Narratives and the Co-construction of Community Identity
in Physics


The social character of a community is reflected in, and continually shaped by, its cultural mythology – the narrative stories that are told and re-told, and which perpetuate the community archetypes. The narratives most often repeated during professional physics conferences appear surprisingly similar in their underlying structure to traditional fairy tales of heroic journeys. The heroes – usually one of the icons of the physics community, or the narrator's thesis advisor - are almost always male. Women in traditional physics stories are portrayed most often as helpmates to the male physicists, while the few women physicists are portrayed as eccentric “others,” tragic figures, almost foolishly heroic, who forsook traditional women’s lives and persevered in their work in the face of prejudice. We suggest that the cultural mythology of physics may be closely tied with the archetypes of Western society defined by psychologist Karl Jung, which serve as organizing principles for behavior, and which operate at a subconscious level. We suggest that a close examination of the archetypes which are unconsciously perpetuated by the physics community, in part through the narratives which are told and re-told during community gatherings, may help understand why the social hierarchy in physics still seems to preferentially favor males, in spite of government efforts to recruit women into physics and engineering. We further suggest that perhaps a more equitable gender balance in the physics community will be achieved as a new feminine archetype emerges and finds her way into the physics lore.

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