Philosopher of feminist and postcolonial theory, epistemology, research methodology, and philosophy of science, Sandra Harding is an esteemed colleague, an influential academic, and a tenacious activist for women everywhere A Distinguished Professor of Education and Gender Studies at UCLA, Harding is retiring from UCLA this year. During her career, she served as CSW from 1996 to 1999, as a consultant to several UN organizations, and as co-editor (with Kate Norberg) Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society from 2000 to 2005.
“It has been thrilling to know Sandra during the years I’ve been at UCLA and see her fabulous mind at work,” says Professor Jenny Sharpe, the current chair of the Department of Gender Studies at UCLA. “She has done so much to put feminist studies at UCLA on the map not only in terms of her own spectacular scholarship but also institutionally, from her work with our department and the research center to her bringing of Signs to UCLA, during which time, as a member of its editorial board, I had the pleasure of working more closely with Sandra.”
Her scholarship has advanced feminist, antiracist, multicultural, and postcolonial studies of the natural and social sciences and feminist epistemology and philosophy of science. One of her key contributions as a philosopher was the development of the research standard of strong objectivity, a component of standpoint theory. She used the term to describe research that is grounded in the experiences of those who have been historically excluded from the production of knowledge. Grounded in androcentricism, the much-vaunted notion of “objectivity” in research actually leads, in Harding’s view, to the privileging of some knowledge projects over others and the effacement of the experience of women and other marginalized groups. In a recent interview with Nina M. Flores of Ms., Harding described standpoint theory in this way:
Standpoint theory is a theory of knowledge, but in most disciplines it is regarded as a methodology, a way to do research. Standpoint approaches use the differences between a dominant group’s values and interests and those of subordinate groups to provide research that is for the subordinate group–that answers the kinds of questions they want answered. Standpoint is a logic of research that seems to emerge every time a new group steps on the stage of history. For instance, ex-colonized groups, the civil rights movement, the LGBTQ movement and other groups ask similar kinds of questions. They may not use the language of standpoint theory, but they tend to say, “Well, from the perspective of our lives things look different (Ms. Magazine blog, July 19, 2013).
Harding’s academic career began with an undergraduate degree from Douglass College (Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey) in 1956. Seventeen years later, she earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from New York University. Her first academic appointment was in an experimental critical social sciences college at the State University of New York in Albany. She soon moved to the University of Delaware, where she held appointments in the departments of philosophy and sociology and the women’s studies program, where she served as director.
Arriving at UCLA in 1994, she was an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies from 1994 to 1996 and then was appointed CSW Director in 1996. Under her leadership, CSW developed new and creative programs and events, and offered sixty lectures and conferences each year on topics including “Feminist Controversies” and “Gender and Science.” Catharine Stimpson, Patricia Hill Collins, and Adrienne Rich were a few of the distinguished speakers during her tenure. Two major publications—Going Public: Women and Publishing in Early Modern France (Cornell University Press) and Encountering the Glass Ceiling: Gender, Values and the Structure of Work (UCLA Institute of Industrial Relations)—came out of CSW conferences that were held during Harding’s directorship.
“Sandra’s reputation as a feminist trailblazer was instrumental in bringing [Signs] to UCLA,” noted Kathryn Norberg, an Associate Professor in the Department of History at UCLA and Harding’s immediate predecessor as CSW Director. Renowned around the world, Signs: Journal of Women in Society and Culture “challenges the boundaries of knowledge concerning women’s and men’s lives in diverse regions of the globe.” The journal prides itself on its continuous efforts to investigate alternative research methods to reach “social transformation” through feminist, queer, and antiracist goals. Between 2000 and 2005, Harding co-edited the journal with Norberg. Norberg shared these memories of Harding’s editorial contributions:
Sandra was particularly instrumental in “stirring up” and husbanding to completion special issues and forums. She worked with faculty from UCLA, different UC campuses and institutions around the world to bring these collaborations to fruition. In 2003, Sandra herself edited “Gender and Science: New Issues” (volume 25, number 3), which showcased feminist analyses of an array of disciplines from anthropology to zoology. Several of the most frequently cited articles in Signs appeared in that special issue. During her tenure at Signs, Sandra worked with and mentored about twenty-four graduate students who served as research assistants. Those students benefited from Sandra’s broad knowledge of academic feminism and her extensive contacts. Through her work at Signs, Sandra steered academic feminism in new directions and made UCLA a center of feminist thinking.
Harding is author or editor of twelve books, including such influential volumes asSciences from Below: Feminisms, Postcolonialities, and Modernities (2008), Is Science Multicultural? Postcolonialisms, Feminisms, and Epistemologies (1998), The Science Question in Feminism (1986), and Whose Science? Whose Knowledge: Thinking From Women’s Lives (1991).
Bonnie Shulman, Technology and Culture, called Sciences from Below “a stunning synthesis of research from post-positivist, feminist, and postcolonial science studies scholars.” On The Science Question in Feminism, Barrie Thorne, Professor of Sociology and of Gender and Women’s Studies at UC Berkeley. wrote in the American Journal of Sociology:
Gender imagery, such as talk of “hard” and “soft” data and of nature as a “she” to be “conquered,” permeates the cultures of science…[This book] demonstrate[s] that such imagery is more than surface detail; the social organization and symbolism of gender are deeply implicated in the making of modern science.
And she continued, “In The Science Question in Feminism, Sandra Harding reviews and synthesizes over a decade of feminist writings about the natural and the social sciences (the latter emphasis makes her book especially pertinent to sociologists). She identifies different philosophical positions and examines their virtues and problems, developing a framework that I found immensely clarifying.
Notable among her edited volumes are The Postcolonial Science and Technology Studies Reader (2011) and The “Racial” Economy of Science: Toward a Democratic Future (1993), a collection of essays that critiques the racialized nature of the sciences. “This magisterial, compelling, and important collection pushes the boundaries of postcolonial studies in urgent ways. ” wrote Ania Loomba, co-editor of South Asian Feminisms, aboutThe Postcolonial Science and Technology Studies Reader, “It charts the richness and depth of knowledge systems across the non-Western world, delineating their differences from, contributions to, and marginalization by what is thought of as Western science. This book makes it impossible to ignore the interconnections between long histories of imperialism, the dynamics of the Cold War, and the asymmetries of globalization, or to isolate science from social relations. It also maps the ground on which we can imagine a different future.”
About the importance of The “Racial” Economy of Science: Toward a Democratic Future, Carlye Honig noted in Science, Technology, & Human Values that “this book of essays, collected from across several decades and edited by professor of philosophy Sandra Harding (University of Delaware), is an ambitious project, and extremely successful in exposing the racist absurdities that have been supported by and have flourished within modem science since its inception.” Library Journal also lauded the collection: “The classic and recent essays gathered here will challenge scholars in the natural sciences, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, and women’s studies to examine the role of racism in the construction and application of the sciences. Harding... has also created a useful text for diverse classroom settings.”
Harding’s accolades, awards, and honors also include visiting professorships at the University of Amsterdam, the University of Costa Rica, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, the Asian Institute of Technology, and the University of Costa Rica. Phi Beta Kappa chose her as a national lecturer in 2007. She received American Education Research Association Award for Distinguished Contributions to Gender Equity in Education Research in 2009. In 2013, she received the John Desmond Bernal Prize from the Society for the Social Studies of Science. It is awarded annually to an individual judged to have made a distinguished contribution to the field. She has also served on the editorial boards of numerous journals in the fields of philosophy, women’s studies, science studies, social research methodology, and African philosophy.
Harding is a treasure. She has enriched the academic and cultural landscape around the world and deepened our thinking in so many ways. UCLA has been lucky to have her in our midst. We wish her all the best in her retirement—knowing full well that she is unlikely to slow down and that she will continue to make contributions for many years.