Books,  OEP,  politics

Gatherer calories and invisible artefacts – labour in OEP

I’m reading Angela Saini’s excellent Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong at the moment, which examines the range of ways science has misrepresented, simplified and ignored women. There’s a lot to dig into, and she writes clearly and knowledgeably, so I’d recommend it. While acknowledging I am writing about areas outside of my expertise, this reading, combined with some other conversations has sparked some thoughts that may be of interest.

One of the chapters in Saini’s book looks at how anthropology had elevated the role of the hunter in hunter-gatherer societies, until a feminist movement in the 80s and 90s caused a reappraisal of much of the literature in the field. In particular I was struck by two ways in which women’s contributions were significantly underplayed, or rendered irrelevant (Saini is quick to point out that hunter-gatherers vary enormously, and there is no fixed model, sometimes there is no sexual division of labour and other times there are clearly defined roles, so what follows is a generalisation).

The first was the prioritising of the contribution of the hunter to the group. Because most of the research had hitherto been done by men, there was a pretty explicit assumption that hunting was the most valuable activity. But closer analysis revealed that often the calories provided by hunting did not represent the majority of the group’s intake. The “gatherer calories” (also often small animal hunting) typically provided by women accounted for anywhere up to three quarters of the overall. The gatherer calories here were simply not regarded as important by the researchers because of cultural values they had about what was significant. The second aspect was that, following dodgy evolutionary psychology reasoning, it was proposed that men developed certain skills in order to hunt, including being natural inventors. But, again, closer inspection revealed that women often created more inventions, such as bowls, food storage, etc. Crucially though, these types of inventions would often decompose, leaving no archeological trace, whereas a sharpened spear point would remain. In this respect the contribution of women literally became invisible to scientific record.

This is all an over-simplification and I apologise to any anthropologists out there (hi Donna!), but it serves as an analogy I feel. These two examples provide ways of considering what constitutes labour and methods by which it is undervalued. The first type of work – gatherer calories – is ignored because it is not deemed important. The second – invisible artefacts – are not seen because they are ephemeral. If we take these two as metaphors then we can think about the type of labour we see in digital and open practice. So for example, much of digital scholarship (blog posts, twitter networks) is akin to gatherer calories, it is not deemed as worthy as, say, one highly cited paper, but in fact may contribute more to the overall academic discourse in that area.

I was having a conversation with Deb Baff who is examining informal online communities as a means of staff development. The work of communities such LTHEChat do much of the heavy lifting of professional development in the open, digital space, but like the invisible artefacts, it remains unseen because the people who make decisions about reward don’t inhabit that space. It is often the case that women do much of these two forms of labour in digital, open spaces, and also early career researchers, academics on precarious contracts and many of those professionals that Whitchurch describes as occupying the Third Space. These are all categories whose contribution is undervalued and can struggle to get their work recognised within formal structures.

I’m not sure what the solution is, but the first step is definitely to recognise that ‘gatherer calories’ type activities in OEP and digital scholarship are valuable, and secondly to find ways to surface the ‘invisible artefacts’ type contributions so that they are seen and noted.

Others have written much more and better about academic labour than I have here, in different contexts and how it touches upon digital practice, including Kate Bowles, Maha Bali, Catherine Cronin, and Richard Hall.

[UPDATE: Reposted, with added GIFs at FemEdTech open SPLOT]


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