Research focus and transdisciplinary perspectives

What are the relationships between the production of technologies and the (re)production of gender?

This graduate program investigates how machine-human configurations arise, and how these support inequality, injustice and (dis)empowerment, and how an alternative might be created. Gender, as an analytical category, is placed at the centre of this approach, because it clearly highlights how Difference is created. Besides the interdisciplinary approach, the novelty of our program consists in the proposal to engage in this research by focusing on concrete case studies, designed and pursued in an interdisciplinary dialogue, thus linking research and development with a reflection on this process in the context of humanities and social sciences.

The need for this kind of interdisciplinary reflection results from the complexity of human- machine-configurations. By machines we understand artefacts of all kinds, which undertake specific activities in a goal-oriented way, executing or modifying them (e.g. mechanical work, calculations or the transformation of signs). Machines, understood in this sense, create and mark differences. The interaction with technical artefacts may support certain categories of persons, but exclude or even directly damage others.  In our highly technologised, globalised world, machines open up new possibilities for mobility and communications, releasing us from mundane tasks, allowing us to share information or overcome physical disabilities. Gender, age, (dis)ability, are often the fault lines along which inequalities are established or maintained. Within the field of Gender Studies, a number of case studies has analysed this phenomenon (cfr. Wajcman 2004, Schiebinger et al. 2011., Sorensen et al. 2012, Ernst/Horvath 2014). Similarly, technical products  influence the way we think, act and feel, our ways, that is, of being constructed as subjects. Machines, then, ought not to be thought of as modified by humans, but instead as an essential part of the human re-configuration (Suchman). The same applies more generally to technical artefacts in research and development.

Structure and Organisation - Working modes

Our methodologies were informed by the humanities, social and media sciences, involving disciplines on both sides of the rift between those and natural/technical sciences. We will try to understand the interweaving of “doing gender” and “doing technology”, of mechanisms of in- and exclusion in human-machine configurations.

The graduates and their supervisors will work crossing the borders between the disciplines outlined above as well as natural, technical and engineering sciences, so that they will gain direct experience with other fields. The common denominator will be the critical reflection on gender, both in the research on science and technology and in the technical sciences themselves. The method is interdisciplinary in the sense that, on the one hand, the graduates will apply the research methods of their own discipline. On the other hand, we will ask our graduate students to undertake an effort to translate and communicate the essence of their familiar methods into the language of the “other” disciplinary practices. This is how we envision “great interdisciplinarity”.

Interdisciplinary work demands intensive communication and translation efforts. In order to focus the productive collaboration of 15 individual projects belonging to different disciplines,four different fields of research on human-machine configurations have been defined so that there is extensive exchange between the subjects and disciplines. The  fields of research will serve as working platforms with the aim of bringing together case studies and attempts at systematisation. In every one of the four fields, skills in gender studies will be represented, and this composition will build a bridge between the disciplines. Whenever feasible, we will assign to each project a specific associated partner (tandem) project from a discipline beyond the “gap”. In their interdisciplinary work, the graduates will profoundly experience how the scientific/technological culture of the other disciplines functions. The graduates will learn how to communicate as a matter of course with representatives of their disciplines in later professional life.

Details can be found in the single project outlines proposed by the principal investigators of the college.

further information

Both an over- and an under-emphasis within research and development (R&D) on gender differences may introduce gender inequalities (e.g. exaggerated use of hormone replacement therapy or the neglect of specific features of female coronary heart diseases, cfr. Verner 2008).

The intertwining of “doing gender” (Hagemann-White 1988, Gildemeister/Wetterer 1992) and “doing technology” create specific patterns for different fields of research and development, but they also share common features. Both for the field of mobility technology (Janssen 2011) and of information systems (Berg 1999), it has been argued that the needs of specific groups of users are not always adequately considered, causing the development of new products, infrastructures or designs to exclude certain groups of people. Exclusions may occur on a symbolic level; which potential user does the product's design address? Which technical capabilities are users assumed to have? Who is targeted by advertisements? From a financial perspective, groups can be excluded by the price or availability of the product. Gender-based stereotypes (e.g. the choice of the colour pink for machines or cars geared towards women) often prevent the development of a product design based on actual needs (cfr. e.g. Teasly 1994). “Doing gender” is always “doing difference”, and it creates a bias that extends to other features besides gender, such as disability or race. “Doing difference” is mediated by the creation and use of technical artefacts, and hence by “doing technology”.

In order to understand how inclusions and exclusions are created and how they can be avoided, this graduate college will carry out further case studies and follow a systematic reflective approach. Together with our graduates, we intend to combine an account of these processes with the experience of cooperation across the rift between technical disciplines, on the one hand, and humanities and social sciences on the other. Up to the present day, Gender Studies and, more specifically, studies of the role of gender in the process of technical development, have concentrated on a small number of fields, like life sciences (Karafyllis 2003, 2008), technologies of information and communication (Bath 2009, Paulitz 2005), and, more recently, in nanotechnology (Lucht et al. 2010) and technologies of sustainability (Çaglar et al. 2013). In contrast, “classical” machines (like the ones developed in mechanical engineering or in communications engineering) have not been studied thoroughly by Gender Studies (except for the valuable study on the habitus of engineers by Paulitz, 2012).

In this endeavour we use the toolkit of Science and Technology Studies (STS). STS explore the complex interactions of technology, science and society in a philosophical, historical and sociological perspective (Oudshoorn/Pinch 2003, Hacket et all. 2008, Beck et al 2012). They overcome simplified explanatory models of technological development, like technological determinism, the belief that technologies define social processes (cfr. MacKenzie/Wajcman 1999). This hypothesis of technical determinism has instead been replaced by models of mutual and simultaneous coproduction of technology and society (Singer 1998, Jasanoff 2004). We hope that the large number of empirical case studies planned for this graduate college will provide us with tools to understand how difference manifests in specific technical products and how, through these products, inequalities are further perpetuated (Wacjman 1994, Degele 2002).

Specific theories belonging to STS have focused on different ways on the configuration of humans, machines and gender. Prominent among these are a number of variants of actor-network-theory (ANT), most of which agree upon the assumption that, not only humans, but also objects, like machines or technical artefacts, have agency; and in that respect they may be treated analytically in equivalent ways (Callon 1986, Latour 1998, 2007, Law/Hassard 1999). For empirical studies this approach is fruitful, but it is often applied in a gender-blind way. Other accounts in STS are based on philosophical or historical methods, or are guided by technology impact assessment, still without explicitly addressing the subject of gender (Hubig et al. 2013, Hacking 2000, Schot/Rip 1997). Our graduate program will address this research gap by systematically integrating gender in these approaches.

It is high time for a systematic overview of the production of categories within the technical disciplines, on the one hand, and STS (science and technology studies) on the other, taking the perspective of gender as the main point of departure. In the technical disciplines themselves, there are differentiations that have not been sufficiently analysed by neither STS nor Gender Studies of Technology, on topics like automating, machine-based work support, or the delegation of more personal assistance from humans to machines (cfr. Bath 2009). In this respect, this program aims at initializing a systematic, shared space of reflection.

Our program will adopt a number of core ideas of from the DFG graduate college “Gender as a category of knowledge” (Berlin 2007-2013), and it is also inspired by the idea of “great interdisciplinarity” (Große Interdisziplinarität), developed by the DFG graduate college “Topologien der Technik” (Darmstadt). Our focus is less on the understanding of technology as “material dispositif” (as in Darmstadt). Instead, we will focus on gendered human-machine and human-human relations as materialised within, and represented by, the concept of the machine as technical artefact, its elements and its interrelations. Most projects will arise from the main research fields of Braunschweig University of Technology, the Ostfalia University of Applied Sciences, and the Braunschweig University of Arts.

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