Is gender studies a legitimate field of intellectual inquiry?

Update 2018-10-05: Also see the blog post titled, ”The intellectual legitimacy of gender studies: Responding to criticism

Gender studies, an academic field devoted to issues related to gender identity and representation, is currently targeted by social conservatives questioning whether it is a legitimate field of intellectual inquiry. In this text, I elaborate on the conservative argument. I argue that it ignores or obscures some relevant complexities. Taking a different approach to intellectual legitimacy, I argue in support of gender studies as a field of inquiry.

Yesterday, The Telegraph reported that the Hungarian government moves to ban gender studies at universities in the country. The government claims that the reason is that ”employers showed no interest in graduates from the subject,” but critics argue that the ban is part of a campaign to ”attack NGOs or institutions that oppose [Viktor Orban’s party’s] socially conservative narrative.”

Social conservatives have targeted gender studies in my native country as well, arguing that the field is non-scientific or pseudoscientific. I have written about that before (in Swedish). Although the present text is independent from my previous writings on this subject, it further develops the same opinions that I have raised elsewhere.

In this context, conservative critics of gender studies (and closely related fields) claim that it is non-scientific or pseudoscientific, meaning that it is an illegitimate field of intellectual inquiry. Because of its illegitimacy, gender studies should not be part of academia, or be allowed to influence policy, be publicly funded, taught in public schools, and so on. Their argument makes the issue political.

In what follows, I adopt the legitimacy approach and argue that the legitimacy of a field of intellectual inquiry hinges on a set of factors connected to reliability. I conclude that gender studies as a field is generally characterized by those factors—I do not include individual researchers, research projects, research articles, etc., in the analysis—and that it is therefore a legitimate field of intellectual inquiry.

One topic in the philosophy of science is commonly known as ”the demarcation problem.” The demarcation problem is to distinguish between science, non-science, art, and similar. What, exactly, characterizes them?

This is a cornerstone in some of the socially conservative criticism of gender studies. Their argument is that gender studies is ideological, i.e., value-laden and non-empirical. It is non-science or pseudoscience and therefore illegitimate. In my view, they neglect the complexities involved with the demarcation problem.

There are a number of difficulties associated with the demarcation problem. For instance, the English term ”science” translates to ”Wissenschaft” in German, but unlike the latter ”science” excludes academic disciplines such as literature and history. Thus, the philosophical problem to distinguish between science and non-science may not be the same problem in different languages.

Furthermore, some problems that are relevant to human knowledge and understanding are not exclusively empirical. For instance, in fields related to society and the humanities, data must often be interpreted to be intelligible. Interpretation is always value-laden and theory-dependent. That is why, for example, our understanding of Ancient Greece (arguably) improves in spite of the fact that little new evidence is found—new theories and new interpretations of old data produce new and better results. Therefore, the demarcation problem includes intricacies of value-ladenness and intersubjectivity, among other things.

The perhaps best-known proposal on the subject of demarcation is Karl Popper’s. According to Popper, the difference between science and non-science is that scientific propositions can be falsified, at least in principle. For instance, consider this hypothesis:

H: If the air in this balloon is heated, the balloon will eventually explode.

H is falsifiable. It suggests a deliberate intervention (”heat the air”) and an implication (”the balloon will explode”); if the intervention is performed but its implication does not occur, the hypothesis H has been shown false. In Popper’s theory, claims that are not falsifiable accordingly do not belong to the sciences.

However, various theorists have argued that Popper’s so-called falsificationism is problematic. For instance, some claims are falsifiable but nonetheless unscientific—astrology is one such example. Furthermore, many claims in science are too intertwined to be individually falsified. According to the so-called Duhem-Quine thesis, hypotheses are never tested in isolation but in bundles. In intricate cases of hypothesis testing, it cannot be known whether it is the main hypothesis or an auxiliary hypothesis that is false. It appears that falsificationism does not settle the demarcation problem definitely.

For these reasons, the claim is problematic that gender studies is non-scientific and therefore illegitimate; it ignores or obscures the complexities involved with the demarcation problem. Yet, the approach to connect the legitimacy of a field of inquiry to its scientific or non-scientific status deserves further thought.

I suggest that the relevant demarcation in this context should not be between science and non-science. Instead, the demarcation should be between fields that are sufficiently and insufficiently characterized by institutional practices that generally facilitate the furthering of knowledge and understanding. Fields that are insufficiently characterized by such institutional practices are illegitimate, in the sense that they should not be part of academia, influence policy, be publicly funded, taught in public schools, and so on.

To any enterprise aiming to further knowledge and understanding, reliability is key. Thus, my suggested demarcation hinges on institutional practices related to reliability.

For a claim to be reliable, it must be reproducible. For instance, an experiment is reproducible if the same experimental setting fed with the same data renders the same results again. In non-experimental observational studies, the requirement of reproducibility concerns the study protocol rather than its outcome; the design of the study should be independent from the researchers performing it. This goes also for value-laden and interpretative research such as philosophy, history, and literature; the conclusions should be independent from the person claiming them.

Furthermore, for a claim to be reliable it must be criticizable. For instance, if a researcher does not make his or her data available for others to analyze, the research suffers from lack of transparency. It cannot be subjected to critical scrutiny. Similarly, hypotheses are usually not criticizable if they rest on circular reasoning. For instance, consider this claim:

A: The government uses chemicals to keep the population ignorant.

And this claim:

B: You do not believe A because the chemicals are working.

Together, A and B form a circular argument. It is not criticizable, and therefore not reliable.

One institutional practice that furthers reliability is the academic seminar. On seminars (and conferences, workshops, etc.), researchers present their data, analyses, arguments, and conclusions to their peers for critical treatment. It is not a perfect practice. For instance, some are uncomfortable with verbal criticism, which may affect both how research is presented and how it is received. However, a practice must not be perfect; it suffices that it is better to have it than not to have it. Thus, the seminar should be an integral part of any field of intellectual inquiry aiming for reliability.

One other institutional practice that furthers reliability is the anonymous peer-review system for publishing. Before research articles and books are published they are critically scrutinized in double-blind review processes. This process aims to reveal mistakes and flaws related to reproducibility, validity, and criticizability, among other things. The peer-review system is also a far from perfect practice, but as with the academic seminar it is usually better to have it than not to have it. Therefore, it should also be integral to any field of intellectual inquiry.

These are two examples of institutional practices that further reliability, and thereby knowledge and understanding. Other examples include student examinations and PhD programmes with general elements not specific to any particular research topic or field.

Fields of intellectual inquiry that are characterized by such institutional practices that generally facilitate the furthering of knowledge and understanding are legitimate. Fields that are not characterized accordingly are illegitimate. There is a case for not allowing illegitimate fields to be part of academia, influence policy, be publicly funded, taught in public schools, and so on. This—not the science vs. non-science debate—is the relevant demarcation with regard to intellectual legitimacy.

Now, the question is whether gender studies is sufficiently characterized by reliable institutional practices. I have not seen any evidence suggesting that it is not; its experts organize and attend academic seminars, conferences, and workshops, they publish in peer-reviewed journals, and so on. As a field, gender studies furthers knowledge and understanding in one specific area of inquiry.

Therefore, gender studies is intellectually legitimate. It should be allowed in academia on the same grounds as other fields of inquiry. Experts in and conclusions from gender studies should influence policy. And, provided that research should be publicly funded and the best of human knowledge and understanding should be taught in public schools, gender studies should not be excluded.

To conclude, the socially conservative argument that gender studies is an illegitimate field of intellectual inquiry ignores and obscures some of the complexities involved with the demarcation problem. Taking another approach to intellectual legitimacy, I have argued that intellectual fields are legitimate to the extent that they are characterized by reliable institutional practices. Gender studies is legitimate in this sense, and should be treated as such.

Finally, if gender studies (or any other field) should fail to be legitimate in this sense, it may be worthwhile to improve its institutional practices rather than to cancel it altogether. This yet very young baby should probably not be thrown out with the bathwater.