Feminist Epistemology

Elizabeth J Tisdell. The Sage Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods. Editor: Lisa M Given. Sage Publications. 2008.

Feminist epistemology brings together the usual epistemological concerns such as what constitutes knowledge and how it is constructed with the central issues of feminist theory: gender as an analytic category. Although there are multiple complex discourses on feminist epistemology, at their root is the consideration of the role of gender in determining how knowledge is constructed, both by individual knowers and by social and cultural groups of women and men. A theme in many discussions is how power relations based on gender (and race, culture, social class, and other social categories) shape what counts as knowledge in debates not only in epistemology and feminist theory, but also in all academic disciplines. Given that the purpose of all research is ultimately to produce knowledge and since feminist epistemology brings out the role of gender in shaping knowledge construction, gender is important in considerations of all research methodology. It is especially relevant in discussions of qualitative research where the researcher is very consciously involved in and part of the research process. This entry first gives an overview of feminist theories and then describes differences and similarities between theories that focus on the individual; structural, cultural, and standpoint feminist theories; and poststructural, postmodern, and post-colonial feminist theories. Lastly, it discusses the ways in which these feminist perspectives affect the conduct and analysis of research.

An Overview of Feminist Theories

There are many feminist theories. Although there are similarities and points of conflict among them, they all arose out of the fact that feminism as a historical and social movement was intended to challenge women’s oppression. There generally has been an assumption that most people have been socialized into sexist ideology and often into particular gender roles and ways of thinking that usually give males more institutional, social, and economic power and access to resources. Feminism assumes that the problem in gender relations is not men, but sexism and the forces of patriarchy that lead to sexism. Feminism seeks to challenge sexism and sexist ways of thinking and living that limit both men and women. As feminist cultural critic bell hooks has discussed, everyone has something to gain from the feminist movement, as its purpose is to create more equitable relations for all people—both women and men.

Over the course of history, in response to the gender climate in society at any given era as well as the academic disciplines that inform scholarship, feminism has taken on different forms and emphases. For example, up until the late 1970s or early 1980s, the feminist movement was intended to address the needs of women in general; however, it in fact focused on the experience and needs of White, middle-class women and did not adequately take into account the impact of race and class. Thus, from the late 1980s and on into the new millennium, there has been much development in research and scholarship by and about women of color and in scholarship that focuses on differences among women. More recently, much work in feminist theory has foregrounded the effects of globalization. The remainder of this section focuses on the different strands of feminist theory broken down broadly into three areas. In each section, there is a particular emphasis on the major epistemological focus of these strands, as well as a consideration of how these theoretical threads deal with differences among women.

Individually Focused Feminist Theories

A range of feminist theories, including liberal feminism, psychoanalytic feminism, and most discussions of feminist psychology, focuses especially on women as individuals. Liberal feminism has its roots in the enlightenment philosophy of the 19th century that emphasized rationality and shaped the education system of the 20th century. The focus of liberal feminism of the 1960s and 1970s (and to some extent in the current day) is on giving women as individuals equal rights to men in the system the way that it is, particularly in regard to education and job opportunity. Liberal feminism has not tended to directly challenge knowledge construction processes; rather, it has emphasized giving women equal access to all levels of education and enabling them to participate in knowledge construction processes as used by men.

Psychoanalytic feminism and feminist psychology more generally also have an individualistic focus, but from a psychological perspective. The concern here is how individual women construct knowledge in light of gender socialization that emphasizes the importance of caring, connection, and relationship. One key influence in these perspectives is the work of Carol Gilligan, beginning with the publication of In a Different Voice in 1982. This book was based on Gilligan’s study of women’s moral development and found that women tended to make moral decisions based on connection and relationship rather than on an appeal to moral principles, a perspective that is gender-related as opposed to gender-specific. Two years later, Nel Noddings elaborated on the ethic of care from a philosophical perspective, particularly in regard to how it relates to education. Building on the work of both Gilligan and Noddings, another important influence was the publication of Women’s Ways of Knowing by Mary Belenky, Blythe Clinchy, Nancy Goldberger, and Jill Tarule in 1986. This book was based on a qualitative study of 135 women and focused on how these individuals came to know and learn, with special consideration of the role of affect, connection, and relationship as well as rationality in learning and knowledge construction in women coming to voice. These individually focused feminisms were critiqued as focusing on the concerns of White, middle-class women because they tend to focus on women as a unitary category or on the generic woman who is often implicitly White and middle-class. These strands also tended not to examine race, class, cultural, and sexual identity differences among women, though in more recent years there has been more attention to these issues of difference in feminist psychology. The unit of analysis in these feminisms tends to be the individual and how he or she constructs knowledge. In regards to research methodology, these feminisms point to the role of voice, affect, and relationship in the research process.

Structural, Cultural, and Standpoint Feminist Theories

Structural, cultural, and standpoint feminist theories tend to focus especially on the role of social structures and power relations that shape knowledge production. There are a variety of these theories, many of which initially emerged in sociology and related disciplines in the 1970s and 1980s alongside the individually focused feminist theories. The structural feminist theories of radical feminism, Marxist feminism, and socialist feminism examine the effect of societal structures and power relations between dominant and oppressed groups on women. The concern of radical feminism has been primarily with challenging patriarchy as a form of structural oppression, while Marxist feminism argues that there are two primary systems of oppression—patriarchy and capitalism—that need to be challenged. Socialist feminists not only focus on patriarchy and capitalism, but also emphasize an examination of other systems of oppression, such as racial oppression, and the intersections of gender, race, class, and sexual orientation in relation to the material realities of women’s lives. The units of analysis of these frames are structural as opposed to individual or the psychological.

Closely related to structural feminist theories are cultural feminisms and standpoint feminist theories, which initially developed in the late 1980s and 1990s and today continue to focus more on women in particular groups defined in terms of race-ethnicity, culture, gender, class, and sexual orientation. The lived experience of a specific group of women is at the center of analysis, rather than at the margins, as, for example, in Black feminist thought, womanism, Latina feminism, or Asian and Asian American feminism. Because the focus is on the dynamics of where women of particular cultural or other groups stand in relation to the dominant culture in understanding their lived reality, such feminisms are referred to as standpoint feminisms. From an epistemological perspective, all structural, cultural, and standpoint feminisms focus on the role of power relations in shaping the politics of knowledge production, and they examine what gets counted as knowledge, and by whom, in the construction of knowledge. From a research perspective, cultural and standpoint feminist theories highlight how the race, culture, and gender of the researcher relative to the participants affect methods for getting access to participants, the relationship with the participants, and the data collection and analysis processes.

Poststructural, Postmodern, and Postcolonial Feminist Theories

In addition to the further development of psychological and standpoint feminist theories, the 1990s and the new millennium have given rise to poststructural, post-modern, and postcolonial feminist theories. Although there are some differences among these post theories, they also have points of connection. These theories draw on structural and standpoint feminist theories in the sense that they are concerned with social structures. But there are also a number of differences, mostly in the degree to which the poststructural, post-modern, and postcolonial discourses emphasize issues such as deconstruction, power, the notion of identity and knowledge construction as constantly shifting, and subjectivity (and the impossibility of objectivity).

Rather than the unit of analysis being social structures as in structural or standpoint feminisms, post- structural, postmodern, and postcolonial feminist theories view the unit of analysis as the connections between individuals and social structures of race, gender, and class (and/or the forces of colonialism in postcolonial feminism) rather than the social structure itself. Epistemologically, all of the post discourses to one degree or another deal with deconstruction, particularly in regard to the knowledge construction processes used by individuals as well as by various academic disciplines. They all problematize the notion of truth as something that can be known with certainty because truth is always shaped in part by cultural or social factors and colonial influences; thus, the post discourses recognize multiple truths. These realities or truths are always both constructed and viewed partially through one’s positionality or social location. Positionality in this context refers to the notion that where one is positioned based on race, gender, class, sexual orientation, religion, age, disability or ability, and the intersections of these categories (often referred to in the post discourses as multiple subjectivities) relative to the dominant culture or to other social groups in society always affect one’s view of the world and how one constructs and values knowledge. Given one can never get completely outside of one’s positionality, objectivity is viewed as impossible. Thus, the post discourses emphasize the role of and accounting of multiple subjectivities in shaping knowledge construction, although in the feminist perspectives within this approach gender is always a primary category of analysis.

As in structural and standpoint feminist theories, power is central in shaping knowledge construction processes, but the notion of power is conceptualized often from French poststructural scholar Michel Foucault’s perspective, who sees power as always circulating rather than in being completely in one place or another and who suggests knowledge can never be separated from power. The shifting nature of power suggests that knowledge is never static, nor is identity, given that there is always a shifting understanding of identity in regard to various aspects of one’s positionality over time.

From an epistemological perspective, those who draw on poststructural, postmodern, or postcolonial feminist theory and pedagogy emphasize how positionality (of teachers and learners) shapes teaching and learning in the classroom and how it affects both knowledge production processes in the lives of individuals and official knowledge production processes in the conduct of scholarship, research, and the publication of results of such work. There is a focus on the raising of consciousness and simultaneous challenge of how structural systems of gender, race, or class inform thinking. At the same time, there is an emphasis on deconstruction of binary categories such as male-female or affective-rational. Thus, there would be a problematizing of ideas that suggests that men are one thing and women, another (e.g., men are rational, and women are intuitive). Rather, the post discourses would problematize the idea that a particular quality was attributed to one gender or the other and would deconstruct (in the sense of examining and taking apart) how such an idea developed to begin with and what socialization processes were in place that allowed such an attribution to occur. Further, those who adhere to the post discourses would call all binary categories into question and attempt to move the knower beyond black-white thinking in regard to any binary category. Such recognitions of fragmentation, instability of categories, and the shifting nature of identity in light of further thought, emotion, and experience have implications for how research is conducted.

Feminism, Epistemology, and Qualitative Research

A central question in all forms of feminist research is to ask whose interests will be served by the research. The hope in feminist research is that the interests of women will be served or that the research will contribute to an understanding of gender relations and the processes that contribute to knowledge construction through the research process. A number of interrelated issues touched on above warrant further discussion in regard to the feminist (and antiracist, postmodern, and postcolonial) approaches to qualitative research.

Power, Positionality, and Relationship in Research

In most forms of qualitative research, it is generally understood that the researcher is in a position of power relative to the research participants. Although most feminist researchers would agree, they also recognize that participants are not without power; participants have the power to withhold information or to exercise power in other ways. Nevertheless, feminist research scholars emphasize accounting for the ways power is likely at play in the research process. As much as possible, researchers should try to find ways participants can exercise power in the research process and be assured that their voices are represented the way they would like in the research report. Further, as Michele Fine suggests, one should also avoid “othering” participants in the research process by, for example, requesting that participants share much information about themselves while the researcher shares little or no information about her- or himself. Such a dynamic often further exacerbates the power relationship.

Related to concerns about power relations in the research process are the issues of positionality and relationship between researcher and participant. One’s positionality (gender, race, class, sexual orientation) affects the relationship that the researcher has with participants and affects the research process because participants often speak differently to researchers who are members of their cultural group compared to researchers who are members of another cultural group. For example, African Americans are likely to speak to an African American researcher differently than to a White researcher. With an African American researcher, they may use insider language; they may be more trusting of the researcher and less concerned that what is said will be misinterpreted or misrepresented. Thus, researchers whose positionality differs from that of research participants may need to work more at developing relationship and share personal information related to the topic to create trust and to avoid othering. Further, most feminist and other research approaches that deal with the role of power relations are concerned with the issue of the voice and portrayal of the participants in the research report and also seek to ensure that participants themselves benefit from the research process.

Subjectivity, Shifting Nature of Meaning, and Dependability

As discussed above, many feminist scholars and others influenced by postmodernism, poststructuralism, and postcolonialism argue that identity, knowledge, and meaning are constantly shifting in light of continued interaction with others, and hence, there is a continued reframing of meaning. They also highlight the myth of objectivity and discuss how positionality and multiple subjectivities shape the research process. This argument is not to suggest, however, that the research is then totally subjective and hence not dependable. Rather, the point in these forms of feminist research is to be clear and upfront about the nature of one’s subjectivity by addressing issues such as one’s theoretical perspective in conducting the research, the degree of participation of the researcher in the interview or observation, the role participants had in responding to the write-up, and the ways that the positionality of participant and researchers shaped the interactions and thus the research and knowledge production processes. This questioning enhances the dependability of the research in that it makes the process and assumptions clear. Paradoxically, by making the subjectivity clear, the research becomes more objective. Thus, the dichotomy between subjectivity and objectivity is replaced by an examination of the dialectic between the two and is dealt with directly, which increases the dependability of the research. This fracturing of binaries—the notion of the shifting nature of power and the fact that at every moment individuals are constructing knowledge anew in light of questions they are asked—continued life experience, and continued reflection (including reflection that is initiated because of the research process) means that meaning and knowledge are always partial and continually unfolding. The qualitative research process itself facilitates that unfolding, but it is never the final word. In fact, there is no final word, but the process itself is part of the product.