Standpoint feminism is a theory that feminist social science should be practiced from the standpoint of women or particular groups of women,  as some scholars e. Patricia Hill Collins and Dorothy Smith say that they are better equipped to understand some aspects of the world. A feminist or women's standpoint epistemology proposes to make women's experiences the point of departure, in addition to, and sometimes instead of men's. Dorothy Smith , teaching at University of California, Berkeley , when the women's movement was in its early stages, looked at the experience of female academics and began to ask about life stories of these women.
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Feminist standpoint theorists make three principal claims: 1 Knowledge is socially situated. Feminist standpoint theory, then, makes a contribution to epistemology, to methodological debates in the social and natural sciences, to philosophy of science, and to political activism. It has been one of the most influential and debated theories to emerge from second-wave feminist thinking. Feminist standpoint theories place relations between political and social power and knowledge center-stage.
These theories are both descriptive and normative, describing and analyzing the causal effects of power structures on knowledge while also advocating a specific route for enquiry, a route that begins from standpoints emerging from shared political struggle within marginalized lives.
Feminist standpoint theories emerged in the s, in the first instance from Marxist feminist and feminist critical theoretical approaches within a range of social scientific disciplines.
Central to all these standpoint theories are feminist analyses and critiques of relations between material experience, power, and epistemology, and of the effects of power relations on the production of knowledge. At first blush there appears a tension between the traditional epistemological assumption that a general, universal and abstract account of knowledge and scientific enquiry is possible, and the politically inflected feminist claim that such analyses are only properly understood in the social contexts in which they arise, and in terms of the biases and prejudices those contexts generate.
From the outset, then, feminist epistemologies seem to be located within the contradictory pull of the politicized material and experiential concerns of feminism and the abstract universal concerns of epistemology. Feminist epistemological projects began as a critique of that tradition but have evolved beyond the critical to reframe and reconceptualize the problems of knowledge and the epistemological project itself.
Feminist epistemology does not adopt a monolithic critical position with respect to a traditional canon of epistemological work; rather it consists of a variety of feminist epistemological approaches, of which feminist standpoint epistemologies form a strand. Here feminist standpoint theory is examined primarily as a feminist epistemology and as a methodology for feminist researchers in the social sciences where, arguably, feminist standpoint theory has had the most influence and been the subject of most debate.
As with feminist theories generally, it would be somewhat misleading to represent feminist standpoint theory as a single set of epistemological commitments or a single methodological approach.
Nevertheless, standpoint theories share common commitments and approaches, which are taken as the focus here. Aspects of those theories that attract controversy both within and outside of the intellectual conversations in which feminist standpoint theories have been developed and employed are also briefly discussed. Marx and Engels, and, later, Lukacs developed this Hegelian idea within the framework of the dialectic of class consciousness, thereby giving rise to the notion of a standpoint of the proletariat the producers of capital as an epistemic position that, it was argued, provided a superior starting point for understanding and eventually changing the world than that of the controllers and owners of capital.
Although their genealogy begins in the Hegelian and Marxist traditions, some current feminist standpoint theories are also located squarely within an empiricist tradition in epistemology. These feminist epistemologies extend the traditional empiricist commitment to experience and observation as the starting points for knowledge.
Following Quine and his successors, they recognize and acknowledge that observation is theory-laden and that those theories themselves are artifacts of our making. They also draw on the insight that a set of observation-based data can serve as equally credible evidence for more than one of those theories. Feminist standpoint theorists such as sociologists Dorothy Smith and Patricia Hill Collins, political philosophers Nancy Hartsock and Alison Jaggar, sociologist of science Hilary Rose, and philosopher of science Sandra Harding extended and reframed the idea of the standpoint of the proletariat to mark out the logical space for a feminist standpoint.
Their principal claim regarding feminist standpoint theories is that certain socio-political positions occupied by women and by extension other groups who lack social and economic privilege can become sites of epistemic privilege and thus productive starting points for enquiry into questions about not only those who are socially and politically marginalized, but also those who, by dint of social and political privilege, occupy the positions of oppressors.
Following Marxist tradition in rejecting liberal assumptions that social and historical factors are irrelevant to epistemic questions, central tenets of feminist standpoint theories include their recognition of the role of social and historical location in shaping epistemic agents and their knowledge, and an embrace of that location as a potentially valuable contribution to knowledge.
Feminist standpoint theories work towards an epistemic approach that continues to value objectivity albeit rethought and reworked as a goal of enquiry, while at the same time accommodating, analyzing and understanding the effects of social location on epistemic agents and on knowledge. This stance is in stark contrast to the relatively pervasive traditional assumption that recognizing the effects of the socio-historical location of epistemic agents rather than abstracting them from that location disrupts enquiry.
Feminist standpoint theories, then, involve a commitment to the view that all attempts to know are socially situated. The social situation of an epistemic agent—her gender, class, race, ethnicity, sexuality and physical capacities—plays a role in forming what we know and limiting what we are able to know.
They can affect what we are capable of knowing and what we are permitted to know. The influence of social location on epistemic content and capacity can be felt throughout our epistemic practices, shaping not only the way in which we understand the world, but also the way in which it is presented to us via experience. Consider the following example offered by Terri Elliot:. Person A approaches a building and enters it unproblematically. Person X approaches the same building and sees a great stack of stairs and the glaring lack of a ramp for her wheelchair.
The experience of person A is of the entrance to a building. Whereas the experience of person X is of a barrier to entrance and at best an inconvenience. Feminist standpoint theories seek, moreover, to go beyond analysis and description of the role played by social location in structuring and shaping knowledge. The normative aspect of feminist standpoint theories manifests firstly in a commitment to the thesis that the ways in which power relations inflect knowledge need not be understood as with a subjectivity that threatens their objectivity; rather that socially situated knowledge can be properly objective.
Standpoint theories, then, move beyond a descriptive situated-knowledge thesis to a normative thesis, among the transformative objectives of which is a more socially just world. The concept of a standpoint employed in feminist standpoint theories takes a narrow meaning, owed to Marxist theory, according to which a standpoint is an achieved collective identity or consciousness. The establishment of a standpoint is the political achievement of those whose social location forms its starting point; it is not merely ascribed from beyond that location.
There is a consensus among feminist standpoint theorists that a standpoint is not merely a perspective that is occupied simply by dint of being a woman. So while both the dominant and the dominated occupy perspectives, the dominated are much more successfully placed to achieve a standpoint.
Nevertheless, it is not impossible for those who occupy non-marginalized perspectives to become part of the process of helping reach a shared critical consciousness with respect to the effects of power structures on epistemic production.
There are many different lives consisting of many different activities and many different social relations and, thus, potentially many different consciousnesses and many different standpoints. The ongoing political and epistemic project of achieving a standpoint offers critical insights that give rise to a new perspective on reality.
Sandra Harding explains the point thus,. Only through such struggles can we begin to see beneath the appearances created by an unjust social order to the reality of how this social order is in fact constructed and maintained.
This need for struggle emphasizes the fact that a feminist standpoint is not something that anyone can have simply by claiming it. It is an achievement. According to feminist standpoint theories, the process of achieving knowledge begins when standpoints begin to emerge. They emerge when those who are marginalized and relatively invisible from the vantage point of the epistemically privileged become conscious of their social situation with respect to socio-political power and oppression, and begin to find a voice.
It is no historical accident that feminist standpoint theory emerged in academic discourses more or less contemporaneously with the feminist consciousness movement within feminist activism.
This demonstrates the way in which feminist standpoint theories are grounded in feminist political practice. This assertion of identity—of who I am—adds to a body of knowledge about how my life is and how I experience the world.
Those truths debunk myths about me, about my relationship with the world, and about my relationships with others in that world that have heretofore been taken to be true.
This way of thinking oppresses as it constrains what can be known about being an African American woman. African American women, rather than racist and sexist social structures, are blamed for that oppression. Thus the epistemic process whereby a standpoint emerges enables the occupants of that standpoint to gain an element of power and control over knowledge about their lives.
In becoming occupants of a standpoint, they also become knowing subjects in their own right, rather than merely objects that are known by others. Standpoints make visible aspects of social relations and of the natural world that are unavailable from dominant perspectives, and in so doing they generate the kinds of questions that will lead to a more complete and true account of those relations.
Feminist standpoint theorists point out that, in order to survive within social structures in which one is oppressed, one is required to understand practices of oppression, to understand both oppressed and oppressor; but, this epistemic bi-polarity is neither required of, nor available to, the dominant.
The colonized, then, have some means of entry into the world of the colonizer, and the potential for gaining some understanding of how the world works from that perspective, but the colonizer is generally shut out of the world of the colonized and restricted to a mono-visual view of how the world is. The double vision afforded via the social location of women and other marginalized groups can provide the epistemic advantage of insights into social relations that are unavailable to the non-marginalized.
Washing the toilet used by three males, and the floor and walls around it, is, Mira thought, coming face to face with necessity. And that is why women were saner than men, did not come up with the made, absurd schemes men developed; they were in touch with necessity, they had to wash the toilet bowl and the floor.
For instance, such questions might address issues such as violence against women—why is it so prevalent in so many societies against women of all classes and races, and why are women so often blamed for it?
While violence against women remains an ongoing challenge and tragedy, women have derived epistemic advantage from the conceptual resources and clearer understanding of violence that has been afforded to them within feminist standpoints. In turn, this stronger understanding has flowed into social and political discourses to the extent that, at least in some parts of the world, violence is no longer considered acceptable or part of the normal dynamics of a marriage or partnership.
Moreover, campaigning by women and their male allies has resulted, in some jurisdictions, in an anti-violence policy environment, and in legal protection and redress for women. In so doing, they have widened understanding of, and enquiry into, family violence more generally to encompass violence perpetrated on children, on male partners, and on elders.
The development of a standpoint by the dominated dissipates the conceptual dissonance experienced by someone who has been forced to adopt dominant conceptual frameworks that do not truly belong to them.
Conceptual frameworks emanating from patriarchal systems fail to provide cognitive tools that enable women and others who are marginalized to make sense of their experiences in and of the world. The emergence of appropriate conceptual frameworks furnishes the marginalized with the cognitive tools to become epistemic subjects, whereas previously they are merely known by others. It enables them to name and think about their experiences in ways that properly represent those experiences.
That is not to say that existing conceptual frameworks have been of no use whatsoever for women, for even this conceptual dissonance has been mediated and expressed within those frameworks.
Rather, thinking from within a standpoint enables the emergence of conceptual frameworks which resolve the contradictions that arise, and fill the gaps and silences that are left empty when using a conceptual framework that is not entirely fit for purpose.
Some critics of standpoint theories have charged that their central claim of epistemic advantage amounts to a claim of automatic epistemic privilege. Such questions force us to examine the beliefs, prejudices and biases of the dominant groups in society, the propositions that have previously counted as knowledge. It is in this way, feminist standpoint theorists propose, that we achieve less partial and distorted understandings of all of our lives than we do if we allow questions about those lives to originate only from the experiences of dominant groups.
Indeed, as Wylie notes, feminist interventions in social and scientific enquiry have been successful in demonstrating how it thus far has not always manifested those virtues. Standpoint theorists move beyond this critical moment, showing how the inclusion of lived realities, not yet properly visible to enquirers, can make for better-supported hypotheses. Several theorists emphasize the epistemic advantage afforded to those forced conceptually to straddle both sides of a dichotomous social divide.
Living as we did—on the edge—we developed a particular way of seeing reality. We looked both from the outside in and from the inside out…we understood both. Patricia Hill Collins, for instance, considers black feminist academics to occupy a position of potential epistemic privilege in so far as they are, on the one hand, insiders by dint of their position as authentic academics; yet, on the other hand, outsiders in so far as they are women and black, thus remaining to some extent decentered within the context of the Academy.
This places them in a unique position from which to understand how things are in the Academy from the perspective of an insider who enjoys some degree of power and privilege both professionally and personally as a result of her membership, and who at the same time has an understanding of how things are from the perspective of one who is marginalized with respect to the centre of that power as a result of her gender and race.
The dual perspective available to someone in this position leaves her well-placed to recognize the underlying assumptions and evaluative commitments that drive and shape the dynamics of power within the Academy, while at the same time providing her with a critical frame of reference derived from her own experience of the Academy, within which to potentially gain a better understanding of its power structures and dynamics.
A dual perspective such as this, then, could form the basis of a feminist standpoint which would generate challenging questions about the social and political structures that engender the reality that black women academics experience in their professional and personal lives.
In addition, standpoint theories offer explanatory resources for understanding how this dual positioning can potentially bestow epistemic advantage. Feminist sociologist Dorothy Smith argues that women sociologists are placed at the centre of a contradiction in the relation of their discipline to their experience of the world. On one side of that divide is the conceptual practice of academic work conducted within the conceptual structures of the discipline of sociology; and on the other, the concrete of the domestic sphere.
To gain legitimacy and status as sociologists they must suspend their identities qua women. Those women also have to negotiate the contradictory demands of private and professional spheres. The implicit requirement that a woman suppress part of herself in order to acquire any professional credibility is one reason, Rose argues, why women scientists were, and in some disciplines remain, comparative rarities. In order to negotiate and cope, the best she can, with various contexts in which she finds herself having to operate, a woman might suppress part of herself in some of those contexts while assuming the persona best suited to each.
Thus some women professionals emphasize only those characteristics considered valuable in their professional context, allowing themselves to be women and feminist only in private contexts. Alternatively, a woman might simply try to imitate the traits, habits and practices of the dominant group while suppressing herself entirely.
For the feminist standpoint theorist, an alternative to these strategies is to attempt to remain within the contradictory contexts, and to do so critically. This is, potentially, the most epistemically powerful response, but it is also the most challenging given the risk of alienation from oneself and from those with whom one may have the most in common.
More than three decades have passed since the publication of the first work that developed and advocated feminist standpoint theories.
The Feminist Standpoint: Developing the Ground for a Specifically Feminist Historical Materialism