Portrait: Catharina Landström

2007-09-04 13:01

When the sport utility vehicle became a hot item among American women, the car industry reacted with mixed feelings of fear and excitement. The gigantic car, with its dark colours and powerful engine, was meant to appeal to the wealthy middle-class man. – The new pattern of consumption created chaos with those who never took the gender order of car culture for granted, says Catharina Landström, who holds a Docent in Theory of Science.

Back in Göteborg after many years as a guest researcher in different parts of the world, she is just finishing a research project on technique and heteronormativity.

– The introduction of sport utility vehicles, or SUVs, is a clear indication of the gap between cultural notions of people’s expectations and reality. Normally men are believed to be more interested in cars than women. And, according to current ideas, women car owners tend to choose a small, cheap, energy-saving car – which preferably is red.

– The fact that utility vehicles still became very popular among women caused increased activity in the car industry. After all, it was thought to impress wealthy, middle-class men, but on the largest market, the American, it became instead a success among women. This was explained by a Volvo representative with the statement that “men buy SUVs to their women” – this without taking notice of the fact that car manufacturers are well aware that women are as interested in cars as men – even if this does not agree with the generally accepted norm for male and female behaviour.

An interest in cars is interpreted as an expression of male heterosexual desire.

In 2003 Catharina Landström’s project “Cars, computers and mobile phones in the heterosexual matrix” was funded by a three-year research grant from the Swedish Research Council, which, so far, has resulted in a number of articles and eventually will become a book. She refers in her work to the philosopher Judith Butler’s idea of the heterosexual matrix, i.e. that we become women or men from behaving ourselves in ways that are considered as female or male. To appear as a woman it is also required that your body is categorized as a woman’s – vice versa for a man – and that your sexual desire is natural, that is, heterosexual.

– According to the Volvo representative who made a statement about sport utility vehicles in Göteborgs-Posten, men kick the tyres while women direct their attention to the car’s interior design. The point is our need to be explicable as either men or women.

The heterosexual matrix is normative since people who are doing the wrong things are punished, says Catharina Landström, in giving an example:

– Women in popular culture who develop a positive relationship with cars do not seem to be heterosexually successful. Such women fail in relationships, are assaulted, and, often, they die in the end. In contrast lesbian women can relate to cars in a positive way. More often than not in the cinematic world it is proved that women interested in technique will sooner or later come out as lesbian.

She remarks that, on the other hand, no gay-car environments exist in public conscience. According to the stereotypical image of gay men they are not interested in cars, engines or of doing mechanical work.

– Male car environments are extremely heteronormative. An interest in cars is interpreted as an expression of male heterosexual desire.

Women often diminish their competence

That technology is an area dominated by men has been realized by many feminist technology researchers. But Catharina Landström is more interested in the cultural consequences. Women are simply not expected to know about technical constructions or functions.

– Women frequently diminish their competence in gender-associated contexts and technical equipment that is associated with femininity, such as white goods, sewing machines or “girl cars” are often regarded as less technically advanced than other things.

In contrast to cars, mobile phones appear nowadays as gender neutral. Even though the chief target group also here initially was middle-aged businessmen, they have spread to all categories of people in the course of a couple of years. Catharina Landström thinks this is quite exciting:

– It would be very good if all technology could be more gender neutral, as, after all, it is used by everyone.

Since last winter she is back at Göteborg University after a year as deputy lecturer at the Department for Media and Communications of Goldsmith College, University of London, where she became interested in scientific communication, especially via new media.

– Often, I get a kick out of visiting other environments.

It is precisely this aspect that is one of her strongest driving forces for seeking university positions abroad – apart from a consistent liking for setting out on a journey, to discover new places. Furthermore is her research area, technology and science studies, a very limited field in Sweden.

– It feels like a life-long position at the same institution cannot provide sufficient intellectual stimulation. By contrast, there are great many people in Britain who are busy with the same things as me. Most of all I would want to return to Australia, where I lived and did research for a period of three years, but the labour market there is still worse than in Sweden – or on the same level.

In 1998 Catharina Landström defended her thesis Everyday Actor-Network. Stories about Locals and Globals in Molecular Biology at Göteborg University, in which, having followed two groups doing research on medical molecular biology, she discussed concepts that are central in actor-network theories. Her subject field, theory of science, can simply be described as studies on science or research on research.

– When I was beginning my dissertation work I had read much about lab studies. I therefore decided to follow the research groups at Sahlgrenska University Hospital, studying their work processes. My plan was to investigate whether it would be possible to develop concepts explaining how they work on a daily basis.

– I soon realized how complex their workdays are. The big discoveries are one thing, daily work is something else. During a project you never know if the results will hold when they are tested, or if someone else has figured out the same thing at the same time. Just look at the Nobel Prizes, which are often awarded 20 years after the discoveries were made.

She spent one year of her doctoral studies at University of California in Santa Cruz, where she attended courses that were held by the world-famous professor and cyber-feminist Donna Haraway. It was Haraway who in the nineties introduced the notion of cyborg in feminist research. The cyborg can be described as a symbol of a machine/human hybrid.

– It was an incredible pleasure to meet Haraway, whose works I had been reading to quite a great extent. She was really nice, and a skilled teacher. Though her texts are difficult to understand, she is very good at telling and explaining things orally. In fact she came to serve as a model to me. And her courses have proved enormously useful, especially her course in creative writing.

Postcolonial perspectives

The time spent in Santa Cruz made Catharina Landström open her eyes to a new research movement, postcolonial perspectives on scientific formation of knowledge. As a result she became, after her return to Sweden, the editor of the anthology Postkoloniala texter [Postcolonial texts], with contributions by writers of significance for postcolonial theory and policies, e.g. Edward Said and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.

– As a political movement, postcolonialism strives to change injustices that, throughout history, were created by the West’s exploitation of other continents. Postcolonial theory brings this issue to academic discourse. The anthology contains a collection of texts of significance to the critique of knowledge.

After the defence of her doctoral dissertation, she left for post-doctoral research in Australia – more precisely, to School of Humanities at the University of Western Sydney. The reason for her decision to go to Australia was the intimation she had of a failed scientific attempt – which, nevertheless, had become a success. It was about a quarantine test aimed at gaining biological control over weeds and vermin. However, a virus had been let loose by way of mistake, which had resulted in a mass death of rabbits.

– But since rabbits are regarded as a big problem in Australia all were pleased when they disappeared. Loss of control during an experiment would normally be considered as a big failure. But in this case, then, it became a success. And to me as a theorist of science, an investigation of the entire process seemed like a very interesting opportunity.

She was happy in Australia and would like to live there again:

– Even though things are very different there and it is far off, many things are similar. For a Swede this is a country that is easy to grasp. One gets straight answers, just like here. And, as you know, this is also a country where the sun is always shining!

Author Lena Olson
Source The portrait was originally published in Gender Research in Sweden, 2007
Related material
show more news ›