Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society by Mario Vargas Llosa.

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Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The two cultures on display: Gender studies

In the past few weeks two articles from gender studies have gotten some attention.  The first was not actually from gender studies as such, but was from two people attempting a hoax against the field of gender studies.  Whatever you think of the hoax and what it does or doesn't teach us, it certainly put gender studies in the spotlight.  The second one, "Assembled Bodies: Reconfiguring Quantum Identities" got less attention outside of physics, but is arguably more significant because it was offered sincerely.

I tried reading the second one.  I gather that it is using quantum mechanics as a metaphor for ideas in feminist theory, but I lack the background to put it in context.  It is a very, very dense read, impenetrable to an outsider.  That is not necessarily an unforgivable sin for a scholarly work; much of scientific writing is impenetrable to the non-expert.  However, C.P. Snow offered a partial defense of the impenetrable nature of scientific writing, arguing that science is the more cumulative of our "Two Cultures", and hence it is impossible to make scientific progress (or understand such progress) without understanding a body of existing knowledge.  On the other hand, he also noted that a scientist need not have a detailed knowledge of literature from the distant past, as long as the scientist knows which specific ideas from the past remain valid after replication efforts from the past.  In humanities, conversely, engagement with the primary text is everything, but the nature of innovation is such that new ideas and new works of art and literature can be generated without reference to prior work.  Engagement with a primary text written yesterday can be as intellectually satisfying as engagement with a primary text written in 4,000 years ago.  In light of that, I've argued that social science sits somewhere between humanities and natural science, being akin to natural science in many of its goals and standards, but engaging with human issues like humanities and re-fighting many battles in each generation (not always for ill).

So, where does gender studies sit?

An exhaustive answer to that question would require far more engagement with the field than I can lay claim to, but I can examine the article on "Quantum Identities" and ask where it sits in terms of requiring a reader with cumulative knowledge.  In that respect, gender studies sits quite far along the cumulative end of the spectrum.

I then decided to do comparisons with other fields.  I first picked two very recent articles from two respected psychology journals, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (whose editor seems to be a reasonably productive academic) and Psychological Science (which also seems to have a pretty respectable editorial board).  I can't claim to understand the full context, import, or meaning of the work in either article as well as a psychologist would, but I can certainly get an idea of what they're  trying to do.  They are much easier on the reader than the gender studies article.  I can come away with some idea of what I get and what I'm unsure about and questions beyond "Um, wtf are they saying?"

Of course, I'm a natural scientist, which means I understand statistics and am accustomed to reading experimental articles, and I have done a fair amount of reading of educational literature, which has some overlap with the psychological literature.  Perhaps "harder on this reader than an experimental psychology article" is an unfair standard for me to use in evaluating gender studies.  With that in mind, I googled for "top journals in history" and all of the links sent me to American Historical Review.  I picked an article from a little more than a year ago (since my institution does not have access to the most recent year) with a title that is not particularly interesting to me.   Again, I can read it.  It is accessible.

Gender studies thus seems to make more demands on the reader than many humanities and social science fields.  The exceptions that come most immediately to mind are philosophy (generally considered a humanities field, though formal logic overlaps strongly with mathematics and computer science) and economics (definitely a social science field, but strongly influenced by mathematics).  Given the leaning of gender studies literature towards ideas and experience rather than statistics (that is not meant as a criticism), I think we'd have to situate it in the humanities, while acknowledging areas of interest shared with social science.

It's worth asking is what purpose dense jargon serves.  In the natural sciences it enables us to speak with precision, both so that we can make claims that are testable in quantitative experiments and so that we can reference specific elements from a large body of cumulative knowledge.  In philosophy, my understanding is that the purpose of dense jargon is precision in the drawing of fine distinctions.  It doesn't lend itself to clarity of exposition for the non-expert, but it does lend itself to clarity of distinctions for insiders.

In light of these considerations, my conclusion is that gender studies presents itself in a manner most similar to philosophy.  If other academics wish to critique the field, it would be most reasonable to do so in comparison to philosophy.

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