Mirror, mirror on the wall. Whom is science communication inclusive of, if not for all?
I was taught that science is all about objectivity and rigor, and that science doesn’t care who you are. But science, like all other institutions, is susceptible to inequalities and biases. As science communicators, we know how important it is to cultivate scientific interest among the public. But are our approaches to science communication accessible and inclusive of the broader public?
This month, we are considering inclusivity in science communication. During our upcoming Twitter chat on June 25th at 6PM (PDT), we will be reviewing the article, “Reimagining publics and (non)participation: Exploring exclusion from science communication through the experiences of low-income, minority ethnic groups” by Emily Dawson.
A special guest is also joining us for this important Twitter chat! One of the two First Place winners from our State Your Mission Challenge, Tia Martineau (@tia_martineau), will be joining us to help guide this discussion and share her science communication mission to improve accessibility and inclusion in science.
This article explored science communication from the perspectives of people who are most at risk of exclusion, namely low-income, ethnic minorities. Applying social justice and social reproduction frameworks in this study highlighted structural inequalities affecting access to and inclusion in science communication practices. Two research questions were examined in this study:
- In what kinds of science communication practices did participants engage or not engage?
- How did the participants experience exclusion from science communication practices?
This exploratory study relied on a mixed-methods qualitative design through ethnographic observation of community events and participants’ homes, as well as interviews and focus groups with the participants. Participants (n=66) were organized into five community groups formed around a shared cultural heritage and were mixed in age and educational backgrounds. Participants were recruited from the United Kingdom in the central London boroughs of Southwark and Lambeth, areas with large clusters of socio-economically disadvantaged, ethnic minorities.
RQ 1: Participation in science communication was narrow and limited to everyday, popular and accessible activities, such as watching television or Internet use. Moreover, participants’ perceptions of what was considered science communication reflected dominant cultural and political views of participation. Yet, the more dominant the science communication activity (e.g., visiting a science museum), the less participants had access to or were involved in such activities.
RQ 2: As to participants’ exclusion from science communication, the study found race/ethnicity, with intersections of gender and class/income, to be features of participants’ experiences. Two features of oppression–cultural imperialism and powerlessness–highlighted how structural inequalities reinforced exclusion from science communication.
Cultural imperialism was reflected in participants’ observations of science communication practices as Eurocentric and upholding racist stereotypes, such as representing perceptions of Africa as being burdened by disease and “saved” by the West (i.e., White savior narratives). Such observations highlighted the disempowering, misrepresentative, racist and gendered nature of narratives and reflected Whiteness as the dominant form of cultural capital embedded in science communication. The stories, practices and knowledge that participants valued were not perceived as being reflected in dominant science communication practices.
Representations of cultures, knowledge and people also reflect deeply rooted assumptions about power, which can be understood as structural inequalities (dominance and oppression) affecting whose voices are heard (or not heard) in science communication practices. Powerlessness was closely associated with class/income, particularly for groups with limited political or professional authority, and who are not respected for their opinions or status (Dawson 2018: 782). Structural inequalities affected participation through a lack of money and free time (because leisure time requires financial means) to engage in science communication. Participants viewed the “public” for science communication as predominantly White, as well as having the disposable income and free time associated with middle and upper classes.
Thinking Further About Inclusivity in Science Communication
Although this study was exploratory in nature (thus not broadly generalizable), it brought to light issues of restricted access to dominant science communication practices among low-income, ethnic minority groups. Perceptions of the “public” for science communication may rely on dualistic, gendered, and Eurocentric assumptions about the forms of participation that count, which need to be reimagined. More specifically, this study suggests that “disengagement” in science communication among certain groups may not be solely due to attitudes towards science communication. Instead, structural inequalities affecting access to science communication practices may be present. Improving inclusivity in science communication may not be as simple as getting more people into popular science communication spaces. Rather, inclusivity involves creating practices that reflect multiple voices, spaces, and publics to cultivate more equitable experiences. Thinking more broadly about “what counts” as participation may also help to reimagine “who counts” to improve inclusivity in science communication practices.
Citation:Dawson, Emily. 2018. “Reimagining publics and (non)participation: Exploring exclusion from science communication through the experiences of low-income, minority ethnic groups.” Public Understanding of Science. 27(7): 772-786.