Bringing indigenous & feminist science studies to Meiji University in Tokyo

/, Kim TallBear/Bringing indigenous & feminist science studies to Meiji University in Tokyo

L to R: H. Arai, M. Hakoda, M. Yamaguchi, K. TallBear, K. Kinase, and K. Ando

Through a UC Berkeley-Meiji University exchange program, I have had the honor this month of leading a seminar at Meiji’s School of Political Science and Economics. On the first day of the seminar, “Indigenous & Feminist Approaches to Technoscience & Environment,” the students and I began by “situating” ourselves. The exercise accomplished the task of introducing us to one another, but it did more than that; it introduced students to a key body of theory in feminist science studies, one of my fields of expertise.

I take the term “situated” from feminist science studies scholar, Donna Haraway, and her seminal chapter, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.”  In class that first day, Meiji students and I had a conversation—not easy given Haraway’s highly theoretical language, the students’ intermediate English, and my illiteracy (!) in Japanese—about “partial knowledges” and what it means to be not “biased,” but rather “situated” within particular historical and cultural streams. As feminist philosopher of science Sandra Harding explains, as scholars we inquire from within our particular lives. We stand somewhere. The usual understanding of “objectivity” assumes that researchers or scientists can play God—that they can stand nowhere and everywhere at the same time—looking out at a world and naming it in some universal scientific language.  The Meiji students and I combined theory with our personal stories to have a conversation about how we are all situated in specific ways in relation to our fields. As individual cultural beings, we come to ask particular research questions (or get interested in the disciplines and majors we do) and not others. We are attracted to certain methods and ethics and not others because of the lives we live and our histories. Thus the knowledge we produce will be partial. However, that does not mean that we cannot strive for objectivity. Indeed Harding and Haraway call us to strive for “strong objectivity,” or “feminist objectivity,” an objectivity that is not conflated with neutrality but one that is more rigorous than that by virtue of laying out and discussing how our different experiences shape what we see and how we see it. Feminists are critical of science that is dominated by men and by class-privileged European (American) cultural values. They advocate making room for a greater diversity of voices, experiences, and standpoints in science. If we diversify who does research, we stand a chance of capturing a broader array of hypotheses, and of developing new research methods and ethical frameworks. We will understand more, and work more effectively – thus the claim to strong objectivity.  Science might also then become more “democratic,” meaning it might serve the interests and needs of a broader set of societal actors.

Whew! We had to get through all of that theory during our first meeting, and it was not easy. But Meiji students work hard. Their persistence was a call to me to work very hard, especially to speak more slowly and carefully. I am from the upper Midwest of the U.S. where we are famous for speaking quickly. (My students at the University of California, Berkeley also tell me that I speak too quickly.) I am also a professor who reaches for the most theoretical term on the shelf of words. It is easier. I need to think hard to find plainer English. But Meiji students and I struggled together to communicate across our language barriers. As we went around the room, each of seven students situated themselves as young scholars. Three women and four men, they explained their interests at Meiji University and how their particular experiences growing up conditioned their particular interests in economy, environment, and politics. Born during the 1980s, a decade of economic difficulties in Japan, a couple students spoke of becoming interested in economics. One of the women spoke of becoming interested in gender politics and analyses because of gender dynamics she had encountered in her own life.

I also situated myself. I am a Native American woman who was born in 1968, a year of political upheaval in the U.S. and worldwide. I was raised by my grandmothers and by my young mother who was also a college student in a small South Dakota university town. I was politicized at a young age by my mother and her student activist friends who protested against the Vietnam War and U.S. imperialism and colonialism at home and overseas. Native American scholars were also important in my politicization. At the age of five I asked my mother, “What does it mean, Custer Died for Your Sins?” I referred to the title of Vine Deloria Jr.’s important 1969 collection of essays by that title. In that book, which I heard mentioned many times by my mother and her friends, Deloria, the most prominent 20th century Native American scholar, analyzed the role of policymakers, Christian churches, and academics in the colonization of Native Americans. In his darkly humorous essay, “Anthropologists and Other Friends,” he especially criticized the role of Anthropology as a discipline in the U.S. colonization of Native Americans. Yet despite understanding that universities were culpable in colonization, my mother also emphasized to me that a university education was the best route to a better life, to opportunities beyond the racism and poverty in South Dakota. One can perhaps see why I will publish a book next year about the colonial politics of biological anthropology and other genetic research on Native Americans. I was situated in a very particular way and found it quite easy to ask the research questions that I do. Not just anyone would think of these questions in the way that I think of them. That is because no one else stands exactly where I stand. And yet because of that, my vision is also partial. It is both open and limited in ways that are different from the visions of other scholars. That is why we need diverse persons and views to make the disciplines and the university more rigorous in its knowledge production. We need to also not be chauvinistic about our own disciplines. We need to find trusted intellectual allies across fields and work together to craft knowledge that is multidisciplinary in a way needed to solve problems in our multicultural world.

The feminist and indigenous (or Native American) scholars that I assign my students also help them re-think relations between humans and animals as “social relations,” thereby according more agency to nonhumans that shape and make our lives as humans possible.  The human/animal split is a violent split in Western “ontologies” or knowledges. It is a split that implies hierarchy and that is used to justify not only the mistreatment of the Earth and destruction of the environment, but it is also a split used historically to de-humanize and oppress some humans. These ideas set the tone for our seminar at Meiji University. For their final paper, I assigned the students to write about a relationship that they have with a “nonhuman.” They could choose an animal or organism, but also any other nonhuman that scientists might not classify as “living.” The important thing is that the students should explain the “life force” or agency of that nonhuman in a convincing way. As the students read in class, some peoples, including indigenous peoples, understand stars, rocks, and spirits to be living beings in ways that Western science would reject.

I assign Berkeley students this same paper. Meiji students and UC Berkeley College of Natural Resources students both choose to write about nonhumans with which they interact regularly and to which they are ethically committed. But because they stand physically and culturally in very different places, students from the two schools choose some very different nonhumans about which to write. My Berkeley students often do environmental science and tend to be “outdoors” people. They often write about the trees, fish, wildlife, or particular ecosystems with which they work and to which they are committed. Likewise, Meiji students this year thought of paper topics that are so very situated in their particular lives and experiences in Tokyo. To me, their projects are surprising and fascinating. With their permission, I share a couple of insights from student papers based on conversations we’ve had in class. As I write this, their papers are not due until tomorrow.

A second year student, Masato Yamaguchi, is writing about his relationship with trains. As I understand him, trains are not simply mechanisms of convenience, not simply physical matter, a collection of materials and parts assembled into a useful technology. The train as a figure has been central to his life since before he can remember. His family tells him that when he was a baby he would instantly stop crying when a train passed by. He speaks also of the destruction caused by the tsunami at Sendai, and the desire of the people there to get the trains back on line as soon as possible. Masato indicated that like him, the people of Sendai were not only concerned about convenience, but the train’s role in everyday human practice. The sounds and feelings of its movement through geographic space are central to peoples’ very sense of a normal life and to inner well-being. The train he indicates has a life force of sorts. It is not only people who made the train but the train helps make a good and normal human life. His analysis is simply brilliant, and so different from what I read from Berkeley students, or what I hear in Native American communities. Of course, it took us some time to communicate these complex ideas across our language barrier, with my shortcomings being much more profound than those of my students who are working hard to learn English. (I should take a Japanese language class back in Berkeley!)

A fourth year student, Manami Hakoda turned her paper in early. Yes, early. She speaks and writes of her relationship with the English language and how she not only learns to wield English, using it and shaping it to her own ends, but how she is reconfigured as a different kind of person as she engages the English language. Manami writes of becoming more assertive and outgoing in English than she is in Japanese. English and the way it is spoken also causes her to gesture, to move her body more as she speaks it. She also writes of Japanese language being “softer” and more “polite.” She writes of the way in which language and culture construct one another, and the way in which an individual and a language also construct one another. Similarly to how Masato describes the train, Manami speaks of coming to see English as a living thing in and of itself and not simply as a tool for human use. She also takes a lesson from Sandra Harding about strong objectivity and writes of using both languages to be more intellectually rigorous in how one engages with the world. She values both languages for the different things they can see and do.

Kim with friend Jun Kamata: writer, professor, photographer

I learned much from Meiji students. Their insights reinforce in me the sense that a stronger, truer understanding of the world emerges when we listen to and value knowledge produced from within very specific experiences and situations, rather than trying to filter out our differences, hoping to find a “neutral” language. I look forward to reading the rest of their papers, and I am grateful for the opportunity to have shared the past few weeks with them. I hope they feel similarly. I would be proud if I could speak and write Japanese as well as my Meiji students speak and write English.

This piece was originally written for publication in the Seikei Forum of the School of Political Science and Economics, Meiji University. It is posted here with permission.

By |2017-10-01T22:11:24+00:00December 18th, 2011|Categories: INDIGENOUS PEOPLES, TECHNOSCIENCE, & ENVIRONMENT, Kim TallBear|0 Comments

About the Author:

Principal Investigator; Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Peoples, Technoscience & Environment; Associate Professor; Faculty of Native Studies, University of Alberta

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