Interdisciplining Gender Studies in Sweden – a Mission Impossible?

Ulla M Holm, Department of Gender Studies, University of Göteborg

Keywords: Gender Studies, Interdisciplinarity, Methodology

In this position paper I will start to follow three concepts or rather conceptual fields accustomed to travelling, within and between certain academic/geographical sites, during the last 30 years: gender studies; interdisciplinarity and methods/methodology.

The institutionalisation of gender studies in the Academy in Sweden has not only resulted in a large amount of empirical research and centres offering basic education in women’s studies, but today also in some theoretical research, departments with a core faculty of their own, including chairs in gender studies. In spring this year the department of gender studies at the University of Göteborg was granted the right to award exams and run education at Ph.D.-level in gender studies. Thereby we have put ourselves in the paradoxical position of disciplining a field of research and education we have proudly dubbed inherently interdisciplinary (Cf Kalman, 1996). Or was such dubbing mere rhetoric used as self praise in celebratory settings (Rosenbeck, in Lundgren, 1999: 27)? In centres/departments with very few people appointed as core faculty, the critical mass for interdisciplinarity to emerge has thus far been too low. The education delivered by them and temporary teachers from other disciplines, is more often multidisciplinary (1). What route(s) will our disciplining take now that our faculty is growing? Will we opt for closure around a gender studies canon and a set of methods transferred from the disciplines within which the faculty is trained? Or will we strive to actualize interdisciplinary and paradigm shifting potentials that may lie dormant in such knowledge fields as women’s, feminist, gender, queer, cultural and postcolonial studies?

Methods are often seen as probing and stumbling stones for successful interdisciplining. What methods are gender studies experts trained in? Are they borrowed? Who owns them and why? What does the genealogy of the concepts of methods and methodology tell us in relation to cultural differences and Western historicity of disciplines? Are we notorious dilettantes (2) and eclectics (3) when we use the methods we need for our problems of study? Are we mostly misguided when applying concepts that have travelled from older disciplines? This may be one of the weaknesses of interdisciplinarity, well expressed by Vasterling in her paper.

Gender Studies – from Sex Roles Research in Sociology to an Interdiscipline in Transit
Tentatively I understand gender studies today – seen from the Swedish context – as an umbrella term for an interdiscipline in transit. It is not a safe place for refugees from older disciplines, but more of a meeting point for politically charged, multiple inter- and transdiciplinary research approaches and themes of investigation. These approaches and themes may indicate domestic as well as international touchdowns coming together in the transit hall while waiting, more or less reluctantly, to continue a journey of critical, cross-cultural interdisciplining. Such interdisciplining must include a restructuring of disciplinary, academic and cultural borders. If it just leads to another ‘cell in the beehive’ (Crowley, 1999), the most motivated travellers in the transit hall of gender studies will reschedule their knowledge-seeking trip.

Domestically the field itself departed from sex roles research and vacillated between research/teaching level and policy/funding level before arriving at gender studies in transit (with all its approaches and themes of investigation). In 1975 a few multi-disciplinary university courses in sex roles research were funded, in Göteborg hosted by the Sociology department. They were taught by PhD students and attended by activists in the second wave women’s movement. Already at the end of the seventies a change of terms began, although not always addressing conceptual content. This change has taken place during an interactive process of institutionalising the field in question between at least the two levels of grassroots within the Academy and national funding.

Whenever there is a popular movement in Sweden we will soon find an interest at national policy level to meet grassroots demands – but often on other terms. The official term at research policy level for the new area of research at the end of the seventies was ‘jämställdhetsforskning’. ‘Jämlikhet’ is the broader concept including ‘jämställdhet’ which explicitly denoted equality between the sexes. There was however no distinction between the two terms when translated into English: ‘equal opportunities’. Today ‘jämställdhet’ is translated as ‘gender equality’. We had thus in Sweden ‘equal opportunities research’ when others had women’s studies. Sex roles research was primarily seen as a descriptive approach and the sex of the researcher was regarded as irrelevant to the outcome of the research. Equal opportunities research was explicitly normative (a forerunner to gender mainstreaming). But this policy approach took over the presuppositions of the sex roles approach of the sex as irrelevant for the outcome of the research.

Margot Bengtsson (1980) illustrates the tension between grassroots and policy level in an essay titled ‘In Sweden we’ve got Equal Opportunities Research, while in Norway you do Women’s Studies – does that make any difference?’. She asks whether it matters that equal opportunities research arose from the sex roles debates, whether problems and results are different if one starts from sex roles and equal opportunities instead of notions such as women’s oppression and women’s liberation. Bengtsson accounts for arguments in the debate for and against equal opportunities research or women’s studies that are also relevant to the next change of terms that took place at policy level.

The networking activities at the grassroots level in the Academy were, however, met positively at the femocratic policy and funding level. Several autonomous centres for women’s studies activities were initiated and funded nationally. From the start they set up two sets of goals: 1) equal opportunities; 2) inter-, and multidisciplinarity. There has always been tension between as well as within the two sets of goals. The institutionalizing process has taken different steps for meeting different needs, e.g. to offer courses – undergraduate, temporary postgraduate, and basic degree courses; hire regular teaching and administrative staff; appoint chairs and award Masters and PhD degrees. This process has caused tensions between equal opportunities goals and inter- and multidisciplinary goals.

The next change of name also caused tensions within the budding interdiscipline. The term ’genus’ was introduced in Sweden in the mid 1980s. The feminist historian Yvonne Hirdman (1988, 1990) imported Gayle Rubin’s and Joan Scott’s conceptualisations of gender but transferred them into a structuralist concept with two logics: 1) women and men are kept apart in different areas, and 2) women are subordinated to men. The national policy level was quick to adopt this new term. Accordingly, there was a change of terms from ‘Jämställdhetsforskning’ (‘equal opportunities research’) to ’genus-forskning’ (’gender research’). This new approach would no longer focus on women and their conditions, but on the relationships between the genders. Some researchers used gender as a scientific, descriptive concept and emptied it of normative connotations. Other researchers reacted to this putative objectivity and proclaimed themselves feminist researchers. ‘Feminism’ had for a long time been a ‘dirty’ word, not only among conservatives, but among radicals, which, due to a strong leftist movement saw feminism as a bourgeois, ahistorical concept. Interestingly, today, several Swedish politicians, including the prime minister, call themselves ‘feminists’ and have effectively emptied the concept of its critical potential.

Several women’s studies departments/centres have now changed their name to ‘gender studies’. This does not mean that active researchers within the field accept the research policy understandings of gender, other than for strategic reasons. The usage of ‘genus’ is neither equivalent to the usage of ‘gender’ in Anglo-American settings, nor to its use in the other Nordic countries. In Göteborg we use gender studies both strategically and critically as an umbrella concept for an intersectional, dynamic, multi- and interdisciplinary field of research and education in transit. Educationally, the field includes: women’s studies, critical studies on men, feminist (cultural) studies, homo/queer studies, postcolonial feminist studies, feminist intersectional studies… More broadly, the concepts of gender and gender studies can in Sweden be said to be what W.B Gallie (1956:121) characterizes as essentially contested concepts (4).

Multi-, inter-, neo-, a-, post-, or transdisciplinarity?
Both in Swedish higher education and in international literature the concept of interdisciplinarity is no less contested than the concepts of gender and gender studies. There are thus several ways to conceptualize interdisciplinarity and to draw distinctions between different forms of academic disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity. Due to lack of space I’ve chosen to use David Long’s helpful distinctions here (5). Long, like many others, (notably Klein, 1990) reminds us of the historicity and arbitrariness of the fragmentation of knowledge into disciplines. Many disciplines have emerged as interdisciplines, some of which maintain an openness to other disciplines, while others build strong borders around a core of knowledge and methodology (cf Boxer 2000, who compares this process with nation building). He characterizes the latter as atomic or ’essentialist disciplines’ and distinguishes disciplinarity from multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity proper, transdisciplinarity, neodisciplinarity and adisciplinarity.

While multidisciplinarity is an additive process that reinforces the distinction between disciplines and leaves traditional disciplines unchallenged, interdisciplinarity proper crosses disciplinary borders in a way that suggests that neither or none of the disciplines involved is a satisfactory theoretical edifice in itself. Interdisciplinarity requires a holistic, crossfertilizing approach and often conjoins the names of more than one discipline (e.g social psychology). Transdisciplinarity is made synonymous with ’academic imperialism’, i.e. concepts, methods or findings of one discipline are applied or transferred onto the subject matter of other disciplines. This odd definition departs from conceptualisations of transdisciplinarity attractive to many feminists e.g.). Neodisciplinarity, in Long’s understanding, crosses traditional disciplines through taking ‘a different cut at social practice’ (Long, 2002: 13). Neodisciplines are ‘new and emerging configurations that are being constituted as academic programs’ (14) and units ‘apart from traditional disciplines (14)’. They are ‘disciplines in so far as they involve or can involve systematic training in a coherent body of knowledge. Each involves a core of studies around which there are a variety of other disciplinary contributions. For example, gender studies revolves around conceptions of gender. . . . While such conceptions can readily be explored in’ other departments, Long suggests that ‘gender arguably requires more than disciplinary fragments in order to be understood comprehensively and holistically’. (14)

Long condemns adisciplinarity as impracticable, as an encouragement to superficiality, bordering on intellectual anarchism and a superficial challenge to the idea of specialist expertise. But it also draws attention to the arbitrariness of academic disciplinary divisions and to the value of integrated approaches. The positive sense of adisciplinarity may be partly synonymous with what Nina Lykke calls postdisciplinarity (Lykke, 2004) and what some other feminists, often without spelling it out, hope that a transdisciplinary approach concerned with complexity would involve. It would challenge both fragmentation of knowledge and every disciplinary, academic structure and be characterised by hybridity, non-linearity and reflexivity of science. (Klein, 1990). It would furthermore epistemically accept local contexts, implicate intercommunicative action, knowledge resulting from intersubjectivity (cf Eva Skaerbaek’s paper), practical reasoning, action oriented research and real societal problems.

An Interdiscipline of Gender Studies in transit and its methods/methodology?
To conclude, I see at least three forms of interdisciplinarity relevant to gender studies. In the first form one is firmly rooted in a traditional discipline and involved in occasional multi- or interdisciplinary cooperation with researchers from other disciplines. A second involves research and teaching in a multi- and interdisciplinary field of knowledge and ‘borrows’ or transforms methods from older disciplines and may even create new methods due to new challenges of the field in such a way that it constitutes a neodiscipline. The third one transgresses not only Humboldtian disciplines, but also barriers between the Academy and other institutions, movements, cultures, nations, a-, post- or transdiciplinarily.

I prefer to call a combination of the second and third form an interdiscipline in transit. While this may be accurate as a way of describing Swedish gender studies currently, whether it will be actualised more broadly depends not only on what we want in the transit hall, but also on the strength of the structures we face. This normative combination endorses critical inter- and transdisciplinarity but not those forms that celebrate a globalized market.

What women’s and gender studies folks want constitutes a contested debate in itself, one that I only can give a glimpse of. Wendy Brown (1997) challenges the assumption that there is an integration of knowledge in women’s studies at all and suggests thereby it’s impossibility as a (neo)discipline. She finds no ‘there there’ (6), i.e. no core, no coherence, no methods of its own. In her paper, Pavlidou seem to have worries of another kind. She finds it paradoxically easier to work interdisciplinarily as part of a teaching team with teachers from the same discipline, than with teachers from different disciplines. Other feminists defend it as a possibility, while striving to maintain its interdisciplinary openness. Marilyn Boxer (2000) argues that we should put the question of whether women’s studies is a discipline to rest. It is a discipline, an interdiscipline and an area of research in other disciplines. We are everywhere. Marjorie Pryse outlines in two articles (1998, 2000) the normative conditions for critical interdisciplinarity. It must take seriously the cross-cultural insights gained in women’s studies. She actually finds something there, i.e. mediating skills and transversal attitudes (7) that we unconsciously train our students in, due to considerable differences in teachers expertise and training, and a to curriculum, that through constant internal critique of excluding tendencies expands and demands empirical work and theoretical insights on intersecting differences (Liljeström in Lundgren, 1999; Crenshaw 1993, 1996). As a teacher in similar settings I share Borghi and Hemmings’ search for a ‘critical pedagogy’ that could reframe the way in which we think about internationalisation and interdisciplinisation of ‘a feminist curriculum in thoughtful, sustainable ways, rather than in an over-worked rush in response to the demands of’ (Hemmings) our institution or our own rhetoric.

Can we make such training the hallmark of a trans/feminist methodology (Pryse 2000) — an interdisciplining in women’s or gender studies that is continuously critical and cross-cultural (1998)? Can such potential methodologies strengthen the interdiscipline if actualized when taking feminist theories of multiplicity and intersectionality seriously (May 2002)? Do we transform monodisciplined skills through transport and creative translation? How can we raise our own awareness about what we actually do? I raise these questions more easily than I can answer them. They hint at my continued interest in the three concepts chosen. I find Iris van der Tuin’s conception of an ‘empirical philosophical methodology’ very promising, here, a conception which to the mainstream philosophers I know would be a contradiction in terms.

(1) Cf Theodossia-Soula Pavlidou and Veronica Vasterling’s position papers - they both find interdisciplinarity to be a feminist ideal difficult or maybe even impossible to reach.
(2) ‘The act of behaving like a dilettante, of being an amateur or “dabbler”, sometimes in the arts. Also the act of enjoying the arts, being a connoisseur. Can be perceived as superficial’. Wiktionary:
(3) Mostly used pejoratively. Cf. however ‘ “Eclecticism” is a name given to a group of ancient philosophers who, from the existing philosophical beliefs, tried to select the doctrines that seemed to them most reasonable, and out of these constructed a new system (see Diogenes Laertius, 21)’ The Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy
(4) Cf. also Jonasdottir, 1999; Gothlin, 1999b; Thurén, 1996; and Holm, 1993, chapt. 1.
(5) All the quotations below refer to Long, 2002.
(6) Cf Clare Hemmings who in a footnote to her paper uses the expression ‘no there there’ for the analogous ‘drive for transcultural approaches and sources – frequently asserted as a good thing, but rarely … articulated as a transformative pedagogic project.’
(7)) The term is borrowed from Yuval-Davis, 1997 who in turn borrowed it from interactions between Israeli and Palestinian women.

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