During my undergrad degree, I noticed that in social science classes there’s often an expectation that certain students in a class will speak up to represent the feminist view or the minority perspective.
While there is no problem with students who have a personal or academic interest in certain issues choosing to include those in class discussions, there is a problem when those issues are not otherwise brought into the discourse. At the root of this issue is the need to complicate the way we approach the abstract subjects of the social sciences. If there’s anything I learned during my time in Women’s Studies classes, it is that we need to reconceptualise the way we perceive different realities and experiences.
Who is the subject of the majority of social sciences classes? I was in a political science seminar last semester and the discussion of issues such as regime type and identity politics were conducted as if they affect a population that is genderless, classless, and usually race-less. Rarely are any further particularities of identity considered. The abstract subject position taken up in the social sciences is most often a white, male, able-bodied heterosexual, existing in an overall dominant position, and it’s important to recognize that.
More classrooms and professors need to incorporate an intersectional approach that looks beyond the abstract individual with the goal of addressing the variance in human experience. (If you’re unsure about what intersectionality is, check this out for an overview!)
But how do we do that – and why should we bother? The trend of relegating discussion of gender to Women’s Studies classes is not doing enough to address the issue. Women’s Studies is an important discipline, but it can’t be the only place where there is a real discussion about gender, race or sexuality.
Only a small percentage of students will have the inclination or the elective flexibility to take Women’s Studies or similar classes, and only a relatively small number of men will take these classes. If thinking critically about gender and intersectionality continues to be fostered in only certain settings by a minority of students, most social science classes will continue to lack this important discourse.
Just because someone personally relates to something doesn’t mean they are expected to represent that particular issue. Is it too much to expect that people who enjoy relative social privilege should question that privilege and consider perspectives that they don’t experience on a daily basis? Obviously there are limitations on the extent to which this can happen – you can’t speak to or represent an experience you haven’t had. However, the deliberate inclusion of an intersectional approach, and the consideration of more than the abstract subject, would be a welcome addition to most social science curricula.