about the world and, especially, how their knowing of the world is dependent of their interventions in that world. (Think: quantum mechanics, in which only when the particle-wave is measured does it show itself to be a particle or a wave; see recent work in this area.) Extending this sense of meeting or encountering the material world, new feminist materialists advocate, with a political sense, entanglement in what matters. The philosophical term “ontological” is used to contrast the “epistemological” emphasis in STS they are critical of. The feminism label is used because… the exponents see themselves as feminist?

Let me, as an ecologist who then began to contribute to STS in the late 1980s, briefly sketch a path within STS that does not seem to warrant the claim that epistemological STS neglected what matters and opens up multiple points of engagement.

During the 1970s the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK), a field now subsumed in science and technology studies (STS), introduced an angle of inquiry that remains common in STS: what does it mean in actual practice for people to establish and modify scientific knowledge? (This practice-oriented epistemology was SSK’s antidote to philosophy of science’s emphasis on ideals about how scientists ought to proceed in justifying or refuting knowledge.) Since the late 1980s the STS literature includes many rich descriptions of the diversity of things scientists do and the resources they use in the production of scientific knowledge: scientists employ or “mobilize” equipment, experimental protocols, citations, the support of colleagues, the reputations of laboratories, metaphors, rhetorical devices, publicity, funding, and so on (Latour 1987; Law 1987; Clarke and Fujimura 1992, 4-5).
from Taylor (2011).

The obvious question is to what extent does the real world provide resources in that production or establishment of knowledge? This question leads to another: to what extent do the real world resources trump the social resources in that production of knowledge? To the first question, my answer is that the real world always provides some of the resources in that production or construction of knowledge. However, to assess “the extent” or the hypothesis that the real world resources might trump the social resources would require a method for
i) mapping the diverse resources and their interconnections; and
ii) assessing the relative weight of the different resources.
Taking on the challenge of (i) has led me to think that (ii) is a concept that cannot be operationalized. In short, that is because science-in-the-making as constructed in the colloquial sense of “an on-going process of building from diverse components, just as a house is built over time using plans and measurements, laborers and contracts, concrete and concrete mixers, wood and saws” (Taylor 2005, 102; building on Taylor 1995). (Curiously, this is the one sense that philosopher Hacking did not consider in his 2000 book, The Social Construction of What?) This means that the significance of any resource depends on how it is linked to other resources in this process; it does not have a weight on its own. The diversity or heterogeneity of resources–something quite evident to scientists in their everyday practice–led me to spell out a view of heterogeneous construction (Taylor 1995, 74):

(a) Without any superintending constructor or outcome-directed agent,
(b) many heterogeneous components are linked together, which implies that
(c) the outcome has multiple contributing causes, and thus
(d) there are multiple points of intervention or engagement that could modify the course of development. In short,
(e) causality and agency are distributed, not localized. Moreover,
(f) construction is a process, that is, the components are linked over time,
(g) building on what has already been constructed, so that
(h) it is not the components, but the components in linkage that constitute the causes. Points c and f–h together ensure that (i) it is difficult to partition relative importance or responsibility for an outcome among the different types of cause (e.g., 80% genetic vs. 20% environmental). Generally,
(j) there are alternative routes to the same end, and
(k) construction is “polyvalent” (Sclove 1995), that is, things involved in one construction process are implicated in many others. Interventions in a construction process, even very focused ones, will have side effects. Finally, points f and k mean that
(l) construction never stops; completed outcomes are less end points than snapshots taken of ongoing processes.

(This developmental view is very similar to the one Anne Fausto-Sterling has been working on to get beyond persistent nature-nurture dualisms.)

If we put aside the idea of weighting resources from “reality” vs. society (but see a 1992 schema), we still face the challenge of mapping the diverse resources and their interconnections. The following themes and open questions summarize the cases discussed in the second half of Taylor (2005; see 218-221).

• interpretation of scientific work as heterogeneous construction exposes specific points at which concrete alternative resources could be mobilized.
-> Q: how to realize the possibility that explicit attention to scientists’ diverse resources could help them—or others in comparable situations—alter their personal, scientific and social facilitations, and so modify the directions in which their science moves….

• interpreting science as heterogeneous construction requires conceptual and methodological choices in which practical considerations are implicated, which means that interpretation also involves heterogeneous construction.
• interpreters of research as heterogeneous construction should distribute the work of interpreting and engaging with that research, e.g., through leading researchers to
map the situations they study and their own situatedness, or,
e.g., stimulating them to take initiative in mobilizing new resources and organizing them to support new directions in their work.
• there is a tension between a) the logic of exposing the situatedness of particular researchers–scientists and interpreters of science–and b) pragmatic choices that limit the probing of conceptual and methodological choices and that keep situatedness in the background.
-> Q: how, in practice, to open up researchers’ situatedness in ways that facilitate its reconstruction?…

• knowledge-making agents are always moving:
a) between system-like formulations and accounts of unruly complexity;
b) among three angles for viewing their own practice—dialogue with the situation studied, interactions with other social agents to establish what counts as knowledge, and efforts to pursue social change by addressing the complexities of their own social situatedness as well as the complexities of the situations they study; and
c) between a concentrated view of their agency and awareness of conditions for modifying or restructuring their situatedness that are more distributed and dependent on the actions of other agents.
-> Q: how individuals, with their knowledge, themes, and other awareness of complex situations and situatedness, can participate with others in restructuring the distributed conditions of knowledge-making and social change?

What is underdeveloped along the preceding knowledge- or epistemology-centered STS path is the materialism of macro-economics and political theory that addresses that (see earlier post on Hobsbawm and Marxism). In the words of Werskey (2007), “the social relations of science were being transformed and more closely yoked than ever to sustaining the power and profitability of global and, more specifically, American capitalism.”  How does the new feminist materialism address or neglect the materialism of macro-economics and corresponding political theory?

Hacking, I. (2000) The Social Construction of What? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Taylor, P. J. (1995) “Building on construction: An exploration of heterogeneous constructionism, using an analogy from psychology and a sketch from socio-economic modelling” Perspectives on Science, 3(1), 66-98.

—– (2005) Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

—– (2011) “Agency, structuredness, and the production of knowledge within intersecting processes,” pp. 81-98 in M. Goldman, P. Nadasdy, and M. Turner (eds.), Knowing Nature: Conversations between Political Ecology and Science Studies, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Werskey, G. (2007). “The Marxist Critique of Capitalist Science: A History in Three Movements?” Science as Culture, 16:4, 397 – 461.


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