Why do some sciences seem more, well, science-y?
Do you ever feel like some types of science are more science-y? Like… maybe… physics > chemistry, chemistry > biology, biology >psychology (waaayyy more, right? is psychology even a real science?) (I’m in Psychology so I can make this joke), psychology > anthropology (ok, honestly? anthropology? are we letting everyone into this club?) (I’ve been given permission by anthropologists to make this joke), anthropology >… well, you get my point. If Science is an approach to gaining knowledge (an epistemology), how can some things be more science-y than others? Like, isn’t this a categorical distinction (science vs. non-science) rather than a continuous distribution (most science-y — somewhat science-y — not very science-y at all and really just picking your nose)? Here at GapJunctionScience, we tend to define Science as:
Science: (1) an approach/philosophy/ideology/epistemology to gathering knowledge about the world, that (2) uses systematic and formalized methods that are (3) replicable and falsifiable, and that (4) has a commitment to objectivity and (5) a belief that there is a truth (or multiple truths) that scientists can find.
So long as any discipline addresses its questions using these parameters, it’s science, right? Right? So why do we have that niggling feeling that it’s so obvious some disciplines are more science-y than others? Well, we also define small-s science somewhat differently, and maybe that’s what’s going on:
science: the ways that “Science” (above) is carried out.
Wow. Small-s science has the easiest definition ever. Awesome. But what are “the ways that Science is carried out”? That leaves a lot of wiggle room.Wiggling around in there might be materiality. You might be thinking (if you’re my age, I guess): Madonna? Material Girl? And in some ways you’re not far off. Because materialism is the idea that you prioritize things of value – things that are thingy, things can that be sold and bought – over things that are ideas, like love, happiness, satisfaction. Since Madonna isn’t a scientist (so far as I know, BUT SHE HAS REINVENTED HERSELF SO MANY TIMES), what is materiality to scientists? I like to think of materiality as scientific variables you can cut. Literally. Like, you can cut a brain. A bone. A piece of metal. DNA. Cells. Living things. Nanoparticles. Yeah, there’s some things that are too small or finicky to cut right now, but with better technology – or to put it in more scientific terms: a better cutter-thing – you could cut them. For example, could you cut a planet? I don’t know. I have no idea. In science fiction, they can, and that’s good enough for me. So, yes, you could cut a planet. No, seriously! If you could imagine a cutter that could cut something, then that something is essentially cut-able. And if it’s cut-able, it’s material.
Depending on the kind of scientist you are, you might right now at this moment (because I have telepathy) be thinking: what isn’t material in science then? Or, what am I, chopped liver just because the things I study aren’t material? Scientists don’t just study materiality, they also study social constructions. What’s a social construction? Ideas. Human phenomena that reflect culture, like happiness, racism, coolness, etc. Can scientists study those things? They do all the time! Trust me. For example, try randomly assigning a group of people to a cotton candy condition and a dentist drill teeth condition, carefully doing a measure of happiness before and after and see if your hypothesis is supported. Tricky warning! It seems obvious, but remember that some people might be thrilled to have access to free dental work because of that pesky social construction of poverty. Or, remember that some people really like cotton candy (me). Is happiness material? Try to cut it. How would you? Literally, cut it so you have two halves. Go ahead! It’s not material, so I was just being tricky there. If you somehow figured out how to cut happiness into two halves, though, send me an email because I am curious!
Even thought scientists sometimes love to hate the notion of social constructions (seriously, I think they have a picnic to celebrate their hatred together, with balloons!) and social constructionists frequently abhor the notion of materiality (these folks have a house party to celebrate their abhorrence with good cheese!), they’re not mutually exclusive; they can coexist. Think of a chair. You like to sit in it! Who doesn’t? You could cut it – get a saw and try it (don’t). Is a chair material? Yes. No doubt. And good thing because I hate sitting on social constructions. Ha ha, right?! Like, I hate to sit on the floor. It’s so uncomfortable. And when I was a kid I totally understood that the people in power (teachers) sat on chairs while we were supposed to be all criss-cross-applesauce. No thank you! (Clearly, I was a delightful student.) Obviously, chairs are the sitting object of choice. Oh – unless you’re from a culture where people actually sit on the floor all the time. Or you do yoga (in which case, enjoy your “flexibility;” the irony quotes there are just me sucking my teeth at your flexibility in a way that is meant to poke fun but really reflects my envy, I’ll be honest). Somehow, early on, my culture taught my body to prefer sitting on a chair. And that people who sit in chairs are the leaders of people who sit on the floor (again, I guess unless you’re at yoga. I wouldn’t know because – as you might have gleaned – I can’t sit on the floor because I am a horrible person who has never done yoga). So a chair is also a social construction. It’s not natural in the sense that if I lived somewhere else, I’d prefer sitting on the ground, or at least find it perfectly comfortable and appropriate. You don’t need a chair. You could sit anywhere (not me, though! CHAIRS FOREVER!).
So, wait, scientists could be studying something that is simultaneously material and a social construction, depending on the level of analysis? Yup. Is everything simultaneously material and a social construction? Weeeehhh–ellllllllll (that’s a lot of l’s), here’s where things get tricky. Some scientists claim that material things are only material. Some feminist scholars claim that those things also always social constructions. But some feminist scholars are interested in a concept called ‘material agency’. What’s that, you say? Think back to the chair. So comfy! The floor: so uncomfy! Social construction! What about a desk? Sit on that. Probably less comfy than a chair, but better than the floor if you grew up in a culture like mine. What about a bookshelf? Not so good. A block of ice? Also not good (unless you need to cool off, I guess). What about a pencil. SERIOUSLY. What about a pencil? I’M NOT EVEN JOKING. What about the pointy end of a pyramid? I guess a small pyramid. Like a chair that had a pyramid instead of a more traditional (non-pointy) seat. Not comfy, right? YIKES, right? Sometimes, materiality just resists social constructions. It’s hard to imagine any person finding pencil-sitting comfy. It’s hard to imagine any culture socially constructing comfy pencil-sitting. Or pointy-pyramid-sitting. So some things have material agency. Material agency is when things fight back (which is an awesome name for a really bad horror movie). Like, try to gestate a fetus in your biceps. Good luck! That’s gross! There’s just something about a uterus that makes it good for gestating and a bicep that makes it not good for gestating (which is obviously not to say that every uterus should or could gestate or that uteri can in the absence of a body; just that NO biceps can, and uteri are the only things that can) (are you glad I got to use the plural of uterus? I AM.).
Materiality is what makes some sciences seem more science-y, because materiality can have material agency, which ‘resists’ social constructions and some people presume that social constructions make science less science-y. I don’t know why people think studying social constructions is less (okay I do) because Science is an approach that can certainly apply to ideas and non-material things. But, well, tradition, I guess. The other interesting thing that you may have been confused about is that there are lots of things scientists study that aren’t really material. They’re kind of like honorary material things but are not cut-table: e.g., evolution, magnetism, gravity, mathematics, [insert what you study here that makes sense]. Why are these things thought of as more material than, say, happiness or homophobia? One reason is that they have material agency despite not being material; they can’t ‘just’ be socialized. Another is that though they aren’t cut-table, they result in things: like you can see their effects even if you can’t see them. So if you saw a chair being cut, you’d know it was material: but you’d also think that what did the cutting was material (what cuts can be cut!) even if you couldn’t identify the force that did the cutting. So, forces seem material because they have material effects. Doesn’t homophobia have material effects? Or poverty? Yes. But those can still be understood as effects of social constructions. It’s muddy, I agree.
Critically, for Gap Junction Science, what’s a feminist scientist to do with the concept of material agency? Because many feminist scholars have put their eggs in the social construction basket. What happens when you can’t deconstruct a scientific concept (which means to critique it in a way that makes general understandings devoid of sociocultural engagement seem too simplistic). I would argue that taking material agency seriously – as seriously as scientists do – is key to feminist science practice. Because we scientists work with scientific variables that we see as material – that fight back – all the time. In fact, that’s one reason many of us scientists are scientists: because we can study things that we don’t entirely pull the marionette string for. We love the unexpected results (well, um, definitely once we figure out how to make a publishable story of them, anyway). What’s the tricky part? Well, if a scientific variable exists outside of culture, people tend to think that makes it hard to engage with on sociocultural terms or as feminists.
A central insight from feminism is this:
No fact exists without context.
What does that even mean? It means that no result can be separated from interpretation. Feminist scholarship over the past century or two makes a really really compelling argument for this. The only problem is that this is sort of exactly opposite the point of materiality and material agency, whereby some things, things that are more thingy, do resist culture. What’s a thinking feminist scientist to do? I don’t know.
Just kidding! I have a few ideas and so do other folks. First, no matter how much material agency a thing has, it is going to be studied by people, and all people (except you, scientist-raised-by-wolves) exist in cultures. So, the ways that people interpret their results, the applications that people imagine for their findings, and whom is believed about what things — all these are sociocultural and subject to feminist engagement. Like, crystallizing hormones: it takes a culture able to want or imagine controlling reproduction to turn that into hormonal contraceptives. And it takes a culture that sees reproduction as a woman’s responsibility to make women’s but not men’s bodies as the target. It takes a culture that cares more about Western than non-Western bodies to experimentally test these hormones outside of the country of main intended use. It takes a culture that sees women’s bodies and gestation as everyone’s property to make hormonal contraceptives illegal or accessible only to ‘women of high moral character’. You can see where I’m going here.
It may be that some scientific variables have more material agency and, at this point in my thinking, I can’t help but agree with this premise. Maybe because, as a culture, we tend to diminish the importance of culture because culture often brings along that annoying baggage of power differences, oppression, and privilege, we tend to accord higher value to sciences that have more materiality or material agency because they are more thingy and less socially constructed. Therefore science that is seen as having less room for culture is seen as better, as more science-y. But Science is an approach, an epistemology, and anything that uses Science is equally scientific (you’re like: you would say that, Psychology Person!). At the end of the day, Science is still and always will be a human endeavor, which means that feminism is always going to be relevant. But equally scientific doesn’t mean the same science. Maybe some sciences are different than others, because they deal with materiality vs. ideas, forces vs. things, etc. It stands to reason, right? Which means that we, as people interested in feminist science, should continue thinking about how feminism might engage with idea science, vs. force science, vs. materiality science. Putting all our feminist eggs in the deconstructive basket can be problematic because there might be some thingy things that resist deconstruction. After all our critique, some things still have something thingy about them. Maybe we need different feminist projects for different scientific projects. Maybe it’s not just facts or science that can’t exist outside of context; maybe it’s feminism too.