Investigating the Social World

“Feminism does not start from a detached and objective standpoint on knowledge of the relations between women and men….. This commitment does not mean that feminist knowledge is not valid knowledge, but it does entail asking what we mean by knowledge and why some forms of knowledge are seen as more valid than others. Feminism implies a radical critique of reason, science and social theory which raises questions about how we know what we think we know.” (Ramazanoglu C [1990] Feminism and the Contradictions of Oppression. London: Routledge: p9) Critically discuss in relation to feminist approaches to interviewing.

Ramazanoglu states that the above notion is one that all the various adaptations of feminism share. She claims that feminists have shown male bias exists in the production and validation of knowledge and successfully argued against the supposedly natural dominance of cultured man over natural woman (Sydie 1987.) They have also questioned methods by which knowledge of the social world is produced. The outcome of which has been the questioning of the limitations of what we know, restrictions of male-dominated language and the limitations of producing new knowledge that cannot take into account women’s experiences. As regards interviewing as a form of social research this revelations have lead to the serious questioning and often dismissal of the traditional textbook rules of how to construct an interview.

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Semi-structured and in-depth interviewing have become the principal means by which feminists seek to achieve full understanding of the experiences and situations of women. They mostly reject quantitative research methods for two reasons firstly they do not believe they give the detailed, full accounts of people’s lifes and experiences that are necessary and that they focus on the masculine principles of objective, science based research. It is this latter point that it being made by Ramazanoglu. Rich (1979) claimed that the idea of being objective and value-free is merely a creation of “masculine subjectivity.” Feminism requires that we act out of the realisation that these male-centred ideologies are of no use to our research. It is theories such as these that have lead to the development of a feminist methodology.

Feminists believe that a masculine bias exists in research and argue that sexist value judgements inform people, both implicitly and explicitly, what to study, how to study it and how to analyse the findings. Feminist methodology focuses on the everyday world of women and places emphasis on the knowledge potentials of feelings and empathy in human interaction; this is often referred to as the feminine side of science but is largely ignored in traditional ‘masculine’ research.

Peta Tancred Sheriff (1988) states “…our research is joyously impure; it is action-oriented and issue-oriented. Our theories include reflections of our life experiences. We live our feminism daily, and our work cannot be separated from it.” The aim of feminist methodology is to overcome the oppression of women through giving priority to the moral and political over the scientific. Scottm claims that feminist research is “qualitative research on women by women” it “must take women’s oppression as one of its basic assumptions.”

Although feminists do usually use qualitative methods they do not limit themselves to one specific method. As Kelly, Regan and Burton state “what makes feminist research feminist is less the method used and more how it is used and what it is used for” (1992, p150) This said Semi-structured and in depth interviews have become the principal means by which many feminists carry out their research as they allow them to seek a full understanding of the experience and situation of women. However traditional text book rules for carrying out such interviews are rejected by feminists as they claim these are full of underlying masculine ideology focused on achieving objectivity. They claim it is necessary to question how such interviews constitute and are constituted by social and interactional power relations and how the seemingly mundane tasks of carrying out, transcribing and analysing interviews can be political acts promoting masculine values.

Interviews are a way to find out about people and essentially they are a conversation. However rules exist that are not present in a natural conversation. Oakley highlights those that are identified by so called ‘malestream’ textbook definitions of the correct way to interview and shows how these did not fit with her experience of carrying out such research. It is not just feminists that reject these rules Interactionalists such as Beck also argue that interviews should be more conversational however feminists take this further and claim that semi and unstructured interviews should be used to “convey a deeper feeling for or emotional closeness to the persons studied” (Jayaratine 1983.)

Oakley was the first to write a significant piece on this subject and her work “Interviewing Women: A Contradiction in Terms” has influenced many feminist researchers. Oakley discusses the methodological problems of conducting interviews highlighted by her own experience in carrying out her Transition to Motherhood study. She identifies the traditional interview as a “mechanical instrument of data collection.” Malestream textbooks state that interviews are specialised conversations whose function is to gain information not provide it. The interviewee should be as an objectified function of data and the interviewers role is to simple ask questions and promote rapport, the interview should hold no personal meaning for them.

This emphasis on control, hierarchy and impersonal nature of interviews reflects the masculine view of the world and Oakley claims is exploitative and controlling. She also states that it has practical flaws in that it does not achieve its aims which are to find out about people as this is best achieved “when relationship of interviewer and interviewee is non-hierarchal and when the interviewer is prepared to invest his or her own personal identity in the relationship.”(1982: 42)

This idea of entering a genuine relationship, even friendship differentiates feminist interviewing from qualitative interviewing. Whilst other researchers using qualitative interviewing recognise the importance of developing rapport, which Oakley defines as the acceptance by interviewee of interviewers goals and interviewees search to in providing relevant information, they also state that a closer relationship could lead to researcher bias. Feminists confront this criticism by claiming that in feminist research but the interviewer and interviewee share the same gender socialisation and life experiences, which in itself is another criticism of feminist interviewing, and therefore interviews can be a non-exploitative and non-hierarchal meeting of equals.

The majority of Oakley’s work is concerned with her own experience of interviewing and how this did not fit with malestream text book rules. Oakley’s study was based on the Transition to Motherhood and as a result she carried out repeated in-depth interviews during and after pregnancy. She found that this form of research lead to relationships developing between her and her interviewees and that far from hindering her research this actually helped her to find out more about the women she was studying. She also found that it was often the respondents that defined this relationship by offering hospitality and showing interest in Oakley’s situation and research. Such signs of involvement indicate the interviewee’s acceptance of the goals of the research project and therefore the successful establishment of rapport.

The rule which Oakley had most trouble following was the idea that the researcher should not answer questions in order to avoid influencing the interviewee’s responses and introducing bias into the research. Malestream text books provide ways to avoid such situations if the interviewer is asked a question such as telling the interviewee you are not here to judge (Galting) of laughing it off. Oakley however highlights the problem of using these avoidance techniques whaen confronted with questions such as “which hole does the baby come out of?” She also felt to it was wrong to adopt and exploitative attitude to the interviewees and see them as merely sources of data when they where asking questions that concerned theirs and their babies fates and when they had given her so much time and allowed her to be involved in very personal experiences such as childbirth, for this reason she decided to answer the questions as fully and honestly as she could.

Oakley claims that the masculine model of interviewing affects the researcher’s awareness of what should be included in a research report. Details such as the number of interviews and the length of time they took are appropriate to include whereas feelings about the interviews, interaction with the interviewee and hospitality received are not. She claims that feminists interviewing women have shown, as her research did, that the under evaluation of women’s models of interviewing has led to “unreal theoretical characterisation of the interview as a means of gathering data which cannot and does not work in practice.”

Feminist such as Stanley and wise state that in fact the researcher and her consciousness should become the focus of the research and as an integral part of the research her experience should be recorded. They go as far as to suggest that if one does not include the researcher as the centre of the research there is no point in doing it. This may seem extreme but their justification is that it is impossible to do research and not do it through our consciousness, text book rules refer to this as value-freedom and it is one of the aims of objective, science-based research. They claim that feminism “is a re-evaluation of the personal” and that feminist researchers should not be involved in traditional male academic routines for disguising our own feelings and involvement.

There are many criticisms of feminist methodology and interviewing coming from feminist critics and feminists themselves. Ramazanoglu highlights the problems that feminists face in validating feminist knowledge. Whilst rejecting the idea of objective facts feminist have not solved the problem of how to validate subjective knowledge. As feminist research is at the extreme of engagement with its subjects it has great problems of explanatation and interpretation. Achieving its aim of relieving oppression of women depends on those undertaking feminist methodology ability to solve these problems and assure the quality of our understanding of women’s lifes. Ramazanoglu still claims however that feminist methodology should be superior to others as it is conceived within a more realistic conception of scientific activity and social life. However in order for this ‘better’ knowledge to be produced feminists must solve not only the previously stated problems of validating their knowledge but the practical problems of data collection and analysis.

Such problems were encountered by Acker, Barry and Esseveld in their research into the relation between changes in the structural situation of women and changes in consciousness. They used unstructured interviews to get women talk about changes in their lives and left the definition of consciousness to arise from the discussion. When attempting to analyse the data they were confronted with the dilemma of how to produce an analysis that goes beyond the experience of the individual women they interviewed whilst still preserving the subjectivity of these women. They question how to go beyond letting the data speak for itself to putting them into a theoretical framework that explains women’s oppression. Also if feminists maintain that there can be no neutral observer then all accounts of the data are equally valid and it is impossible to attempt to found out ‘how it works.’ The shear amount of data that is collected through feminist interviewing also means that deciding what is important is whilst still giving the idea of totality is also a problem.

Hammersley takes a standard criticism of feminists that they focus too much on gender and relates it to feminist methodology. He aggress that research is part of the social world it studies but claims that feminists cannot claim that one feature of it- gender- has so great an effect on the construction of knowledge that all traditional research can be labelled as masculinist. He makes the pertinent point that masculinity doesn’t have to have a negative affect on the validity of knowledge.

He specifically criticises Ramazanoglu for dismissing the assumptions on which Western knowledge and science are based as sexist and racist. He is also critical of the whole idea of having a specific feminist methodology. That the attempt to set a whole methodological paradigm based just on gender creates an obstacle to open debate and ignores other important issues such as class and ethnicity. As Shipman points out it is not just women that need to be made visible but anyone who is in a marginalised group.

Other external criticism come from positivist researchers who maintain the text book rules should be followed and that feminist interviewing produces merely subjective accounts of individuals that cannot be used to explain social phenomena.

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Investigating the Social World. (2017, Dec 24). Retrieved from