Author: Liekki Valaskivi
I have a bachelor’s degree in educational psychology and am only a matter of weeks away from completing my master’s degree in gender studies. I have read my fair share of feminist theory and have adopted the epistemological stance that all knowledge and knowledge production is necessarily subjective, culturally and temporally situated (see for e.g. Haraway, 1991). Science, as I understand it, has the responsibility not only to produce new knowledge, but also to critically examine that knowledge and the conditions and processes in which it was produced, in order to minimize the effect of cultural bias and socioeconomic privilege.
I have, however, the good fortune of being close friends with an engineering student, and over the past year or so, we have had many fascinating discussions about epistemology and the philosophy of science, and I have come to understand just how foreign human sciences are to those who primarily deal in the natural sciences and technology. In STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, the belief that science aims for and produces objective knowledge is very much the norm, and the way in which social sciences has steered away from this kind of positivism seems like an abandonment of facts and scientific integrity. While I have come to see cultivating a greater and broader understanding of the world as the end goal of scientific research, my friend approaches science as the pursuit of specific and verifiable facts.
STEM fields and their approach to knowledge, fact and methodology seem to be the cultural norm in the Western world. Not only that, but STEM fields tend to also be higher valued and regarded as more important that human sciences – we have all heard STEM referred to as “hard science” and social sciences as “soft science”, clearly indicating that STEM is thought to be somehow more “real” science. This is probably partially due to the fact that research in STEM fields tend to be much more monetarily lucrative than that of social sciences. Innovations in medicine, technology, computer sciences, biochemistry, and so on, are what private businesses are interested in, because they offer a potential for profitability, such as can rarely be found in, say, philosophy or anthropology.
But the disparate cultural value given to STEM as opposed to human sciences is also a question of gender. In broad terms, the more human-oriented a field of study is, the less male-dominated it tends to be. This has also come up in the Nordwit interviews with female academics here in Tampere: even within STEM, fields like biotechnology and medicine, where researchers are more involved with patience and practical work, tend to be female-dominated. A researcher whose work centres on human perspective in a technological field also mentioned that their work is often regarded as an afterthought and somehow auxiliary to the “actual” project. To think that it is a coincidence that fields that are female-dominated are dismissed and devalued would be naive. In a culture that continues to value men and masculinity over women and femininity, it is a small wonder that male-dominated fields are seen as the ones where the “real” science is done.
Human sciences are necessarily introspective and self-critical, because the scientists are a part of the phenomena they study. This kind of self-evaluation is less common within natural sciences. This, in conjunction with the cultural prevalence of natural sciences, means that social scientists usually have some kind of understanding of the inner workings of STEM research, while it is quite easy to have a degree and a career in a STEM field without ever coming face to face with the methodology or epistemology of human sciences. This has been exemplified in my discussions with my friend. I have little difficulty understanding his perspective, but my frame of reference often seems entirely incomprehensible to him.
This deficit in understanding and a shared frame of reference between STEM researchers and social scientists has been all too apparent in the creation of the new Tampere University, a union between the former social sciences driven University of Tampere and the former Tampere University of Technology. What in theory is a wonderful opportunity for multidisciplinary collaboration and new innovation has in practice been a breeding ground for misunderstanding, frustration and a sense of powerlessness. I observed it first as a student and then much more clearly as a staff member. Staff members from the former University of Technology and the social sciences oriented University of Tampere have found communication difficult, because more often than not they are approaching things from an entirely different frame of reference. The social scientists feel that the engineering scientists are naive and lack understanding, while the engineering scientists think the social scientists are spoilsports and opposed to progress. There are also some among the engineering scientist who truly do think that human sciences are not “real” science, which was unfortunately displayed in an email chain reaching the whole university staff earlier this year: a staff member from the former University of Technology referred to an event organised by a former University of Tampere employee as “nonsense” to be sent directly into their email junk folder.
The concern for many of the former University of Tampere staff is that human sciences will take a back seat in this new university, because they are not regarded as equally important or as lucrative as the STEM research from the former University of Technology, and that social science will only be something to supplement the “real” research. It is also worth mentioning that before their union, the University of Tampere was the most female-dominated university in Finland, while the Tampere University of Technology was the most male-dominated. Once again, it would be naive to assume that gender has played no role in the configuration of the new university and will not affect how this new scientific community develops. This furthers the concern that the female-dominated and human oriented fields will be trampled by the male-dominated technological ones.
My engineering student friend and I, the social scientist, have been able to have an interesting and productive conversation about these matters, one which has left both of us with a greater understanding of each other and the world of scientific inquiry, because we are friends. We know each other personally, we trust each other and each other’s benevolent intent, and we share a genuine interest in understanding each other and our differing points of view. My concern is that the new Tampere University will not see the benefits of such a discourse, because it will not happen spontaneously among strangers who have no sense of community or shared interests, unless it is deliberately facilitated. Until such an effort is made, it is difficult for me to imagine that Tampere University will reach its potential as the multidisciplinary university of the future it strives to become.
Haraway, D. (1991). Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. In S. Harding (ed.). (2004). The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader. Intellectual & Political Controversies. (p. 81-101). London: Routledge.