Feminist glaciology: reflections

A recently published paper has caused quite a stir within academic social media circles. Mark Carey and his colleagues at the University of Oregon published a piece in ‘Progress in Human Geography’ titled: Glaciers, gender and science: a feminist glaciology framework for global environmental research. Presumably the paper has gone through a peer review process where it was assessed by experts in the field, revised accordingly and then published. However in certain academic circles, the work has been slighted, maligned and written off as a hoax. I am not an expert in glaciers (I suspect many who have vomited their epistemological arrogance onto twitter share my level of glacial expertise). However, I am interested in both the paper and the response to it.

I will start off with the paper itself. I have read it (I say this as I question how many of the ‘It’s a hoax!’ crowd, read the title and scoffed) and while I don’t know much about glaciers, I do know a fair amount about feminist theory. It covers the bases and cites the people I would expect to see cited, mostly the feminist theorists who have questioned the so-called objectivity of the sciences.  The paper presents a set of challenges to the reader, and the broader scientific community. It asks us to consider – who are the knowledge producers in glaciology and how might this affect our understanding of how humans interact with, and are affected by, glaciers? This is important as it states from the start a belief that knowledge is produced not revealed – so it represents a departure from the positivism which dominates much of the sciences. While the paper states a feminist framework, it extends beyond this to point out that glaciology, like other sciences, has retained a Eurocentric view which excludes the perspectives and knowledges of other communities such as indigenous women. This is not a particularly controversial point, or an original one. Although it may well be the first time someone has pointed this out within glaciology. Outside of glaciology, fundamental questions are being asked about the extent to which we can separate the knower from the known (see the work of Karen Barad). While much of this work is difficult to engage with (big long words which many say is obscurantist – more on this later), the work of Barad, Haraway and others asks us to consider the supposed objectivity of science and what the implications are for what we know about the world around us. So, while the paper is interesting, well-written and accessible (it does not contain long poststructuralist types of sentences), it isn’t particularly remarkable. This is not a criticism of the paper at all – I welcome the work and any efforts, particularly by men (more on this later too) to engage with feminist theory and bring these discussions to the fore.

Only, the paper hasn’t brought discussions of the ontological and epistemological debates which underpin the sciences (social and natural) – at least not in any meaningful way that I have seen. Academic twitter has taken an affront to the paper, and it has been subject to some mean spirited and not particularly well informed critique. Now, I say ‘the paper’ here quite deliberately. At the end of 2015 I was mildly caught up in a twitter stooshie over a piece of research on masculinity and disability – I made the mistake of asking Richard Dawkins why he persists in subjecting women researchers to his followers (in the twitter and more ‘religious’ sense), because he doesn’t agree with their work. This tweet caught the attention of some of the less thinking areas of twitter – sadly including a number of academics. In this case it was not the paper which was critiqued, so much as the woman who undertook the research.  And me (and other women who engaged). What follows now is a personal reflection on this incident and the reaction to ‘feminist glaciology’. I make no claims that my observations are representative of the broader discussions (but I’m not a positivist, so I’m ok with that).

Twitter is great – it’s an opportunity to learn more about the world than I already know, meet like minded folk and share my own work. I prefer to avoid it around Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead because I don’t want spoilers, but generally I think it’s wonderful. It, to an extent, democratises access to information and who can speak. However, it is also a live action comments section, where anyone with access can share their perspective. After my question to Dawkins, I did receive a lot of replies – or mentions, which went on for a good 6 weeks. Many were supportive, some were genuinely curious while others were foul. Some anonymous, others not. One academic sent me over 30 tweets in a day – none of which I engaged with. Another academic felt it appropriate to draw my genitals into the discussion. Academics. People who are supposed to be among the most highly educated. Critical thinkers, with intellectual curiosity. Who produce knowledge, and engage with students. Talking about my genitals. Feminist hagraven was my personal favourite – I quite like that. All because I asked Dawkins to consider exercising self control in who he targeted. The author of the piece was subjected to far worse. When something which is a source of information and fun in our lives becomes a screen we are wary of opening because of the torrent of personal abuse which may be there, twitter starts to be more than ‘just’ twitter. People recommended I collate all the tweets and contact employers – I could not be bothered – plus it would have meant reading the insults again in order to track down the ‘culprits’. One thing that was clear to me was that while I was subjected to personal attacks, the men who engaged with Dawkins and his followers were engaged with on a less personal level. There was some effort to intellectually engage with the material.

 

I’m not sure if the authors of feminist glaciology are on twitter – I suspect at least one is. I would be interested to know if they have been similarly targeted (I hope they haven’t). However, I have seen some attempts at critique for example this which has been shared by the great and good on twitter. It’s quite a tedious analysis – and I use the term analysis loosely. It doesn’t engage in any meaningful way with the paper. The main critique seems to be the use of postmodernism – although I have my doubts that the authors cited would call themselves postmodern. There also seems to be some difficulty understanding the language used in the paper. The use of ‘obscurantist’ language was also a critique of the earlier work I mentioned. This is always an argument – science is allowed to use big words which only those in the know can understand, the rest of us must write using Plain English so anyone can get it.  I am not a natural scientist, but if I wanted to read work written in a science journal I would do two things: 1) look up the words I don’t understand, and 2) accept it’s not written for me, but for its own audience and have the good grace to realise that. Actually Carey et al have not written in an obscurantist way. I am starting to just wonder if ‘obscurantist’ means ‘words I don’t understand and can’t be bothered to look up’. But perhaps I am being mean. However, I have yet to see the authors subjected to the kind of personalised attacks that I have seen women researchers subjected to (I’m making what might be a false assumption on the majority of the authors’ gender, based on names – happy to be corrected. Update – I have since been corrected – two of the authors are men, two are women).

 

What is clear from the critiques of feminist glaciology that I have seen is that they miss the point. Or more precisely, reinforce the point of the paper – that science is often wedded to particularly ontological and epistemological positions – to its own detriment. Fricker (2007) might call this ‘epistemic injustice’, whereby discrimination is caused by the credibility afforded to the knower. Testimonial injustice is where the knowledge shared is dismissed because of characteristics of the knower. Or more simply, that paper is a pile of crap because it’s written by a woman, I didn’t even read it, but I know it will be crap. Fricker also refers to ‘hermeneutic injustice’ where groups lack access to the kinds of resources needed to make sense of their experiences. This is more the kind of epistemic injustice which is suggested in feminist glaciology i.e. the exclusion of non-dominant groups from the discipline and knowledge production. We could also draw on Spivak’s writings to understand epistemic violence, as it is perpetuated by dominant groups on those who are marginalised. Do blog posts and tweets which angrily argue that feminists and indigenous researchers have to conform to the dominant traditions within science and otherwise their perspectives will be dismissed, commit acts of epistemic violence and injustice. I don’t want to overstate the importance of these critiques, but it strikes me as a question worth asking.

The authors of the criticisms I have outlined here seem determined to reinforce their own hegemonic position within the systems of knowledge production, and do so by shouting ‘THAT’S NOT SCIENCE’. Too busy shouting to ask themselves, what is science and who decided that is what science should and can be? If we took a step back and questioned our deeply held assumptions about what is the best way to understand the world, what would we learn?

Useful reading

Carey, M., Jackson, M., Antonello, A. and Rushing, J., 2016. Glaciers, gender, and science A feminist glaciology framework for global environmental change research. Progress in Human Geography, p.0309132515623368.

Fricker, M. (2007). Epistemic injustice: Power and the ethics of knowing (p. 7). New York: Oxford.

New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies – Interview with Karen Baradhttp://quod.lib.umich.edu/o/ohp/11515701.0001.001/1:4.3/–new-materialism-interviews-cartographies?rgn=div2;view=fulltext

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