Dialogue needed to kick-start evolution

The Gender and Science Reader

September 7, 2001

Once, studying gender and science mostly meant investigating barriers to women's entry into science, obstacles to careers for those who did and bias in framing studies of, say, behaviour or sexual attraction.

That necessary work goes on, as several chapters in this volume document. But the field has moved on to more taxing questions. How should we understand gendered features of the constitution of modern science, and might women's scientific practice lead to different kinds of knowledge, perhaps even more complete knowledge of the natural world?

Answering those questions means that a course on gender and science that takes the topic seriously has to pursue some high-level historical and epistemological discussion, perhaps with students who know little of the history and philosophy of science. The full background to these discussions will be beyond the scope of most such courses, so the typical strategy is to display how they have been debated by feminist scholars specifically concerned with gender issues.

A tutor following that strategy will find this reader a rich, comprehensive and up-to-date resource. It covers the traditional, empirical and statistical territory, including striking recent findings such as Christine Wenneras and Agnes Wold's demonstration of the deep sexism of peer review in the Swedish Medical Research Council. The collection opens out to include extracts from classic analyses of the scientific revolution by Carolyn Merchant, Evelyn Fox Keller and Susan Bordo, and denser epistemological reflections by writers such as Donna Haraway, Helen Longino and - the one who science warriors tend to find most disquieting - Sandra Harding.

There follow sections on gendered practice and science and identity that get deeper inside contemporary research. The book concludes with a suite of articles that indicate how high the stakes can be pushed, all trying to envision a feminist restructuring of science. The critical reader or student will probably find these more tentative, less completely convincing, as befits the state of the field. Feminists treating history and philosophy of science have had some influence on the rest of science studies, little on science proper. Those trying to imagine a new kind of science have so far made little impression on either.

Of course, a book like this, much of it consisting of feminist writers' commentaries on other feminist writers, might tend to reinforce a tendency to hold a separate conversation - however well chosen the readings in other terms. That is partly to say that feminist science studies has some of the problems communicating with other disciplines that can beset science studies in general. It may also be because the courses that will use this book can readily find a niche in women's studies programmes without making much contact with other aspects of the study of science.

However, helping students and other interested readers get access to the best of what has already been written in the field is still a worthwhile aim, which this volume fulfils generously.

Jon Turney is head of science and technology studies, University College London.

The Gender and Science Reader

Editor - Muriel Lederman and Ingrid Bartsch
ISBN - 0 415 21358 4 and 21357 6
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £55.00 and £18.99
Pages - 505

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