Sandra Harding: Cultural Distinctions Can Lead to Inclusivity, Innovation in the Sciences

New book on “Objectivity and Diversity” makes case for data-based, socially responsible science.

Sandra Harding’s newest book, “Objectivity and Diversity: Another Logic of Scientific Research” (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016) examines the ongoing concerns surrounding scientific objectivity. While philosophers of science criticize claims to objectivity as often merely trying to boost the status of a knowledge claim, she posits that the term has not worn out its usefulness; standards for maximizing objectivity need to be strengthened. Through the book, Harding presents the idea that standards for “strong objectivity” have the potential to support science that is both data-based, as well as socially just and inclusive. “Objectivity and Diversity” draws from her lifelong work of studying cultures as divergent as the Saami people of Lapland to Micronesian navigators. The book deftly illustrates the need for the shift from an ideal of value-free and disinterested science to science that achieves fairness and responsibility by starting out from the needs of economically and politically vulnerable groups, including women and people of color.

Professor Harding credits her 20-year career at UCLA with providing her with the inspiration for a timely and socially relevant book.

“My book in a way is a reflection upon the mission and practices of the UCLA Department of Education,” she says. “I want to thank the department for the opportunity to in effect, live in the laboratory. Every day, I get to watch my students and colleagues turn interviews, observations, and surveys into facts. Moreover, there has been a real commitment in hiring not just diverse faculty, but top-quality diverse faculty, [which] attracts a very distinctive student body. It’s hard to imagine anywhere else where I could [teach] such an internationally diverse group, sitting next to a domestically diverse group of students from the U.S. The chemistry and dynamics of classes are exhilarating; the contributions that students make are just wonderful.

“The book is an attempt to theorize how my colleagues and students manage to achieve real objectivity, when in fact their own research is directed by very specific political and social interests, namely pro-democratic ones,” notes Harding. “It’s been an incredible opportunity for me to see how difficult it is to create the kind of facts and policy necessary to achieve social justice missions around education.”

Harding is a Distinguished Research Professor of Education and Gender Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. She taught for 20 years at the University of Delaware before arriving at UCLA in 1996. She directed the UCLA Center for the Study of Women from 1996 to 2000, and co-edited the journal Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society from 2000 to 2005.

Professor Harding was a Distinguished Affiliate Professor of Philosophy at Michigan State University from 2010 to 2014. In 2013, she was awarded the John Desmond Bernal Award by the Society for the Social Studies of Science (4S) for distinguished contributions to the field. Previous recipients include Thomas Kuhn, Robert Merton, Joseph Needham and Mary Douglas. She is the author or editor of 17 books and special journal issues including, “The Postcolonial Science and Technology Studies Reader” (2011); “Sciences From Below: Feminisms, Postcolonialisms, and Modernities,” (2008); and “Science and Other Cultures” (2003).

Harding has been a visiting professor at the University of Amsterdam, the University of Costa Rica, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and the Asian Institute of Technology. She has also been a consultant to several United Nations organizations including the Pan American Health Organization, UNESCO, the U.N. Development Fund for Women, and the U.N. Commission on Science and Technology for Development. Professor Harding will discuss “Objectivity and Diversity” during a symposium on the book at the 90th Annual Meeting of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association in San Francisco on April 1.

Ampersand had the opportunity to discuss “Objectivity and Diversity” with Professor Harding and learn how the benefits of indigenous knowledge systems could bring about a true objectivity in science will serve all people.

Ampersand: How do the “new citizens, new societies” that you write about in the book make stronger objectivity so urgent a need necessity today?

Sandra Harding: The shrinking of the world, thanks to migrations and easier travel – not to mention the internet and the cell phone – have created new citizens and new societies around the globe. These [groups] often have different values and interests than those who designed the research disciplines in the mid-20th Century. Thus, threats to reliable research are different now than they were then, when the U.S. first began to massively fund scientific research in the Manhattan atomic bomb project and [established the] National Science Foundation, and when McCarthyism targeted many brilliant scientists.

Moreover, the effects of that funding now are seen as seriously problematic, since the gap between rich and poor has vastly increased during the six- decade “development” era, and we are faced with environmental disasters to which modernization’s industrialization has greatly contributed. Strong Objectivity retains the central commitment of the original value-free objectivity in two crucial ways: fairness to the data, and fairness to one’s severest critics. It is “real objectivity” for today, rather than only for the challenges of the mid-20th Century.

&: Why do you think women have been historically left out of international development policy and practices?

Harding: It turns out that women have never been “left out” of such policy. Rather, control of women’s labor and sexuality is necessary as long as men are not expected to do a fair share of “women’s work” – childcare, elder care, household maintenance, etc. – which is always the lowest paid work when done as wage labor. Women’s unpaid and underpaid labor around the globe subsidizes the constant expansion of profit-making markets and the legitimacy of governments that refuse to support all of their citizens.

&: How can modern Western science become more inclusive of indigenous knowledge systems? What are some current examples?

Harding: Collaborative research between modern Western scientists and indigenous groups began in archeology several decades ago, and has now expanded to work with peasant communities on issues about agriculture, health and the environment in [developing nations]. An older model for getting poor people’s voices heard has been “Participatory Action Research,” which began in the social sciences in the 1960’s.

More generally, the social justice movements that began to emerge around the globe in the 1960’s have developed policies of starting off research from problems that arise in the everyday lives of economically, politically, and socially vulnerable groups: poor people, women, indigenous people, racial and ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, the disabled, etc., instead of only in the concerns of corporations, militaries, and the states that depend on them – important as such concerns often can be.

&: How can religion and spirituality be effectively integrated with the sciences?

Harding: In the book, I point out that secularisms always retain important religious and spiritual commitments of the particular religion whose rules are not being followed. A secular Catholic retains different moral and spiritual alliances than does a secular Jew or Muslim. Thus historians of science has always pointed out that modern Western secular sciences include distinctively Christian commitments.

Indeed, such commitments have greatly advanced the growth of scientific knowledge. Examples include the assumption that a mind, far greater than our own, but which designed our minds, also designed the universe. Thus, practicing scientific method makes scientists’ minds uniquely capable of understanding “God’s ways” in even greater detail, as the early Modern scientists all believed. Later, the Protestant work ethic was claimed to advance scientific curiosity about how the world works. And scientists doing the kinds of collaborative, participatory action, and standpoint work I mentioned earlier are increasingly recognizing that the religious and other cultural commitments of indigenous groups do not necessarily reduce the reliability of the knowledge they produce.

&: Should institutions, scientists, and individuals become “unified, coherent, un-conflicted… free of social values and interests, who simply pursue…truths”? Is this possible, and why is it important to achieve true objectivity?

Harding: No, it is not possible, and it would be undesirable. For example, the feminist political commitments I take up in the book have resulted in more reliable understandings of the gendered effects of conventional Third World development policies. The value-free notion of objectivity is fine at detecting values and interests that differ between individuals or research groups, but it has no resources to identify values and interests that are shared between researchers or research groups. When everyone believes women are not as rational as men, no one can detect that as an assumption that damages the reliability of research results.

It is not possible to completely escape our particular historical and cultural ways of approaching nature and social relations. Moreover, it is not desirable, since it is precisely such culturally distinctive approaches that send scientists off in new and fruitful research directions.