Center for Science and Society Brown Bag Lunch
6 November 2002

Michael Tratner
Department of English

Cultural Studies Methods

Overarching question: How do we figure out what an object or a practice means to a cultural group, or what it does for a group? .

Methods of Answering this Question can be divided into two categories:

I. Interpretation

Try to read the object or practice as an "expression" of a cultural group: in other words, treat it as a literary work written by a cultural group, and interpret it using literary critical theories of structures of expression.


IA. How is the object/practice structured like a narrative? Or, what narratives repeatedly surround the object/practice? Clifford Geertz says almost all social activities are ways people repeatedly tell themselves stories about themselves.

IB. How is the object/practice structured like a performance or drama? What evidence is there of acting, of learning roles, of wearing masks, of playing to an audience? Judith Butler says gender is entirely constructed as a set of performances

IC. How is the object/practice structured like a language? Is there a structure of symbolic terms which itself generates "meaning" regardless of what is being symbolized? Are there terms used which have metaphoric meaning that could operate even if not "intended"? Claude Levi-Strauss: What are the binary oppositions that structure the thinking surrounding the object? Gayatri Spivack and Jacques Derrida: How does the discourse surrounding the object invoke binaries that form hierarchies and then how does it simultaneously invert those hierarchies?

ID. How is the object/practice structured like an ideology? This may not sound literary, but Louis Althusser defines ideology as the "representation of imaginary relationships of individuals to their real existence", so once again we have a basic feature of a literary work--a representation of imaginary human relationships (something like a novel)--to analyze. We can then restate the question: How does using the object or participating in the practice involve representations of imaginary relationships between "you" and the real world?



II. Critique

Treat the object/practice as a political agent and consider how it contributes to or counters structures of power.

IIA. How does the object/practice function to support or counter the power relationships internal to the group that uses it?

IIB. How does the object/practice function to support or counter the power relations external to the group that uses it--say, in the entire society, the entire world, or just anywhere outside that group?

Putting Interpretation and Critique Together:

Often, one can see structures of power around an object or practice but that does not establish that the object/practice is a source of those structures. So critique is often supported by interpretation, leading to this complex question: can we show that structures of power are supported by the narratives, performanances, linguistic structures and representations of imaginary relationships which involve the object or practice? And, most important, how can we modify the object or practice to alter structures of power?

Can we apply these methods to the Culture of Science?


IA. What narratives are repeatedly told by scientists to themselves as they "do science"?

IB. What kinds of roles do scientists learn to perform? What audiences do they play to?

IC. What binary oppositions structure science? How are these oppositions rendered unstable within the practice of science? What terms have metaphoric weight beyond their scientific meaning?

ID. What representations of imaginary relationships between scientists and their "real existence" are created in doing science? The "real existence" of scientists might be defined various ways by various ideological analysts--e.g., as their positions in the economic system (classic Marxism) or as their positions in race, gender or even disciplinary groupings.


IIA. What structures of power are internal to science? Who or what determines which kinds of scientists get power over other scientists?

IIB. What structures of power in the world are supported by science? What groups gain power from the use of science?

Putting critique and interpretation together:

How do the narratives, performances, binary oppositions, metaphors and representations of imaginary relationships used in science support various structures of power?

Example: What cultural practices of science (narratives, metaphors, etc.) contribute to male scientists having more power than female? How could we modify the cultural practices of science to empower women?

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