Productivity and equity are probably the most often cited reasons to attend to diversity in science. Gender and culture also affect the science itself, however. They influence what we choose to study, our perspectives when we approach scientific phenomena and our strategies for studying them. When we enter the world of science, we do not shed our cultural practices at the door.
Evolutionary biology is one example. Despite popular images of Jane Goodall observing chimpanzees, almost all early studies of primate behavior were conducted by men. Male primatologists generally adopted Charles Darwin's view of evolutionary biology and focused on competition among males for access to females. In this view, female primates are passive, and either the winning male has access to all the females or females simply choose the most powerful male.
The idea that females may play a more active role and might even have sex with many males did not receive attention until female biologists began to do field observations. Why did they see what men missed? “When, say, a female lemur or bonobo dominated a male, or a female langur left her group to solicit strange males, a woman fieldworker might be more likely to follow, watch, and wonder than to dismiss such behavior as a fluke,” wrote anthropologist Sarah Hrdy. Her interest in maternal reproductive strategies grew from her empathy with her study subjects.
Culture also made a difference in approach. In the 1930s and 1940s U.S. primatologists, adopting the stance of being “minimally intrusive,” tended to focus on male dominance and the associated mating access and paid little attention to individuals except to trace dominance hierarchies; rarely were individuals or groups tracked for many years. Japanese researchers, in contrast, gave much more attention to status and social relationships, values that hold a higher relative importance in Japanese society.
This difference in orientation led to striking differences in insight. Japanese primatologists discovered that male rank was only one factor determining social relationships and group composition. They found that females had a rank order, too, and that the stable core of the group was made up of lineages of related females, not males. The longer-term studies of Japanese researchers also allowed them to notice that maintaining one's rank as the alpha male was not solely dependent on strength.
Diversity has had an effect on studies of education and social science. Lawrence Kohlberg's highly influential work on stages of moral development in children in the early 1970s was later called into question by psychologist Carol Gilligan on the grounds that it ignored the perspective of women, who tended to emphasize the ethic of caring. Nor did Kohlberg's model account for moral principles associated with Eastern religious traditions, in part because his scheme did not include principles of cooperation and nonviolence.
Validity in the sciences involves much more than attending to canons about the need for proper controls, replicability, and the like. It involves choices about what problems and populations to study and what procedures and measures to use. Diverse perspectives and values are important in these choices. For instance, predominantly white, middle-class social scientists focus their research programs primarily on white, middle-class populations, which may lead to conclusions that are not generalizable.
If participation in cultural practices is central to our development as humans, then these practices will influence how we learn and practice science. In psychology, scholars who have intentionally focused on cultural orientations have expanded previously accepted conceptions of identity development, motivation and resilience. Research on the effect of teaching children to appreciate their racial heritage has pushed boundaries of accepted conceptions of identity development. Minority scholars have pointed out that studies tend to focus on the effects of diversity rather than the effects of homogeneity and other gaps in scientific practices.
A diversity of scientists is important for reducing bias and for providing different ways of looking at the world. Two of us (Bang and Medin) and our colleagues have documented consistent cultural influences on the perceived relationship between humans and nature: rural European-Americans tend to see themselves as apart from nature, whereas Native Americans see themselves as a part of nature (although it is more complicated than we have space to explain). This may influence how we think about environmental issues. It may also be why the mainstream view excludes urban settings as part of any ecosystem and sees ideal ecosystems as free of human influence, and so on.
It is commonly said that scientists should have a professional distance from what they study. But the metaphor of distance is misleading. Science, like a painting, necessarily has a perspective. To the extent that we can remove our biases and learn from multiple perspectives, we will understand our world better.