Underrepresentation, ignorance, and social membership.

The two components of this event’s title—underrepresentation and ignorance—are not self-evidently linked. Using feminist science studies and the sociology of knowledge, I argue that the link joining the two is a social one. Because underrepresentation involves absence of a place within a collective, and because knowledge is a collective accomplishment, ‘to know’ and ‘to belong’ are different facets of one phenomenon: membership in the social collective.

Feminist science studies has examined underrepresentation extensively. Primarily, this has consisted of documenting and analysing the historical and ongoing exclusion of women from scientific vocations. First banned entirely, then grudgingly granted places in these fields, women continue to represent a small population in science. Feminist science studies has similarly studied the relationship between gender and ignorance. Women’s early exclusion from science was in part due to presumed intellectual inability—unlike men, women were unable to practice reason or comprehend sophisticated ideas. Again, such presuppositions—unsupported notions that women are relatively ignorant—continue to affect women, whose scientific, technological and mathematical skills are questioned from the earliest days of school.

The sociology of knowledge has also studied ignorance. It conceptualises knowledge as a social institution—a collective good—and knowing as a social standing attributed to the individual by the collective. Thus ignorance—absence of knowing—can be conceptualised as a person’s lack of social status. Being knowledgeable demands membership in the group, a standing constantly under supervision. Moreover, because all social statuses are moulded by groups’ political particularities, knowing is political.

Using ideas from feminist science studies and the sociology of knowledge, I demonstrate that underrepresentation and ignorance are bound together by membership in the social collective. Women are presumed to be inappropriate members of scientific groups, and when allowed partnership, the membership granted is of lower standing. Being knowledgeable is a status given to those situated within epistemic collectives. ‘Having’ knowledge is synonymous with falling under a social order—an order that is fundamentally political. Without membership in the collective, groups of people will be both underrepresented and ignorant. Thus the key issue is: who is gets to be a ‘knower’ and why?


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