About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A better way to do “studies,” perhaps

Lehman College
by Massimo Pigliucci

This semester I’ve been running a graduate level seminar at the City University of New York, on the difference between philosophy of science and science studies. The latter is a broad and somewhat vaguely defined term that includes (certain kinds of) sociology of science, postmodern criticism of science, and feminist epistemology. It’s the stuff of the (in)famous science wars of the 1990s (think Sokal affair, or perhaps this most recent disgraceful episode).

I told my students upfront that my sympathies tend to be with analytic philosophy of science, as opposed to continental-inspired science studies. But also that I realize that there must be some fire behind that much science studies smoke, and that I am certainly aware that there is a significant bit of exaggeration and silliness going on in philosophy of science circles as well (like in pretty much any academic, no, make that human, activity). So the point of the seminar was to look at the primary literature and sift out the good kernels from the background mud (and mud slinging).

But this post isn’t about that, specifically. Rather, it is more broadly about the academic phenomenon of “X Studies,” where X is an increasing number of things, which includes but is by no means limited to: gender, women, African-American, Asian, Italian-American, Latino, Puerto Rican, disability, obesity, and so on; and, of course, science. Before proceeding, let me make clear that I am not about to pass judgment on the academic quality of these programs, neither in terms of the scholarship of the faculty involved nor in terms of the courses being taught. I simply have neither the expertise nor the experience necessary to do so. And of course my (qualified) skepticism of science studies in particular (where I do have both the scholarly expertise and the teaching practice) cannot be generalized to other fields of the Studies family.

Rather, what I am wondering is whether particular implementations of the Studies model are the best way to achieve the stated goals of these programs. The basic idea behind Studies is to provide room in the academy for scholarship and teaching that represents and caters to traditionally underrepresented and under-catered to groups: ethnic minorities, women, people with disabilities, etc. Now, there are at least two ways of setting up these programs to pursue said goals. One way is to create separate administrative units — usually departments — on a par with traditional departments like Anthropology, English, History, Philosophy, and the like. A second way is to house the programs in a classic department, the choice of which depends on the specific type of Studies one is considering (e.g., if the focus is primarily on comparative literature, English may be the most appropriate house, if we are talking cultural history then a History department, epistemology in a Philosophy department, and so on). The CUNY campus where I teach has actually adopted both models, depending — I assume — on the history and relative impact of each individual Studies program (you can see the complete list here).

There are advantages and disadvantages in both cases. One clear advantage of setting up independent administrative unit is that the Studies are inherently interdisciplinary animals, and as such will always be somewhat constrained within the confines of one of the classic departments. Then again, higher level administrators at most American campuses talk the good talk when it comes to interdisciplinarity, but rarely walk the corresponding walk. As a result, independent mini-departments may end up being significantly under-resourced in terms of faculty, administrative assistance, and so on.

But in my mind there is a more compelling reason to house Studies programs within traditional departments, while at the same time treating them as true interdisciplinary units: diversity. Bear with me for a moment, because this is going to sound somewhat ironic. Remember, a pivotal idea behind these programs is to allow the exploration, both in terms of scholarship and of teaching, of areas that are not well served by traditional academia, because they pertain to historically undervalued minorities. But the reality of a number of Studies programs is that they end up creating a circle of like minded faculty teaching to like minded students. I don’t have quantitative nationwide data (anyone out there? Let’s do some decent crowd sourcing, shall we?) but I have been in a number of universities and have met a number of students and colleagues in these programs. It is relatively rare for, say, women studies not to be taught almost exclusively by women to women; or for Italian-American studies not to be taught by Italian and Italian-American faculty to Italian-American students; and so on. Yes, there are exceptions, but that’s what they are, exceptions. So the likely result is precisely the opposite to the one sought: instead of bringing more diversity of opinions and more interdisciplinarity to campus, one may end up creating a number of isolated islands that inevitably begin to be looked at with suspicion by other faculty and students.

The way out of this, I think, is to take the second route mentioned above and install Studies programs, qua interdisciplinary programs, within broader classic departments. That way the faculty teaching in Studies programs will be in contact with faculty with a broader swath of interests (collectively), and will likely also have to teach more general courses than just those focused on the Studies approach. Which in turn would have the additional benefit of allowing Studies-focused faculty to attract a broader sample of students (those taking introductory courses in, say, history, or philosophy) to their area of interest. Likewise, students taking Studies courses as part of their major or minor will also have to take a broader range of courses as specified by the particular department’s learning objectives and degree requirements. Everybody wins, so to speak. Moreover, integrating Studies programs in this manner will help them transition from a small niche, low budget exercise in need of protection into a welcome and even necessary addition to liberal arts education.


  1. I'm curious - are these xxx studies something American? I couldn't find 'women studies' in the dictionary, and I always thought philosophy of science and science studies were the same thing. (Where does Popper's falsification criterion belong?)

    1. Good question. This may indeed be an American phenomenon. Anyone else from outside the US?

    2. I don't think that it is a -purely- American phenomenon. "Media Studies" is a common whipping boy in the UK, so there must be at least -some- actual programs. Additionally, a quick glance at the programs at the University of Amsterdam indicates degree programs in "European Studies", "Media and Culture", and "Future Planet Studies".

      There is another reason to situate 'studies' courses within traditional departments: to do otherwise is to shortchange students, because one cannot truly engage in 'interdisciplinary' study unless one has already mastered at least one of the disciplines involved.

    3. Well, Europe is hardly a minority, so not sure 'European Studies' fit the mold, nor do the other examples. ;-)

      My guess would be that they do exist in (continental) Europe, but since they are part of the traditional departments I just never noticed them as something separate. Also, IMO language matters a lot here - in German, the word 'Wissenschaften' has a much broader meaning than the corresponding term(s) in English. It translates to 'science', but it actually means scientia, and it also covers the term 'studies'.

      Leaving aside the terminology, I very much agree with the OP here. True interdisciplinarity can only be achieved if you understand all of the subjects in involved - like in your own case for Biology and Philosophy. You can cut back on the detail studies in the name of effiency only to a certain degree, and setting up the studies as a separate entity practically guarantee that that line will be crossed sooner or later. (This is politics, after all.) Anchoring it in a traditional department at least gives the topic a fighting chance.


      (P.S. At the risk of sounding chauvinistic, I can't imagine why anybody would even WANT to study 'women studies' as a separate discipline. Fortunately, my wife can't either ;-) )

    4. I think the issue is one of 'area' studies, rather than anything to do with any supposed "minority". A common (and not new) area in the US is "American Studies", and 'American' would not normally be considered 'minority' in the US.

  2. First, NOBODY says "women studies" but "gender studies" here in our enlightened Europe. It seems to be one of their most important and widespread ideas ever...

    Here in Finland there is actually right now a sort of academic gender war, as one department in Swedish-speaking minority university is losing its public resources. Gender studies are, still, doing very fine and intervening in much everywhere...

    Many of these studies are much interconnected. Eg. gender and
    immigration use same post-theories, shared methodologies, similar dislike of 'hard' social sciences etc. What about putting them all into a same department... They share their normatively determined Manichean results often as well!

  3. My background is in the visual arts and have had no formal instruction in philosophy but patron saints like Derrida and Foulcault came up too often in my undergraduate and graduate programs. Because of this I have to agree with you in the need for a restructuring.

    What I have noticed in the arts is the type of isolation that you described in academia. Here's a straw man of what I see. If you are a woman; create, write, comment about women's issues and the evils of privileged white males. If you are hispanic; create, write, comment about latino issues and the evils of privileged white males and their colonizing ways. Now follow this type of segregation down the line to each group that would have their own studies section. Then I realized that the only people that are allowed to explored interesting subjects in art, such as the sciences, are the privileged heterosexual white males. Everyone else stick to your kind.

    Post Mod has had too much influence and from what I see achieved the opposite than it's goal of pluralization, But then again I may just be too bitter and over exposed to it. Can anyone recommend good literature responding to post-modernism that does not dismiss it of hand but takes it to task on its fallacies and short comings.

    1. I think it is difficult to find works that deal with postmodern ideas evenhandedly because there is so much harsh criticism on the matter, that anyone with sympathies towards postmodern ideas feels it necessary to spend more time playing defense than offense.

      I will really never understand how people talk about Foucault and Derrida in the same breath so very often. One of them had complex ideas that he backed up well. The other wrote in an obfuscating fashion about nothing in particular. I do not know that you can come to find any good analysis of postmodern thought if you do not believe there is a difference between the two.

  4. Sorry everyone, but I'm traveling at the moment, so I'll be able to check in with the discussion only from time to time.

  5. Massimo, I agree with the idea that the "X Studies" system can tend to become an intellectual circle jerk.

    Plus, to use the most common ones here in the US, what if African-American/Latino/woman/gay-lesbian "Person X" has some dirty laundry? How narrowly does the relevant "X Studies" department circle the wagons?

  6. Hi there Professor Pigliucci!

    I've been thinking about this since our last class, (I'm in the grad level seminar about philosophy of science and science studies) and I'm not sure that I agree with you completely about housing the departments within larger, classical departments.

    On the one hand, you're right: students outside of the group being studied would be more likely to take a class studying that group if it were so, and there would be better professorial resources able to be devoted to the field.

    Yet if these departments are truly interdisciplinary, (mind you, I have little experience with them as well, I'm coming from a theoretical level here ;) ) then they'd be forced to conform to the methodologies of that department, thus losing perhaps a majority of their research arms.

    For example, a women's studies project might attempt to go to the heart of what exactly it means to be a human being. Bear with me, I know that sounds lofty. Look at it this way, though. Gender and sexuality touches on almost every way we go about our lives: it colors what we wear, how we present ourselves, what we find it appropriate to talk about, our relationships with others, our beliefs, our desires, our dreams, our work and home lives. Even more basically (and something dear to contemporary philosophers), it is intimately tied into human motivation and identity. How can you anchor all of that to, say, an English department?

    I guess I think that there should be "X studies" courses *within* departments, so that you can have real scholarship about specific and narrow topics from a diverse perspective. But *also* a wider home base for a scholar who needs a wider berth. If it isn't their own department, where is it going to be?

    The only answer can be, of course, the philosophy department. ;)


    1. Ericka,

      Indeed, that's exactly the trade off, and I don't have a perfect solution (though of course I quite like e idea that philosophy departments are, or ought to be, interdisciplinary by nature). I am just concerned about the insularity of some studies programs, and particularly by their sometimes unreasonable skepticism of science. Perhaps a hybrid approach along the lines you suggest would be the best compromise.


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