Other winning essays
“CITY Inc.” | James Fletcher, King’s College London
“The World in 2065: A rapidly changing climate and a renewed social science” | Gioia Barnbrook, University of Aberdeen
“They know how much oxygen I breathe, which is fine by me” | Josephine Go Jefferies, University of Nottingham
“After ‘posh and white’: the 50 year slog towards achieving educational equality” | Elizabeth Houghton, Lancaster University
“People will soon be at the very heart of law making” | Louise Thompson, University of Hull (PhD)/ University of Surrey (present)
“One morning in 2065” | Matjaz Vidmar, University of Edinburgh
“Policing in times of financial austerity and beyond: The role of psychology in maximising efficiency” | Rebecca Wheeler, Goldsmiths University of London
“Navigating private life in a public world” | Sam Miles, Queen Mary, University of London
“Keeping pace with the ‘perennial gale of competition’” | Samuel Ian Quigg, University of Surrey
This year, Britain’s Economic and Social Research Council asked early career social scientists to try their hand at what might be called social-science fiction, looking at what strides their particular fields might achieve in the next 50 years. And like the best traditional science fiction, the winning essays were grounded in the evidence and research of today extended by smart analysis of what the future can hold.
Science fiction, err, speculative fiction, is in the business of predicting what the world will look like in years hence. And the best science fiction gives equal weight to both parts of its moniker: science and fiction.
The World in 2065, as the contest was named, received an array of submissions covering a wide variety of topics addressing key issues affecting society such as climate change, gender inequality, education and the law. The contest was co-sponsored by SAGE (the parent of Social Science Space), which like the ESRC is celebrating its 50th birthday this year, and which again like the ESRC is busily writing its own narrative for another successful 50 years.
“Science communication is currently something of a buzz phrase in the academic world, so it was particularly interesting to see how this crop of up-and-coming scientists set about encapsulating their hopes and fears for their disciplines over the next 50 years in under 800 words,” Tash Reith-Banks, one of four judges in the competition, wrote in The Guardian, where she is the production editor for the Science desk. The other three judges were Alan Gillespie, the chair of ESRC since 2009; Miranda Nunhofer, executive director for SAGE; and Martin Ince, a freelance journalist specializing in research and higher education.
Over the next 10 weeks Social Science Space will present the 10 shortlisted essays: the overall winner, two essays honored as ‘highly commended,’ and the seven other essays on the shortlist.
Here, we present the highly commended essay “Doubting gender. Or why it is best to leave certain questions unanswered,” by Kristin Hübner of the University of Warwick. You can read her full entry below:
“Doubting gender. Or why it is best to leave certain questions unanswered”
By Kristin Hübner
“Any social scientist who tries to predict the future should be regarded with healthy distrust”, I was told by my professor during one of my first sociology lectures which, ironically, dealt with the subject of social change. If this quote is to be believed, then the following paragraphs can only be understood as a work of fiction. Confronted with the choice between dystopia and utopia I chose the latter, believing and hoping that constructions of reality can eventually create a tangible reality.
In order to paint a picture of how sociology in general and, in this case, feminist theory in particular might change the world within the next 50 years, it is perhaps best to examine one specific example and compare the recent past with the potential future. In 2009, Caster Semenya competed in the 12th IAAF World Championships in Athletics in Berlin and won the gold medal in the 800-meter race. Her success, however, was immediately followed by a controversy regarding her ‘true’ sex and the question of whether Semenya should be permitted to compete as a woman. After eleven months the IAAF’s medical commission, which included a gynaecologist, endocrinologist, psychologist, internal medicine specialist and a ‘gender expert’ concluded that the athlete should be allowed to enter sports competitions as a woman and keep her medal.
I argue that this case perfectly illustrates the importance of feminist sociology and of incorporating its research findings and theoretical concepts into a wider scientific and social context. If this incorporation will continue to take place over the next 50 years, we might experience a utopia in which we would not encounter another case like Semenya’s again – or, at least, deal with it differently. By 2065, the political and social implications of categories such as gender and sex might in fact have become more widely acknowledged through the dissemination of feminist theory and the expansion of interdisciplinary research. By then, gender, which is usually associated with socially constructed ideas about femininity and masculinity, and sex, which commonly refers to a person’s ‘female’ or ‘male’ biological make-up, will be recognised as complex and yet somewhat arbitrary categories. It will be acknowledged that a person’s chromosomes, hormones, sexual preferences, behaviour and appearance (to name only a few highly gendered human characteristics) cannot and do not need to be consistently categorised as ‘female’ or ‘male’. By 2065, we might even question the use of these gendered distinctions altogether.
A significant part in the dissemination of essentialist assumptions about gender is due to the segregation between natural and social sciences. When natural sciences are considered a source of objectively measurable truths, resulting in a perception of biology as destiny, it can limit people’s views regarding themselves and others. The segregation between the sciences is in itself a highly gendered classification between the more ‘objective’ natural sciences and the more ‘subjective’ social sciences, and has been criticised not only by feminist sociologists. The inclusion of feminist and sociological theory in disciplines such as biology, chemistry or medicine could lead to a more generally accepted scientific ideal, which stresses the importance of considering the biases and socio-political consequences of scientific interpretations. Scientists across various disciplines would thus become more aware of how their own internalised ideas about gender, ethnicity and other social categories shape what they infer from their findings. This would also make researchers become more conscious of how their interpretations influence social norms, standards and even laws.
So, if by 2065 another athlete’s gender – or any person’s gender for that matter – is questioned, society and science in this utopia will, through the influence of feminist sociological theory, have changed to such an extent that there will be no need to refer to a medical commission. There will instead be a greater acceptance of the notion that gender is a socially constructed concept, based on a too simplistic dichotomy which does not represent ‘reality’. There will also be more awareness about racialised notions of gender that shape the way we perceive femininity and masculinity, and which might have contributed to raising the issue of Semenya’s ‘true’ gender in the first place. Indeed, the importance of intersectionality – acknowledging that gender can mean different things for people of different ethnic and social backgrounds – will have become the standard way of researching and grasping the social world.
In spite of not being able to predict the future, this is how I envision feminist sociology will change the world within the next 50 years, and it is the utopian vision I strive to realise through my research.