The organisation of gender research

Gender research has developed in two directions: as a separate discipline and as an area of knowledge interwoven with other disciplines.

Today gender research is represented at most Swedish higher education institutions. Research and education are carried out both as a separate subject area, gender studies, and as integrated research, meaning as research incorporated into other disciplines. According to the Gena database, which is produced by Kvinnsam – National Resource Library for Gender Studies at Gothenburg University Library in cooperation with the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research, almost 1500 PhD theses have been published in the research field since 1960. A majority of these works have been published in areas other than gender studies, such as history and sociology.

In the 1970s and 1980s, critical perspectives emerged in fields such as sociology, history, ethnology, comparative literature and political science. The point that students, researchers and teachers made, inspired by the growing feminist movement, was that the research in these areas largely ignored women. There was also a demand for knowledge about the situation of women, both historically and at the time, from organisations that fought for things such as women’s right to equal pay, abortion and childcare. Especially discussions about women’s power and influence over their own lives and society at large were lacking in the traditional disciplines.

Meeting places for women’s studies

Gender research has been represented as a separate academic environment at Swedish higher education institutions since 1970, although back in those days it was referred to as women’s research. As researchers developed new perspectives, courses in women’s studies became available. So-called centra/fora were established at the country’s five universities in 1978 (Lund, Gothenburg, Stockholm, Umeå and Uppsala) and in the following year also at the university colleges in Luleå and Örebro. The staff positions were organised by the researchers themselves and were funded via various government grants. The grants were part of the government’s and the Office of Swedish Higher Education’s strategy to support women’s studies and develop a structure for support of gender equality in academia.

The centra/fora became meeting places for feminist researchers from different disciplines. There was a dual strategy, inspired by the feminist movement: The field was to be organised into separate units (centra/fora), to facilitate the creation of a knowledge base, yet it was also meant to be integrated into other research fields at all levels. There was also an ambition to improve the conditions for female researchers. This dual strategy was called ‘the two legs’.

Women’s studies became gender studies

In 1984, the University of Gothenburg became the first Swedish academic institution to establish a special department for women’s studies. Thirty years later, most universities and university colleges have followed suit, and gender studies is in many cases represented as a separate department or as a subject area at a larger department. Alongside the development of women’s studies as a separate field of research and education, an intradisciplinary discussion emerged concerning how women’s studies risked recreating notions of women as a group and the concept of ‘kvinna’ as a category. In response, many courses and university departments adopted the term gender studies in the early 1990s. Gender could be used as an umbrella concept comprising research and education in several parallel fields, all of which shared an interest in exploring social and cultural power relations and treated various types of categorisation as socially, culturally and historically constructed and changeable.

New meeting places for gender researchers

The transition to special departments for gender studies also meant that the former centra/fora were gradually separated from the dual strategy to instead focus on developing gender studies in research and education more like a traditional university department. Thus, researchers at several universities, from all disciplines, have in recent years joined forces in so-called gender academies or centres of a new type. The ambition with these units is among other things to create, in line with one of the two legs of the centra/fora of the early 1980s, meeting places for researchers involved in integrated gender research.

In the 1990s, several major policy initiatives were launched to promote gender research. The Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research is one example, intended to promote the development of the research field but also disseminate the research findings to various parts of society and an interested public.

Author Swedish secretariat for gender research. Published 31st of March 2016
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