“On Being a Scientist and a Red”: Living the 11th Thesis
“Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”
Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, 1845
“The irrationalities of a scientifically sophisticated world come not from failures of intelligence but from the persistence of capitalism, which as a by-product also aborts human intelligence.”
Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin, The Dialectical Biologist
Recently I started graduate school after several years working as a midwife in Vancouver and rural Philippines with Community-Based Health Programs. And, yup, I’m definitely a ‘red’. Prior to grad school my research experience stemmed from my pre-midwifery years as a community organizer, activist, and participatory action researcher for anti-poverty, feminist, and environmental justice organizations. During those years I had a handful of interactions with academic researchers; interactions fraught with tension over world views, priorities, and the commodification of research for professional advancement. Yet, during my work as a midwife I faced questions I wanted to explore; graduate school allowed me to carve out time to address challenges facing Registered Midwifery.
Reading Lélé and Norgaard’s “Practicing Interdisciplinarity” (2005) resonated for me as they discuss how world views, values, and theories shape supposedly value-neutral scientific research. My orientation towards social justice, human rights, and reciprocity fundamentally shape my research on the prenatal care experiences of poor and marginalized women. My love of dialectical materialism, a profoundly trans-disciplinary method of understanding complex social and ecological phenomena, helps me grasp the social, political, institutional and economic relations which shape the design and provision of medical care in modern society. The closest (not openly Marxist) ‘fit’ with dialectical materialism I have read thus far in the scientific literature comes is Nancy Krieger’s eco-social model (eg: 2012). My feminist standpoint necessarily allies me with the women I care for, am with as midwife, and challenges me to break down the false dichotomies of experience and ideas (Oakley, 1998). Our economic and social position in society shapes our perspective on the world. The concepts of research evidence as ‘proof’ and the confines of discipline have been challenging for me, and brings up the tensions I have previously had with academics, that in order to be rigorous, knowledge and ideas must be crystallized through the lens the Western academic project.
CP Snow’s seminal 1959 lecture “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” challenges the culture of Western intellectual life, or rather the ‘two cultures’ of natural sciences and the humanities, to collaborate to tackle the growing chasm of underdevelopment. CP Snow calls on the ‘two cultures’ to unite in the grand project of exporting the Western scientific revolution and its capital, scholars, scientists, systems of education, and colonial gaze to the (forcibly) underdeveloped world. He poses capitalism as the correct path forward and the neo-colonial project the goal. CP Snow was a Baron, a peer in the House of Lords, and in my opinion espoused the world views of the European bourgeoisie who had flourished precisely because of the colonial plunder of developing nations and the mass export of surplus labour to the settler states in the Americas. In his context, the shift from colonialism to neo-colonialism is strategic. But as Richard Levins states in Living the 11th Thesis, “…there was another view, that each society creates its own ways of relating to the rest of nature, its own pattern of land use, its own appropriate technology, and its own criteria of efficiency” (2008, p. 30). Not only did the wealth of the colonies bolster Western development but many technological, agricultural, and pharmacological advances originate in appropriated indigenous knowledge and practices which have sustained communities and worked in harmony with the environment for many generations.
So here I am in graduate school struggling with the confines of discipline, contradictions in the ownership and authorship of research based in community experiences, and grieving the fact that Western medicine (midwifery) can actually harm people. I believe we’re in this grand environmental and social catastrophe because of the inherently self-interested, short-term, national chauvinistic and narrow-minded nature of the capitalist system. I’m inspired by Richard Levin’s “Living the 11th Thesis” and his call, which in some ways is similar to CP Snow – to meld the social and natural sciences – but in many ways different – to meld academia with social justice. Our scientific endeavors can and must respect unique (and oft poorly understood) world views, uphold human rights and self-determination, promote reciprocal collaboration, and contribute to the betterment of humanity. My attempts to live the 11th Thesis are to enter my research with intention to make change, to shift the practice of midwifery care, and to incorporate the concept of social justice in all aspects of my work. Living the 11th thesis keeps alive the challenges that brought me to my research to begin with: the discounting of the voices of the ‘other’ in clinical work, the overemphasis on Western biomedical viewpoints, and the underlying truth that Registered Midwifery is predominantly a white, middle class, colonial project.
- Krieger, N. (2012). Methods for the Scientific Study of Discrimination and Health: An ecosocial approach. American Journal of Public Health, 102(5), pp. 936-945.
- Lélé, S. & Norgaard, R.B. (2005). Practicing Interdisciplinarity. BioScience, 55(11), pp. 967-975.
- Levins, R. (2008). Living the 11th Thesis. Monthly Review, 56(8). Available on line.
- Marx, K. (1845). Theses on Feuerbach. Available on line.
- Oakley, A. (1998). Gender, Methodology and People’s Way of Knowing: Some problems with feminism and the paradigm debate in social science. Sociology, 32(4), pp. 707-731.
- Snow, C.P. (1961). The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution [the Rede Lecture]. New York: Cambridge University Press.