Phila Msimang, the incoming Head of the CIRCoRe Workstream “Race, Human Categorisation and Science" (RHCS), recently met with the Stellenbosch University (SU) Rectorate to discuss the importance of engaging with key scientific questions in the use of human categorisations in policy and research.
This engagement on behalf of the Committee for the Institutional Response to the Commission's Recommendations (CIRCoRe) is part of SU's ongoing work to interrogate its use of race and human categorisation in its own policies, research, and practice.
A member of the Philosophy Department, Msimang, will take over the headship of the RHCS workstream from Prof Dion Forster, who has taken up an academic position in The Netherlands. Prof Aslam Fataar, the head of CIRCoRe, lauded Forster for his insightful, inclusive and efficient leadership of the workstream since its inception in June 2023. “Forster provided a solid footing for the workstream's ensuing work", he said. Fataar noted that he is “excited about the scientific and scholarly expertise on categorisation that Msimang brings to the workstream's work.
Msimang's presentation to the Rectorate made the case that the appropriate use of any category depends in large measure on how such a category is understood before it is applied. He framed the question of the appropriateness of the use of human categories as a scientific question about the coherence of the questions we are asking and the validity of our concepts, definitions, and methods.
Msimang said an additional set of questions must be confronted that apply to figuring out the appropriate use or reservation of such categories in policy and science. He said that it is these kinds of scientific questions that are at the heart of the work of the RHCS workstream.
“The multi-level nature of the issue at hand means that even if we were to develop scientifically sound methods of investigation, it would still matter what questions we are asking and our idea of what it would mean for any particular problem to be solved," he said. Illustrating this point through discipline-specific examples, Msimang discussed how different ways to characterise the problem of racism lead to a difference in what is considered a satisfactory solution or intervention to specific problems.
He maintained that focusing on some narrow dimension of a problem can lead to overlooking other dimensions that might even underlie multiple manifestations of the problem at hand. With respect to racial inequities and racism, he discussed how we needed to look beyond just attitudes and the effects of intergroup contact to other enabling features for racially undesirable outcomes.
“The technical problem of using race and other human categorisations in science cannot be separated from the values that inform scientific work. Scientific work is motivated by values about what questions are considered important and what problems we are interested in solving. Unfortunately, the attempt to justify social inequities and subjugation is central to the use of race in science. In disciplines like psychology and behavioural genetics, for instance, a substantial amount of work has aimed to naturalise social and political inequalities," he said.
Even if the average academic today would denounce these kinds of values in motivating their own research, Msimang pointed out that we do not always appreciate that we nevertheless have inherited many of the faulty assumptions that informed the ways of doing science that we might denounce today.
“The hypotheses that researchers come up with, the presumptions that inform experimental design, what questions researchers ask, the groups they use to assess questions, what problems they believe to be important, how they collect and interpret data, and so on, carry over many of the racial and often racist biases we might not endorse today," he said.
“How systematic and widespread the problem is has surprised some scientists in their use of big data when discovering algorithmic biases that they did not mean to encode into their work. These kinds of structural features of the research environment are one aspect that enables the production of racially biased or racist research to continue. These issues pose a challenge to how research is to be undertaken in South Africa. The country, and Stellenbosch University as an institution, has many legacy issues in its practice of science from colonialism and apartheid that feed into its contemporary scientific practices."
Msimang emphasised that the challenges SU faces using concepts such as race and ethnicity are not unique to the university, but arise in local and international contexts pertaining to the use of human categorisations in science.
He pointed out that SU's establishment of the RHCS Workstream as a first in establishing a scientific committee to investigate this problem across disciplines and policy cases in the South African context. He said that he was unaware of any similar institutional undertaking about the use of human categorisations specific to the context and dynamics of South Africa with the range that the RHCS Workstream has been tasked to investigate.
“Given the broad scope of the work of CIRCoRe and the differences in context as to what groups and histories its work is to address, taking the scientific challenge seriously will allow SU to provide academic leadership on the local and global level on the use of human categorisations in science," said Msimang.