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The Concept of Feminist Epistemology Essay

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Abstract

This analysis summarizes and illustrates standpoint epistemology as well as addresses the possible shortcoming of the theory putting it in the context of relativism, essentialism, post-modernist, and modernist assumptions. The analysis starts with an overview of the evolutions process of standpoint epistemology; then, the philosophical movement is defined and the major ideas and arguments embedded into the theory are discussed. The analysis continues to address the issues raised by relativism and essentialism as well as critical ideas added to standpoint epistemology by modernism and post-modernism. The final part discusses the recent trends in standpoint epistemology in terms feminist movement.

Introduction

The concept of feminist epistemology began to form during the times of the second-wave theorists and yet it did not refer to a recognizable body of work. Instead, it was a broad concept that covered problems related to the account of knowledge that mainly concentrated on the perspective – whether feminist perspectives on epistemology, methodology and philosophy of science, metaphysics existed. Studies that explicitly concentrated on the issues posed began to appear in the 1980s including Rose, Jagger, studies by Harding and Hintikka (Camic & Cross, 1998). Feminist epistemology became a recognizable term that referred to a distinct field of study in the 1990s. Yet, feminist epistemology gained name recognition and constituted a substantive and established body of work only in the late 1990s (Camic & Cross, 1998).

This analysis provides an overview of the feminist standpoint theory. Firstly, the standpoint theory is introduced and defined. The focus is then shifted to how the theory developed. The key ideas of standpoint epistemology are then examined including the notion of situated knowledge and claims to truth that is based on women’s oppression and their life experiences. Standpoint theory is then placed within the context of its’ critics and accusations of relativism and essentialism specifically. Finally, modernist and post-modernist assumptions about standpoint theory are addressed.

Standpoint Epistemology: Definition

It is better to understand the concept of standpoint epistemology within the multiple dimensions of feminism. The body of work on feminism is broadly categorized into three major groups: empiricist, feminist standpoint, and postmodern (Campbell, 2004). Under the empiricist perspective, the possibility of objective knowledge and empirical scientific work is accepted. Going even further, the possibility for feminists to join scientific enterprises and continuously reform science and organization of knowledge from within is confirmed. In contrast, the postmodern feminist perspective resists empiricist formulations, whereas scientific exploration continues in the field initially started by French theorists such as Foucault and Derrida and recently by Anglo-American social constructionists. Feminist standpoint is the most radical of the three branches; under this view, female subjective assessment of the world, own experience, and women’s values present a unique perspective that is valuable and distinctly different from a male-dominated perspective in the world of science, politics, and commerce (Campbell, 2004).

The standpoint theory emerged from the liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s and represents an attempt of women to both understand and explain the social world from the standpoint of the female population and exposing androcentrism within the practice of social sciences (Westphal, 1999). The standpoint theory has been formulated to create “intellectual space for feminist analysis” in the hostile, unfriendly, and male-oriented environment. As feminist standpoint evolved to become the staple of feminist theory, a new perspective was introduced: lives of the minority groups such as women of color established a privileged vantage point that provided an insight into the nature of society and its’ functions, the one that is distinctly different from the masculine standpoint (Sprague & Hayes, 2000).

Following the line of argumentation of standpoint epistemologists, both social scientific and orthodox scientific scholarships reflect solely masculine methods and values even though initially these methods intended to remain objective. Regardless of the field of study in which methodology is implemented, the androcentric orthodox explanations of the world are omnipresent. Focus on masculine worldview and perspective is evident from concepts used to establish scientific criteria as well as the criteria for evaluation of knowledge validity (Sprague & Hayes, 2000). Since even the methodology itself is androcentric, the outcome of the scientific research is masculinity oriented and participation of female scholars in the research could not create a radical shift (Westphal, 1999).

According to Smith (405), sociology is part of an ideological structure, whereas discourses and themes are organized by men. Even if women do take part in scientific discourses, the science itself remains a masculine one. Consequently, the exclusion of women from influential positions led to the limited contribution of female scientists into the body of sociology. Smith argues that it is essential to start from an understanding of the unique experiences that women face. Given society has created a different relation to the work, attempts to apply standardized approaches to the experiences of women fail, whereas scientific research continues to lose without adequate representation of women and their experiences. Fort Smith, to take a standpoint – is to take a position outside the frame and still to be unified by a common viewpoint.

Standpoint Epistemology: Androcentrism as the Essence of Social and Scientific Research

Scholars taking the position of standpoint epistemology argue that value-neutrality and objectivity are not just a myth due to masculine bias that is embedded in the very concept of language, but also the meanings are even racist and culturally coercive (Sprague & Hayes, 2000, Westphal, 1999). Scholars argue that masculine bias is evident in the very formulation of the scientific problem as well as in the theories, methods, and interpretations of the research (Pietersma, 2000). Since the times of Ancient Greece masculine bias has shaped scientific research and thinking: the biology of Aristotle and metaphysics shaped the masculine experience, whereas, during the Enlightenment, male and female social roles constituted part of the psychological description of differences between sexes. Even if to look at more recent cases, contemporary images are very stereotypical and gendered, as male characters generally are portrayed in association with mind and matter, whereas female characters normally have seminal ideas (Pietersma, 2000).

Consequently, masculine ideas cannot be bias-free in the scientific field and human knowledge of society is just a specific case of a general rule. For instance, scholars argue that even though evolution is normally associated with the masculine invention of tools and aid and, therefore, driving human evolution, the fact that women, as the gatherers, could have developed tools that are made of organic materials they used in gathering is overlooked (Pietersma, 2006). As such, this theory was cited by many scholars as it confirmed the view that the female population is generally portrayed as passive, whereas male characters are the ones driving the evolution, science, and progress ((Pietersma, 2006).

The situation gets even more complex, as the very concept of rationality shares the commitment of those who potentially could benefit from the contemporary scientific projects. Scientific methods, being derived through induction, are incapable of eliminating values and arguments on which they are essentially based. If to look at the subject matter from a historic perspective, scientific theories and methodology represent the problems of those who managed the activity of others. Traditionally, these were men.

This idea echoes arguments raised by Smith (405 – 9). The scholar brings up the analogy of a master and a slave. While the master is not able to see the whole picture, the entire social relations are very well visible to a slave.

When it comes to speaking about the specific case of social sciences, they are also distracted by androcentrism (Collins, 2003). Following from general scientific research, traditional social sciences have been defined by male experiences. Consequently, the very categories of thought are masculine, whereas women are alienated from their own experiences. Several key factors have been identified by critics:

  • Conventional field-defining models. These models are restrictive, as they are centered on Weberian rationality at the same time excluding the examination of the role of emotion in social life.
  • Focus on sociology. Sociological studies concentrate on official and visible power, which is masculine with a lack of consideration given to the informal power and role of women information of the invisible substructure of support systems that essentially allow accomplishment to the general public.
  • Bias of language. Even though social science assumes that society is homogenous, men and women not only inhabit different social worlds, but the generalizations about society in most cases are masculine.
  • Gender is a variable. Even though gender may be the key variable in social sciences, it is ignored.
  • Restrictive methodology. Because methodologies are masculine, when research is carried to and conclusions are made, important facts about the female population and society, in general, may be omitted (Pietersma, 2000).

As such, both scientific and social knowledge is reflective only when it comes to speaking about men; experiences of women are simply excluded from the concepts of universality and objectivity. As such, the present state of research is partial, since male experiences are transferred to humanity overall.

Standpoint Epistemology: Situated Knowledge

The idea of situated knowledge has been one of the most significant contributions of the standpoint theory into epistemological debates within the subjects of natural sciences. Under the standpoint theory, knowledge is socially located and, consequently, reflects the experiences, values, and activities of those who have this knowledge. Because the vantage point outside of society does not exist, knowledge cannot be divided from human experiences (Cosgrove & Mchugh, 2000). In conjunction with both post-modernism and post-structuralism, feminist theory has undermined the scientific claims to both objectivity and universality. The basic argument for situated knowledge rests on a presupposition that both human activity and material life impose constraints on our understanding of the world. Social activities both enable and limit our knowledge. Consequently, the value of women’s knowledge results from the women’s social location. Situatedness, therefore, should be viewed as a strength rather than as a weakness. Thus, women should be included in science for epistemological reasons, as a source of unique experiences that they have resulting from their position in society. Since human knowledge is partial, women’s knowledge should be regarded as an epistemic advance due to the ability to continuously produce new ways of understanding both social relations and nature (Cosgrove & Mchugh, 2000).

Going even further, according to standpoint theorists, women’s knowledge is more objective, as it is compromised of women’s life experiences that are less distorted with the abstract and ideological conceptual frameworks of masculine knowledge (Cosgrove & Mchugh, 2000).

Standpoint Epistemology: Revelation through Oppression and Experience

Standpoint theorists argue that women, being members of the oppressed group, can see more clearly as compared with the male population (Sher, 2002). Men are deluded by the interests and the dominant ideology, which leads to an only partial and distorted understanding of the world. Going even further, the male perspective on the world is perverse, as it continuously substitutes abstract for concrete reality (Sher, 2002).

As compares with men, women do not have to sustain the status quo imposed by society, which leads to them having less ignorance about the social world order, which results in the production of a less perverse conceptualization of the surroundings. Consequently, a perspective on the world order from the oppressed is more powerful.

Social marginalization results in an epistemic advantage, as by being both insiders and outsiders, women can generate a more independent view of the social order, which, then, results in a greater level of awareness (Moser, 2002). Women are forced to adjust to the dominant practices and belief systems at the same time sustaining their values. Consequently, the view of women on society and the world, in general, is more knowledgeable as compared to that of men. Going even further, it has been suggested an in-depth quantitative interview with the women instead of the classical form of scientific analysis – that of statistical analysis – that involves abstraction (Montero, 2002).

Standpoint theorists also argue that the nature of female work, unity of work, and heart resulting from the gendered division of labor, allow women to get a much more holistic understanding of nature and society especially, as compared with traditional science (Montero, 2002). The very nature of work gives women a strong epistemic vantage for a deeper and holistic understanding of the nature of human life. Women carry out work as craft labor that results in the unity of hand, brain, and heart, as contrasted with industrialized labor of most scientific inquiries. Female work experience is compromised of personal, social, and biological unity. The holistic nature of female knowledge is the opposite of the traditional scientific knowledge, as women are dispassionate, impartial, and disinterested in abstract principles and rules (Cosgrove & Mchugh, 2000). Instead, women see the realities of the social world through their relations with family, friends, whereas their major concerns lie in contextual relations.

The nature of work traditionally done by women oftentimes is centered around bearing and raising children, which generates a unity of mental, emotional, and manual labor that further leads to unity between social and natural worlds (Cosgrove & Mchugh, 2000). This is the opposite of the male world of capitalism. Women’s work that is more in touch with everyday needs leads to being in touch with the necessity. Women carry out most of the work that is needed to maintain the material conditions to allow dominant social groups to carry out “great achievements” (Montero, 2002). Consequently, female experiences and their sources of knowledge are distinctly different from those of males as resulting from the very nature of labor and the unity between mental, emotional, and manual labor as compared with the traditional male work.

Standpoint Epistemology: Essentialism

Critics of standpoint epistemology argue that using the nature of women’s lives as the starting point of analysis raises fundamental problems with essentialism (Gergen, 2004). The argument of critics is rooted in the great diversity between women since many women do not share many common experiences. Consequently, is unreasonable for women’s lives to occupy a privileged position. Critics further argue that standpoint theory establishes unity and parity between women’s experiences that do not exist (Gergen, 2004). Even though standpoint theorists do recognize that the feminist perspective is socially constructed, they assume that women’s lives are an empirical point of reference before feminism.

Critics further argue that feminism simply cannot be lifted beyond the world of social relations (Gergen, 2004). All knowledge is socially constructed, which makes the claims to greater truth even more problematic. If male scientists are not able to make innovations, neither can female scientists.

Going even further, feminist standpoints cannot be pure or innocent, as women have historically done their domination. This point is especially relevant for women of color. Other scholars also question how the reality of women’s lives leads to a more objective social reality (Kraus, 2000). According to critics, the reality of women’s lives is itself a socially constructed formation created by those who define it as a ground for the method of knowledge acquisition. Going even further, all visions, whether they are male or female, are distorted. Apprehension of the true reality does not result from the claim that all knowledge is necessarily from someone’s perspective, whereas the vision of the oppressed is itself another discourse (Devault, 1996). Being a counter-hegemonic discourse, this is stills discourse that is not the reality.

Critics argue that the very concept of truth, reality, and women’s lives became vague with the decline of Marxist theory and the rise of post-modernism and post-structuralism. Feminist standpoint theory is oftentimes regarded as more symbolic of feminism’s less sophisticated past.

Standpoint Epistemology: Modernism

The gradual evolution of standpoint theory reflects the growing importance of concerns around difference and diversity. Standpoint theory by now has outgrown modernism. The role of modernist discourses can be brought down to providing the framework within which standpoint theory evolved, such as the nature of language, reality, and truth. Currently, post-structuralism offers the resources for feminism science and social science studies previously offered by Marxian epistemology (Cosgrove & Mchugh, 2000).

Standpoint theory incorporated concerns around diversity and difference to some degree, as the feminist standpoint of women is viewed in terms of their social experiences that can further be divided by class, culture, and race. Going even further, difficulties experienced by women from Third World results in their knowledge being less mediated and, consequently, less distorted, whereas African-American women can be one of the distinct groups that can enrich sociological discourse. Concentration on these societal groups as the primary source of knowledge might bring in genuine views of reality. Standpoints have always depended on such factors as gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and race. Consequently, there is no single feminist standpoint; instead, there are multiple standpoints as a result of the difference in social groups and their experiences (Cosgrove & Mchugh, 2000).

This additional point to the feminist standpoint theory brings it closer to post-structuralist feminism. Under this movement, women are not defined in terms of their lives; instead, women are conceptualized about diversity and multiplicity.

Standpoint Epistemology: Relativism

Critical ideas rooted in essentialism stimulated feminists to consider closely questions of subjectivity as well as the foundations for knowledge claims. Still, standpoint theory has been additionally challenged by critics that find it contradictory to relativism. Critics argue that extensive reliance on variability and difference too heavily results in disempowering relativism, which undermines the very basis for feminism. Critics argue that feminism needs to concentrate on realist-type analysis, which allows further engagement in emancipatory politics.

The emphasis on difference within the standpoint theory fragments results in the limitation of the audience to only one of the various social groups of women. Going even further, critics doubt whether there is a distinct need for the feminist movement to have its’ dimension of epistemology, whereas it is more logical and fruitful to accept the procedures under scientific realism since these procedures exist independently of investigation.

It also argued that standpoint theorists hold simplistic accounts of objectivity, realism, science, which results in the concepts being rejected without in-depth analysis (Campbell, 2004). According to scholars, standpoint theorists view science as an empiricist, monolithic, positivist, and absolutist, whereas science itself is internally divided, dynamic, reflexive, and includes theorization.

Standpoint epistemology is often accused of equating realism and absolutism (Cosgrove & Mchugh, 2000). This results, in reality, being treated as fixed, whereas knowledge and science as being interest-free and value-free at the same time committed to objective truth. Still, according to realism, knowledge can be fallible, biased, and partial. Consequently, standpoint theorists undermine their epistemological position which fails to make any coherent knowledge claims.

And still, standpoint theorists deny the charges posed by relativism, as standpoint theory does not for sexist and anti-sexist theory which would lead to research being equally legitimate (Campbell, 2004). Instead, feminist theory should be the one to replace sexist understanding of the world, whereas feminism itself should be the successor science. Consequently, the view on standpoint theory in terms of relativism is not confirmed. Theorists argue that the identification of political assumptions by standpoint theory is nothing but another mainstream of sciences. Going even further, the personal beliefs of researchers should be considered part of the empirical evidence as those that increase the objectivity of the research. The inclusion of this element into the research contributed to greater objectivity. Following the same logic, knowledge reflects social locations, and increasing knowledge results in diversification of the social locations of inquiries. New sources of knowledge may bring in new ideas and uncover flaws in previous work; consequently, objectivity is maximized through expanding democratic relations, as women and minorities receive a chance to enrich social science with their unique insights and experiences (Cosgrove & Mchugh, 2000).

Smith, on the other side, proposes to focus on the directly experienced world; it is local, historical, and social relations that are not observable within it. This is not the same as proposing a new study based on each of the unique experiences, rather this is to establish the framework within which to understand the object of study.

Standpoint Epistemology: Absolutism and Relativism

One of the major tensions within standpoint theory is that all knowledge is situated and that the standpoint of the female population has a greater level of access to the truth of social reality. While theorists remain committed to both social constructionism and the ultimate truth of feminist standpoint, this concept raises issues between post-modernism and modernism and also between relativism and absolutism (Camic & Cross, 1998). At the same time, it is argued that there is a distinct need in rethinking the postmodern standpoint approach that is still committed to reusing and rethinking conventional metatheories of science. Since both modernist and post-modernist projects have different purposes, there is no irresolvable contradiction between the two concepts. To be more specific, feminists need to both invoke the values of science to stimulate scientists to live up to the ideals of science itself and at the same time reconceptualize the scientific practice itself. And still, the voice of feminism should not be either absolutist or relativist. While feminism does not have to have a unitary voice, the concept of solidarity is still important. The alternative to relativism is not totalization that is rooted in a single vision; instead, this should be partial, locatable, and critical knowledge that shares the possibility of shared conversation sin epistemology (Camic & Cross, 1998).

The standpoint theory is a broader feminist perspective that is guided by the fundamental concerns for power, justice, method of knowledge acquisition, and genuine knowledge itself (Camic & Cross, 1998). Criteria for privileging some sources of knowledge over others are political and, perhaps, even ethical, rather than epistemological. While philosophers can deconstruct the underlying logic behind standpoint theory and its’ commitments, the underlying truth remains embedded in feminist values. The feminist standpoint is socially produced through political struggle; it is interesting for the very fact of being engaged in the discussion. The feminist standpoint is an achievement of both scientific analysis and political struggle.

Conclusion

The feminist standpoint does not occupy a central stage of feminist debates as it once did. Feminist theory has evolved to become the unspoken culture of present-day feminist theorizing (Campbell, 2004). The fact that knowledge is social and political is taken for granted by most social theorists nowadays. While issues raised by standpoint feminism related to the concepts of truth and method were radical challenges in the early 1980s, the assumptions of standpoint epistemology became infused into the critical theory to the extent to become simply a common sense of most contemporary scholarly work. Standpoint epistemologies are used in virtually every social science, whereas feminist standpoint evolved to become a reflection on the resources and limitations of philosophies of science on present and future practice.

References

Camic, Charles, and Neil Gross. 1998. Contemporary Developments in Sociological Theory: Current Projects and Conditions of Possibility. Annual Review of Sociology 24, no. 1: 453.

Campbell, Kirsten. 2004. Jacques Lacan and Feminist Epistemology. New York: Routledge.

Collins, P.C. 2003. The Sociological Significance of Black Feminist Thought. In G. Delanty and P. Strydom (Eds.). Philosophies of social science: The classic and contemporary readings. (pp. 416-8). Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Cosgrove, Lisa, and Maureen C. Mchugh. 2000. Speaking for Ourselves: Feminist Methods and Community Psychology. American Journal of Community Psychology 28, no. 6: 815.

Devault, Marjorie L. 1996. Talking Back to Sociology: Distinctive Contributions of Feminist Methodology. Annual Review of Sociology.

Gergen, Mary. 1994. Epistemology, Gender, and History: Positioning the Lenses of Gender. Psychological Inquiry 5, no. 1: 86-92.

Kraus, Cynthia. 2000. Naked Sex in Exile: On the Paradox of the “Sex Question” in Feminism and in Science. NWSA Journal 12, no. 3: 151-177.

Montero, Maritza. 2002. On the Construction of Reality and Truth. towards an Epistemology of Community Social Psychology. American Journal of Community Psychology 30, no. 4: 571.

Moser, Paul K., ed. 2002. The Oxford Handbook of Epistemology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pietersma, Henry. 2000. Phenomenological Epistemology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pietersma, Henry. 2006. What Happened to Epistemology in Our Tradition?. The Review of Metaphysics 59, no. 3: 553.

Sher, Gila. 2002. Logical Consequence: An Epistemic Outlook. The Monist 85, no. 4: 555.

Smith, D.E. The Standpoint of Women in the Everyday World. In G. Delanty and P. Strydom (Eds.). Philosophies of social science: The classic and contemporary readings. (pp. 405-9). Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Sprague, Joey, and Jeanne Hayes. 2000. Self-Determination and Empowerment: A Feminist Standpoint Analysis of Talk about Disability [1]. American Journal of Community Psychology 28, no. 5: 671.

Westphal, Kenneth R. 1999. “Hegel’s” Epistemology? Reflections on Some Recent Expositions. CLIO 28, no. 3: 303

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