I first wrote about the tension between feminism and science some years ago, after a conference dinner at which the person next to me asked what sort of psychologist I was – probably expecting to hear about my ‘specialty’. My response, no doubt naive, was to describe myself as a feminist psychologist.
The effect could not have been more dramatic had I been trying: one person left the table; another turned away; another puffed up and demanded to know if that meant I wanted to exclude men; and one responded to the former by explaining that being a feminist meant being anti-science.
I felt I should at least attempt to address that.
Monopolisation of knowledge
Feminism, in my understanding, is not inherently anti-science, but does reject the monopoly on knowledge that science can assume. Other forms of knowledge – lived experience and introspection, for example – have low credibility within a scientific worldview.
If the scientific method fails to provide answers to questions (such as how most effectively to intervene in heroin addiction) the failure is seen to lie in application of the method rather than in its inherent limits when trying to understand complex human behavior chains.
Obsession with measurement
Limitations on the way knowledge is constructed also mean that some concepts fall outside the know-able. I was taught, pretty much, that if it can’t be measured, it doesn’t exist, or at least should be ignored.
Ignor-ance, and obsession with measurement are not, however, adequate when it comes to key feminist concepts such as power relations, oppression, and exploitation, which do not yield readily to scientific measurement, but which nonetheless exist.
Mastery and control
Additionally, feminism is sceptical of values that can underlie scientific work.
The language is indicative: causal connections are discovered; variables are controlled; the environment is mastered; treatments are delivered to naive subjects in randomized double-blind experiments.
The framework of control, questionable as research method, becomes anathema when extrapolated to social relations.
Ideology masquerading as science
A potential effect of unexamined values is that ideology can masquerade as science. Over the decades, psychology has, for example, invested much effort into research on concepts such as maternal deprivation, self-defeating personality disorder, and late luteal phase dysphoric disorder, all of which pathologise women and decontextualise their lived experience in male-dominated societies.
Indeed, from a feminist perspective, much of psychology supports and perpetuates the status quo of structural power relations, but pays no heed, and evades accountability for damage caused by claiming to be objective, value-neutral, and apolitical.
Feminism, as I understand it, also rejects pseudo-science, so-what science, and science-as-an-end-in-itself, examples of which include most research on sex and gender ‘differences’, experimental research with questionable application to the everyday world, and the kind of counselling research that relates eyeblinks to empathy.
I think the belief is that this sort of busywork establishes scientific credentials, but there are no feminist prizes for its products.
Having said all that, I realise why I cringe when the scientist-practitioner model is uncritically upheld as the ideal for psychology. It is not enough and needs, at least, to be linked with an analysis of the social and political context in which it is applied.
Additional requirements for addressing the tension between feminism and science within psychology include recognising the limits of science, exploring alternative ways of understanding complex concepts, examining value frameworks, and resisting the window-dressing of pseudoscience.
I believe it is (probably) theoretically possible to address these issues and, when appropriate, engage in scientific psychological work that is not anti-feminist.
Written By Joan Beckwith, PhD