publisher colophon
Susan McHugh - Primate Encounters: Models of Science, Gender, and Society (review) - Configurations 11:1 Configurations 11.1 (2003) 129-132

Shirley C. Strum and Linda Marie Fedigan, eds. Primate Encounters: Models of Science, Gender, and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. xv + 635 pp. $35.00.

Primate Encounters proceeds from the assumption that sharing research commitments transforms what could be a polarized field of "science wars" into a generative space ripe for the more mutually beneficial, ongoing engagements that its editors term "science encounters." With this volume, anthropologists Shirley C. Strum and Linda Marie Fedigan pursue an ambitious plan of forming the basic unit of such encounters: new multidisciplinary models or "teams." They form and set such teams to work on questions of how gendered bodies and other configurations of the self and the social have shaped the sciences and cultures of primatology, to which both women already have contributed their own independent and extensive fieldwork and publications. Their approach to this project self-consciously attempts to remedy not just their own sense of scholarly isolation but also a more widespread crisis of identity within primate studies. In spite of their seemingly assured future through consistent funding, multigenerational research projects, and intense popular interest, such studies have failed to consolidate as a distinct academic discipline. For reasons that this book helps to clarify, practitioners of primatology housed in various academic fields—including anthropology, ethology, psychology, sociology, biology, and philosophy—often feel compelled to meet at the shifting intellectual crossroads of science studies. Drawing strength from this last area, presented here as an intersecting, emergent, and similarly contested interdiscipline, Strum and Fedigan have assembled contributions [End Page 129] from scholars in all of these fields. In turn, these scholars explore how the fluctuating and conflicting positions characterizing primate studies can foster sustained intellectual exchange across animal, humanistic, and other sciences.

In part a record of the 1996 workshop organized by the editors at Teresopolis, Brazil, Primate Encounters avoids the pitfalls of most published conference proceedings by demonstrating how the interactions of the participants prompted the expansion, development, and revision of their own initial contributions, and consequently of their attitudes as a group toward primatology's absent institutional homeland. Highlighting these interconnections, this volume includes comprehensive introductions and reflections not only by the editors but also by the other contributors, whose acknowledgments, endnotes, and even transcribed e-mail exchanges (selected and included at the end of each major section) indicate the successes and failures of these "primate encounters." Especially in the book's literal margins, the disagreements implicit between contributions flash up as opposing standpoints of specific contributors and, in areas where rapprochements remain impossible, stand as compelling arguments for recognizing and valuing different approaches to science and science studies. A common theme across these discussions is that academic symposia can serve as fertile sites of intellectual renewal and growth, but only when such symposia are taken not as ephemeral presentations of research among like-minded individuals but as initiations of long-term relationships among multiple, constructively critical communities.

One of many such examples of the cross-pollination of ideas recorded here involves sociologist of science Bruno Latour and primate biologist Thelma Rowell—specifically, their interpretations of Rowell's anecdote concerning her unconventional movement from studying chimpanzees to sheep. In Rowell's article—the first chapter of the section devoted to the reflections of primate field research "pioneers"—the anecdote illustrates her argument about how moving assumptions about behavior across taxonomic boundaries reveals the prejudices built into a species-focused discipline. Addressing a need for comparative studies among social animals other than primates, Rowell notes: "I watched sheep in the same way I have been watching monkeys," only to find rejection from "sheep experts" that she accounts for in terms of widespread anthropocentric valuations of animals in terms of their imagined degrees of proximity to the human: "we expect social sophistication in our relatives, so we ask more sophisticated questions, and get appropriately sophisticated answers" (p. 69). While several other articles in this collection express similar frustrations, the paradoxes of special charismatic megafauna—the "flagship species" (Karen Strier quoted by Brian Noble, p. 458) that inspire public interest in ecology—and those who specialize in researching them come most clearly to the fore in Rowell's autobiographical account.

But this story also lays bare current anxieties about compromising scientific "objectivity" by granting degrees of social agency to animals—what in philosophical terms appears to be the looming displacement of Cartesian-machinic models of the animal object by Uexküllian-interactive approaches to animals' social roles in science. Situating Rowell's story within the larger "flows of knowledge" that connect primates and primatology, Latour draws out this aspect by returning to Rowell's original phrasing in her initial conference paper: "I tried to give my sheep the opportunity to behave like chimps" (Rowell quoted by Latour, p. 367). Latour argues that this construction evinces a revolutionary transcoding between not simply active and passive narratives of scientific subjects but, more importantly, repetitive and innovative scientific activity. More to the point, what [End Page 130] Rowell's story reveals in Latour's reading of it is the difference that "propositions" or "interpretations" (p. 373) can make in relation to knowledge about a subject; for Latour, the anecdote illustrates a model that takes into account the contributions of both scientific observer and observed to the production of information. Cast thus, the immediate conflict over anthropocentrist "bias" identified by Rowell becomes in turn a symptom of the larger ways in which limiting the active mediators in science encounters in turn restricts the proliferation of innovative and intelligible scientific knowledge.

Such interactions mutually inform a diverse range of projects here, but they do not always play out so harmoniously. Conflicts are more clearly on the table as the editors' overriding concerns about gender in the histories, current practice, and social implications of primatology are brought to bear on the relationship of sociobiology to this project. For instance, Rowell's critique (p. 140) and Latour's defense of sociobiology (pp. 312-313) in the e-mail exchanges complicate these other convergences of their viewpoints. Though others detail familiar critiques, especially of E. O. Wilson's theories of sociobiology, feminist historian of science Donna Haraway's chapter brings to this collection one of the most compelling arguments in favor of it as a "thick trading and passage zone for conceptual development" which results in "science at its best" (p. 314). And it is through this localized discussion that the larger debate about the complexity and diversity of science seems to influence most directly the contributors' reconceptualizations of gender and science from stable poles of identification to dynamic forces moving across multiple sociocultural (or, in Haraway's terms, "naturalcultural") contexts. The comparably more measured critique of Western and industrialized scientists' resistance to "other" primatologies in the section on Japanese and Brazilian traditions of primatology, respectively, in the articles by Hiroyuki Takasaki and by Maria Emília Yamamoto and Anuska Irene Alencar, gains much from this theoretical contextualization and underscores the need for continuing comparative research in the cultural contexts of primate studies.

The contributors to this volume affirm earlier studies of the interconnections of gender, science, and primatology, particularly Haraway's 1989 book Primate Visions. Overall, however, they are hesitant to complicate these earlier conclusions by drawing out the interconnections of these patterns of gendering primates and primatologists with other patterns of identification. Although they are not organized as a distinct section, the articles that address primatology's conflicted and historic relationship with media representation most directly approach these concerns. Allison Jolly, included as one of the "pioneers," succinctly and suggestively links the power of primate films to convey animal emotions with their frequent erasure of racial, class, and national differences among workers in primatology (p. 84). Though included later in the science studies section, Greg Mitman's analysis of the "distinct popular science of natural history" emerging through 1950s U.S. film and television (p. 423) and Brian Noble's elaboration of "the relations of simian science and simian spectacle" in what he terms the international "Goodall-Fossey nexus" (p. 437) develop the effects of these tensions in specific contexts. Just as in the sections on "other national traditions" and "closely related disciplines," the editors' fixture of gender and science as a framework may limit these discussions, but it also serves as a useful point of overlap among wider-ranging research just beginning to take shape.

Of course, imposing order on such "encounters"—the very value of which, Strum and Fedigan suggest, lies in the surprises, shocks, and otherwise disorderly behaviors involved in team-building—necessarily involves elisions and reductions. [End Page 131] And it is much to the credit of the editors that in their final chapters they themselves provide the sharpest critique of their own framework. This comes in the exceptionally productive form of a separate section in which each editor devotes an essay to reframing her guiding definitions of and questions about gender and science by pointing to specific influences and critiques coming out of the conversations surrounding the earlier chapters. Although the editors do not explicitly frame it as such, their own humility in these final encounters supplants the conventional hubris of successful conference organizers and overtly infuses this value in models of science, gender, and society appropriate to many more fields of inquiry.



Susan McHugh
University of New England

Susan McHugh is Assistant Professor of English at the University of New England. She has published several essays on scientific, literary, and visual media representations of animals in such journals as Critical Inquiry and Camera Obscura. Her book, Dog, is forthcoming in Spring 2004, as part of the Animal series from Reaktion Books of London, England.

Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6520
Print ISSN
1063-1801
Launched on MUSE
2004-03-24
Open Access
No
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.