Gender researchers are challenging boundaries in academia

2016-04-16 06:45

The first PhD theses in women’s history were presented in the early 1960s. Today, almost 1 500 theses later, gender research is a well-established field. has talked to PhD student Desireé Ljungcrantz and professor Ulla Manns about changes and new trends in these publications.

Ulla Manns

‘It’s difficult to make a general statement, but it’s easy to see that there is a focus on intersectionality in modern gender research. We are seeing new theories that explore sexuality norms and racification, and also functionality norms and class. This is a big difference compared with in the 1980s,’ says Ulla Manns, professor of gender studies at Södertörn University.

Desireé Ljungcrantz, PhD student at Tema Genus in Linköping, adds that the so-called affective turn in recent years has made a big difference in the sense that affective, emotional and physical dimensions are given attention instead of language use.

Some research is considered more political

In her thesis, Desireé Ljungcrantz is exploring the view of HIV with a focus on emotions, and primarily fear and shame. New HIV medicines have dramatically changed the outlook for people with an HIV diagnosis, yet the view of HIV has not changed accordingly, she points out.

‘The public remains very fearful of HIV. These emotions are often instinctive and appear very rapidly. Thus, the problem cannot be solved through information campaigns. Instead, the fear has to be dealt with at a much deeper level,’ she says.

Desiree LjungcrantzAs part of her thesis project, Desireé Ljungcrantz has analysed popular-scientific accounts of HIV. She has also interviewed people with an HIV diagnosis.

‘As for myself, I was diagnosed 15 years ago. As is customary in the field of gender studies, I tell my own story in my research. This may be viewed as unprofessional and too personal in other disciplines, but in gender studies researchers are actually expected to do it. It is an integral part of the researcher’s production of knowledge and one’s experiences can be considered an asset,’ she says.

In some parts of academia, researchers tend to shy away from concepts such as feminist theory and queer, Desireé Ljungcrantz believes.

‘Some disciplines are considered to be political in nature, supposedly in contrast to other research fields,’ she says.

The field has gradually gained legitimacy

The first PhD theses in women’s history, published in the early 1960s, were also viewed this way, according to Ulla Manns. When Eva Åsbrink presented her PhD thesis in 1962, the customary defence event lasted for seven hours and her work on the view of women in the Swedish church was blamed for being ideologically charged.

‘Gender researchers still get those remarks. It is still the case that some topics, approaches and identified problems are not considered to be legitimate,’ says Ulla Manns.

Sweden’s first PhD thesis in the field of women’s history was presented by Gunnar Qvist in 1960. In his pioneering work, Qvist analysed Swedish parliamentary debates on the right of women to engage in commerce. Two years later, Karin Westman Berg presented a PhD thesis on Swedish author C.J.L. Almqvist’s portrayal of women and Eva Åsbrink – as mentioned above – published hers on the view of the Swedish church concerning the position of women in society.

These three researchers can justly be described as pioneers, according to Ulla Manns.

‘They are important because they demanded space in the academic sphere. They managed to finish their PhDs despite the fact that their subjects weren’t accepted at all,’ she says.

Although gender research is still sometimes accused of being unscientific or politically charged, it has without a doubt gradually gained legitimacy in academia. The women’s history collections library at the Gothenburg University Library are managing the Gena database, which gathers all PhD theses on gender issues in one place. At present, the database contains almost 1 500 PhD theses on different topics and in different disciplines.

A need for self-criticism in the analysis of power

In the future, Ulla Manns would like to see more postcolonial gender research in the areas of power, social conditions and material injustices. She also feels there is a need for intensified discussion about the consequences of the whiteness in academia.

‘There’s a gap between the way we think about power and our own knowledge space. We need to be critical of ourselves. This issue has been seriously addressed in our field only in the last few years,’ she says.

Desireé Ljungcrantz hopes that gender research will continue to gain legitimacy as a research field and that it will also continue to challenge boundaries in academia.

‘Due to the tough debate atmosphere and the neoliberal framework in which we exist, there may be a risk that the field gets depoliticised and that the social criticism gets toned down,’ she says.

Entering a controversial subject area and using disputed methods can have a price in the form of denied applications for research funding and rejection letters from publishers, at the same time as gender research is an international field and innovation is clearly a buzzword.

‘As PhD students, we need to discuss the academic framework and the expectations put on us as researchers. One’s PhD project is like an examination of your potential for a future in the field, so there’s a lot at stake if you are planning on sticking around in academia. That’s why collegial solidarity is so important,’ says Desireé Ljungcrantz.

Author Charlie Olofsson, translated by Debbie Axlid
Photo Kerstin Alnebratt
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