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"Gender research is needed now more than ever"

News: Oct 01, 2019

The first generation of gender researchers came into the universities with the express desire to change these academic institutions.
“Now we must fight to defend them. It’s paradoxical,” says Rosi Braidotti, Professor at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

Rosi Braidotti has been a driving force in the establishment of gender research in Europe since the late 1980s when she was appointed founding professor of women’s studies at Utrecht. She watched young researchers disappear across the Atlantic to the USA and wanted to establish a solid platform of feminist theorists here" in Europe.

“We needed to establish a structure that would allow students and researchers to circulate within Europe and exchange experiences,” she says.

In 1991, she formed the Network Of Interdisciplinary Gender Studies in Europe (NOISE) which holds an annual summer school for undergraduate students and doctoral students. Six years later, in 1997, she started the Advanced Thematic Network of Women’s Studies in Europe (ATHENA).

In between, in 1995, she founded the Netherlands Research School of Women’s Studies at Utrecht University – at a time when the institutionalisation of gender research was being vigorously debated within the feminist movement in Europe.

“Those of us who were involved in starting the long march through the institutions as we called it back then in the 1980s knew that we were walking a tight rope. We took that radical potential into the universities in hopes of changing these institutions with a critical scholarly perspective. But we were also aware that the universities were practising oppressive tolerance: rebels were being admitted in order to tame them,” says Rosi Braidotti.

Even now, 30 years on, Rosi remains convinced that change can be achieved from the inside, and she can see a number of theoretical as well as practical advantages in the establishment of gender studies as a separate area of study at universities.

“It makes it easier to transfer knowledge between the generations, thereby accelerating the creation of a critical mass, and what’s more we have succeeded in retaining our radical voice,” she says.

Gender research must become broader

Rosi Braidotti doesn’t think that the critical sting of gender research has become any less pointed inside academia. On the other hand, she is somewhat critical of the direction that gender research has taken. She thinks that gender studies departments are not addressing sufficiently with what she sees as the big social issues of our time, the grand challenges.

“We have a whole new economy and a technological development within for example IT and AI that are changing the structures of our social interaction and the labour market. This is the really big challenge. Many jobs will be replaced by robots and women will be especially affected by this transformation that hits the whole working class hard. The way I see it, a new type of class structure is beginning to emerge, between the monopolies of the four GAFA tech giants (Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon) and the new digital proletariat. Any of these four giants has more power than most nation states."

The concentration and polarization of wealth in our times is worse than during the first industrial revolution, she says.

“While we are in the throes of such a revolutionary social change, marginalised groups are particularly vulnerable. All the more so, as this so-called fourth industrial revolution is taking place at the same time as the climate change and the threat of an environmental sixth extinction,” she says.

As she sees it, gender research is needed now more than ever – and it’s needed in relation to the big questions about the economy, technology and the environment.

“Take for example questions relating to the Internet and data collection. What do we have to say about this?! And where is feminism in the climate change debate?”

In recent years, Rosi Braidotti has focused mainly on the development of research on the posthuman convergence of technological growth and environmental crisis. Her book “The Posthuman” was published in 2013 and a sequel has just been released: “Posthuman Knowledge”. She is currently working on the final volume of this trilogy, precisely about “Posthuman Feminism”.

Fundamental to posthuman research in Rosi Braidotti’s terms is its critical perspective on the division between the human and “the others”, for example, animals and technological artefacts. This dichotomy is challenged by the extensive technological mediation that pervades our lives, but also academic research. In the field of medicine for example, technological devices can now function as parts of a human body; in the Law, legal personhood is now granted to non-human agents such as rivers, or land, in order to protect them from exploitation. In synthetic biology, entire life-forms can be made from stem-cells- like artificial meat, for instance- patented and sold as new organism.

“We are simultaneously extending our scientific and economic control over living matter and being confronted by environmental threats that give us good reason to question the special status of the human species in relation to many animal- or technological “others”. Because feminism has always dealt with the powers of difference – in the negative as well as the positive sense – we have a lot to say about this posthuman moment”, says Rosi Braidotti.

“The universities are in trouble”

The establishment of gender studies is often referred to in the past tense, as something that happened during the 1980s and 1990s, but Rosi Braidotti consistently talks about it in the present tense.

“I think that we’ve only just begun. I often say to young researchers that they are in a similar situation to the 1980s. The experimental nature of the field remains as strong as ever. Radical epistemologies are forever beginning anew. What's happening now is a new beginning,” she says, referring specifically to the growing nationalism and populism in Europe.

These movements are xenophobic, but also misogynist, heteronormative and trans-phobic, Rosi Braidotti states. They are also anti-intellectual, supporting regimes that want take more control over the universities, she adds.

“The universities are in trouble, notably the Humanities, in so far as they deal with national identities and cultures, and gender studies departments that come immediately under threat of closure,” she says, pointing to Hungary as the most recent example.

The government has removed Gender Studies from the list of accredited MA programs, while also increasing control over research funding and the activities of state universities, to align them with its nationalist agenda. It has forced the Central European University – a university funded by the Soros Foundation – to move out of the country altogether.

“When my generation of gender researchers came into academia, we fought to change the universities. Now we must fight to defend them. It’s paradoxical,” says Rosi Braidotti.
The way she describes it is that gender research is currently under attack from two quarters: politically,

from conservatives and the radical right who sees the field as a political opponent; and from within academia, where gender research is again being criticised as lacking in academic rigour, notably in terms of methodology.

“The criticism from other academic disciplines has been with us since we began publishing, getting grants and professorships. We have responded by devoting a lot of attention to issue of methods, key concepts and termininology. The best thing we can do now is to continue to respond openly and rigorously to the criticism, by explaining our methods, addressing the grand challenges and showing how our research is relevant. We must take the criticism of our peers very seriously,” says Rosi Braidotti.

She describes the times we are living in as a period in which academic freedom is under threat while the humanities are also in danger of losing their authority. According to Rosi Braidotti, this is due to a combination of elements: attacks by nationalist movements and the fact that neo-liberalism encourages the kind of research that generates patents and hence makes financial profits. But attacks are also occurring because the humanities have not succeeded in making the case for their relevance in relation to the revolutionary scientific and social changes that are shaping our times.

“We need to put more effort into responding to broader questions that relate to technology, the global economy, the Internet, and so on. We also need to renew our curricula accordingly,” says Rosi Braidotti.

EU an important actor

What Rosi Braidotti and her feminist colleagues wanted to achieve with NOISE and ATHENA was to establish a structure that would allow gender studies students and researchers in Europe to learn from each other. Both networks were started and operated for many years with the support of EU funding and Rosi Braidotti describes the networks as part of the institutionalisation of gender research at the EU level.

The gender studies researchers also collaborated with the European Commission in setting up the gender and science programmes, which blossomed into large and transversal areas of institutional intervention.

“Since my youth, I have had a profound belief in the EU as a post-nationalist project, as an antidote to European fascism and militarism,” she says and explains that her belief in the EU’s potential remains intact, despite Brexit and the rise of the influence of nationalist and extreme right-wing parties.

“If this is the alternative, then the EU is absolutely necessary!” she says.
According to Rosi Braidotti, the fact that the influence of the far right is rising in the EU has a simple solution:

“If we want a democratic Europe, we must create it. We have to be prepared to fight for it. We have to develop together democratic European social imaginaries, by facing the truth about both the positive and the negative aspects of European history, notably fascism, but also our colonialism, our deep suspicion of others. We must get immunized against the fascinating powers of fascism that Primo Levi wrote so eloquently about. Otherwise, we will repeat the fascist disaster all over again,” she says.

As she sees it, the EU is an important actor for democracy in general and for gender researchers within the European Union, in particular because it is one of the biggest funders of research and it is mostly more progressive than the national states. In the current EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, Horizon 2020, all funded research must include the gender dimension, and Rosi Braidotti hopes that this requirement will remain as strong in the next programme, Horizon Europe, which will run between 2021 and 2027.

“The work to get the gender dimension integrated into EU-funded research was an important cause for ATHENA, and we were successful in many of our demands. Ultimately, the greatest challenge lies in ensuring that the implementation of these requirements is effective and enduring,” she says.

Posthuman knowledge(s) summer school

ATHENA closed down in 2011 after its EU funding ran out but its work is carried on by the trans-European association AtGender. NOISE still holds gender studies summer schools, although now without EU support and with a new academic director.

Since 2013, Rosi Braidotti holds her own summer school focusing on her work on posthumanism. She believes that the need for international platforms for gender studies students and researchers are the same today as they were 30 years ago. Because today knowledge is produced by a wide range of actors, she also argues that it is important to broaden these networks and create new alliances with researchers, activists, artists and curators and other feminist thinkers outside academia.

“Knowledge is no longer produced only within universities and we must form broader networks with people who share our analysis of the world and our democratic vision for the future. Democracy requires open, dialogical and fair criticism: we need to develop cultures of mutual respect,” says Rosi Braidotti.

“When it comes to knowledge production, we are in an incredibly exciting time with a massive revolution in scholarship, spearheaded by new technologies. We are living in fantastic – and terrifying – times.”

Links to organisations mentioned in the article:


NOISE Summer School

BY: Charlie Olofsson

Page Manager: Inga-Bodil Ekselius|Last update: 12/2/2019

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Utskriftsdatum: 2020-02-22