Talking to foucault: examining marginalization and exclusion in academic science.

Author:McClam, Sherie

Although we usually think about writing as a mode of "telling" about the social world, writing is not just a moping-up activity at the end of a research project. Writing is also a way of "knowing"--a method of discovery and analysis. By writing in different ways, we discover new aspects of our topic and our relationship to it. Form and content are inseparable.

--Laurel Richardson

In this article, I invite you to join me as I follow Laurel Richardson's advice to use writing as a method of inquiry. (1) To do so, I engage in a fictional conversation with Michel Foucault--later joined by actor-network theorist Michel Callon--in which I talk through and construct understanding(s) of and from my research on the under-representation and marginalization of women in academic science. I have chosen to talk through possible meanings with Foucault and Callon not only because of the applicability of their theorizing, but also because their work has inspired me to resist normative discourses in social research. By writing through meaning(s) in conversation--albeit fictitious--in this way and inviting you to join me, I hope we will both, indeed, discover new aspects of this topic and our relationship to it. (2)

Before we begin however, let me share a few important details about this research. It is a narrative ethnography (3) in which I have spent nearly 50 hours in conversations with five male and female doctoral candidates and junior faculty members in natural science departments. Amanda, Aaron, Sylvia, Peter and Greta each shared up to 10 hours talking with me in their offices, coffee shops and local restaurants about the ways in which they understand and develop some sense of 'fit' or belonging within academic science. Amanda, Aaron and Sylvia are all doctoral candidates in chemistry, microbiology and ecology while Peter and Greta are assistant professors in chemistry and earth science departments.

In the writing and the reading of the text that follows, I hope to create opportunities in which multiple understandings of and new possibilities for disrupting marginalization and exclusion can emerge from the intersections of our experiences of the world and our interpretations of the words.

Co-Constructing Understanding(s)

With the assistance of some imaginative time travel the year is 1983 and I am sitting in the office of Michel Foucault. My lap is filled with folders containing the stories, conversations, vignettes and diagrams that came from initial analyses of 2500 pages of transcribed conversations with my co-participants. My backpack is filled with books written by and about Dr. Foucault, as well as pages and pages of notes taken from these texts for easy reference. Just moments before, a delightful young graduate student escorted me into this voluminous office, offered me a seat at a round table that appears to be a place for taking meetings, and assured me that Dr. Foucault would arrive shortly. Nervously, I organize my folders, notes, and books on the table in front of me. While I am looking forward to talking about the findings and implications of my research with one of the people who inspired it, I just hope that I can keep from being immobilized by the process of down shifting into my lizard brain the minute he walks in the door.

Sitting at his table, looking around at his shelves filled with books written by famous philosophers and social scientists like Kant, Chomsky, Weber, and Nietzsche, I begin to tremble with the fear of having nothing meaningful to say. I've spent nineteen months completely absorbed by this project and all of the sudden I'm terrorized by the notion of wrapping it up and putting it in the hands of readers. As that fear begins to take hold in the pit of my stomach, I feel compelled to grab my things and leave. Before I can get my body to move, however, Michel Foucault walks in the door. With that, a new form of paralysis kicks in. Reminding myself to breath slowly and consciously, I take in all of his characteristic features. When I see his familiar bald head and scholarly glasses, I am reminded of the cover of my Foucault Reader. (4) I can't help but reflect on all of the books on which I have seen the face that stands before me now. Mercifully, there is something in the kindness of his greeting and the warmth of his expression that releases me from my fearful paralysis.

I feel myself relaxing even more when he smiles and welcomes me. "Sherie, how good of you to come. I understand you have risked traveling across considerable distance as well as time."

"Indeed I have," I offer.

Sitting in a chair to my right, Michel gestures for me to take my seat.

"Welcome to Paris!" he says with pride. "Now ... Let's talk about your research."

"I'm happy to be here," I reply. "But I'm not exactly sure where to begin. I have been so close to my data for so long; I fear that I may have lost some perspective."

"As we are all inclined to do," he assures me. "Why don't you start by reminding me of the problem that motivated you to spend nineteen months of your life designing, conducting, and writing about this research project."

"The problem is pretty simple," I respond. "Like many others, I am troubled by the under-representation and marginalization of women and people of color in academic science departments. Science in these departments appears to be an especially exclusive club."

"Ah ... " he replies with a look of intensity. "If I were a polemicist, I might be brazen enough to ask you why this under-representation and marginalization is so troubling?"

"Because," I explain, "I think it is bad for science and it is bad for those populations who are under-represented and marginalized. I think it is bad for science because without diversity of representation, there is bound to be homogeneity of ideas and perspectives. My understanding of feminist critiques of science tells me that because so few women are participating, science remains androcentric. (5) So independent of whether you take essentialist or social constructionist views of differences between men and women, I think you would agree that if science is homogeneously white males and relatively impenetrable to other points of view, the richness, creativity, and some would argue even the objectivity of the thoughts and ideas produced will suffer. (6) Countless feminists, multiculturalists, critical theorists, and poststructuralists have written persuasively about ways in which people and ultimately science suffers from its homogeneity." (7)

"Yes," he confirms. "I'm familiar with this literature."

I continue, "Similar to the critique that feminists have offered of science as an androcentric endeavor, multiculturalists level a similar critique of the Eurocentric or Western nature of science. I believe the same argument can be made for the limitations science suffers in the hands of its ethnic and cultural homogeneity. Thousands of pages have been written on both sides of these criticisms. While I think this larger conversation is important to consider when framing the motivation behind my research, it has never been my intention to contribute to the specifics of this debate."

Dr. Foucault nods his head. "I understand that this discussion is beyond the scope of your research Sherie, but you have helped me understand how you are positioned in that conversation and how it has motivated the research you are doing. Before we move on to the specifics of your project, I am most curious about why you think under-representation in science is bad for women and people of color? Perhaps they are making thoughtful choices about whether or not they want to participate in academic science. You would agree, wouldn't you, that it is not for everyone?"

"True," I answer. "I would agree that many thoughtful, well informed people have examined the workings of academic science and made conscious decisions not to participate. While that may be true, if we find that the preponderance of people making that choice fit into particular categories like female and non-white, it seems to me that through conscious decision making or not, there is a degree of systematic exclusion going on. In the end, they are removed from the economic, intellectual, and influential benefits the life of an academic scientist can bring. I also worry a lot about the decisions that we consider to be conscious decisions. For example, it is true that one of my participants, Amanda, has consciously decided not to participate in academic science, but I am concerned that she is making that decision because she fears that she is incapable of doing science in the academy. Or, perhaps more subtly, I worry that she is choosing not to join the academy because she feels like she doesn't belong or 'fit'. It seems as though she has consciously concluded that the way that she thinks about and does science doesn't fit with her well-informed, perception of what science is and how it is done in the academy. If this is the case, I worry that Amanda is experiencing science as hegemonic."

I look to see if Dr. Foucault is following me and I am relieved to see a nodding head and a knowing expression on his face. His only response however is, "Hmm," which encourages me to go on.

"Now," I continue, "it may also be possible that Amanda has looked at the life and practices of academic scientists and has concluded that she wants no part of it. It is possible that she has come to that conscious conclusion without any damage to her self or, in other words, without suffering from science as hegemony. However, after spending nearly twelve hours talking with her about this subject, I couldn't tell you whether or not this is the case. I think it is possible that Amanda's interactions with academic science may very well be producing negative or damaging effects in terms of hegemony. If so, I think this is bad for Amanda. And I also think it is possible that losing Amanda's contributions could very well be bad for...

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