ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Persistent Patriarchy: Theories of Race and Gender in Science

The relationship between science and social inequality is the subject of an ongoing debate. This paper argues in favour of a philosophy of science, which is alert to its democratic potential but does not simultaneously bury the historical - and continuing - role of science in legitimising racial, gender, and class/caste discrimination.

REVIEW OF WOMEN’S STUDIESEconomic & Political Weekly EPW october 25, 200873Persistent Patriarchy: Theories of Race and Gender in ScienceAbha SurThe relationship between science and social inequality is the subject of an ongoing debate. This paper argues in favour of a philosophy of science, which is alert to its democratic potential but does not simultaneously bury the historical – and continuing – role of science in legitimising racial, gender, and class/caste discrimination.This essay is excerpted from my forthcoming book Science and Social Stratification: Caste, Gender, and Nationalism in Modern Indian Physics, Navayana Publishers, New Delhi, 2009.Abha Sur ( is at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA.In a 1939 essay ‘Ignorance in the Name of Science’, Meghnad Saha, a strong proponent of science, summarised the position of science critics of that era:Some people claim that science has done nothing new. The germs of all modern scientific achievements are supposed to be contained in the utterances of ancient sages or in the Vedas and Puranas or else-where. Another class of people proclaim[s] that science had done more evil than good by encouraging warfare, producing explosives, poison-ous gases and other destructive things. A third type are [sic] of the opinion that science encourages consumerism and leads people away from spiritualism.Several decades later, debate about science and society continues in India much along the same lines, albeit with greater semantic sophistication. Discussions on the historicity (or lack thereof) of science, the nature of scientific knowledge, and the role of science in increasing the commoditisation of life continue to occupy Indian intellectuals, activists, and political leaders alike.1 Modern science raises interesting dilemmas regarding power, knowledge, and social stratification. We have, on the one hand, a view of science imbued with the promise of progress and enlighten-ment and an assertion of science as a value neutral knowledge system essential for the emancipation of the subaltern. This view acknowledges that science is an integral part of our culture, but insists that the internal dynamic of science overcomes social biases and considerations in science. On the other hand, there are constructs of science as an essentially alien, violent, and hege-monic order implicated in, if not directly responsible for, not only the colonial subjugation of the third world, but also the continu-ing exploitation of the poor. The debate has taken a rather curious turn, where the irreconcilable differences in the two interpreta-tions of science are seen by some as exemplars of the ideological differences between the opponents and proponents of Hindutva. This is a rather dangerous road to travel as it inevitably forces one to either accept western imperialism or side with the forces of fundamentalism. I suggest instead that we need a philosophy of science, which is alert to its democratic potential, but does not simultaneously bury the historical and continuing role of science in legitimising racial, gender, and class/caste discrimination. By and large, feminist, Marxist, and postcolonial critics of science dispute the claim that science is an objective knowledge and see both the production of scientific knowledge as well as the practice and use of science as inextricably linked to power. Yet there are important differences in their approach. Textbook versions of the history of modern science as a triumphant victory of European man over nature have been challenged simultaneously
REVIEW OF WOMEN’S STUDIESoctober 25, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly74by two related yet different impulses. Some scholars have shown the ways in which race, gender, colonialism and class mediate scientific knowledge, especially biology. In the more acute versions of this impulse modern science is viewed as being inherently alien, reductive and violent; not merely mediated by race, gender, and class but rather as the very embodiment of racism, sexism and imperialism.2 Then there are others who have illustrated the extensive influence of Afro-Asiatic knowledge systems and the knowledge systems of women in the development of modern science, which was systematically erased from its history.3 The abnegation of modern science, as in the earlier works of Vandana Shiva, Claude Alvares, Carolyn Merchant, to name a few, is countered by the possibility of an alternative vision in the writings of Richard Levins, Richard Lewontin, Ann Fausto Sterling, Evelyn Fox Keller, Zaheer Baber, among others, which implicitly affirms and identifies with certain aspects of science by proclaim-ing their own past and present participation in it. Together, the two distinct impulses bring to the fore the essential contradiction in science where a gender, caste and class mediated science can still produce some “real truths about the world”.4The understanding that science is an integral part of our culture – that the content as well as the language of science, the meta-phors it uses to explain natural phenomena, the resources it con-sumes, and the motivation for it are all socially derived – has ani-mated the historiography of science. Once limited to recounting intellectual histories, the history of ideas and innovations, the history of science now explores the grounding of scientific theories and practices in the social, political and cultural environment of their origins and endurance. Seen through the lens of gender, race and class, the history of science leads to the undeniable conclusion that one of the crucial functions of science has been the legitimisation of inequitable social relations. Biological DifferencesThrough much of the 19th century, European and American scientists, among them biologists and anthropologists in particular, directed their research toward finding essential biological differ-ences between men and women, blacks and whites, the rich and the poor. Phrenology, craniology, and measurements of almost all parts of the human anatomy were employed to establish biological bases for the inequities of the social order. Elizabeth Fee (1979) has noted that the impulse for gender and craniometry studies came from a visible and vocal women’s rights movement in the latter half of the 19th century, which threatened to under-mine “the orderly process of evolution.” The London Anthropo-logical Society deemed the intellectual equality of women an ab-surdity, and declared that such foolish and mischievous flattery of women violated nature and would have a most baneful effect in unsettling society. Accordingly, the inferiority of women had to be scientifically investigated and ascertained. The central tenet of craniology was that “the gross size of the brain could serve as a measure of total mental capacity. Brains could therefore be ranked by size on a single scale of mental power or rational ability” (ibid: 420). Since women were on average smaller in skeleton size compared to men, measurement of the absolute brain size or cranial volume ensured their mental inferiority to men. There was, however, a slight problem in this scheme–itelevated elephants and whales to the top of the intelligence chart! Thus, various other measures were proposed and tried– the ratio of brain weight to body weight, body height,thighboneweight, cranial height – but none reproduced exactly the social hierar-chies of gender and race which scientists so desperately needed in order to claim a biological basis of social stratification. Nonetheless, despite glaring discrepancies and anomalies in the measurements and their subsequent interpretations, scientists maintained that innate biology was by far the most important determinant of social status. For instance, George Samuel Morton, a pre-eminent American biologist, published his famous study on the ‘Observations on the Size of the Brain in Various Races and Families of Man’ in 1849. A careful examination of this work by Stephen J Gould (1977) almost a century and a half later revealed that while Morton had excluded most of the “Hindu” skulls from his calculation of the average size of Caucasian skulls becauseofthe smaller overall size of the Indians, he had failed to followasimilar line of reasoning and methodology in the cases of African and native American skulls where no allowance was madeforthesmaller sized tribes within these populations. As a result, differences in the average skull sizes between Caucasians, native Americans, and “Ethiopians” were inevitably exaggerated. Gould also noted systematic biases in the ways skull volumes were measured – the skulls of Caucasians were more firmly and tightly packed with beans, which were then poured into gradu-ated cylinders to read off volumes, as compared with the skulls of other races, especially, the Africans.Rationalising Social OrderSimilarly, Darwin’s theories of evolution and sexual selection were utilised to rationalise the existing social order. Ernst Haeckel, a renowned German scientist, proposed the biogenetic law, which suggested that the history of individuals (ontogeny) recapitulates the evolutionary history of the species (phylogeny) in that each individual passes through the lower forms of its ancestors as it matures. The development of the human embryo was seen to go through “transitional organisational states” from fish to reptiles, to birds and then to mammals. The biogenetic law or the recapit-ulation theory brought together the emerging fields of embryology, comparative anatomy, and palaeontology in an attempt to recon-struct evolutionary lineages. Here the racial classification of humans was seen as denoting different developmental stages existing contemporaneously. Accordingly it was claimed that: The leading characters of the various races of mankind are simply the representatives of particular stages in the development of the highest Caucasian type. The Negro exhibits permanently the imperfect brow, projecting lower jaw and slender bent limbs of a Caucasian child some considerable time before the period of its birth. The aboriginal Ameri-can represents the same child nearer birth. The Mongolian, the same child newly born [cited in Russett 1991: 52].The noted French anatomist Etienne Serres assigned adult blacks to the developmental stage of white children and adult Mongolians to that of white adolescents based on the relative distance between the navel and the penis in different races [Gould 1977: 127]! These and similar views were expressed by the
REVIEW OF WOMEN’S STUDIESEconomic & Political Weekly EPW october 25, 200875scientific establishment in Europe and America and represented the dominant understanding of race in science at the time. Women, according to Cynthia Russet, had a dual role in the recapitulation theory – “in ontogeny she represented eternal adolescence, in phylogeny she recalled the ancestry of the race. Parallels could be drawn between women and children, on the one hand, and making due allowance for their higher culture as Europeans and Americans, between women and primitives, on the other.” White women were thought to be childlike psycho-logically, morally, in skeleton, and in intellect in comparison to white men. They were also thought to resemble “much more the Negro skull than that of the European man” and were similarly indifferent to pain and suffering. “They did not – could not – suffer. Savages, women, and children might no longer regenerate limbs as the newt does, but their tolerance of discomfort linked them securely with their amphibian ancestry” [Russett 1991: 54, 55, 57]. Women were not only intellectually inferior, they were also insensitive to pain and hence did not suffer.Intellectual InferiorityThe devastating impact of these gender and race theories cannot be emphasised enough. The scientific legitimisation of the bogey of the intellectual and developmental inferiority of women and blacks forever haunts the present and with every new field of study – psychology, genetics, and endocrinology, for instance – the in-tellectual inferiority of women and non-whites is re-examined and re-established. The advent of genetics and of psychological testing provided scientists with new tools to reinforce gender and racial discrimination. The rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’s studies on genetic inheritance at the beginning of the 20th century gave new impetus to eugenics, a term coined in 1869(?) by Francis Galton (1883) who defined it as “the science of improving stock …to give the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable than they otherwise would have had”.Galton believed that the social status of indi-viduals was rooted in biology – the rich and the powerful were so not because they inherited the wealth and position of their families, but because of their superior biological inheritance. He advocated education, tax incentives, and childbirth stipends for the wealthy to encourage them to procreate and at the same time discouraged procreation amongst the “unfit” by means of marriage restrictions, segregation, and sexual sterilisation.5 In America, eugenicists seized upon the notion of dominant and recessive Mendelian genetics to argue that complex human traits such as intelligence, feeble-mindedness, anti-social behav-iour, temperament, morality, etc, could not only be traced to sin-gle genes, but also eliminated from the population at large by the selective sterilisation of the “unfit” population, as negative traits were considered recessive. They combinedIQ tests with family pedigrees to determine the “eugenic worth” of individuals and lobbied for compulsory sterilisation for the “unfit”. Harry Hamilton Laughlin (1922) of the Eugenics Record Office proclaimed that: the sum total of human freedom and human happiness will be greatly promoted, in the long run, by eugenical processes which call for the elimination of degenerate and handicapped strains from the racial stocks, and the increase of numbers of citizens highly endowed by nature with splendid mental, physical, and moral qualities. The state, then, must exercise its undoubted right and duty to control human reproduction along the lines of race betterment (p 399). By the mid-1930s there were 32 American states that had steri-lisation laws on their books and in 1927, in the infamous Buck vs Bell trial the Supreme Court upheld involuntary sterilisation claiming that “three generations of imbeciles are enough”. Consequently, eugenic sterilisations increased from 8,000 in 1927 to more than 38,000 in 1941. It is estimated that through the 1970s, there were 30,000 more Americans, largely poor women and women of colour who were sterilised throughout the US [Tyler 1995]. The impact of eugenics was most devastating in Nazi Germany where the involuntary sterilisation, anti-miscegenation laws and anti-immigration policies adopted by the US were admired greatly. At Adolph Hitler’s behest, the University of Heidelberg awarded Harry Laughlin an honorary degree for his contributions to racial hygiene. Nazi eugenics was responsible for the sterilisation of nearly 4,00,000 people. An additional 70,000 were euthanised for feeble-mindedness or for being unfit [Proactor 1988]. The normalisation of euthanasia and involuntary sterilisation paved the way for the extermination of millions of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and communists. It is worth noting that as early as 1908, G H Hardy and Wilhelm Weinberg had calculated that even if every individual with a negative trait was sterilised it would still take 40 generations (or nearly 1,000 years) to reduce by half the incidence of that nega-tive trait in the larger population. Yet, enthusiasm for eugenics continued largely unabated.6 Only after the horrors and excesses of Nazi Germany came to light did scientists abandon the extreme measures of eugenics. However, Galton’s credo that genius is in rich men’s genes – women, blacks and the poor could not, should not, aspire to the achievements of William Shakespeare or Isaac Newton because they are biologically inferior – persisted in both science and society. Sophisticated BiasDebates about whether or not girls can or should do mathematics continue in the academy to this date, if with increasing sophisti-cation. We are now being told that studies prove that sex hormones impact the developing brain of males, females and homosexuals differently, and, not surprisingly, in ways that favour heterosexual men with greater conceptual clarity, mathematical reasoning, and analytical abilities. Indeed, the author of a 1992 article in the journal Scientific American concluded on the basis of dubious correlations alone, without establishing any causation, that she would not expect “that men and women would necessarily be equally represented in activities or professions that emphasise spatial or math skills, such as engineering or physics”. The article was considered important enough for Scientific American to reprint it 10 years later without any significant new findings, although with some minor revisions, including the excision of the lines quoted above [Kimura 1992, 2002]. However, unlike the 19th and the first half of the 20th century in which opposition to gender and racial discrimination in science came largely, though not exclusively, from non-scientists, there is increasing resistance to racist and sexist notions from
REVIEW OF WOMEN’S STUDIESoctober 25, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly76within science today. Gender critiques of science have become more vigorous and sustained in the wake of the civil rights and feminist movements. Women scientists have provided powerful critiques of sociobiology and the science of sex difference in cognition and behaviour by drawing attention to experimental biases, faulty experimental designs, and misinterpretation of data. The efficacy of feminist critiques of science, however, should not be construed to mean that “correction” in science within a reasonable timeframe is inevitable. Indeed, flaws in methodology, inconsistencies in the interpretation of data, the staple of the science of gender for more than a century, were rendered transparent only when women scientists imbued with a feminist consciousness challenged assumptions of gender inequality inherent in earlier frameworks. Thus, claims about scientific methodology and its quintessential activity of correc-tion are valid only when logical reasoning is combined with criti-cal social thought. The external social/cultural bias is as much a part of science as is its internal logic. The metaphor of a Mobius strip invoked by Elizabeth Grosz to understand the human psyche – the coming together of the body and the mind – works equally well for understanding the nature of science [Grosz 1994]. The Mobius strip is a contiguous curved surface that has no clear demarcation between the inside and the outside – an ant travelling along a Mobius strip can go from being on the outside to the inside without lifting its feet off the plane of the surface. We generally associate scientific theories, experi-mental paradigms, methodology, innovation, etc, with the inner workings of science, whereas the cultural, political and philo-sophical moorings of scientists are considered to be external factors, often detrimental to doing “good science”. However, the “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” determinants of science form a continuous surface produced collaboratively through the inter-action of science with race, gender, caste, and class. And herein lies the contradiction in science.Critical RealismThe framework of critical realism, developed by Roy Bhaskar (1989), despite some limitations, provides a stepping stone for comprehending these contradictions within science. Critical realism maintains that science is a social activity – a transitive process dependent upon earlier knowledges as well as upon the social conditions in which knowledge is produced. It further asserts that the knowledge produced is “of” intransitive objects of nature whose properties and attributes are independent of human activity. Thus, it distinguishes between “real objects” belongingto the “intransitive dimension” and the “objects of knowledge” which are necessarily human constructs (transitive dimension). The framework can be used to explain the existence of“constrained”plurality in science. The very fact that objects of nature have certain innate properties (independent of human intervention) puts severe constraints on the number of acceptable explanations of natural phenomena. In this way, critical realism coalesces the transitive and intransitive aspects of science and in so doing avoids the pitfalls of the crass relativism patentinsomeof the more extreme readings of the social construction of science.Critical realism introduces socio-economic structures and political and philosophical constraints on the production of knowledge, while at the same time adhering to a commonplace understanding of science. Indeed, a number of competing models may exist that are consistent with the innate attributes of objects, within the limits of their plasticity and uncertainty about interpretive structures. The development and subsequent acceptance of a particular model then depends not only upon the internal logic of science, but is mediated by the philosophical and political proclivities of scientific communities. Thus science is neither defined solely by objectivism where it collapses back on to nature, nor by relativism where it becomes com-pletely free of nature [Keller 1990]. Critical realism further distinguishes between epistemic and judgmental relativism [Bhaskar 1989]:[A]cceptance of (i) the principle of epistemic relativism, which states that all beliefs are socially produced, so that all knowledge is tran-sient, and neither truth-values nor criteria of rationality exist outside historical time. But it entails rejection of judgmental relativism, which maintains that all beliefs are equally valid, in the sense that there can be no rational grounds for preferring one to the other. It thus stands opposed to epistemic absolutism and epistemic irrationalism alike.Intrinsic and the ExtrinsicBhaskar also emphasises the stratified, internally complex, and differentiated nature of reality. Bhaskar’s separation of the intrinsic and the extrinsic, of the intransitive and the transitive dimensions of science provides an explanation of how issues of caste, gender, colonialism, capitalism, etc, might influence knowledge production in science. And yet, as has been argued by some philosophers of science, notably by Tian Cao (1995), the separation of transitive and intransitive aspects of science is not easily sustainable, especially in light of quantum mechanics and neuroscience. According to Cao, science is knowledge generated by the interaction of a know-ing and adaptable subject with “a plastic, changeable and trans-formable object”. This interaction entails experiment (intervention), theory (interpretation), and technology (application). Further-more, the knowing subject of the interaction is not an autonomous individual but rather an active agent rooted in the historical, cultural, social and economic community with shared precon-ceptions and traditions. Science, Cao contends, is necessarily mediated knowledge, which helps explain both its hermeneutic aspects and dogmatic tendencies (ibid: 182). Cao’s framework does not deny that constraints of nature produce curtailed plurality, but rather emphasises that the intransitivedimension is unapproachable or unperceivable without human constructs.Some philosophers elaborate the dimensions of constraints and epistemological freedom by distinguishing between the context of discovery (the development of scientific theories) which may well be socially mediated, and the context of justifi-cationwhich is seen invariably as value-neutral since it entails the emergence of consensus. The demarcation between the context of discovery and the context of justification is based on the assumption that core theories of science – their mathe-matical representations – are unaffected by social factors and that only “verbal presentations of theories” are influenced by

Literary Criticism, http://

’ in K Gavroglu et al (eds), Physics, Philosophy, and the Scientific Community, Kluwer Academic Publishers, pp171-87.

, Peter (1987): How Experiments End, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA. Grosz, Elizabeth (1994):

Fausto-Sterling, Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality: Basic Books, New York, 2000.

, Evelyn Fox (1990): ‘The Gender/Science System: Is Sex to Gender as Nature Is to Science?’ in Nancy Tuana (ed), Feminism and Science, Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

Cynthia (1991): Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Williams, Raymond (1997): Marxism and Literature, Oxford University Press, London and New York.

, Roy (1989): Reclaiming Reality, Verso, London and New York. Cited in Tom Lewis, ‘Philosophical Realism and the Aesthetic’ in Michael Sprinker’s,

Dear Reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here

Back to Top