Exploring Different Methods and Approaches to Doing Feminist Biomedical Science

Guest Post by Sarah Singh and Ineke Klinge!

As Heather Shattuck-Heidorn explains in her recent post, scientific researchers, particularly in the health sciences, are being required by funding institutions to consider the concepts sex and/or gender in their research. Despite the introduction of these requirements, as Sari van Anders [Editor’s note: Hi! that’s ME!] summarizes in her review of Johnson et al., (2014), there is still inconsistent use of the concepts across disciplines as many researchers continue to use gender as a proxy for sex and sex and/or gender to simply mean including women in research studies.

This led us to search the feminist science literature for some direction. We limited feminist science scholarship to feminist scientists and feminist science studies scholars in the fields of biomedicine and public health. These scholars explicitly indicate that they use feminist approaches to science or use feminist conceptions of gender, sex, race and/or ethnicity in their work. What methods have feminist scientists developed to do biomedical science differently? How do these methods improve scientific knowledge and understanding of the world? Using these questions to guide our work, we sought to synthesize the theoretical and methodological approaches in the feminist biomedical science literature.

In our paper[1], we categorize feminist approaches to biomedical science into three main approaches: strong objectivity, partial perspective and gendered innovations. By grouping the literature into these categories, we identify and describe different ways of doing feminist biomedical science and the particular aspects of the scientific method that each feminist approach seeks to change and improve.

The strong objectivity framework draws on the work of feminist science philosopher Sandra Harding and argues that science can be more objective if researchers include diverse perspectives and subjects/ experiences (for a deeper explanation see Sari’s post Is Subjectivity Biased [Editor’s note: I am glad someone finally noticed how deep I am.]) into their research designs. Feminist empiricist and feminist standpoint approaches offer methodological direction for feminist scientists looking to apply the strong objectivity framework [Editor’s note: after all, it’s hard to take theory into practice, so this is really important]. Feminist empiricists offer a way for scientists to think critically about the theories and concepts they will employ by applying feminist and/or antiracist concepts and theories to critically analyze research in their fields of interest. This allows researchers to identify critical flaws in previous research designs and thereby open up new opportunities for research. Feminist standpoint approaches offer a way for scientists to locate their subjects and account for interacting social factors produced by gendered and racialized environments. The work of feminist biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling The Bare Bones of Sex and The Bare Bones of Race [Editor’s note: I don’t mean to brag, but I totally know Anne Fausto-Sterling AND Sandra Harding so basically I am famous] provides an example of research that falls under the strong objectivity framework. Fausto-Sterling identifies critical discrepancies in how researchers define and measure bone health among and between women and men and suggests using a dynamics systems approach to account for social, geographical and historical environmental factors that shape sex/gender and racial differences in bone health. In other words, the strong objectivity framework uses feminist concepts and theories to think critically about hypotheses, data collection methods and interpretations of results and promotes the design more complex and rigorous research studies

The partial perspectives framework draws on the work of feminist science philosopher Donna Haraway [Editor’s note: I don’t really know Donna Haraway but we emailed once so, basically, we are BFFs] and encourages feminist scientists to go beyond exposing gender and racial assumptions and “bad science” to examine the partial perspectives of scientific researchers. The partial perspectives framework does not seek to provide a more objective or truer knowledge of the world but rather strives to achieve what Haraway terms “feminist objectivity”. In contrast to strong objectivity, feminist objectivity requires researchers to think reflexively about their research interests and locate their objects of study and in doing so deconstruct the web of power relations that allows certain sexed, gendered, and raced bodies to be produced and naturalized. Feminist science scholars El-Haj (2007), Gannett (2004) and M’charek (2005, 2013) provide examples of research that falls under the partial perspectives framework. These scholars use examples from population geneticists, DNA forensics and medical practices to trace how “biologi­cal races” [Editor’s note: I put irony quotes around biological races because I think they belong there and also because you can “never” have “enough” irony “quotes”] have been re-constituted in and through these scientific technologies and practices. And so, the partial perspectives framework seeks to deconstruct fields of research even before researchers consider the concepts, theories and data collection methods they will use to design their research and thereby creates conceptual space for new research possibilities.

Finally, the gendered innovations framework draws on the work of feminist science historian Londa Schiebinger [Editor’s note: I don’t know Londa Schiebinger at all but I have read her work so, um, well, I’ve got nothing] and argues that integrating feminist concepts such as sex and gender into scientific research will advance our understanding and produce more scientific innovations. The methodology of this framework draws largely on the work of feminist scientists working in the fields of public health and biomedicine that have proposed ways to integrate and operationalize the concepts of sex, gender, race and/or ethnicity into the research process. Feminist scientists such as Johnson et al.( 2009), Kaiser (2012), Krieger (2003), Springer et al. (2012), Ritz et al. (2014), Ford and Airhihenbuwa (2010), Gravlee (2009) and Hankivsky (2012) offer practical guidance to researchers seeking to use these concepts. The cross-disciplinary collaboration required to do this work has the potential to foster a shared language and the creation of new ways of operationalizing these concepts (both the social and biomedical sciences; see Hird 2009). Basically, the gendered innovations approach introduces additional steps in the scientific research process so that researchers account for sex, gender, and other intersecting factors related to their research that they might not have captured otherwise.

The various feminist methods we identify in our paper are illustrated in Figure 1. There are areas of research that I’m sure we missed in and outside the field of biomedicine. This paper is by no means an exhaustive review but rather simply seeks to provide a starting point to discuss, refine and name some of the different feminist methods for doing science differently. [Editor’s note: what an awesome figure!!]



[1] See: Sarah Singh and Ineke Klinge (2015) ‘Mining for Methods: A Review of the Theoretical and Methodological Contributions of Feminist Science Studies’, Freiburger Zeitschrift für GeschlechterStudien (fzg). 12 (2). Pg. 15-31.


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