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A Personal Paper-Reading Method

I was thinking about how I could read and understand academic publications better. I came up with the following skeleton for myself.

First, grab the following points (bolded are the must-learns):

  1. Topic: What are the relevant fields of this paper? (Later, how are the authors contributing to these fields?)
    • Audience: To whom are the authors speaking?
  2. Argument(s): What statements/arguments are the authors making?
  3. Research questions (RQs): What research questions do the authors ask?
  4. Methodology: How do the authors answer the research questions?
    • Theoretical lens: Have they used any theoretical lenses in answering RQs?
    • Model: Have they applied any models?
    • Experiment: Have they conducted any experiments?
  5. (Findings: What do they find to answer RQs? How do the findings relate back to RQs?)
  6. Contribution(s): What new/critical knowledge have the authors produced?
    • Novel theory: Have the authors produced novel or built upon existing theories? Theories can also be models, frameworks, etc.
    • (Theoretical) New perspective: Have the authors offered any new perspectives to understand existing phenomena?
    • (Theoretical) New methodology: Have the authors offered any new methodologies for answering a certain type of RQs/phenomena?
    • New intervention: Have the authors built any new, important, meaningful interventions?
    • (Empirical) New, important ways of using technology: Have the authors discovered any novel and critical ways of using technology? Usually, such empirical findings can feedback to new learnings to existing theories or even inspire new theories.

Second, while reading, I can ask these questions to myself (bolded & italicized means it’s only important for myself):

  • Significance: How do the authors argue the significance of the study?
  • RQs-Contribution: What is the relationship between RQs and contribution(s)?
  • Related work: How do the authors write Related Work (to support their arguments, maybe)? (How does this study build on past learnings?)
  • Actors: What are the actors (human or non-humans) involved in this paper?
  • Terminologies: What are the terms the authors relied on? Did they create any new terms?
  • Strength and weakness: In my opinion, what is the one single strength (and weakness) of the paper?
  • Future work: How can future work build on this study?
  • Personal belief/value: Is this work speak to my belief/value? Why or why not? (Do I want to become a researcher who does this kind of work?)

Stories from Beijing

A few things/people I encountered when I was in Beijing doing fieldwork in Fall 2018.


Story 4. Aug 21st, 2018.

11:05 pm. I was just out from Dongzhimen subway station, back from an interview. The was another 10-minute walk before I could get back home. Clutching my backpack tightly in front of me, I kept reminding myself that this is Beijing; it’s safe and there’s nothing to worry about. Before long, I saw evidence of such safety. A guy in a white shirt was throwing up intensively in the hollow made up by two tires stacked together neatly. Apparently drunk, but harmless. Not sure why there were tires though. A few steps later, there was a couple sitting on the ground beside the walkway. The man was smoking silently, forming clouds above himself. The women had her head down on his laps, crying loudly.
The Beijing with a midsummer night’s dream.

Story 3. Aug 21st, 2018.

I don’t think I have seen anyone carries his/her wallet around. Neither cash nor credit cards. But definitely a smartphone and maybe also a battery bank (in case there are no public battery bank leasing cabinets). At restaurants, you scan the QR code on your table to order and pay inside the restaurant’s WeChat mini app. On subways or buses, you tap your phone screen to the card reader to pay. To enjoy any street food, scan the seller’s personal WeChat QR code to pay; he/she will print out the QR code on a piece of paper and stick it on the food truck. Internet is never an issue. Mobile connectivity is so good no matter you are indoor, outdoor, underground, or high up on Mount Everest. All you need is a phone connected with China Mobile’s network, with your WeChat logged in and a bank account registered.

Story 2. Aug 14th, 2018.

McDonald's WeChat mini app

I was at a McDonald’s, ready to order from one of the big screens standing in front me. Almost touching the screen with my finger, a woman’s voice rang into my ear: “Ma’am, are you our member? You can become our member from within our WeChat mini app and you will get daily special discount exclusive to our mini app. You don’t have to use this screen to order; just open your WeChat and go to our mini app.” Following the voice, I saw a young woman with McDonald’s uniform and another older women busy working with her phone — apparently, she was instructed as I did moments ago.

I did what I heard. I saw the WeChat McDonald’s mini app recognized my location and then identified the store I was at without making any mistakes. Then I ordered what I wanted — the meal was much cheaper (as today’s daily special) than buying the sandwich alone, so why not buy the meal? The mini app naturally prompted payment with WeChat pay. Then I received my calling number in the mini app. I hit the top right black dot and ring button. The mini app closed, I was brought to where I was at in WeChat.

A few minutes later, my number was called at the counter. I showed my number and grabbed my dinner. Efficiency.

Story 1. Aug 13th, 2018.

Beijing Transportation Card in iPhone wallet

Right after I landed at Beijing airport, I got notified by my iPhone, saying that I could add the Beijing public transportation card to my phone wallet. I did that and then loaded money to the card directly (“you will get your 20 CNY deposit back!”). The entire interaction was very smooth. Next day I hopped on to a bus and tried to tap my phone to the card reader. I touched my phone once. It didn’t work. I looked like a hopeless barbarian. A girl with a modern look beside me held my phone impatiently, changed my phone angle swiftly, touched the reader again, and the reader uttered a clear beep sound. Wow! What a sound that welcomes me to the mysterious digital Beijing!

Research in Academia vs. in Industry: From My Experience as a UX Research Intern at Facebook

I spent the past three months at Facebook as a user experience researcher intern. I worked in the Facebook App Monetization org and did research with two different product teams. I interviewed Facebook users inside and outside of the US, and I also conducted usability tests of prototypes. This is my very first formal industry experience as a user researcher, so everything (literally, everything) was new to me. The journey has been more challenging than I expected, but it was definitely a great learning experience. I applied for this position last Fall, wanting to know what research is like in industry (or at Facebook, in my case). Luckily I got in, and more luckily, I got most of the answers I was looking for — if not all.

1. Objective. The focus of research in industry is to point out directions and offer recommendations for product design, development, and more. So it’s all about the product. Research in academia cares more about studying and exploring important questions in the field. If not necessary, it is often unlikely for research in academia to be related to any product.

Hence, the significance of research in industry is to help product teams make appropriate decisions that fit the company’s overall mission/goal/plan/interest. What about defining research questions? What about finding the right methodology and implement it? These are all important. However, in industry, oftentimes decisions are not made solely by the researcher but based on the entire product team’s discussion or the product’s current need/requirement. For instance, if a product team wants to know what a certain population will think about the product, then the researcher can only research this topic to find answers from users that will guide the team’s decision-making process.

In academia, research questions are usually determined by one or several principal investigators (PIs, who are commonly professors). Things can be researched no matter it’s a new topic that worths studying or a critical realm that worths being dug deeper (even though one might not get an answer). How do you know if a research topic is significant? It all depends on how the field looks at it. A research topic about how a mosquito’s flying will be affected if its wings are hit by raindrops sounds meaningless to our real lives. But if it’s meaningful for its field, then it could be studied. What is not important is whether it can lead a product. This is why many studies in academia look imaginative and less valuable to the reality. This is also why research in academia is way ahead into the future.

2. Significance. Research in the industry is unnecessary. Without researchers, product teams can still make decisions and keep developing products. The point of doing research (i.e. user research) is to establish the communication channel between users and product teams, so that product teams can make informed, wise, and better decisions. There are product teams who develop products freely without taking into consideration of researchers’ suggestions — but this is another story.

Because research is unnecessary, there are cases that researchers are neglected by the product team. Researchers thus have to work on helping the team to understand the value of research.

In comparison, academia is all about research. A research university (my institution is an example) pays all its attention to research. Professors and their teams have to do research and meet a certain criterion of research, especially before professors are tenured. So the importance of research in academia goes without saying.

3. Resource. Facebook as more than 40,000 people in total with hundreds of UX researchers, which is a lot in the industry. Naturally, more people get more resources. Examples include research labs built especially for conducting user research (better than the labs I have seen in academia) and a separate recruitment team for helping researcher recruit participants. Researchers also support each other by running training and creating discussion groups.

On the other hand, I think the resource in academia mainly comes from connections. Industry depends heavily on connections as well, but best researchers mostly stay in academia. Connections in academia can lead to knowing more researchers in the same or related fields and then creating more opportunities. In my opinion, the distinction between resource in industry and resource in academia lies in their types.

4. Who does the researcher represent? At work, UX researchers represent users in product teams; they speak for users and communicate users’ needs and difficulties to product team members. UX researchers represent their company in front of users.

Researchers in academia represent experts in the field. They represent themselves too.

5. Forms of outcomes. Researchers in industry present users’ needs and recommendations to product teams through presentation slides, charts, tables, reports, etc.

In academia, the major form of presentation is publications, such as conference papers or journal articles. Publications present research outcomes (e.g., new experiments, new methods, new algorithms, etc.)

6. Pressure. This is really all about my personal experiences… In industry, user research is only a small part of the product team and it is usually in the earlier stage of product development. Designers and engineers wait for research outcomes to move forward. This means researchers’ pressure often comes from their product team members and the progress timeline of the team. The quality of research is crucial too, but not as crucial as some other things, relatively speaking. That why people say “done is better than perfect.” It’s not okay to ask your colleagues to wait for you.

About pressure in academia… Can’t finish talking about this in one paragraph lol. I feel stress in academia comes not only from producing high-quality research that will truly contribute to the field (which includes a lot more smaller “sub-pressures”) but also pushing oneself to his or her intellectual and mental limits of learning and pursuing knowledge. Because of this, I will not recommend anybody doing a PhD degree without true passion and love of research…

7. Income. Of course, industry offers higher income… Much higher than academia, in fact.

There should be more about research in academia and industry, but I can only think about things listed above for now.

If you ask me which one I will choose… Actually, I still have no answer. But at least I can see more clearly the differences now since I experienced.

Dynamics

I went to CRC (Georgia Tech’s gym), drank iced milk tea, ate crispy chicken nuggets, and did grocery shopping this morning. This was all because I submitted a conference paper last night. I guess I need to celebrate, so I offer myself some treats.

I don’t have many experiences with writing conference papers. Previously, I had turned in two papers with myself being the first author and co-authored another paper. Yet writing a conference paper always teaches me new lessons. The lessons that I’m going to share might be cliché — smart people may learn this quickly, but I need to wait until I’m writing another conference paper. A bit dumb.

The thing I learned is that different papers have different dynamics. I know, this seems obvious — this seems obvious only when we are reading papers. It may not be the case when we are the ones who are writing. Why? I didn’t really feel this when I was writing my first two papers. I thought it was me who was writing, and since I was the author and I did not change, so I supposed the papers should look pretty similar in terms of style? Well, this is not true. The paper that I was writing recent days had an entirely distinct dynamics in a sense that it kept leading me, instead of being led by me. It refused being structured. The findings of this study were complicated. There were so many details and I didn’t know which ones I should pick. In fact, I couldn’t even find a proper way to tell a story for a couple of days. Findings were already messy, hence the Discussion section was even more difficult to write. I remember I had a hard time on the day I planned to write the Discussion section. Sitting in front of computer screen and hearing my heart bouncing anxiously, I told myself that no matter what I had to at least outline the section before I went to sleep. I jotted down whatever I thought of that might be useful in the section, and to my surprise, these random lines seemed to represent some commonalities that I could talk about. The paper had something it wanted to say. I was only its medium.

I want to record my feelings and thoughts because they are important to me as forms of reflection. This is also to remind myself that I learned a lot by going through the process regardless of the outcome.

A Cyborg Story: Study WeChat Users and Practices through Feminist Theory and STS

(Note: This short essay is my final piece of homework for the class Feminist Theory and STS, taught by Dr. Anne Pollock. I tried to draw connections between my research on WeChat and what I learned from this class. It was a great mental exercise for me to think about my dissertation, and I hope you enjoy reading it as well.)

To be able to engage with feminist theories and STS in my own research projects is one of my major purposes of taking this class. In this essay, I will talk about my prospective dissertation topic and discuss how feminist theories and STS will shed light on it from various angles.

Recent years, social networks start booming more than ever. The fast development of the Internet and the widespread of smartphones make it possible for people to connect with each other at nearly any time and anywhere, and social networks are the foundation for this connected virtual “web.” With an interest in culture, technology, and social networks, I’m eager to learn how culture and technology affect each other in the shape of social networking, and what a “cultural” social network means and possibly looks like. For my Ph.D. dissertation, I will take one single technology as a case to study: WeChat. WeChat is the most popular mobile instant messenger in China. However, different from other instant messaging tools such as WhatsApp or Line, WeChat is not only a mobile instant messenger but also a social network. In fact, being an instant messenger or a social network is only a small part of it; it is a huge mobile platform that almost encompasses everything, including money transaction, news subscription, online shopping and many more (Lawrence, 2016). WeChat users often find themselves spending most of their time interacting with WeChat, without the need to switch to other applications. Besides this most outstanding characteristic, WeChat is mostly used by Chinese people, unlike Facebook, whose users come from various countries. This relatively coherent user base in terms of nationality and the powerful functional integration of WeChat attract me. How do people use WeChat, if they are all Chinese but have diverse life experiences and coming from different backgrounds (e.g., gender, age, education, occupation, etc.)? How are people’s lives influenced, if any, by WeChat? In addition, I want to know if people’s use of WeChat influences WeChat itself, in some ways. All in all, I would like to study the co-construction of WeChat and its users in the context of contemporary China.

Having conducted two studies on WeChat, I’m currently at the stage of planning my next study and thinking about the overall story to tell in my dissertation as well. Reflecting on what I learned throughout this semester, I believe I can see several possibilities for my next steps, inspired by feminist theory and STS.

First, feminist theory and STS can offer me new places to start from. Feminist theorist and philosopher Sandra Harding criticizes the common, conventional understanding of “objectivity” (which usually relates to absolute truth, fairness, and equality) of not being truly objective. Instead, she argues for a “strong objectivity,” where studies of our world should originate more from minorities and those who haven’t been heard of in the past (e.g., the poor, the oppressed), so that our knowledge will be more complete, and thus achieves the strong objectivity (Harding, 1993). Thinking about this call of starting from women’s lives, I remember interviewing rural Chinese villagers a year ago. To my surprise, female villagers tended to know much more about information technologies than their husbands or brothers. This was because “sticking to the phone all the time is perceived as ‘not doing formal business’ and also ‘a waste of (men’s) time’ and thus only women will do that,” explained one of my female interviewees. However, such a technology proficiency, together with the design of WeChat and the stable nationwide Internet connection, in fact, turns out to support female villagers to earn spare money through WeChat and hence gain more freedom and say in their families that they couldn’t expect before. Indeed, as Wajcman says, “the materiality of technology affords or inhibits the doing of particular gender power relations” (Wajcman, 2010). A promising next move could be continuously digging deeper into female WeChat users’ lives and learn how they use WeChat to fulfill their needs.

Second, feminist theory and STS can also be my powerful analytic tool. Apply feminist epistemology to a case or phenomenon to gain insights is an old trick in feminist theory and STS. For instance, by describing black women’s experiences at American airports from a feminist standpoint with particular attention to these women, the preconceptions and discriminations imposed on them become more evident (Browne, 2015). I can map the same technique to one of my previous studies where I researched how Chinese people sent emoji on WeChat. I could ask questions such as what are the emoji used more by female users, what is the consequence of sending erotic stickers to women, and how do female and male WeChat users understand the same emoji differently. By examining my past study from a refreshing feminist lens, I hope to uncover some implicit gender dichotomies and underlying discourses in the emoji world, just as what Emily Martin does to contrast how people talk about the egg and the sperm differently (Martin, 1991).

Third, feminist theory and STS push me to imagine alternatives, both for future and for technology. The question that I keep asking myself in the course of studying WeChat is, what is the alternative form of WeChat? In the context of feminist theory and STS, I can ask, is it possible for WeChat to be feminist and what does a “feminist” WeChat look like? In her book Reinventing Hoodia, Laura Foster describes the roles played by the plant Hoodia in different communities, including the San people, the South African scientists, the drug companies, and the Hoodia growers (Foster, 2017). By putting forward these distinct and sometimes conflicting roles of the same object, we can easily see the flexibility and also the diverse possibilities of Hoodia. Similarly, Nakamura tells the story of the company Fairchild Semiconductor building its plant on Navajo land and discusses how parties such as Fairchild executives, Navajo leaders, and the media all had their own understandings of this project, which again addresses that the project itself was never neutral or independent but subject to interpretations and changes coming from all directions (Nakamura, 2014). To envision alternative WeChats, I can learn from this method and describe what WeChat means to people who are younger, who are older, who are disabled, who invest money in it, who spend their time to develop it and more. Different images of WeChat will emerge from different people’s views, and altogether they will reach a feminist collection of WeChats.

Taking a step back, the projects I listed above seem to reflect a common theme: cyborg. Cyborg, in feminist theory, is a concept raised by Donna Haraway to contest the singular and dominating understanding of identity. In her A Cyborg Manifesto, she challenges widespread dichotomies (e.g., human vs. animal, culture vs. nature) that people rely on to describe (and categorize) themselves and the world (Haraway, 1991). She believes the fixed, homogeneous view of identity should be shattered, and cyborg is the alternative “identity” she comes up, in which humans are not pure but mingle with animals, technologies, and other objects or concepts that people traditionally will not think of. Coming back to my own project, I am convinced that nobody and no object will be left innocent in the world of social networks. Cyber, but not virtual, identities consciously or unconsciously established by every single WeChat user are instances of cyborg. An unchangeable identity is rendered impossible because everybody is a cyborg. On the other hand, WeChat, even usually seen as a passive technology, could also be a cyborg because it exerts power but receives power from users (and/or non-users) and other societal forces too. Cyborgs are the basis of the fluid WeChat world. In the end, I strive to avoid any dualism because there will only be connections and networks in a cyborg space. With the lead of cyborg, I hope the pieces in my dissertation will all come together and shine illuminating lights.

One of the last pieces I read for this class is Sara Ahmed’s Bringing Feminist Theory Home. In that chapter, she says feminism matters everywhere and “feminism is homework” (Ahmed, 2017). By homework, she means that feminism should be the kind of homework that we voluntarily assign to ourselves not only inside academic setting but also outside in our daily lives. With this essay, I hope I successfully complete one of self-assigned feminist homework, marking only the beginning of more homework, as both a woman and a feminist STS scholar.

 

 

References

  • Ahmed, S. (2017). Bringing Feminist Theory Home. In Living a Feminist Life (pp. 1–18). Duke University Press. https://doi.org/10.1353/qui.2012.0008
  • Browne, S. (2015). “What Did TSA Find in Solange’s Fro”?: Security Theater at the Airport. In Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (pp. 133–159). Duke University Press.
  • Foster, L. A. (2017). Reinventing Hoodia: Peoples, Plants, and Patents in South Africa. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press.
  • Haraway, D. J. (1991). A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century. In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (pp. 149–181). New York: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.2307/2076334
  • Harding, S. (1993). Rethinking Standpoint Epistemology: What Is “Strong Objectivity”? In L. Alcoff & E. Potter (Eds.), Feminist Epistemologies (pp. 49–82). Routledge.
  • Lawrence, D. (2016, June). Life in the People’s Republic of WeChat. Bloomberg Businessweek. Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-06-09/life-in-the-people-s-republic-of-wechat
  • Martin, E. (1991). The Egg and the Sperm : How Science Has Constructed a Male-Female Roles. Signs, 16(3), 485–501.
  • Nakamura, L. (2014). Indigenous Circuits: Navajo Women and the Racialization of Early Electronic Manufacture. American Quarterly, 66(4), 919–941. https://doi.org/10.1353/aq.2014.0070
  • Wajcman, J. (2010). Feminist theories of technology. Cambridge Journal of Economics, 34(1), 143–152. https://doi.org/10.1093/cje/ben057

The Pleasure of Being a Ph.D. Student

I have been approached multiple times after becoming a PhD student — people asked me about what is good of being a PhD student. Normally, I don’t think about this much, because, as an ongoing PhD student, I’m supposed to be embedded in all kinds of work and thus don’t have time to generate random thoughts. But today is a different one. I had the leisure to come up with a list of things that I enjoy about being a PhD student. Here it is.
  1. Think: Of course, right? (I take this for granted.)
  2. Read books/papers/articles: Yes, I really mean it. I know there are many people who don’t enjoy reading fictions, let alone scholarly writings. But I always love reading stuff, even though English is not my native language. Some scholarly works can be hard to digest and I’m with you here. I tend to read these works more quickly. 🙂
  3. Write stuff: Yes, I still mean this seriously. Writing is something that I started liking once I had done enough amount of readings of different kinds (e.g., fictions, poems, etc.). I simply like the feeling of seeing words flowing out on screens or paper. I admit that oftentimes writing academic papers doesn’t contain much fun, but I think pain is also part of the experience of learning, and learning is usually enjoyable.
  4. Accept hard intellectual challenges: This one almost goes without saying. One privilege of being a PhD student is the opportunity to be challenged intellectually. This doesn’t mean one won’t be challenged intellectually in other jobs, but one gets the chance to think about many deep and sometimes weird questions more as a PhD student. This can be life-changing, and I enjoy this process.
  5. Work independently (for a large portion of my working time): While this is not necessarily true for every scholar based on their discipline, this is true in my case. I like staying in a quiet space that helps me to concentrate on my task and thinking. Having to read and write a lot contributes to my independent work.
  6. Learn from wise minds: This is another privilege that PhD students get. What a joy of being able to listen to professors’ (who are experts in their fields) and wonderful peers’ discussions and grow from their conversations and actions!
  7. Review papers: This one goes together with the one above. Reviewing papers is a great way to see what’s going on in my community. And knowing that I also contribute to part of the process of generating more sincere knowledge is exciting.
  8. Take some cool classes: Same point as the two above. My institution offers many interesting classes. I can take them as my minor classes so that I can enjoy them even if they are not directly related to my major. One of these classes is Science and Technology Studies core seminar.
  9. Get to know and talk to so many different people: I’m especially referring to my lovely qualitative research methods (e.g., interview, observation, etc.) here. As an introvert who doesn’t really social a lot, getting to know new people can be hard for me. However, being a researcher who uses mostly qualitative methods, I am sweetly “forced” to talk to many people — people who I don’t imagine I will even have the channel to get to know if I were not a PhD student. Talking to people from diverse communities help me to know the world and reflect on my own identity. I’ll say this is the best part of being a PhD student (for me).
  10. A bonus: If my paper gets in, I can visit different places/countries: I don’t like being stuck on the plane for long hours, but I really don’t mind visiting new places that I have never visited before. (And drinking new beverages, and tasting new foods, and meeting new people, and more, and more…)
  11. Finally, there are always more to enjoy in the future! 😀
I think what I enjoy the most of being a PhD student, or doing research in general, is the possibility of pursuing my ideas semi-freely. I consider this as a sheer luck of mine, and it is definitely a luxury as well.

To Be a Cyborg or Not?

Being a cyborg is hard for me to imagine. Why would I want to be something else instead of me? But one can question, aren’t you already a cyborg? Indeed. With a Fitbit band on my wrist and an iPhone constantly held in my hand (I don’t feel secure enough if it’s in my pocket), I can hardly deny that I am a cyborg. Anyway, isn’t a cyborg a human plus machine/technology? In fact, in her A Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway shows that a cyborg can mean more than that. A cyborg can be human plus machine, but it can also be animal plus machine, or all of them mix together. What is important is that clear boundaries now disappear, and what has been guarded behind the boundaries – identity – will shatter as well. An alternative world Haraway visions is constructed via affinity, not identity. Affinity is not fixed. Unlike identity, affinity is not an inborn quality. Instead, one can choose with free will or even build an affinity. It is fluid, flexible, possible to be deconstructed and then reconstructed. With multiple affinities, there emerges cyborg.

Thinking about such an understanding of cyborg and then look at both Haraway’s and Hammonds’ chapters on race is helpful. What these authors are both trying to say is that race, as either an idea or a belief, is constructed, even though it is commonly taken as part of one’s identity. Haraway believes that race as an identity quality (that people believe) should be shattered, and new affinity connections should be built (e.g. she talks about vampire). Technology is able to delineate a dream by visualizing a woman’s face with multiple racial backgrounds, but this will only re-emphasize the masculine power which existed on racial differences, based on Hammonds’ understandings. If our present world is inevitably racist, then building affinities and becoming cyborgs will lead us to another future.

However, as “a woman of color,” I have to say that the chapter that I resonate with the most is Moya’s. It is not simply because her postpositivist realist theory of identity is something that I can operate, but more because she admits, and accepts, as a woman of color herself, the history and the reality (and everything carried by them) which made us who we are. Affinity is beautiful, and cyborg is also fantastic – but aren’t they dreams too? We, no matter as a white woman or a woman of color, need a way to achieve these dreams. To me, the first step is to accept who I am, where I am, and the things that build me. Then, maybe little by little, I will have the courage to question my identity, to even deconstruct, and build a new “self” from numerous affinities. Before being a cyborg, I desperately have to see my historical identity.

There is one last thing that I want to share: I have never seen myself as a woman of color before reading A Cyborg Manifesto.

Imagine Alternative Sciences and Identities

Science and identity are perhaps two of the most commonly mentioned terms in the field of Science, Technology, and Society (STS). How does science shape our identities and how do our identities affect the process of developing science? To examine the relations between science and identity, this essay will delve deep into the following papers: Situated Knowledges [1] and A Cyborg Manifesto [2], which are both written by Donna Haraway, an outstanding feminist scholar. I will first introduce these papers briefly and then put them into dialogue to see how they contribute to the understanding of science and identity together.

Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective was originally published in Feminist Studies in 1988. Essentially, it is a paper that heavily criticizes traditional science and the kind of objectivity it represents. Instead, it advocates a new vision of objectivity: feminist objectivity. Haraway starts off by claiming that the present science is an arena of masculine power that awes abstraction, universality, and pure objectivity, while denigrating specificity, particularity, and subjectivity. There is a clear line between these two categories. The former is pursued and the latter is avoided. Those who believe in this image of science are in fact the ones who know less about science. These people believe the so-called scientific objectivity is valuable and convincing because it will not be contaminated by human cognition or perspective: it is absolutely true and is not subject to change. However, she argues, even though this is what science has been shown in the textbook, it is not real – scientists know quite honestly that science is socially constructed; it relies on human beings and the knowledge it produces is “manufactured knowledge (Page 577).” But the way people worship scientific objectivity cannot promote real understanding or real knowledge. To offer an alternative, Haraway promotes a “feminist objectivity” that emphasizes the situatedness of knowledge, addresses connections and relations, and embraces resonance but not dichotomy. It blurs the boundary between objectivity and subjectivity. Here, she points out that all knowledges are situated within particular contexts and can only be viewed from certain perspectives. Therefore, there is no singular or universal understanding of knowledge. Knowledges must be plural. Under this feminist objectivity, human identity is welcomed, because identity actually assists us to gain true understanding. What she also mentions is that feminist objectivity does not equal relativism since relativism negates contexts or perspectives so that responsibility also disappears. One can only know by committing to a situation, to a standpoint, to a perspective. Genuine feminist objectivity is formed by numerous partial perspectives; it calls attention to an alternative science.

Three years after Situated Knowledges was published, in 1991, Haraway wrote another influential piece: A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism. To set the context, Haraway spends half of the paper criticizing the dominating belief of abstract individuation, “a man in space (page 152),” and the embedded dichotomies it includes are men vs. women, humans vs. animals, humans vs. computers, etc. Haraway challenges the understanding of these dichotomies by stating the boundaries they draw and the separations they produce are not constructive to our society and ourselves – these dualisms inevitably split people further apart and yield conflicts. In addition, as a human being, one has been forced to begin knowing oneself from one’s body and it is exactly because of the power assigns to one’s body that we must develop an alternative way to construct identity. Hence, as its title entails, Haraway comes up with an alternative identity – the ironic cyborg, which is opposite to “a man in space.” It is ironic because it is meant to confuse, to challenge, and to amuse. Because the cyborg has no historical origin in Western cultures and does not belong to any of the existing categories, there is no way to refer it to any classical concept or even talk about it based on our current language. It is, in fact, a fusion of all categories and all concepts. It emphasizes on connection and affinity, not separated distinct identity. Haraway relies on this imaginary cyborg to disclose the political issues in society. For instance, none of race, class, or sexual orientation naturally exists to define identity. Cyborg informed politics should also bear its characteristics. She goes on to talk about an example of how a woman survives as a cyborg at different locations, such as home, market, and school, to show the importance of not framing woman’s identity through man, but as a cyborg that affiliates with animals, machines, and other artifacts. Therefore, to destruct the current identity also means creating new possibilities. Haraway offers one of them.

These two papers share plenty of commonalities. First of all, they both imagine alternatives on fundamental concepts: one on science, the other one on identity. Haraway approaches these papers similarly by setting out to criticize the status quo and then constructing other possibilities, both through a feminist epistemology, which is the second commonality. Her feminist epistemology embraces partiality, particularity, plurality, ambiguity, and situatedness, almost on the other end of absolute objectivity, as shown in both papers. The purpose for imagining alternatives is to create a more inclusive and thus more understanding reality by deconstructing and reforming the present world. Haraway believes that human, science, and technology all need to participate in this process, because human produces science, science is included in technology, and science and technology together influence human. They are all connected and related.

Nevertheless, there are also quite a few differences between Situated Knowledges and A Cyborg Manifesto. In Situated Knowledges, Haraway only confronts science and scientific objectivity. She challenges science as an entity but does not mention human identity or how it can be affected by science. Certainly, what lies behind her argument of situated knowledges is feminist epistemology. Manifesto is based on Situated Knowledges, but instead of solely looking at science, it problematizes the whole idea of identity, including the identity that results from scientific development. Moreover, Manifesto goes one step further – it sits upon feminist ontology, whose embodiment is the ironic cyborg. Therefore, this paper is not only questioning how people think (i.e. epistemology), but indeed more deeply on what make them think this way (i.e. ontology). In Situated Knowledges, Haraway talks about objectivity through science. In Manifesto, she points to subjectivity through identity. While discussing objectivity is similar to looking around at the world outside of ourselves, examining subjectivity is reflecting on our own honestly. She draws connections between identity and science in Manifesto by implicitly asking these two questions: Is our subjectivity truly defined by ourselves as free human beings? Or is it still somewhat or even completely structured by the scientific objectivity? Of course, the reality falls into the latter and this is why she fights for alternative science and identity. They can actively shape each other on multiple levels.

Why are science and identity important? Because they both speak to power. Power is the overarching theme that affects science, identity, society, and all of us. Unequal distribution of power and even the existence of power are the causes of numerous social and political issues. To provide alternative ways to think about and then construct science and identity is to disclose different power relations and to be aware of them. Can we balance power and solve all the problems? Haraway does not give us an answer. It is certainly an ambitious goal to erase all the boundaries in our world, but it does not hurt to imagine what if they don’t exist and what the world will then look like. Imagination is good. To imagine alternatives is even better.

In this essay, I briefly introduce two seminal papers by a famous feminist Donna Haraway: Situated Knowledges and A Cyborg Manifesto. I then discuss how they both relies on a feminist epistemology that emphasizes plurality and particularity, while Manifesto goes a step further to inform a feminist ontology. Both papers speak about how science and identity can influence each other and how it can be problematic when they are based on ideas such as separation, objectivity, and so on. Haraway, therefore, imagines alternative sciences and identities that aim at destructing the present understanding of them and reconstruct new connections that focus on affinity and situated perspective. These alternatives, hopefully, can disclose a clearer view of power relations and hence help create an inclusive world.

References

[1]  Haraway, Donna. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Feminist Studies 14.3(1988): 575-599.

[2]  Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York; Routledge, 1991), pp.149-181.

Truth Claims in Science, Technology, and Society

Within the field of Science, Technology, and Society (STS), one notion has been discussed and debated pervasively: truth claims, more specifically, scientific truth claims. What does it mean to claim a truth? What does a typical truth claim entail? This essay aims at delineating the dominating discussions surrounding the idea of truth claim in STS. Throughout this essay, I will argue that scientific truth claims are always socially constructed – they are produced, not discovered; they connect to human beings, objects, and the environment, instead of being isolated on their own. First, I will start by introducing how general audiences perceive scientific truth claims and whether scientists hold the same belief. Then, I will move on to draw the picture of developing truth claims in science. A few key STS concepts will be presented and examined. After that, I will talk about some effects that can be caused by these truth claims. Finally, several methods to disclose the real nature of truth claims will also be investigated.

Scientific truth claims are trusted by general audiences. What can be considered as a scientific truth claim? For example, the moon rotates around the earth – this is a truth claim. An elephant weighs more than a lion – also a truth claim. To hold belief in a truth claim, one first needs to trust. Steven Shapin, in his Rarely Pure and Never Simple: Talking about Truth, notes that “people’s trust in science is based upon their acceptance of certain transcendental and absolutist stories about science. [15]” Therefore, for general audiences, truth claims in science are really true. They are not to be questioned. They are, simply, facts.  But people do not always set out to these truth claims so easily. Shapin also talks about how people used to judge whether a certain claim is true by evaluating if the one who claims is reliable or familiar [16]. At that time, the reliability of men was taken into consideration more seriously. Later around eighteenth century, people began to assign more weight to expertise [16]. It is acceptable if the truth claim is not made by somebody we know personally, as long as that person is an expert in a relevant institution that belongs to the field. Abstract and isolated knowledge claimed by formal institutions means truth. Nowadays, it is hard to convince anyone without referring to media, press, colleges, research labs and so on. This is how general audiences trust.

However, are these truth claims absolutely true? Should they be taken as facts? To answer these questions, many STS scholars look closely at how these truth claims come into being. Bruno Latour describes in detail of how a certain truth claim like “the DNA molecule has the shape of a double helix” is constructed [9]. Take this statement as an example for now. First, it is claimed based on many experiments that are completed in different laboratories. Second, these experiments are conducted by various human researchers. Third, these human researchers discuss and argue with each other during the entire study period (sometimes even longer). They often, if not always, actively seek for allies that will support their own ideas. Finally, one side will dominate the discussion and therefore the experiment results from this side with be considered as a scientific conclusion. Here, it means that “the DNA molecule has the shape of a double helix.” When being presented to the public, this scientific conclusion is crafted as a black-boxed truth claim, leaving all these experiments, labs, or human researchers’ names and actions aside. Clearly, the situation in the experiment laboratories can be crucial. The way each piece of discussion or argument is framed is also vital. One more example: thanks to Collins and Pinch, we are able to learn that scientists have yet reached a consensus whether female whiptail lizards have lesbian mating habit or not [3], simply because there are too many doubts and confusions in either side of the debate. Examples like these two are numerous. What Latour intends to address is that scientific truth claims are always socially constructed. Their construction relies on social relations – one may have more say if he or she has gained trust from a big name. Hence, these truth claims are not isolated absolute truths as perceived by the general audience. They are true only in specific situations, if, luckily, one is hidden from the fighting on the backstage. They are not black boxes and they will never be.

What’s more, these truth claims tend to change. In Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, Ludwik Fleck, by delineating how syphilis has been understood across time, discusses deeply about the change of thought collective and thought style [6]. If we listen to Fleck’s words and clarify thought collective as a collection of thoughts of a certain topic and thought style as the most prevailing style of thought for that topic in a specific period of time, then here the change of thought styles for syphilis is clear: syphilis was first seen as a mystery, then a pathogenetic idea, and finally an etiological disease entity, due to Wassermann reaction [6]. Similarly, Kuhn describes how a scientific paradigm can shift because of an “accident.” Different from Fleck’s thought collective, Kuhn’s scientific paradigm focuses more on a specific disciplinary (i.e. a closed community), and his accident means something that is unexpectedly discovered or derived but ultimately adjusts the direction of the entire paradigm [8]. One example can be Coulomb’s law. Paradigm shift is an ongoing process. It happened before and it is still undergoing at present. Foucault [7], Clarke et al. [2], and Rose [12] all point to the paradigm shift from medicalization to biomedicalization. To uncover the problematic notion of race in science, Fausto-Sterling [5] and Pollock [11] both draw the maps of how race is perceived, used, and in fact not being legitimate for bone density research and heart disease studies respectively. Therefore, truth claims are subject to change. They are not only socially constructed but also time dependent. They are not universally true.

While truth claims are situated in contexts and time, they inevitably will influence the world in one way or another, especially when they are embedded in artifacts such as technology. Yes, technology, as one form of scientific product, conveys truth claims. The procedure of “materializing” truth claims involves categorization, classification, standardization, etc. Bowker and Star have talked extensively about what they mean by classification and standardization [1]: Classification is a segmentation of the world, either based on time, or space, or both time and space. The resulting categories of classification are consistent and complete within themselves, while being mutually exclusive among each other. Standardization, however, is the process of imposing a certain classification to enable the collaboration of various things so that they can work together. Classification and standardization collaboratively materialize scientific truth claims. For instance, to produce a touch-screen smartphone, both classification and standardization have to be involved to include certain truth claims from biology, cognitive science, ergonomics and more. The consequence is that although this smartphone is suitable for some people, it is not friendly to everybody – imagine a blind person using it. Additionally, it can only be used in some occasions, but not all the contexts – imagine if there is no electricity. Hence, the world is then classified and/or standardized by these artifacts and by the truth claims they represent. These artifacts have politics. Langdon Winner delves deep into this issue and concludes that artifacts are always political [18]. Atomic bombs are designed to deter and destroy. When being materialized as artifacts, truth claims can have real political impacts to the world and to us in positive and/or negative ways.

Due to this effect, numerous scholars have proposed approaches for scientists to understand the possible results of their “truth claims” and then make science and technology more inclusive for people. Latour raises an “actor network approach” to think about how artifacts, as actors who have independent capability in the world, can affect people’s lives by substituting, shaping, or changing their actions [10]. He focuses on both the power of human and non-human actors and how they relate to each other to form a network. Cowan, when examining the history of cooking stove in the United States, proposed the inclusion of consumer by looking at the “consumption junction,” where consumers actively chose among competing products [4]. Back to then, people tended to think about producers solely and ignored consumers entirely, not including them in the whole network. Rosenberger and Verbeek learn from phenomenology and come up with the idea of “postphenomenology” [14]. Postphenomenology’s focal point is the relation between human and technology and it cares more about empirical analysis. Four major human-technology relations include embodiment relations, hermeneutic relations, alterity relations, and background relations [14]. They also raise the concept of “multistability” to talk about the flexibility of technology to be understood and used different under distinct contexts by distinct people [13] [14]. Different from all the approaches above, who are basically theoretic frameworks, Vertesi et al. introduces a variety of design methods that are used widely by designer and researchers to study human-technology relations [17]. Examples include participatory design (i.e. design with stakeholders) and reflective or critical design (i.e. design to reflect and provoke). All these scholars suggest means to think more deeply and comprehensively about artifacts and technologies and what they bring to human beings and our society.

Scientific truth claims are not isolated. They situate in contexts and time and they rely on people to be developed. Even though general audiences prefer to view truth claims as ultimate truths, they are always socially constructed. They are not neutral and therefore bring real impact to our lives. Scholars advocate various ways to think about science and technologies more inclusively, but it is everybody’s responsibility to open the black box of truth claims and understand everything better.

References

[1]  Bowker, Geoffey C., and Susan Leigh Star, Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999, Intro and Chapt 1 (pp. 1-50).

[2]  Clarke, A.E., Shim, J.K., Mamo, L., Fosket, J.R., & Fishman, J.R. (2003). “Biomedicalization: Technoscientific transformations of health, illness and U.S. biomedicine.” American Sociological Review, 68(2), 161-194.

[3]  Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch, “The Sex Life of the Whiptail Lizard,” from The Golem: What You Should Know about Science, pp. 109-119.

[4]  Ruth Schwartz Cowan, “Consumption Junction” in Bijker, Wiebe, Thomas P. Hughes and Trevor Pinch The Social Construction of Technological Systems.

[5]  Fausto-Sterling, Anne. “The Bare Bones of Race,” Social Studies of Science 38.5(2008): 657-694.

[6]  Fleck, Ludwick. Genesis and the Development of a Scientific Fact. First published by Benno Schwabe, Basel, 1935; English translation by Bardley F. and Trenn T.J., University of Chicago Press, 1979.

[7]  Foucault, M. (1978). Excerpts from The history of sexuality, Vol 1: An introduction.

[8]  Kuhn, Thomas S. “Scientific Paradigms.” In Sociology of Science edited by Barry Barnes, 80-104. Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1972.

[9]  Bruno Latour, Science in Action. How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society (Harvard), pp. 1-100.

[10]  Bruno Latour: “Where are the missing masses? The sociology of a few mundane artifacts”, in Bijker, Wiebe E.; Law, John, Shaping technology/building society: studies in sociotechnical change.

[11]  Pollock, Anne. Medicating Race: Heart Disease and Durable Preoccupations with Difference, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012. Introduction, pp. 1-27.

[12]  Rose, N. (2007). The politics of life itself. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press (Introduction pp. 1-8).

[13]  Rosenberger, R. (2014). “Multistability and the Agency of Mundane Artifacts: from Speed Bumps to Subway Benches.” Human Studies. 37: 369-392.

[14]  Rosenberger, R., and P.-P. Verbeek. (2015). “A Field Guide to Postphenomenology.” In: Postphenomenological Investigations: Essays on Human-Technology Relations, R. Rosenberger and P.-P. Verbeek (Eds.). Lexington Books, pp. 9-41.

[15]  Steven Shapin, “Rarely Pure and Never Simple: Talking About Truth,” Configurations 7:1 (1999), 1-14.

[16]  Steven Shapin, A Social Construction of Truth. Civility and Science in Seventeenth Century England (Chicago), Epilogue.

[17]  Vertesi, Janet, David Ribes, Laura Forlano, Yanni A. Loukissas, and Marisa Cohn (2016). “Engaging, Critiquing, and Making Digital Systems: Crossings between STS and Design,” in The STS Handbook. Cambridge: MIT Press.

[18]  Winner, Langdon, “Do Artifacts Have Politics,” in The Whale and the Reactor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), pp. 19-39.

Do Justice to Your Data

I met with my advisor two weeks before a major conference deadline. It was a Saturday. She had a coffee in her hand, and she was telling me how some other students had so many things to write in their paper:

“I guess this may due to culture. You know, both of them have so much to say. The finding section is already 9 pages and it’s only one-third of all the findings!”

I listened closely and replied that I never had so much to say. It in fact sounded pretty weird to me that people wrote so long. My advisor continued to say, data had to go through the researcher to be visible and I might affect those data. I was stunned. Yes, I know as a human being I’m not the kind of person who can talk on and on. I feel more comfortable when I can keep silence. However, for writing an academic paper, I know I have to write and I will certainly make sure that I offer as much data as it requires. But my advisor said:

“Yes I know. But still, your data will go through you. They are expressed in the way you express.”

I suddenly realized her point and yelled: “OMG I feel so bad about my data! They are suffering just because I don’t have much to say!” Since then I know I have to do justice for my data – these are great data which have value in themselves. They should not suffer because of me.