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In Depth: Science, Society and the Arts

Science, Society, and the Arts is a multi-disciplinary conference involving Washington and Lee undergraduates and law students in the presentation of their academic achievements before an audience of their peers and the faculty. Conference participants share their work via oral presentations, traditional academic conference-style panels, poster sessions, artistic shows, or creative performances.

In the weeks leading up to the conference on March 12-13, we will profile a few of the projects being presented by students.

Briefly describe your research project.

While studying abroad in Samoa last year, I conducted an independent research project on women in politics and what keeps Samoan women from having more leadership roles in both their local governing bodies and the national Parliament system. Samoan women hold an integral and valued place within their families and communities, yet Samoa continues to report some of the lowest rates of female political representation in the world. During my research process I interviewed many village women in rural Lotofaga, as well as fourteen female politicians, aspiring politicians, and experts in the field. This work culminated in the research paper I will be presenting at SSA and is published online at http://digitalcollections.sit.edu/isp_collection/1823/

What about this project called you to exploration?

As a Women’s and Gender Studies minor I was really interested in studying the lives of women in Samoa and how the challenges they face are similar and different to those faced by women in other parts of the world. As is the case in the U.S. and across the globe, Samoa has a government system almost entirely dominated by male leaders. This issue was coming to the forefront during my time there because the Samoan government had recently passed a temporary special measure that will guarantee 10% of Parliamentary seats to women come 2016. They are also the first Pacific island nation to do so. Another name for such a measure is a “quota system,” a tactic that has achieved great success in other parts of the world, especially Nordic European nations, in achieving more gender equitable governments.

What was the most interesting thing you learned while working in this subject matter?

Although some of the challenges facing Samoan women entering politics are unique to their culture, many are somewhat universal. My research found that a network of support from fellow women, especially politically active women who can serve as mentors, would be a positive first step in addressing the constraints Samoan women face entering politics. At a micro level, that is what I have been interested in trying here on our campus. Washington and Lee also has a lack of female representation in student leadership. The group “Launch” that I am vice president of seeks to balance social and political power at W&L by encouraging female mentorship and networking.

What was the biggest challenge in completing this project?

The language barrier is always a concern when conducting research in a non-English speaking nation. I had become proficient in Samoan during my time there, yet I had to be very cognizant of the fact that many concepts and cultural notions would still not translate. It is always a challenge as an American and an outsider to a community to conduct research responsibly. I had many preconceived Western notions about gender equality going in, and the learning curve was steep. Luckily I had a few amazing Samoan women as advisors who steered me in the right direction and helped me to be as culturally sensitive and relevant as possible.

What insight(s) did you gain from creating this project?

As Americans I think we tend to see things in black and white; we love to categorize and simplify. The Samoan culture is much more laid-back and fluid. It would be easy to look at their political representation and say “Samoa is not an equitable society for women,” but political representation is just a small piece of the puzzle. Many of these issues begin in the home, in family and village structures and at schools. Women are highly regarded throughout Samoa and hold vast leadership positions, but the translation of that authority has not yet spread to politics. The international community judges developing nations harshly when it comes to female leadership, but in reality, the United States ranks 75th in global female political representation and Samoa is not much further off at 135th.

What was your favorite part of creating this project?

Speaking with such powerful, influential, and inspiring women. I interviewed women from 35 to 85, and their wisdom was vast and fascinating. As a young woman, I have so much to learn. I was able to interview the Minister of Justice, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, who has served for more terms in Parliament than any woman in history, and is arguably the most powerful Samoan woman alive today. I also got to meet the Prime Minister Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi and the current Samoan Queen. It was a great honor as a foreigner to be welcomed by so many state leaders.

Why would someone focused in other disciplines care about this?

This paper was a lot of fun for me, not only because I was so interested in the issue, but also because it allowed me to investigate many different fields. My paper covers issues from history and political science, to anthropology and sociology, all the way to gender studies and social justice. There’s a little something for nearly everyone.

In your mind, what is the value of considering science, society and the arts in the same context?

In my mind, perspectives are always lost when research is isolated in only one discipline. Examining a topic from an interdisciplinary approach lends to more comprehensive conclusions. Science does not operate in a vacuum from artistic temperament, and certainly neither can be explored with depth and effectiveness when removed from a societal context. My mother is a visual artist who works in the medical field doing cardiac research. Her mixed-medium approach to each field has always inspired me. I appreciate how W&L’s liberal arts focus encourages us as students to look at an issue from diverse vantage points.