- Sciences from Below: Feminisms, Postcolonialities, and Modernities
What can be done to transform modern science and politics, which currently deliver their benefits only to an elite few, into truly democratic practices that serve all of the world’s people? This is the question Sandra Harding sets out to answer in Sciences from Below. Along the way she presents a stunning synthesis of research from post-positivist, feminist, and postcolonial science studies scholars. Her work, although unique in its attempt to integrate these different research agendas, shares the goals of the group of STS activists who advocate for an “applied science studies” to inform social justice projects.
The focus of Harding’s analysis is on (Western) modernity and “the ways it remains haunted by anxieties about the feminine and the primitive, both of which are associated with the traditional” (p. 1). Why has this scholar, known for her research in feminist and postcolonial science studies, turned her attention to modernity studies? It is, she writes, in order to “obstruct the way that the modernity vs. tradition binary shapes research projects” (p. 19).
In Part I, “Problems with Modernity’s Science and Politics,” Harding reviews the strengths and limitations of the work of three STS scholars who have critiqued the way science and politics are currently organized: the French anthropologist of science Bruno Latour, the German sociologist and environmental theorist Ulrich Beck, and the team of European sociologists headed by Michael Gibbons, Helga Nowotny, and Peter Scott. These three different approaches to rethinking modern science and politics share some commonalities. All three reject postmodernism because it gets stuck in critique and does not offer a positive alternative to transform science and politics. Along with Harding, all three argue that science and politics are inescapably entangled, that changing one inevitably involves changing the other. On the one hand, “science appropriates to itself as merely technical matters decisions that are actually social and political ones” (p. 25). On the other hand, policymakers often appeal to science to legitimize their own projects. One might say one hand washes the other.
All three are also mostly gender-blind and make only perfunctory gestures toward science and technology in global contexts. Thus in Part II, “Views from (Western) Modernity’s Peripheries,” Harding reviews the strengths and limitations of scholarship from three social movements at the margins of modernity: Western women’s, postcolonial, and third-world women’s science and technology studies.
In Part III, “Interrogating Tradition: Challenges and Possibilities,” Harding uses standpoint theory to look at science and politics “from [End Page 682] below”—from the standpoint of women and the world’s other least-advantaged peoples. In the final chapter she offers her own “modest proposal”—a vision of transformed sciences and politics.
Harding’s strongest contribution is the construction of a bridge between traditional science studies scholars and feminist and postcolonial science and technology studies. She looks at each research agenda from the perspective of the others. She points out how all three analyses from Part I “provide powerful justifications for feminist and postcolonial projects even though they do not put their arguments to this goal. In turn, those social movements could effectively make use of some of [traditional science studies’] arguments” (p. 77). She poses some provocative questions: For example, on page 149 she wonders what a “world of mutually, partially independent scientific and technological traditions and projects [would] look like.” Harding is a courageous public intellectual trying to understand how others see us and themselves.
For me, the most disappointing aspect of the book was the final chapter. Harding’s modest (critics might say outrageous) proposal entails “start[ing] off research from women’s lives in households” (p. 225). I was eagerly anticipating some concrete suggestions as to how “research on nuclear fission, the ozone hole, or the philosophy of science affects the flourishing of households and those responsible for them” (p. 233), but, alas, Harding leaves us with the acknowledgment that this proposal will be “difficult to pursue” and that it provides a...