Thursday, February 24, 2005

One More Great Comment on Summers

This from Colin Danby from a listserve that I frequent:

Re[garding] "socialization," *please* let's not lapse into the nature|nurture divide, with genetic predisposition playing the role of nature and socialization standing for nurture. As I argued a couple weeks ago, this simplistic split uncritically assumes that observed poor results for women genuinely reflect something women lack, and that this thing they lack is rooted in the past - at birth or in childhood. It's a way to pass the buck.

We need attention to current, active, ongoing institutional and social structure. This realm is inadequately represented by the term "discrimination," which too easily gets absorbed into a methodologically-individualist notion of mere "prejudice" as a personal taste. "Discrimination" is really a result, with no clearly-specified mechanism, and without elaboration people will fill in whatever
mechanism they choose to imagine. If you're a neoclassical economist that mechanism will be (has to be, I think) individual tastes. You can see that even in Summers' most recent statement, the most ample understanding of discrimination he can manage is that it might include both conscious and unconscious tastes.

(One of the malign consequences of naively using Summers' grid to fill in %s is that he has cleverly separated the phenomenon of people dropping out in their 20s-30s ((a) in my last msg) from that of discrimination ((e) in my last msg). Not only does one need a complete list of causal variables, which Summers' list is not, but one needs to consider interaction between them,)What the MIT study pointed to, and what even a few moments' reflection will suggest if you have ever hung out with natural scientists, is that there is a consequential layer of thick social interaction in the formation of a scientist, from mid-undergraduate work onward. The social structure of natural science is an odd hybrid of elite-recruitment (at each stage a few younger people are plucked out and encouraged and promoted) and feudalism (labs
with star senior scientists who get funds and support large numbers of junior colleagues, postdocs, and grad students, in exchange for a share of the credit for all their work).

If we start with a structural understanding of gender as functioning within ongoing social relations and interactions, we want to ask how these densely-social, face-to-face networks work. How do race, social class, and gender shape them? You can see this in econ: there have been places I've taught where the senior faculty were almost all men, and they just didn't hang out with women. The homosociality would be cemented through sports, or the odd dirty joke. Forming ties with senior
people is vital to getting advice and contacts, getting your papers commented on, learning of opportunities, getting good letters, and so forth. Here is where you want to look!

While our pasts are not irrelevant, anyone who supervises students knows that confidence and a willingness to work really hard are a lot more important. People can remake themselves, and often do.


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