Written By: Noya Kansky, CSU STEM VISTA 2014-16 Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority and Underrepresented Participation in STEM
My first formal encounter with research was completing my senior thesis during my final year of undergrad. This resulted in a 60-page paperweight I titled “Feminist Nationalism in Palestine: An Exploration Engaging Transnational Feminist Practices.” Upon completion, my understanding of my product was very superficial. I simply thought I had researched and re-wrote the narrative of the Palestinian Resistance movement from an alternative historical framework. I sought to provide a narrative that deviated from the overtly pro-Israeli narratives present in the U.S. government, popular media, and so forth. That’s it.
But, in a very obvious way, I was also telling the story of myself – the researcher. Take the title of my paper, for example. Every single word in my title is coded to reveal my un-objective biases. That realization began my critical journey in my identity as a researcher. It became an avenue for how I continued my education about my own privileges, combated ways in which I was oppressed, and learned to “make peace” with the messy, nebulous world of knowledge. As one who consistently strives to be a feminist, anti-racist, pro-Palestinian young scholar, it was important to me to convey the nature of my work, and it was empowering.
And literally, a researcher does in fact have a great deal of power. In her book Feminist Methodologies for Critical Researchers, Joey Sprague writes:
“Feminists identify three ways in which researchers have power. First, the researcher has more control than the researched over the process of research and how their relationship is constructed in it.Second, the researcher has power over how the findings are interpreted and represented to others. Finally, researchers often have more social power than those whom they study, because of their relatively privileged positions in social structures of inequality such as those organizing gender, race, class, and nation.”
As part of my VISTA project, I am researching the impacts of undergraduate research experiences for traditionally marginalized students in the STEM fields, and the best methods for making these research experiences more accessible. Historically, there has been a deficit of STEM researchers from diverse backgrounds. Popular literature points to the overrepresentation of white, middle-class male STEM researchers. Thus, their very privileged perspective has influenced what society accepts as uncontestable scientific fact.
For example, take the topic of medical research. In the 19th Century, Western physicians and medical doctors created definitive categories that reflected the experiences of those who had access to education and a strong path to medical practice. Namely, middle class European and American males. These binary categories that they established were irrespective of human diversity – man/woman, white/non-white, civilized/primitive. These categories were adopted into the research methodologies of these privileged researchers, and didn’t account for the variety within each category (example: “woman” vs. woman of color, woman of from a high socioeconomic status, woman who is a mother, etc.)
Although this is the 21st century, the legacy of these binary, hierarchical categories still exists in biomedical research. We hear stories every day of folks with a lower socioeconomic status who lack access to groundbreaking and lifesaving medicine. Although modern medicine has “progressed” in the traditional sense, researchers have neglected to explore methods to make modern medicine accessible to people from diverse backgrounds.
Involvement in research for traditionally marginalized students is important for development as a scientist or engineer or expert in whatever field they pursue.
Undergraduate research has also proven to be a fantastic mechanism for socializing URM students into the world of science. But, in a larger sense, my research also seeks to reconsider what it means to be a researcher, and how a diverse body of STEM researchers can contribute to scientific objectivity and how we view scientific fact. A great deal of these discussions happen in the field of science and technology studies. In her book Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan_Meets_OncoMouse science and technology studies scholar Donna Haraway discusses the optical concept of diffraction. This visual phenomenon occurs when light changes direction. Haraway uses diffraction as a metaphor for queering those rigid boundaries that have been promulgated by the majority of STEM researchers. She writes that “diffraction can be a metaphor for another kind of critical consciousness… one committed to making a difference and not to repeating the Sacred Image of Same… diffraction is a narrative, graphic, psychological, spiritual and political technology for making consequential meanings.” (Haraway, 1997, p.g 273)
My hopes for the students I work with are to reside in this unique position of power (which Sprague refers to), but to also use diffracting tools in challenging the science that has already been done. I would like to see them involved in the beautiful, volatile, provocative, creative process behind a narrative – the process we call research. My hope is for them to ask the questions: “Who was the researcher?”; “Where did they come from?”; “What are my specific ways of seeing that is going to bring a new lens of objectivity to my field?”; “What does scientific and technological progress mean, if it’s not available to folks from diverse backgrounds?” In short, to question what has been accepted as scientific fact and explore pathways that will diversify our knowledge.
The world often assumes that the narratives research produces are objective – free of bias or power. But a narrative is a story with many facets and plot lines, influenced by different characters. Our students should be involved in this story not only about data, but a story about themselves (as researchers) and scholarship.
Haraway, D. (1997). Modest−Witness@Second−Millennium.FemaleMan−Meets−OncoMouse. New York, NY: Routledge.
Haraway, D. (1988). Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies, 14(3), 575-599.
Sprague, J. (2005). Feminist Methodologies for Critical Researchers: Bridging Differences. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.