Dear Feminist Scientists (and science-y feminists): What do you say to science colleagues who say there is no culture in science?

Gap Junction Science received this question for our feminist science community: What do you say to science colleagues who say there is no culture in science, and that science is value-neutral? They say that science is done the same place any place and is value-neutral, which is why feminist considerations have no place in science. Oy, right? But at least there is the potential for dialogue. What are our suggestions?

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6 Responses

  1. Sari van Anders says:

    Here are a few things you could ask your colleague that might help them think about the role of culture in science:
    (1) do you care who reviews your grants?
    (2) are there certain accepted ways of doing things in your discipline that could actually be different?
    (3) does reviewer #3 ever have a different read of your science than reviewer #1?
    (4) do you ever feel like people don’t cite you enough?
    (5) have you ever wondered why someone is a bigwig even though their science doesn’t seem the strongest (or isn’t strong anymore)?
    (6) do you ever think something about a colleague after seeing their work reported in the media, good or bad?
    (7) I think I could go on… this could be a whole blog post in itself!

  2. Greg van Anders says:

    I think the book Beamlines and Lifetimes by Sharon Traweek [1] is a good reference on this. I also encounter people who say that science does have culture, but that there is only one culture. This book also dispels that.


  3. Karen Rommelfanger says:

    I also think it’s important to remind students (and faculty) that, while the scientific method may appear neutral and data may seem equally neutral due to a reliance on math/stats, ultimately it’s people who formulate the scientific questions and the interpretation of the data. This makes any scientific pursuit vulnerable to bias and personal (culturally influenced) values. In fact, as scientists, arguably, we may need to be more wary of the assumptions we bring into a project.

  4. Lisa Dawn Hamilton says:

    Thanks for posting this list Sari. As someone who has been a feminist forever and a scientist for a few years, I feel that my feminism has always informed my science, although it is only recently that I am making a more conscious effort to make the link between the two more clear in my work. One thing I have heard often from other scientists is the idea that subjectivity and culture might matter in Psychology, but does not affect non-social sciences. The example questions you have listed here are great examples and applicable to all sciences (and all researchers). One example that I remember you (or Greg) mentioning years ago was about Russian (I think?) physics/physicists that were ignored in mainstream physics for years, but were finally being acknowledged. I can’t quite remember the example, but it has stuck with me, however vaguely, as an example of how culture effects science. Can either of you flesh out my half-remembered example?

  5. Greg van Anders says:

    @Lisa Dawn: Yeah, there was a common phenomenon during the cold war in which a lot of things were discovered twice (i.e. on either side of the iron curtain). I think it is definitely an example of how culture affects how a discipline evolves over time. However, people often (at least in my head) give this example to show that there is no cultural effects on science. I.e., if The Russians were studying the same questions as Us, and came to the same conclusions, then this means that Science (which to many physicists is synonymous with physics) is universal.

  6. Stacey Ritz says:

    Oooh! I give them THIS paper:
    Martin, Emily. (1991) The egg and the sperm: How science has constructed a romance based on stereotypical male-female roles. Signs 16(3):485-501.
    The lights almost always go on.

    Or I talk about the importance of the socio-political influences on my own field (immunology) — for example, that the “self/non-self” theory of immune responsiveness (in which the immune system is believed to attack and eliminate anything “foreign”) arose during the Cold War period. Probably not a coincidence, huh?

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