Erlemann Martina | Hunting for female galaxies and giving birth to satellites: ...

Hunting for female galaxies and giving birth to satellites: The gendering of scientific knowledge in public discourse on physics


In gender studies for the natural sciences numerous studies focus on the gendering of knowledge of the biological sciences. This focus may not be surprising because the biological sciences produce knowledge on gender, e.g. in biological reproduction theories. In contrast to the rich body of research on the gendering of bioscientific knowledge, there are only few accounts so far that deal with the gendering of the material sciences such as physics. One reason may be that gender is no explicit part of the contents and theories of the material sciences. But these disciplines are nevertheless gendered concerning the knowledge producing practices and epistemic premises, as some of the few studies that investigate the field of material sciences have shown (e.g. Traweek, Scheich). In the result it had been demonstrated that doing physics can be described as doing gender, i.e. that doing physics is widely constructed as a masculine activity and make it possible for physicists to perform – to speak with Robert Connell – the “man of reason”. This sort of masculinity is grounded in an ideology of rationality which is mirrored in the epistemic assumptions that physics is – allegedly – gaining universal, objective and value-neutral knowledge.
In this paper I want to argue that the gendering of scientific knowledge is not only an affair of the gendering processes in scientific research practises itself but has interrelations with other public spaces beyond the scientific realm. This is because sciences cannot be seen as a hermetically closed space that would be separated from other social spaces. On the contrary, numerous STS studies point out that sciences themselves are deeply entangled with society, politics and publics. Thus the gendering of sciences is influenced by and has repercussions on public representations of sciences. There are mutual interrelations between the gendering processes of scientific knowledge within scientific communities and the gendering of its public representations. These representations can be find in numerous contexts, in media, museums and educational contexts, like school or university. In the concrete case of physics one can find gendered representations of physical knowledge such as physical theories and research results, as well as representations of experimental devices and of physical research practises.
In this paper I will illustrate the gendering of physics in media representations of physical research objects, physical knowledge and experimental devices. Furthermore I will ask for the consequences that this gendering implies for our understanding of the social value that these knowledge making practises of producing allegedly value-neutral and objective knowledge are ascribed to. The empirical material on which my argumentation is based comes stems from a discourse analysis of german print media and their coverage of the physical sciences.