There is no doubt that Norwegian gender research could do with a proper spring clean – as could most academic departments and subject areas almost anywhere. Under ideal circumstances such a spring clean could help us get rid of the dust and dirt and retain the valuables. However, if you hire the wrong cleaning company for such a task, the results may be disastrous.
The centre of which I am in charge recently went through an international evaluation with an outcome to be very proud of; in addition to university funding it has through competition secured funding from five other units (committees, research funding bodies including the EU); the rates of both publication and dissemination are well above the average at the University of Oslo. Still, there is great room for improvement, as the debates have certainly highlighted. They have also highlighted the desire to carry out necessary changes, but paradoxically they have probably also diminished our chances of success in this task.
What has happened instead, is that a multifaceted and multidisciplinary field has in its entirety been carried away by the storm (although not wiped out completely), which means that also much of the extremely promising, high-quality research going on will suffer for a long time to come. Worst of all, it will perhaps be more difficult in the time to come to recruit top scholars from a Norwegian context – for them it will simply not be attractive enough to be associated with the field. Luckily, there are many researchers abroad who have not been affected by the storm and who are still more than willing to study gender in Norway, one of the most interesting places to do so internationally, given the social configurations of gender here.
On the good side, the stir has shown what Norwegian gender studies have actually achieved during their 50 years of existence:
First: Even if in the heat of the debates gender studies were also accused of being politically irrelevant, more critics mentioned the political influence our field has had. Even if in my opinion our political influence is overrated, there is no doubt that Norwegian gender equality policies have been research-based to a great extent. Research results have been applied, which happens to all research that is found useful by interested parties, whether they be hospitals, surgeries or churches. Socio-scientific gender research has particularly strived to be politically relevant.
It is not unique to Norway that governments want research that they can use. The Norwegian Research Council is in this respect a benign and altruist old aunt compared to, say, the British Research Councils with which I also have considerable experience. Finally, theorists of science agree that there is no such thing as value-neutral research even if the influence of values can be eliminated from certain stages of the research process.
Second: The debates reflect that we have managed to get across to the public that we no longer study just women, but women, men, and sexuality as well as the gendered social and cultural constraints that structure our ways of being in the world.
This means that “kjønnsforskning” can no longer be written off as something of interest to women only (it never was, still it was often been ignored with a reference along these lines). “Kjønnsforskning” concerns everyone who carries “kjønn”, sex and gender. That is everyone.
But herein also lies a new problem of which I think we are seeing the contours already: each one of us is nearest to their own “kjønn”. Will we end up in a situation where people (via the media) turn to doctors and gender researchers to tell them who they truly are, since identity is probably more than ever connected to body and sexuality? I hope not, but it is partly already happening. This will also easily lead to the co-option of gender research. I have written in a previous post that critique is the “sine qua non” of gender research, and once you end up in the popular priesthood it is easy to lose the critical edge.
Third: The question: “Why don’t you do more research in biology” is excellent in that it communicates a broad ownership of "kjønnsforskning”. Gender research is considered as so interdisciplinary that it is considered strange if we show no interest in a subject. It is no less than terrific that the public demands that we live up to our own standards. But the first commandment of interdisciplinarity is mutuality ...