Beyond the Big Divide? the Humanities and Social Sciences in Women's Studies

By Shteir, Ann | Resources for Feminist Research, July 1, 2007 | Go to article overview
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Beyond the Big Divide? the Humanities and Social Sciences in Women's Studies

Shteir, Ann, Resources for Feminist Research


The three essays in this section arose from a panel presentation at the annual meeting of the Canadian Women's Studies Association in 2005 on the topic, "Beyond the Big Divide? The Humanities and Social Sciences in Women's Studies."' The session developed from discussion among some faculty members in the Women's Studies program at York University about a preponderance of social science material and approaches within Women's Studies, to the diminution of approaches from the humanities, including history and cultural forms of expression. We were concerned about the forms that "interdisciplinarity" is taking within Women's Studies, and as teachers, scholars, and administrators we were, and are, looking for freshly engaged thinking on this topic.

"Interdisciplinarity" means both everything and nothing within Women's Studies because relations between older disciplines and the field of Women's Studies remain unsettled, and perhaps usefully so. Is Women's Studies an interdisciplinary discipline that is in the process of establishing its own methods and canons? If so, which disciplines are being brought into the interdisciplinary soup, and in what proportions? These questions pertain to content, methodologies, and pedagogy. They are pressing because, for a variety of historical reasons, many undergraduate Women's Studies programs in Canada are oriented to the social sciences, notably, sociology and political economy, and they are presentist and activist in their approaches. Students with feminist interests in literature, culture, history, and the arts often find less scope in the course offerings of Women's Studies programs, and turn to other programs as their fulcrum for humanistically oriented feminist work. This lack of breadth within Women's Studies should be a significant source of concern, perhaps particularly with an eye to how Women's Studies programs are cultivating a next generation of academic practitioners who in turn will help to shape feminist teaching, scholarship, and activism in the future.

The emergence, indeed the consolidation, of a divide within Women's Studies between humanistic and social science approaches to knowledge seems to be a feature of the recent institutional landscape. It is a source of concern, for example, to Professors Barbara Godard and Jacinthe Michaud, two senior faculty members at York who assiduously claim space for culture within their own Women's Studies teaching and research.

Barbara Godard, trained in English and French, teaches across a disciplinary spectrum that extends into Social and Political Thought and calls upon semiotics and feminist cultural and critical theory. In "Culture at the Crossroads," the essay that opens our collection, she reflects with great poignancy upon the paucity of material and analytic methods from cultural fields in academic Women's Studies. Feminist knowledge production in Canada, she argues, has been shaped by social scientists, and one result has been to elevate praxis over theory, and activism over scholarship concerned with textuality and cultural forms. Another result has been to sideline historical knowledge about the women's movement, including the place of culture as media and strategy across waves of feminism into the present moment. For Barbara Godard, "culture" - literature, the arts, narrativity, imaginative theorizings, poets, and magazines - connects to "cultivation" and the aesthetics of high culture as well as to ethnographies and popular culture. More room for expressive forms is a key, in her view, to unlocking the great promise for ongoing feminist knowledge production in Women's Studies.

Jacinthe Michaud too identifies culture as a neglected element in current feminist practices. Trained as a political scientist, and active in social science research about contemporary women's movements, Jacinthe was brought by her work on the Quebec women's movement to recognize the role of culture in feminist organizing.

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