Return of Sandra Harding

Ah-a. Sandra Harding has a new book – and it does look like a corker. Happily, people are taking note, and adding it to their science studies course outlines as required reading. Splendid.

The idea of this science as value- or culture-free is pulled apart by postcolonialist analyses of the culturally distinctive ways that Western science has developed…Harding problematizes the claim to universality that Western science rests upon…This evaluation is not only presented in terms of how we might transform the scientific traditions of the “Global North”, but also how we might transform the way we study science to be more critical, reflexive, and politically-engaged.

Great. Study of science that is more politically engaged. Great idea. Of course, the Bush admin has been doing that for more than six years now, but more encouragement is always welcome. And of course the first step is to problematize the claim to universality that Western science rests upon – because of course it’s not universal at all, it’s purely local, and researchers in Manila and Mumbai and Lima are bound to find different, local results if they’re doing the work properly.

The first section of this book also reviews the antiracist and feminist argument that modern Western science exacerbates social inequalities through discriminatory projects, philosophies, technologies, and social structure. One of the most intriguing chapters of this section is devoted to an analysis of the discriminatory epistemologies and philosophies of science (chapter 5); here Harding reaffirms her commitment to standpoint theory in light of recent and innovative work on its application to science studies.

Ever read Harding on standpoint epistemology? It’s impressive stuff, I can tell you. Women have a different epistemology because they have different lives. See?

(No, that’s not unfair. She really is that crude.)

Perhaps the most valuable contribution that this volume makes can be found in its second section, comprised of three chapters on the topic of Truth, Relativism, and Science’s Political Unconsciousness. In these final essays Harding pulls together…proposed means of securing a future “world of sciences” with the possibility for advancing social justice…Harding lays out the “central foci of a still emerging network of postpositivist philosophies of science” in a way that allows for an interlocking plurality of sciences to exist that are best suited to particular local resources, goals, environments, and cultures for producing effective and socially-just outcomes…Here she brilliantly analyzes how both the anti-democratic and (supposedly) pro-democratic ideals of Western science are deeply problematic, preventing this model, which “speaks in a monologue”, from being suitable as a universal system.

Right. It speaks in a monologue, so it’s undemocratic, so it’s not ‘suitable as a universal system.’ It’s inappropriate. It’s impolite. It speaks in a monologue in the sense of saying some findings are not supported by evidence and so probably wrong. Well obviously that’s neither democratic nor kind – didn’t we all learn not to talk that way in kindergarten? I think so. So that’s that for that kind of science then; on with the new kind.

Instructors in particular will appreciate this new resource of not only a comprehensive overview of arguments in both past and present critical science studies, but also an “updated” and clarified understanding of one of the most important and influential writers in this area, who clearly has continued to push forward with innovative engagement.

One of the most important and influential, alas – that’s why she made an extended guest appearance in Why Truth Matters: because she is indeed, however incredible it may seem, influential.

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