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Feminist theory Essay

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    Feminist theory, it should be mentioned from the beginning of the paper, is not a unified theory. As women experience the social world differently according to class, age or “race”, there exist different feminist standpoints within the feminist tradition – i. e.

    Marxist or Postmodernist feminists and this explains the need to talk of Feminisms – in plural.In general though, feminist theorists in order to explain the marginal position women’s issues hold in the social sciences – and why they are merely “added on” in the academic discourse, focus their critique upon traditional scientific approaches existing in the social sciences, offering alternative theories of knowledge. In addition, they attack concepts that originate from the founding fathers of each discipline i. e.

    Durkheim in Sociology, and which still hold an exceptional position in the social sciences.For example, feminists believe that the concepts of scientific neutrality, or objectivity, or the belief that we can achieve “pure” knowledge of the social world, have all contributed to the androcentric status of the social sciences. In this essay we will attempt to define what is meant by “conventional epistemologies” focussing primarily upon Sociology, suggesting also that different feminist epistemologies offer different approaches regarding conventional epistemologies.Thus, it is going to be discussed why feminists view as problematic the “scientific” approach that permeates and influences traditional explanations of the social world.

    Moreover, we will attempt to explain how feminists, with the introduction of new ways of investigating society – that is, the introduction of new subject-areas in social research, the placing of the researcher along with the research in the centre of research analysis, or the emphasis of the importance of locating experience and emotions in the research, challenge conventional epistemologies.Finally, in the end we will suggest that feminist epistemologies strongly challenge not only the theoretical basis of conventional epistemologies, but its application to the methods of investigating the social world as well, offering feminist versions of traditional theories. Feminists criticised traditional social science, suggesting that it offers a distorted picture of social reality, as it predominantly focuses its attention upon men’s experiences. But before taking this point further, it is pertinent to briefly explain what is meant by “epistemology”.

    As L.Stanley and S. Wise suggest 1993, the question of epistemology is fundamental for feminism. They state that an “epistemology” is a framework or theory for specifying the constitution and generation of knowledge about the social world; that is it concerns how to understand the nature of reality: A given epistemological framework specifies not only what “knowledge” is and how to recognise it, but who are “knowers” and by what means someone becomes one, and also the means by which competing knowledge-claims are adjudicated and some rejected in favour of another/others.

    age 188. However, conventional epistemologies and for the purpose of this paper we will limit our discussion of conventional epistemologies referring to the positivist tradition, exclude in their discussion women.As S. Harding puts forward 1987, “epistemology” answers questions about who can be a “knower” and what tests beliefs must pass in order to be legitimated as knowledge.

    Yet, Traditional epistemologies systematically exclude the possibility that women could be “knowers” or agents of knowledge; they claim that the voice of science is a masculine one… age 3. She goes on to suggest that traditional philosophy of science suggest that the origin of scientific problems or hypotheses is irrelevant to the “goodness” of the results of the research. However, feminist challenges reveal that the questions that are asked in social research, and most significantly those that are not asked, are at least as determinative of the adequacy of our total picture as are any answers we can discover:Defining what is in need of scientific explanation only from the perspective of bourgeois, white men’s experiences leads to partial and ever perverse understandings of social life. page 7 Sociology’s role in the exclusion and silencing of women from this discourse has also been the object of feminist criticism.

    D. Smith 1987 states Sociology has been based upon men’s social universe. This renders problematic the attempt to think how women experience the world from their place, given the limited concepts and theoretical schemes available to employ.In addition, Smith repudiates the idea that Sociology can be a science challenging therefore directly positivist ideas concerning the status of this discipline within the social sciences.

    She argues that The Sociology I conceive is much more than ideology and at the same time much less than “science”. The governing of our kind of society is done in concepts and symbols. The contribution of Sociology to this is that of working up the conceptual procedures, models and methods by which the immediate and concrete features of experience can be read into the conceptual mode in which the governing is done. age 87.

    Similarly, M. Millman and R. Kanter 1987 argue that Sociology focuses only on the formal, official action and actors. Thus, it explains the status quo and does not explore much needed social transformations; neither does it encourage a more just humane society.

    It is also relevant to mention here that the sociological subject in language has been male -“he” and that language which is used describes experiences purportedly universal, although they are exclusively male.Before turning our attention to the different feminist epistemologies mainly the “feminist empiricist” and the “feminist standpoint” we should explicate how feminists take concepts, as well as research practices dominant in conventional epistemology such as “empiricism” “objectivity” “positivism” and “scientific methodology”, and deconstruct them in order to challenge the hegemony of such epistemologies. As far as ‘objectivity’ is concerned, positivist methodological approaches claim that ‘objectivity’ is an ideal that is attainable, as we can actually stand “outside” of our social world, and observe it without any preconceptions.As a result, the aim of the social scientist is to be detached from the research subject, excluding from the research analysis any discussion of “feelings” or “experiences”.

    Stanley and Wise 1993 state that it is the inductivist research methodology which claims that pure, unbiased, objective knowledge can be produced from the scientific mind’s experience of the world. Sydie also suggests that in traditional social science there exists a dichotomy in the sexes where ‘objectivity’ is given as a male attribute and ‘subjectivity’ therefore as a female one:The attributes of science are the attributes of males; the objectivity said to be characteristic of the production of scientific knowledge is specifically identified as a male way of relating to the world…women by contrast, are ‘subjective’. Page 207. Sydie also discusses Weber and Durkheim ideas in relation to the issue of “objectivity” in the social sciences, as their ideas still hold an eminent position in modern social theory.

    Weber, she argues page 214 sustains that “objectivity” in the social sciences is secured by the fact that once the object of the sociological interest has been selected in terms of values, then values cease to enter into the causal explanations offered regarding the behaviour and events. If we turn to Durkheim now, we can see that he believed that it is possible for social facts to become visible to the sociologist, as they exist “independent of the individual forms” and can be “recognised by the power of external coercion it exercises over individuals Sydie, page 43.Thus, for Durkheim as Sydie argues the independence of social facts from particular individuals meant also that social facts had to be explained in terms of other social facts and therefore the “objectivity of the observation would be secured in the same manner as the natural sciences” page 43. However, according to many feminist theorists objectivity should not be the primary aim of a social investigation.

    Rather, researchers should take into consideration their age class and “race” and consider how these will effect the research process.In addition, it should be recognised that feminist researchers shape the results of their analyses no less than do those of sexist and androcentric researchers. The “objectivist” stance should be avoided as it attempts to make the researcher’s cultural beliefs and practices invisible, while simultaneously skewering the research objects, beliefs and practices to the display board Harding, 1987:9. From the above discussion it is evident that feminist theories do not advocate the positivist methodology which exists in conventional theories of knowledge.

    However, we should be cautious here about how we use the term “positivist”. And that because there are various schools of positivism i. e. the new realists, and also because the word “positive” can take different ontological, epistemological and practical forms Bryant, 1985.

    Johnson et al 1984 offer us a general definition of the term, stating that it refers to the extension of empiricist models of natural science, to the field of human action, by arguing for either a methodological or substantive unity of the two page 32.Its main methodological approaches of research are inductivism and deductivism. The former refers to the idea that knowledge – theory, can be produced by the researcher according to her experience of the world. By the latter term it is meant that theory pre-exists the actual research.

    Feminist thinkers have fiercely challenged those concepts found in traditional epistemologies, offering new approaches towards the research praxis. As it has already been mentioned, they place particular emphasis upon the location of the researcher in the research process.In addition, as we shall see, they introduce new subject areas for research, stressing the importance of conducting research on the subject of everyday life experiences. But let us see first how feminist theorists have rejected positivist attitudes.

    Stanley and Wise 1990 put forward that all knowledge is partial, results from the conditions of its production, is contextually located and originate from the minds and intellectual practices of theorists and researchers who give voice to it page 39.Therefore, this feminist standpoint dismisses claims of objective knowledge. Stanley and Wise 1993 also attack the method of ethnography in social research, claiming that it is an approach, which is positivist in nature: “Scientific detachment”, “truth”, “non-involvement” all exist as the aims of an ethnography.And despite all the controversies and debates about the place of “values” in ethnographic research, “scientific detachment”, “truth” and “non-involvement”…are still alive and well and frequently to be met.

    age 159 But what is the alternative approach of the feminist standpoint? First of all, as it has already been mentioned it is the location of women within research. And this is crucial to our understanding of women’s place in the social world. Smith 1987, argues that in order to increase our understanding as women, we need a method from where women are, as subjects, located in the everyday world, not in imaginary spaces constituted by the objectified forms of sociological knowledge.Similarly, for Millman and Kanter 1987 there is the need for research in “local” settings, which are largely populated by women in their daily rounds of life and which have received no serious sociological attention.

    Thus, for them the importance of ordinary aspects of our social life becomes more prominent in a feminist perspective, as “women have traditionally been chained to an existence of cleaning up and caring for others” page 33. Another way of challenging conventional methodologies in social research is to encompass “emotions” and “experience” in the research analysis.And that because the employment of emotions in the social investigation challenges dominant notions of the inferior status of emotions as a reliable source of data. Thus, the use of emotion in research does not somewhat fit with the conventional image of the detached, objective social researcher.

    Stanley and Wise 1993 state that their own feminist epistemology does include emotionality. They view emotionality as the product of a culture and therefore open to “rational” analysis as much as any other culturally inscribed behavioural forms.Moreover, they argue that emotions are vital to systematic knowledge of the social world and that “any epistemology which fails to recognise this is deeply flawed” page 193. As mentioned before, feminist criticism is not unified and consists of different epistemologies – some more marginal than others i.

    e. black feminist or lesbian epistemologies. One thing that has in common though, is the belief that social sciences should have a new purpose. That is, to use women and their experiences as new empirical and theoretical resources.

    If we are to look at feminist empiricist, we can see that this epistemology advocates a stricter adherence to the existing methodological norms of the scientific inquiry, in order to eliminate sexist and androcentric biases. What is responsible therefore for biases in social research according to this standpoint, is the misuse of existing research methods Harding, 1987. Also, what we can deduce is that feminist empiricists do not see anything fundamentally wrong with dominant, conventional methodologies in social science. It is merely the case of conducting the research better.

    The “feminist standpoint” position on the other hand, claim that their research findings offer a more complete and less distorted picture of social life. And this because knowledge is supposed to be based on experience and feminist standpoint theorists argue that their experience is more complete because it originates from the struggles against their male oppressors Harding, 1987. Yet, Stanley and Wise 1990 are against both these feminist epistemologies, as “they still accept the existence of a “true reality” and the methods of science as a means to establish it” page 42.Considering now another feminist epistemology – the lesbian one we can see how diverge feminist epistemologies are.

    The starting point of this epistemology is that “women” is a social category defined in terms of economic, physical or other dependency on men Stanley and Wise, 1990. As a result, they view women as a politically and socially constructed class. It is evident therefore how this epistemology challenges conventional theorising on women, in the social sciences.What is ambiguous about feminist epistemologies is whether they wish not only to challenge conventional ones but also lose their marginal status and substitute conventional epistemologies with feminist ones as well.

    For some feminists feminist theories of knowledge are best kept in the margins in order to avoid temptations of assimilation Stanley and Wise, 1990. Thus, according to Miles quoted in Sydie feminism is not simply about substituting a female understanding for the current male viewpoint.In addition, feminism is the viewpoint of outsiders to power, who have therefore a more accurate view of reality because they have no stake in mystifying that reality page 214. On the other hand, it can be argued that feminism is primarily a political movement for the emancipation of women, and as such, the predominance of its theory in the social sciences could ameliorate women’s position in society mainly through social research.

    Smith quoted in Sydie is in fact in favour of creating a Sociology for women, instead of women.This will result in initiating a discourse among women that “transcends the traditional academic and knowledge boundaries” page 216. As a result, what has been argued in this paper is that there exists a twofold challenge of traditional epistemologies of the social sciences. That is, feminists challenge dominant ideologies located in the social world i.

    e. sexism as well as dominant methods of investigating it. Finally, despite the tensions within feminist epistemology feminism has managed to expose what dominant models of viewing and researching the world have overlooked.

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