Sandra Harding: Philosopher Navigates A Global View of the Sciences

Professor Harding has been honored with the John Desmond Bernal Prize from the Society for the Social Studies of Science.

Updated 6/9/14

Sandra Harding, Distinguished Professor of Education and Gender Studies in the UCLA Department of Education, has been honored with the 2013 John Desmond Bernal Prize, the highest honor given by the Society for the Social Studies of Science. The award is given annually in recognition of an individual who has made outstanding contributions to social studies of science.

Among Professor Harding’s many research interests are feminist and postcolonial theory, epistemology, the philosophy of science, and multicultural science education. She is currently focusing on identifying gender, science and technology issues for women living in developing nations. Her 2008 book, “Sciences from Below: Feminisms, Postcolonialities, and Modernities,” examines how Western ideals of modernity and progressiveness distort an understanding of women’s “development needs” and of how the negative effects of science and technology transfer to cultures in developing nations. Her edited collection, “The Postcolonial Science and Technology Studies Reader” (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2011) is the first to integrate postcolonial studies and science and technology studies insights.

Professor Douglas Kellner (third from right) toasted Dr. Harding at the GSE&IS Faculty Retreat on May 29.
Professor Douglas Kellner (third from right) toasted Dr. Harding (at foreground) at the GSE&IS Faculty Retreat on May 29. Photo by Jeff Share

Professor Harding was appointed Distinguished Affiliate Professor of Philosophy, Michigan State University, East Lansing in 2011, and received the American Education Research Association (AERA) Award for Distinguished Contributions to Gender Equity in Education Research in 2009. She was appointed as a Phi Beta Kappa National Lecturer in 2007-08, and from 2000 to 2005, served as co-editor of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. In 1990, Dr. Harding was named Woman Philosopher of the Year by the Eastern Division Society for Women in Philosophy.

Upon arriving at UCLA in 1996, Harding directed the UCLA Center for the Study of Women. She has taught at universities in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and Central America, and has served as a consultant to UNESCO, the Pan American Health Organization, the U.N. Development Fund for Women, and the U.N. Commission on Science and Technology for Development.

Ampersand had an opportunity to speak with Dr. Harding as she looks forward to retirement from UCLA after 18 years – although retiring would hardly be the way to describe this pioneering and continuing scholar. She talks about her groundbreaking work in feminist and postcolonial studies, a needed shift from thinking that Western methods of science are in every respect superior to practices in indigenous cultures, and the opportunity to work with young scholars who continue her legacy of a globally-minded inquiry of science.

Ampersand: Why do you think that Western science tends to exclude the empirical achievements of indigenous cultures from its canon of knowledge?

Sandra Harding: The West tends to discount the reliability of indigenous knowledge although much of it has been empirically tested for hundred and even thousands of year. The postcolonial issues that I explore are partly about the knowledge systems of other cultures, but they are mostly about our own ignorance about other cultures, and consequently about the limitations of the Western notions of modernization, of progress, of the power of our sciences and technologies.

Our sciences and technologies are very powerful. But they have their limitations and we haven’t appropriately recognized them. Westerners have always thought of themselves as the “first” and the “best.” Our commitment to progress and modernity make us [presumably] the best in the world, and everyone else inferior to us.

We’re only slowly learning to get over that view and realize that we are just one among many valuable cultures around the world, each with its own empirically reliable knowledge systems. Anthropologists, for example, have, for the last 50 years, understood the empirical value of indigenous knowledge systems. People who work in health and environmental issues are getting more knowledgeable about it. So, there’s progress.

&: What are a couple of examples of positive progress towards understanding other cultures’ knowledge systems and their relationship to science?

SH: People who live on islands in the middle of the Pacific have, for millennia, navigated by the stars, with very sophisticated systems that have enabled them to go 5,000 miles in an open canoe from the Pacific Islands to New Zealand and then to get back again. Historically, that has been underappreciated. Many people today would think, ‘Who needs that?  We have GPS systems; we don’t need to navigate by the stars.’ But now, the U.S. Naval Academy is teaching navigation by the stars again, because if any of those satellites were knocked out, our sailors would not be able to navigate accurately.

Our chemists have been very clever in producing kinds of drugs that are even more effective than indigenous pharmacologies. But many of those drugs are becoming ineffective because the viruses become immune to them. So the pharmaceutical industry is going back to some of the original native herbal remedies and trying to develop them further, because viruses are not immune to those the way they are to manufactured drugs.

&: How can we change our thinking in the West to become more inclusive of the contributions made to science by other cultures?

SH: We have to get used to thinking of ourselves as one culture among many – a very powerful one, but not one that is always right.

Some of our achievements in science and technology indeed have been distributed to other cultures. This is mistakenly assumed as the only way that other cultures would [gain knowledge]. Of course, in order to survive, every culture must develop its own reliable ways of interacting with its environment. Moreover, there are forms of modernization in other indigenous knowledge systems that are very powerful and very useful.

&: What about women’s issues?

SH: Understanding gender differences enables recognizing that women’s issues are important in the sciences. For example, it was only a decade ago that the National Institutes of Health officially acknowledged that women present different symptoms when they’re having a heart attack than men do. It’s been a similar situation with AIDS.

Moreover, historically, men’s bodies were [considered] the model for all human bodies, except for the reproductive system. Consequently, women’s medical and health challenges went undiagnosed. When women began widely to enter sports, the standard models of the human body had to be changed. Women were getting many more sports-related injuries because their coaches didn’t understand that women’s elbows and knees are not identical to men’s. Women throw balls differently; their bodily construction is different.

&: What have been some of the changes that have occurred through these realizations about gender differences in science and medicine?

These days, the differences are now widely recognized. It was only when in 1991 a woman was appointed head of NIH – Bernadine Healy – that the first large-scale studies of women’s health issues occurred, the Women’s Health Initiative. When men were at the head of that organization, NIH studied heart attacks and strokes in men, but not in women. Healy initiated a 400,000-person survey. I was part of it actually, because one of the many [testing] sites was UCLA.

They had three studies going. One was of lifestyle effects on women’s health; that was the one I was on from 2000 to 2005. It was about my existing diet and exercise practices. As a woman over the age of 60, I just filled out a questionnaire. They were interested especially in how lifestyle affects heart attacks, strokes, and some forms of cancer. Another study put women on reasonable diets instead of the standard American diet, which includes a lot of junk food. A third study focused on hormone replacement therapy. Parts of this NIH study are still going on. They still send me a ten-page questionnaire once a year.

&: How does your philosopher’s view examine the overlooked human factors in science?

SH: Philosophers analyze how people think about things. So, I’ve been analyzing how people think about postcolonial and feminist issues. I look at the kinds of things that scientists, for example, say about women’s biology or about best practices in science. I critically evaluate what they are doing, for example, asking why when they talk about “good methods,” these seem not to include interviewing women about their lives or cultures, or do not take into account of the kinds of things that we now think they should know about women’s health.  So, I’m interested in socially approved and institutionalized ways of thinking, not in how any individual scientists happen to think.

&: What attracted you to UCLA?

SH: UCLA and Berkeley were recruiting me for a number of years to direct their women’s studies programs and research centers, but I was perfectly happy in Delaware, where I taught for 20 years, and didn’t have a particular desire to move. But then I realized if I was ever going to move, I’d better do it, and UCLA was my first choice.

UCLA has been spectacular in several ways for me. Number one, I get to interact with wonderful researchers and scholars. Secondly, its location in such a multicultural city and the [campus] being so multicultural – especially education faculty and students both – was a real plus for me. It’s one of the global cities where you get a huge diversity of languages and ethnicities. I get to have my thinking challenged by my splendid students and colleagues. Perhaps most importantly, working in the Department of Education is like living in the laboratory for a philosopher of science like me. I get to see how difficult it is to produce reliable facts, and how brilliant my colleagues are at doing so under challenging circumstances.

Race issues are very different in Delaware than they are in California, where some citizens still aren’t clear about who won the Civil War! It was very exciting to get to think about them here. So many students claim bilingualism and multiculturalism. They have multiple identities. Californians have the kind of sophisticated [attitudes] about race and ethnicity that are necessary for today’s local and global social relations. It’s fascinating.

&: What are you looking forward to after retirement from such an illustrious career?

SH: I have a book manuscript that will be published next January by the University of Chicago Press titled, “Objectivity and Diversity: Another Logic of Scientific Research.” It’s a study of the challenges that the social norm of diversity presents to the scientific norm of objectivity, and vice versa.

I’ve started a new project with a team of young scholars. We will put together a collection of papers, each of which takes up postcolonial issues, feminist issues, and science studies issues. These essays attempt to move this field forward by integrating the three kinds of issues.

I am working with two brilliant young biologists, a lawyer who works on indigenous property rights, and an anthropologist who works on Native American DNA issues and environmental issues. So far, we have given one public presentation of our work. We have another scheduled in Canada in August and an enlarged 15-person workshop, funded by the Mellon Foundation at the University of Michigan in October.

I’m looking forward to continuing the work I’ve been doing, but to get to do and think about it with these brilliant young people I’m working with now.

&: It sounds like you are passing a brilliant legacy of scholarship.

SH: They are passing it on to me, too.


Photo by Emily Harding-Morick