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  • Final Report Summary - DISPUTING GENDER (Disputing gender. Understanding how psychological gender research is used in public scientific controversies on gender in US-American media)


Project ID: 327173
Funded under: FP7-PEOPLE
Country: Austria

Final Report Summary - DISPUTING GENDER (Disputing gender. Understanding how psychological gender research is used in public scientific controversies on gender in US-American media)

The project “Disputing Gender” was carried out by Marie Curie International Outgoing Fellow Dr. Nora Ruck at the Faculty of Psychology at the Sigmund Freud University in Vienna and at the History and Theory of Psychology Program at York University in Toronto, Canada. This study examined the role of psychological knowledge in selected media controversies in the U.S. mainly during the 1990s. The project was sparked by the observation that in information societies, social problems are increasingly discussed and solved with the help of science. Since there are many conflicting theories and approaches in science, too, these efforts to solve social problems with the help of scientific knowledge often result in public controversies. “Disputing Gender” has analyzed a number of such so-called “socioscientific controversies” that occurred in the U.S. during and since the 1990s and that focused on topics relating to gender inequalities or gendered violence.
The project started with a clarification of the most significant theoretical notions, such as “socioscientific controversy” or “the public”. These analyses soon made cogent that the project had at its core a relatively reductive notion of “public” that mainly referred to what might be called a rather traditional “public sphere” of major newspapers. While this shortcoming was identified rather early in the project, the analysis proceeded with data collection of “socioscientific controversies” on topics of gender inequalities in major U.S. newspapers outlets during the 1990s. The final symposium was used to discuss and explore other means in which scientists interact with and include the public in their research. Data collection was conducted using the search engines “Factiva” and “LexisNexis”, which allowed a full-text search for scientific controversies in U.S. media that focused on gender-related issues like inequalities on the job market, rape, partnerships and family, among other topics. Media articles were selected for analysis when a number of articles on the same topic or the same incident occurred within a short period of time and used converging scientific data to discuss these topics. These “socioscientific controversies”, many of which included evolutionary psychological theories or protagonists during the 1990s, were analyzed using the social scientific method of discourse analysis.
Empirical results indicate that “socioscientific controversies” on gender inequalities that are carried out with the help of psychological knowledge produce systematic exclusions of certain topics and perspectives. For example, in a controversy on the issue of rape that was carried out between evolutionary psychologists and their critics (feminists and social psychologists, among others) in the year 2000, the debate largely focused on the scientific value of evolutionary psychology while social factors involved in rape were hardly discussed. This has led to the paradoxical fact that the social dimension of socially relevant topics is hardly discussed in these “socioscientific controversies” and that every participant in the discussion is subject to a specific definition of scientific “truth”. As a consequence, for members of the public who are not part of the scientific community it is difficult to be heard in these controversies.
So while the public and policy makers may expect scientists to make a contribution to the solving of social problems, scientists often use public scientific controversies in order to gain social authority as knowledge makers. For this reason, many socioscientific controversies, even when they revolve around socially highly relevant topics such as rape, are focused on “truth games” rather than the social problems at stake. In some controversies that have been analyzed in the course of this project, the “socioscientific controversies” established a discourse so centered on question of correct scientific theory or methodology that social actors other than scientists were systematically excluded from partaking in these discussions.
An upside to these public controversies is the fact that the public gets a deepened sense of the production of scientific knowledge and of the critique and dissent. However, a downside relates to the possibility of scientists losing sight of the problem at stake for the sake of promoting their own research program. The implications of these conclusions are at least twofold and concern scientists as well as the general public: (1) Scientists who wish to participate in the solving of social problems may be well advised to look for ways of including the public that go beyond the traditional science coverage in the mass media, i.e., in the traditional public sphere. (2) For the general public, it is significant to develop a kind of “critical science” literacy that can put scientific results and arguments in context and critically interrogate them.
“Disputing Gender” has addressed these implications by a symposium that explored the question of the relation between science and the public more broadly. This symposium, which took place at the Sigmund Freud Private University in Vienna on April 15 and April 16 2016, discussed, in particular, innovative ways of relating science and the public like critical participatory action research, public deliberation, or teaching critical science literacy in high schools. “Disputing Gender” also collaborates with the project “Critical Science Literacy” at the University of Vienna, a project that aims at increasing critical science literacy concerning psychological knowledge, i.e., the ability to examine the theoretical and methodical underpinnings of scientific studies and scientific arguments as well as the social conditions and the social impact of scientific work, in high school students.

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Sigmund Freud Privatuniversitat Wien GmbH


Life Sciences
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