Sandra Harding: Pioneer of Feminist Standpoint Theory Explores Objectivity in the Sciences

Science needs to be relevant to all people in addressing global issues of sustainability, climate change, and food shortages.

As a feminist philosopher of science, UCLA Education Professor Sandra Harding has examined strong objectivity, standpoint methodologies, and postcolonial and feminist science and technology studies. Having lectured at the University of Lapland last fall on topics such as negotiating with modern Western science, anti-imperial research, and gender issues in science development, she says that for some critics of such projects there seems to be a fine line between attempts to improve the social effects of scientific research and “bashing science.”

“Women and people [of color] around the world want science,” says Harding, who is a professor in the Social Sciences and Comparative Education Division at the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies. “But they want science that fits into their needs and interests, not just what the West is selling or imposing on them. It can’t be that all the things we want to know about the world are those that will be discovered by people asking questions on behalf of the military or corporations. There are other kinds of questions.”

Among the other kinds of questions that Harding and her colleagues explore are issues of modern sustainability within traditional cultures, the impact on and needs of women regarding science in developing nations, and the continuing discrimination in the sciences against women and minorities. She says that there is still a need “for people to understand that it’s possible to have politics shape science in good ways. Pro-democratic science, after all, is inherently more inclusive.

“The philosophic shift is so huge,” notes Harding. “In the last 30 years or so, globalization has radically changed who does science. Internally, the labs are very diverse. You can walk around labs here on campus and there will be many more women, many more people of color and discriminated groups. Moreover, they’re now linked through the Internet with labs all over the world. A physics experiment [can] be done in Japan, at the Stanford Linear Accelerator, and in Europe simultaneously; three groups will be working together.”

In the early 1990s, Harding began delving into anti-racist and postcolonial work about the sciences. Her edited anthology, “The ‘Racial’ Economy of Science: Toward a Democratic Future” (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993) remains a widely used text today, with writings on early non-Western scientific traditions of China and indigenous cultures in Peru; discrimination against Africans and African Americans from the 18th Century to the present; racist applications of science such as the Tuskegee syphilis experiments and testing of Depo-Provera on third world women; colonialism and forestry; and environmental racism.

Harding says that progress in regard to women in the sciences has been slow but impactful, with regional participation in particular fields.

“In Italy, biology is entirely a woman’s field,” she says. “In Puerto Rico, biology and chemistry are huge women’s fields because with such educations they can get jobs in the huge pharmaceutical companies there.”

Harding is the author or editor of 15 books and special editions of journals, including “Sciences From Below: Feminisms, Postcolonialities, and Modernities” (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008) and “The Postcolonial Science and Technology Studies Reader” (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012). In 2010, Harding contributed “Standpoint Methodologies and Epistemologies: A Logic of Scientific Inquiry for People” to the “World Social Science Report: Knowledge Divides,” published by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Her upcoming book, “Objectivity and Diversity” is slated for release in 2014.

Harding says that inclusive science is critical as the world’s citizens face issues of sustainability, global climate change, and food shortages.

“Standpoint methodology is a way to articulate something that is obvious but hard to argue if you are [a group] of people who have been thought not worth listening to,” she says. “It still leaves a lot of questions to be worked out. ‘What about when people have conflicting views?’ my students always ask. ‘How can we tell who’s right?’ This requires scientists and science funders to engage in democratic public debate, not turn political issues over to technocrats for their solutions. It’s not that their solutions might not be good for some people, but all the stakeholders need to be brought in there to think about the issues ahead of time, or some very bad decisions get made.

“Every emancipatory social movement has come up with these arguments themselves without calling it standpoint,” says Harding. “They say, ‘Hey – from where I stand, things look different.’