Doing Neuroscience, Doing Feminism: Interview with Dr. Sari van Anders

This post, by Emory Neuroethics Scholar and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality PhD Candidate, Kristina Gupta, was originally featured on The Neuroethics Blog.

Dr. Sari van Anders

 After attending the Neurogenderings Conference in Vienna, where participants debated whether it would be possible to conduct feminist neuroscience research, I decided it would be useful to interview an actual practicing feminist neuroscientist – and I knew just who to talk to. Dr. Sari van Anders is an Assistant Professor in Psychology and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan. She earned her Ph.D. in Biological & Cognitive Psychology from Simon Fraser University. In her social neuroendocrinology lab at the University of Michigan, she conducts feminist neuroscience research on a variety of topics, with a principle focus on the social modulation of testosterone via sexuality, partnering/pair bonding, and nurturance. She has received grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the American Institute of Bisexuality and has published articles in Hormones and Behavior, Archives of Sexual Behavior, and Psychoneuroendocrinology, among others.

I asked her to talk about what she sees as feminist about her own behavioral neuroscience research, how she has secured support for her work from other behavioral neuroendocrinologists, and what advice she would give to early career scientists who want to incorporate feminist concerns into their research. Read on for Dr. Van Anders’ thoughtful and thought-provoking answers.

I have heard you describe your research as a behavioral neuroscientist as ‘feminist.’ Can you explain what you see as feminist about your behavioral neuroscience research?

Feminist science practice, like other aspects of feminism (e.g., activism, praxis, theory, etc.), is not one thing. So the ways in which I position my work as feminist may not be the same as the ways in which other scientists might position their science, or the ways nonscientists might position my work. With that caveat in mind, onwards! One important feminist facet of my work is that I see science as one way to approach knowledge creation/production, as opposed to the only way or the most valuable way. Science can help us understand certain aspects of certain phenomena and is valuable as such, but is more valuable when we recognize its limitations and acknowledge the value of insights gained from other approaches.

Another important feminist facet of my work is that I see vast gulfs of difference between bioscience and biologically determinist thinking; so, I separate out natural from material, innate from trait, must from is, etc. Our bodies and the biological systems inside of them are recipients of socialization in the same ways our behaviors and cultural practices are. Social modulation of hormones is a major thrust of my research program… how could I (or we) think of our bodily systems as only preprogrammed when we increasingly know how each biobody exists in a social context? A major part of feminist thought critiques the split between gender and sex because it has in large part left sex (i.e., biology; nature) as a fixed, natural, acultural entity. Part of the work my research does is to expand notions of sex/nature/biology such that we see biological properties as malleable and socially located.

Another way my work is feminist is that I think about inequities while I do my work, including how social location might affect the questions I ask and my own understandings of phenomenon, but also how a gender or intersectional lens might help me understand my findings better (which it almost always does). Critically engaging with one’s positionality has been called ‘strong objectivity.’ Theory compelled me and my own research has convinced me that objectivity works closer to how we want it to when we constantly engage with and interrogate our own biases and positions.

My work is also feminist because it’s informed by feminist thought, especially feminist science studies, even when the work is not focused on gender/sex. It’s feminist because I don’t think that science leads to simpler answers; I’m not, and I don’t think science intrinsically is (except in practice), reductionist. I study hormones and this research often leads me to explode phenomenological categories. For example, we found that cuddling increased testosterone – and followed up by theorizing and studying both cuddling and testosterone with fascinating and – to my mind – transformative findings about both. Similarly, we found that sexual desire is linked to testosterone in sometimes counterintuitive ways, which has led us to ask: what are people desiring when they desire? These are far from reductionist implications, because they leave us with more questions about hormones but also the social phenomenon we’re studying (rather than simplifying them). The world is complex, and science helps us appreciate how complex.

van Anders has found that cuddling can increase testosterone levels in women
Image from Flickr by malloreigh

I also see my work as feminist because I think about it as community- and alliance-building. If knowledge production were collaborative rather than competitive, what would it look like? We try to build those sorts of relationships with colleagues, junior and senior, to make science what we wish it could be (i.e., where we constantly push at the clarity and meaningfulness of our understandings of phenomena together, critically, constructively, enthusiastically, and connected to lived experiences). Finally, I think of my work as feminist because the knowledge we create is situated, as I and my lab happily acknowledge that our findings make sense in this time and place because they were produced in this time and place.

Can you say a little bit about what you mean by “inclusive research and lab practices”?

I’ve been thinking about inclusive research and lab practices since early graduate school, and I’ve come to define it for myself as an ongoing process that involves thinking about how my lab operates, research methods, and science communication approaches. I could go on and on about this, and love to, but will limit this to some concrete examples. In the lab, e.g., I think about how I recruit people, how I make clear the implicit and explicit ‘rules’ of labs and my lab for the people who work in my lab and come from diverse backgrounds, how diverse perspectives will help us get closer to more truthful and rounded knowledge. I think about how we treat each other in ways that are respectful of difference, sameness, and culture, and are realistic about power.

In my methods, I think a lot about how we recruit participants and who feels welcome into science and why. I work hard to make our studies places where people from rightly science-skeptical groups have a place, for reasons beyond or unrelated to difference (while still making room to honor those differences). So, posters, questionnaires, recruitment ads, etc. How do we ask questions – and most of my research is quantitative – that honor people’s lived experiences? That map onto people’s realities? That reflect people’s autonomy and respect their self-identities? These are grand goals, and we are obviously therefore continually striving to do better at the principles that underlie them.

Inclusive questionnaires as a part of inclusive research method

In science communication, I think a lot about the ways I write papers and the ways that I am allowed to write papers (I get some pretty hostile reviews that limit my ability to communicate certain ideas or in certain ways), how I involve my students (e.g., I have a lot of undergraduate co-authors, including first-authors on my papers), whom I speak to at conferences, how I get involved in mentoring, etc.So… I see inclusive research practices as trying to provide a model of science that explicitly acknowledges that science is a human endeavor and therefore political – and a model that therefore works within a consciously-articulated and progressive frame. So, inclusive research practices is kind of like saying that ‘the personal is political and it’s not just Politics that are political’ but in a science-y way, like: ‘the day-to-day of science is political, and it’s not just Science that is political.’

The fact that you have received a number of major grants and have published your work in the leading journals in your field indicates that you have managed to secure the support of other behavioral neuroscientists. How were you able to get other scientists to support your research?

“Coming out as Feminist”:
Feminists come in all sizes
Image from Flickr by Daniel Morrison

Well, one strategy of many feminists in non-feminist-allied disciplines (of which behavioral neuroscience is certainly one!) is to go into stealth mode. I had a major strategy which was to build up a large body of research and then one day be like: surprise! This was feminist all along! I think I’ve adhered to this strategy somewhat, but there are cues that scientists pick up on (‘radical’ things like using self-identification terms for sexuality, using non-binaristic gender/sex language, incorporating social location) and I think now I’ve been made. Also, it became increasingly difficult to do the work while straddling a fence – like, have you ever tried to do anything while fence-straddling? – because that meant partitioning myself in uncomfortable and inauthentic ways…I found that the more people could level Feminist! as an ‘insult,’ the more they would. As soon as I became more explicitly feminist, it became hard for others to level ‘feminist’ as an insult. Sort of like coming out, as in sometimes people have more power when they can insinuate something you’re not yet sharing. I also think that my subfields – behavioral neuroendocrinology (BNE) and sex research – are feminist-friendly in their own ways. BNE already pays a lot of attention to sexual diversity and gender/sex, as well as social location in certain limited ways (e.g., how poverty might affect stress hormones). So it’s less of a leap to think about how other aspects of social location might matter. Sex research also has some progressive traditions and elements, and I’ve been lucky in that I see myself continually able to mine that vein of progressiveness in all my colleagues. I think I’ve had a lot of privilege that I’ve been able to use too; I am trained in neuroscience, I’m white, I’ve had financial safety nets, I’m Canadian and now in the U.S., so I think my position has let me do a lot with fewer roadblocks than others might experience.

I am not so naïve to think that merit is enough for anything. But I do want to stake a claim to doing good work; I think I do great work! People know that I love my work, and I think my enthusiasm is catching. I think that my feminist approaches are intrinsically part of why my work is great – feminist science is not just ‘good science’. Feminist science is more than just good science, even while it also is good science. So, the more critically engaged my science is, the better science I produce.

I also think that I have worked extremely hard to be bio-legible and speak to my colleagues in ways they will understand. I used to think of my work as challenging/pushing/etc., but I now see my research program as building/reframing/expanding. I think this noncombative approach is more in line with how I’d like to see change happen when possible (‘be the change you want to see’ sort of thing). And I think because I work within my fields but on the margins, this insider/outsider status has given me a lot of space to do what I do, but also others to be generous and supportive. I’m really careful, too. I read book and article after book and article about the doing of science in terms of the politics and management, etc. I’ve never believed that whatever merit I do have will shine on its own as some sort of Sari-beacon, so I work hard to connect with people who have shared interests in some way. I’m also beyond extroverted (I’d way rather talk to a stranger than eat alone!) so that makes it a pleasure to connect with people. And since science is done by and with people, I think that this has helped too.

But you know, this question is hard to answer, especially as I’m pretenure and still junior. I think I’ll have more perspective as time – and I – march on.

How has your work been received by feminist scholars and activists who are not scientists?

I often worry about how my work will be received by critical scholarship audiences when I’m not there to situate it… and even when I am. So it has been a really pleasant and welcome experience to find that folks from across women’s studies and critical scholarship seem to be really interested in my work and, moreover, really extraordinarily generous. I think part of the reason is that I really do listen to and am interested in what people have to say, and make changes in my science. I think another reason is that I also try really hard to speak the language. I think scientists are often worried about how their work will be received and whether it will be attacked, like: why open up another front?! But I think critical thought and careful, conscious positioning go a long way (in scholarship, and elsewhere!). Like I said about neuroscience, I try to be biolegible. But I also often joke that I’m ‘bilingual’ because I can speak to both groups and even joint groups, so I also try to be WS-legible. In part, I think this is because I really truly understand that these epistemological approaches are so deeply different that I can see where there’s room for them to come together.

Do you have any advice for students and early-career researchers who want to incorporate feminist insights into their basic science research?

I can’t not recommend stealth mode. People are still so misinformed about what feminist science would be that it could be such a major and immediate stumbling block, especially to a junior person. I also can’t not recommend authenticity. We all are most passionate about doing work that has meaning, and I know those times when I’ve gone into deep stealth have been some of the most professionally (and personally) deathly stultifying and unfulfilling times.

Sometimes stealth mode is required
Image from Flickr by jeriaska

There are few guides to doing feminist science practice, but I’m trying to build some – get in touch with me and others who seem like allies. I’m also building a feminist science practice website just to facilitate these sorts of alliances, so look for that! I have other more prosaic suggestions: remember that you are the person on the ground, so you have to make decisions that will sometimes turn out to be wrong in ways you can only realize through experience. Remember that no matter how grand your audience might be in your imagination, you have to get through reviewers, editors, program officers, etc. to get your work published and funded and that doing so involves negotiations with your principles that not need to be positioned as ‘selling out’ to guilt trip yourself. Finally, remember that what you’re doing is hard, because you’re creating new knowledge (which is hard enough) but you’re also creating the ways to create new knowledge, so be patient with yourself, excited at your successes, and generous with your colleagues (and maybe also generous with yourself and patients with your colleagues).

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