Sciences from Below: Feminisms, Postcolonialities, and Modernities

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In Sciences from Below, the esteemed feminist science studies scholar Sandra Harding synthesizes modernity studies with progressive tendencies in science and technology studies to suggest how scientific and technological pursuits might be more productively linked to social justice projects around the world. Harding illuminates the idea of multiple modernities as well as the major contributions of post-Kuhnian Western, feminist, and postcolonial science studies. She explains how these schools of thought can help those seeking to implement progressive social projects refine their thinking to overcome limiting ideas about what modernity and modernization are, the objectivity of scientific knowledge, patriarchy, and Eurocentricity. She also reveals how ideas about gender and colonialism frame the conventional contrast between modernity and tradition. As she has done before, Harding points the way forward in Sciences from Below.

About the Author:
Sandra Harding is Professor of Women's Studies and Education at the University of California, Los Angeles

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“It seems that a work of this nature is long overdue and, will significantly improve the communication between modernity theorists and those working in feminist or postcolonial studies.” - Carolyn Anderson, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith

“This is an ambitious and impressive book. . . . Harding’s book is a significant contribution to the literature on science, feminism, and postcoloniality. It is certainly a step in the direction of the transformation of science and politics that is Harding’s goal.” - Susan Hekman, Contemporary Sociology

Sciences from Below is a brilliant synthesis of three approaches to science and technology studies and a call for increased exchange between
them.” - Nancy Tuana, Isis

“[T]he philosophical—and human—imperatives that led [Harding] to write this book are extremely important, and the book itself opens possibilities that philosophers must explore.” - Emily R. Grosholz, Women’s Review of Books

“[A] stunning synthesis of research from post-positivist, feminist, and postcolonial science studies scholars.” - Bonnie Shulman, Technology and Culture

Sciences from Below is a splendid book. Sandra Harding’s project of intellectual integration, bringing together some of the most influential literatures on modernity, science, and feminism, is a welcome, much-needed project. Her project is needed because the social justice movements need synthetic scholarship, and it is needed because there is an academic tower of Babel with few translators.”—Hilary Rose, author of Love, Power, and Knowledge: Towards a Feminist Transformation of the Sciences

“Sandra Harding fills significant gaps in three crucial, overlapping, yet strangely independent scholarly literatures on science and technology: feminist analyses of science, “traditional” science and technology studies, and postcolonial science studies. This is a unifying and strengthening project of great significance both practically (for the future of science throughout the world) and within academe.”—Anne Fausto-Sterling, author of Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality

“Sandra Harding’s voice is one of the most important in the science and technology studies field. With Sciences from Below, she opens up a broad vista, one in which the entire field of social movements and alternative visions of modernity is gendered.”—David J. Hess, Professor of Science and Technology Studies and Director of the Program in Ecological Economics, Values, and Policy, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Nancy Tuana

Sciences from Below is a brilliant synthesis of three approaches to science and technology studies and a call for increased exchange between them.”
Bonnie Shulman

“[A] stunning synthesis of research from post-positivist, feminist, and postcolonial science studies scholars.”
Emily R. Grosholz

“[T]he philosophical—and human—imperatives that led [Harding] to write this book are extremely important, and the book itself opens possibilities that philosophers must explore.”
Carolyn Anderson

“It seems that a work of this nature is long overdue and, will significantly improve the communication between modernity theorists and those working in feminist or postcolonial studies.”
Susan Hekman

“This is an ambitious and impressive book. . . . Harding’s book is a significant contribution to the literature on science, feminism, and postcoloniality. It is certainly a step in the direction of the transformation of science and politics that is Harding’s goal.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822342823
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 5/1/2008
  • Series: Next Wave: New Directions in Women's Studies Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 296
  • Sales rank: 792,155
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Sandra Harding is Professor of Women’s Studies and Education at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her many books include Science and Social Inequality: Feminist and Postcolonial Issues; The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies; Science and Other Cultures: Issues in Philosophies of Science and Technology (coedited with Robert Figueroa); Is Science Multicultural? Postcolonialisms, Feminisms, and Epistemologies; and Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Thinking from Women’s Lives.

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Read an Excerpt


Feminisms, Postcolonialities, and Modernities
By Sandra Harding

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2008 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4282-3

Chapter One



FEW NORTHERN SCIENCE STUDIES have focused critical attention on the modernity of modern sciences. Innovative as these studies have been in undermining central foundations of still prevailing exceptionalist and triumphalist philosophies of science, modernity remains as a kind of horizon in this field. It restricts analysis to Western sciences and technologies and leaves the most powerful arguments of feminist and postcolonial analyses as seemingly unintelligible or irrelevant to science studies projects. In this respect, Western scientific and technological research remain understood in large part as positivism understood them, namely, as the complete terrain of what should count as scientific rationality and technological expertise. Indeed, by referring to them as "Northern" here, I intend to delimit the field on which we focus to the studies, whoever their authors may be, constrained by this kind of horizon.

However, within the field of those who keep their gazes within this horizon, there are beginning to appear some critical foci on how problematic the modernity of the field so circumscribed is-on the modernity of Western sciences and technologies. This chapter and the next two will consider arguments by three Northern critics of modernity who have provided distinctive and extended analyses focused on the natural sciences and their philosophies. These are the French ethnographer and philosopher of science Bruno Latour (We Have Never Been Modern; Politics of Nature), the German sociologist of "risk society" Ulrich Beck (Risk Society; Reinvention of Politics; World Risk Society), and the team of European sociologists of science headed by Helga Nowotny, Peter Scott, and Michael Gibbons (Nowotny, Scott, and Gibbons, Re-Thinking Science; Gibbons et al., New Production of Knowledge). Each provides a distinctive focus, yet their arguments overlap in important respects. Let us begin by considering each of these features in turn.

First, each represents a particular influential focus in the field of contemporary postpositivist science studies. Latour's early study with Steve Woolgar, in Laboratory Life, of the social construction of results of research ("truth") in a biochemical laboratory was perhaps the earliest of the ethnographic studies of Northern sciences which so powerfully shaped the field of mainstream science studies. His subsequent interventions have again and again redirected the conceptual practices and debates within the field. Another important concern relevant to this project is with the ways scientific projects advance only by extending their technoscientific and bureaucratic networks greater and greater distances from their "centres of calculation" (Latour, Science in Action). Latour insists that attempts to explain scientific successes in terms of only their social causes are no more accurate than the older attempts to explain such successes in terms only of nature's order.

Beck's earlier studies were focused on the sociology of work. However, he is familiar with the findings of at least some of the post-Kuhnian work in the history and sociology of science, and specifically finds affinities in Latour's work with his own projects. Beck's work is in the lineage of classical sociological theory in ways Latour's (and the work of the Gibbons, Scott, and Nowotny group) is not. Beck also approaches issues of science and modernity from his activist experiences with the German Green Movement. Along with Anthony Giddens and Scott Lash, his work on "risk society" has been influential in Europe and North America (Beck, Giddens, and Lash, Reflexive Modernization). Most mainstream science studies scholars would probably not consider Beck part of their field since he does not do the laboratory or field site studies (or the equivalents in the history of science) which have come to dominate the field. Yet, as we will see, his work is highly pertinent to understanding what happens in laboratories and field sites.

Gibbons, Scott, and Nowotny, whose original study was commissioned by the Swedish government to aid in its science policy planning, are concerned especially with sociological and philosophical implications of the new ways in which European and North American sciences and technologies are being organized and practiced since the end of the Cold War in 1989. This work is in the lineage of science policy studies. So these three Northern science studies projects represent different approaches to rethinking modernity's sciences and politics.

Their arguments also overlap. First, while all are severe critics of modernity, its philosophies, and its effects, they all find postmodernism an unattractive alternative. For all three of them, postmodernism remains a valuable symptomology of problems with conventional thinking about modernity, but is stuck there. They each think that it does not have the intellectual or political resources to move beyond that critique in order to generate a positive program to transform modernity and its sciences. Thus their arguments demonstrate that post-modernism is not necessarily the inevitable landing site of critics of Western modernity.

Second, all three argue that (Western) science has become a kind of governance which illegitimately bypasses democratic processes. Thus "the scientific" and "the political"-science and politics-are inexorably intertwined. Science appropriates to itself as merely technical matters decisions that are actually social and political ones. However, a democratic ethic requires that everyone affected should participate in such decisions about how we will live and die-about which groups will flourish and which will lead nasty and short lives. On the other hand, social and political institutions constantly appeal to nature and to science to justify their own anti-democratic projects. The sciences we have and their philosophies intrude on and block possibilities for democratic governance. At the same time, the governance we have obscures its own intrusion into and permeability by authoritarian representations of the natural and the scientifically expert.

However, third, in contrast to many other critics of modernity and of modern sciences, all three are optimistic about the possibilities for transforming the sciences to be politically accountable for their practices and consequences. All three think the sciences can indeed contribute to social progress, but not without transformation of both the sciences and the political worlds with which they are in mutually constitutive relations. All three call for more science, though they want different kinds of sciences than those favored in the contemporary West. They each strategize about how to democratize science in the service of a democratized social order, and how to do so by strengthening and expanding the reach of the scientific impulse. So all three overtly insist that science and politics-the scientific and the political (or, in the case of Gibbons et al., the social)-must be simultaneously redesigned. Thus all three raise issues about necessary transformations in both philosophies of science and political philosophies (or social theories). This set of commitments and projects makes it difficult to categorize any of them as having fully modern or fully anti-modern commitments. Indeed, as we will see, all three figure out ways around that binary. And it sharply delineates their projects from the vast majority of those in science studies which do not so overtly take on the ambitious and controversial task of redesigning the realm of the social and the political.

There are two more features unfortunately shared by all three. They are all significantly gender-blind, and blind also to the analyses and projects of postcolonial science studies, or at least to the most important features of the postcolonial accounts. Latour's accounts are at least perched on the near side of the border between Western and postcolonial histories, ethnographies, and philosophies of science, without fully appreciating the content or power of the postcolonial criticisms of the West, its imperial sciences, and its modernities, let alone what other cultures can offer Western sciences. With respect to gender, he very occasionally does mention one or two feminist science theorists; Donna Haraway gets perhaps three or four mentions in the two books to be discussed here. Valuable as her work is, such a tiny citation record is not sufficient to count as engagement with feminist science studies. His work is uninformed by Haraway's arguments or those of any other feminist science theorist. He specifically discounts the value of what he refers to as "identity politics," including many of the new social movements which have produced feminist and postcolonial science studies. Beck does gesture toward the welcome influence of women's movements globally. And he does venture into a topic put on the agenda of social theory by feminism-"Love" (Beck and Beck-Gersheim, Normal Chaos of Love). But, like Latour, he does not actually discuss or take account of issues produced by feminist and postcolonial science studies. Indeed, he does not even mention, and I would guess is unaware of, the latter. He does not try to connect to his analysis of science and politics the fascinating account provided with Elisabeth Beck-Gersheim of the relation between quandaries of intimate relations and recent changes in the organization of work and family life. To be sure, this would be an ambitious project, but we will see it at least partly engaged by feminist modernization accounts. Nowotny, Scott, and Gibbons do mention feminism once or twice, but do not even achieve a "gesture" toward the issues feminist science studies have raised. They appear totally unaware of postcolonial science studies.

Thus the accounts of these three influential theorists forge ahead as if the backs of feminists and others "excluded" have been glimpsed retreating over the horizon of modernity into their natural worlds of "tradition," but leaving no traces behind in conceptions of modernity or its ideal social relations. To these scholars, like so many others in the field of science studies, feminist and postcolonial experiences and analyses produce no relevant insights or strategies which could or should change the way these otherwise innovative authors conceptualize and carry out their projects to transform scientific inquiry and the domain of the social and the political. To them such experiences and analyses appear irrelevant, even incomprehensible or, in the case of Latour, as largely obstacles to scientific and social progress.

In this respect their work continues an unfortunate tendency. Mostly invisible to them, but not to feminists and postcolonial theorists and researchers, are the long histories and present projects of male supremacy and imperialism/colonialism, hulking like two proverbial 800-pound gorillas in the parlors, parliaments, board rooms, and laboratories of modernity and its sciences. ("Mostly" invisible, since Latour does get brief glimpses of at least the colonialism gorilla!) In ignoring androcentric and Eurocentric aspects of both their objects of study and their own accounts, all three deeply undermine the epistemic and political chances of success of their own projects. The legitimacy of speaking in the voice of the ruling, white, Northern, bourgeois, "rational man" has radically declined everywhere around the globe. Those of us concerned with gender and postcolonial social justice need the projects of these theorists as well as our own to succeed, so these lacunae require attention. To the extent that they distance their accounts from feminist and postcolonial analyses, they inadvertently disable their own projects and end up functioning as support for the manipulation of male-supremacist and Eurocentric anxieties for the ends of social injustice.

Yet, it must be emphasized, these three theorists do raise important questions about modernity and its sciences and philosophies which have not yet been centered in feminist and postcolonial work, and they provide valuable insights into illuminating ways to conceptualize issues which feminist and postcolonial work has thought about only in other terms. Feminist and postcolonial science and technology studies and Northern science studies scholars can learn from each other.

Let us turn to Latour's criticisms of modernity to see one account of the resources that a critical view of both modern science and modernity's politics can provide for epistemological and democratic transformations.


In a series of books and articles Latour has conducted a vigorous campaign against conventional and even some postpositivist epistemologies and philosophies of science. He proposes a radical alternative to them which, in addition to its other virtues, in important respects better fits the actual practices of the natural sciences. Latour's arguments are innovative, rich, dense and impossible to do justice to in a brief report. I shall capture some central themes of his joint revision of dominant notions of science and of politics by following his argument that we can create a far sounder and more pro-democratic conceptual framework than that provided by the fact/value distinction and its correlates. For Latour, the fact/value distinction also underlies such binaries as scientific analysis vs. social analysis, science vs. technology or applications of science, nature vs. the social or the political, objective vs. subjective, rational vs. irrational, and modern vs. premodern.

In his influential book We Have Never Been Modern, Latour argued that modernity and its sciences have an ontology problem. They conceptualize our knowledge of nature as separate from matters of our interests, of justice, and of power, though it is in fact inseparable. "On page six [of my daily newspaper], I learn that the Paris AIDS virus contaminated the culture medium in Professor Gallo's laboratory; that Mr. Chirac and Mr. Reagan had, however, solemnly sworn not to go back over the history of that discovery; that the chemical industry is not moving fast enough to market medications which militant patient organizations are vocally demanding; that the epidemic is spreading in sub-Saharan Africa.... [H]eads of state, chemists, biologists, desperate patients and industrialists find themselves caught up in a single uncertain story mixing biology and society" (1-2). We live in an incommensurable mix of nature, politics, and discourse. "Yet no one seems to find this [story] troubling. Headings like Economy, Politics, Science, Books, Culture, Religion and Local Events remain in place as if there were nothing odd going on. The smallest AIDS virus takes you from sex to the unconscious, then to Africa, tissue cultures, DNA and San Francisco, but the analysts, thinkers, journalists and decision-makers will slice the delicate network traced by the virus for you into tidy compartments where you will find only science, only economy, only social phenomena, only local news, only sentiment, only sex.... By all means, they seem to say, let us not mix up knowledge, interest, justice and power. Let us not mix up heaven and earth, the global stage and the local scene, the human and the nonhuman. 'But these imbroglios do the mixing,' you'll say, 'they weave our world together!' 'Act as if they didn't exist,' the analysts reply" (2-3).


Excerpted from SCIENCES FROM BELOW by Sandra Harding Copyright © 2008 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Introduction: Why Focus on Modernity?....................1
1. Modernity's Misleading Dream: Latour....................23
2. The Incomplete First Modernity of Industrial Society: Beck....................49
3. Co-evolving Science and Society: Gibbons, Nowotny, and Scott....................75
4. Women as Subjects of History and Knowledge....................101
5. Postcolonial Science and Technology Studies: Are There Multiple Sciences?....................130
6. Women on Modernity's Horizons: Feminist Postcolonial Science and Technology Studies....................155
7. Multiple Modernities: Postcolonial Standpoints....................173
8. Haunted Modernities, Gendered Traditions....................191
9. Moving On: A Methodological Provocation....................214
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