Conference Report: Masculinities in Science / Sciences of Masculinity

Erika Lorraine Milam
Princeton University

The morning of May 31, 2012, Philadelphia newspapers carried the story that Jason Babin, defensive end for the Eagles, hoped to spend part of his off-season vacation running with the bulls in Pamplona. (He had just returned from bear hunting in Alaska and was already looking forward to his next adrenaline-filled junket.) “It’s a kind of rite of passage,” he suggested. “It’s a stamp. I guess in my brain I have a kind of figurative ‘man card’ that’s got certain punches that need to be punched out.”

Later in the afternoon, fourteen scholars (more intellectually than physically intrepid, but equally courageous) and a dozen guests gathered for a conference entitled Masculinities in Science / Sciences of Masculinity. As co-organizers, Robert Nye (Oregon State University) and I had been working to bring this conference together for almost a year, and yet, as always happens, some details were produced on the fly. Neither knew exactly what the other was going to say in welcoming everyone and you can imagine my surprise when Bob included the news of Babin’s announcement in his opening remarks. A round of laughter went around the room. Babin’s conception of masculinity – as a static list of activities that provide the ticket to true manhood – unwittingly served as a brilliant counterpoint to our purpose.

Given the ubiquitous presence of men as scientists, engineers, and doctors throughout history, we wondered what the intellectual consequences would be of changing the kinds of questions historians ask about the scientific enterprise from, for example, “why did scientists think X?” to “why did male scientists think X?” Or, more exactly, what could it add to our understanding of science if we factored in the masculine social and cultural perspectives of time and place? For three days, we discussed possible answers to these questions and contemplated the lessons we might learn from using gender as an analytical tool to analyze the role of men in science, both as creators of knowledge and subjects of research.

The tools for understanding complex gender dynamics and the importance of gender in the everyday lived experiences of scientists and engineers have, of course, been amply demonstrated by the substantial literature on women in science and gender studies of science. Our challenge was to bring to light the ways that scientific masculinities have operated over time, and within different cultures, without recapitulating the exclusion of women or femininity from the story. Contributions had been organized according to four main questions:

  • How did men construct scientific and medical visions of normative male anatomy and sexual behavior?
  • How do male scientists negotiate their relationships with other male scientists, and why does that matter?
  • How has technology helped define what it meant to be a male and how did men define technology as a masculine subject?
  • How have writers about science (both men and women) perpetuated and popularized the idea that exploration, science, and technology were natural masculine enterprises?

Rather than asking our participants to give formal talks, we decided to precirculate works-in-progress. We reasoned this would give us more time to discuss and greater access to the details of each story. The format proved a great success.

Our discussions quickly cut across our initial questions. In addition to describing the kinds of masculinities in operation at various times and places, we also started asking how these masculinities were constructed and maintained, and the functions they served for the men and women who invoked them. Rather than seeing masculine scientific and technical cultures as static embodiments of historically particular moments, as a whole our papers documented the ways in which masculinities in science have been deployed, emulated, borrowed, and ultimately reproduced. The result has been a long-standing masculine tradition in science that is at once differentiated, flexible, nuanced, and incredibly persistent. Additionally, many of the papers explored the potentially fraught ground produced when multiple cultures of masculinity overlapped. Particularly visible were themes highlighting the physical body and its health, the social body and its integrity, and the national body and its status and vigor. All told, the conference worked to break down easy dichotomies of male and female, professional and amateur, embodiment and knowledge, and theory and practice.

By the end of the conference (I’m willing to concede this was probably a coincidence) Babin had changed his mind – he will not be running with the bulls in July after all. Looking to the coming year, however, we will be deeply involved in revising these papers for publication as Osiris, Vol. 30, 2015. (Osiris annually publishes a thematically cohesive edited collection under the auspices of the History of Science Society). The ability to gather as a group and talk through our papers in person was incredibly valuable. It provided an energizing common experience from which we will build the volume and that each of us will keep in mind when revising our individual papers. In sum, we enjoyed a lovely and intellectually stimulating three days in the City of Brotherly Love. We owe a great debt of thanks to PACHS for a conference-support grant that made it possible for us to physically meet at a time when universities are tightening their budgets and funding for conferences is increasingly difficult to find.