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When one hears the term ‘Feminist research’ many images come to mind including protests and general man hating women. However this is most likely The field of associated with the modifier ‘Feminist’ and not research at all.
qualitative research involves observing society and individuals beyond the numbers and beyond statistics. There are many different approaches to qualitative research all with the main goal of finding a better understanding of society through observation and analysis. The reference to ‘Feminist research’ is in regards to the statement that ‘Feminist research is research by women, about women, for women’ and it is this statement that will be the focus of this paper. The exclusive nature of this statement is what I take issue with when it comes to the tenets of sociological research with special attention paid to the field of qualitative research. The qualitative approach which at times is challenged for its direct involvement with research subjects / participants and the observed borderless interaction between researcher and researched does not define itself as a sociological form of analysis that requires certain immutable characteristics (biological sex) to be involved in research. However, there is a belief especially within ‘Feminist Standpoint epistemology’ which is a subset of ‘Feminist research’ that holds that to have the ‘Feminist’ standpoint is not merely having perspective but to actually have experienced the “intellectual and political struggle necessary to see nature and social life from the point of view of that disdained activity which produces women’s social experiences”(Kemp & Squire 1997, pg 169). The question remains if ‘Feminist research’ is truly only the domain for women and if the researcher must be biologically female to produce valid results. I would suggest that the answer to this proposition is a resounding NO. This paper will first address approaches/types of ‘Feminism’ in order to understand the rationale behind an exclusive field of research. The focus will then shift to a discussion of the variance in ‘Feminist research’ looking at both ‘Feminist empiricism’ and ‘Feminist Standpoint epistemology’ as means of approaching qualitative sociological research. I will then share My Story of barriers to access in the process of forming my MSc dissertation topic and the obstacles that remain due to my own biological sex with a comparison to research on ‘Gay Dads’ by Gillian Dunne. Finally the paper will address the fractured nature of ‘Feminist’ movement 1
Candidate No 0138037 including but not limited to the sociological approaches mentioned above in order to illustrate that the field of ‘Feminist research’ is not a field that must be conducted BY women, about women, for women but in the fact it can be conducted BY people, about women, for the betterment of society as a whole.
What is Feminism?
This is a question that could be the topic of its own paper. However, the focus of this paper is the role ‘Feminism’ plays in sociological research and the various types of ‘Feminism’ which would contribute to the belief that one must have the immutable biological sex of female to conduct, analyze, and report research about women that is considered valid and without the bias of the pre-existing male patriarchy that is said to permeate the whole of science which includes sociological research. The types of ‘Feminism’ I shall discuss are Liberal feminism, Cultural feminism, Socialist feminism, and Radical feminism with final discussion of Postmodern feminism that itself questions the structure of the ‘Feminist’ movement and methods (Etaugh & Bridges 2006, pp. 3-5). Liberal feminism “is the belief that women and men should have the same political, legal, economic, and educational rights and opportunities (Henley et al., 1998; Ens & Sinacore, 2001)”(Etaugh & Bridges 2006). Furthermore Liberal feminists view the differences between men and women as a function of unequal opportunities (Etaugh & Bridges 2006). Would this type of feminism conclude that ‘Feminist research is by women, about women, for women’? It would appear that this statement does not mesh well with the position of Liberal feminism since the goal is to equalize opportunity and rights for both men and women therefore this type would not advocate the research is exclusive to the biological sex of female. Cultural feminism “reflects ‘the belief that women and men are different and that more respect should be given to women’s special qualities, such as nurturance, concern about others, and cooperativeness (Ens & Sincore, 2001; Henley et al., 1998)’”(Etaugh & Bridge 2006). This approach to feminism honors the interpersonal skills associated with women and seeks to address the destructive nature of masculine traits (Etaugh & Bridge 2006). Would Cultural feminism support the statement that is the focus of this paper? Well Cultural feminism would seek to empower women
Candidate No 0138037 based around their inherent interpersonal approach gained through experience however when we evaluate the totality of the statement Cultural feminists would most likely not agree with the statement that ‘Feminist research’ is for women exclusively. Socialist feminism concerns itself with ‘the attitude that gender inequality is rooted in economic inequality (Ens & Sinacore 2001, Henley et al., 1998)’(Etaugh & Bridge 2006). This type of feminism believes that oppression can not be overcome as long as the capitalist structure of Western Society is maintained. This type would be closely allied to Marxist Feminism (which looks at the class structure between bourgeois and proletariat that contributes to female oppression. Would Socialist feminists believe that ‘Feminist research’ is strictly limited to the biological sex of female and to the benefit of only women? I would suggest that Socialist feminism is more concerned with capitalist structure of society as a whole and that ‘Feminist research’ can be effective if its relevance is beyond women to impact the structure of society to bring about fundamental social change. Radical feminism is ‘the belief that gender inequality is based on male oppression of women (Ens & Sinacore, 2001; Henley et al., 1998; Johnson, 1997)’ (Etaugh & Bridge 2006). Radical feminism would be the most supportive of the stance that ‘Feminist research’ is by women, about women, for women because the root goal of Radical feminism is to end the oppression of women by men and the patriarchy that is prevalent in society. Radical feminist would most likely be of the opinion that male involvement in ‘Feminist research’ would be an act of continued oppression and a means to maintain male dominance in society. This is the form of feminism that would support the exclusivity of ‘Feminist research’. Postmodern feminism ‘involves a rejection of any metanarrative (any grand general theory) which purports to identify the basis of women’s subordination’ (Jackson 1993, pg 20). Furthermore the basis tenet of postmodernism would suggest that ‘once we call into question the status of knowledge as objective truth, we can no longer claim that feminist theory can provide a definitive account of gender relations’ (Jackson 1993, pg 20). Postmodern feminism therefore challenges the absolute nature of the feminist movement to supply the one and only answer to the oppression of women. The logical argument that then follows from the Postmodern argument is that the one and absolute answer does not exist and even if one answer did exist it would have to be devoid of the influence, bias, or perception of women to be a truth. Therefore postmodern approach to feminism would question the basis of ‘Feminism’ 3
Candidate No 0138037 the uniqueness of women. Would Postmodern feminism support the exclusivity
inherent in the statement of ‘Feminist research’? The answer would be no since the Postmodern feminist approach would question the need of the female biological sex both in the researcher and the target audience. With these classifications of ‘Feminism’ it would seem apparent that almost all six types described above would not accept the absolute statement that is the focus of this paper. This of course implies the interpretation that the statement ‘Feminist research is research by women, about women, for women’ would completely and absolutely exclude the study of women by men because such knowledge would be inherently flawed because of the inability of male to be female. There is however a divide in the philosophies of feminist sociological research when it comes to the involvement of males as well as the target of such research.
Philosophies behind Qualitative Research: Feminist Empiricism vs. Standpoint epistemology
Qualitative social research is a means to investigate the behavior of individuals and society in general. The hope of such research is to investigate the unique qualities that are inherent in all individuals through research methods that embrace interaction and involvement with the research participants while at the same time trying to establish some level of scientific accountability. When I use the term scientific accountability it implies that research that is not planned and structured with formal goals and procedures may come under attack by quantitative researchers. Evidence of such an attack is evident in the following statement:
Even though the virtue of qualitative research is seldom questioned in the abstract, its practice is sometimes criticized for being nonscientific and thus invalid. However, these critics tended to lose sight of the probability factor inherent in quantitative practices and replaced it with an assumption of certainty. (Berg 2006, pg. 3).
The reality is that most of ‘Feminist research’ is qualitative in nature and utilizes the interaction between the researcher and the researched as well as involvement in the research process to empower. Support for this statement is found in the following description of the way women learn:
…a substantial number of the 135 women in a study of women’s cognitive development were ‘connected knowers’ … and drawn to …knowledge that emerges from first hand observation (Belenky et al. 1986). Such women felt that because such knowledge comes from experience, the best way of
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understanding another person’s ideas was to develop empathy and share the experiences that led the person to form those ideas (Hill Collins 1990, pg. 210).
The statement may only cover a small group of women however this notion of knowledge through interaction is continually repeated throughout the literature on ‘Feminist research’ by such people as Sandra Harding and Carol Gilligan. The philosophical foundation of ‘Feminist research’ is split however between empiricism and standpoint epistemology with some debate about the presence of postmodernism. This paper will look specifically on the debate between Feminist empiricism (which appears to accept biological males as contributors) and Feminist Standpoint epistemology (which does not directly state but implies that such a standpoint is not merely a perspective but something more) as applied to Qualitative research. ‘Feminist empiricism’ looks to balance the scientific nature of inquiry with the political movement that is Feminism. Clearly when one thinks of the process of research or scientific inquiry it is believed that bias or a political motivation should be excluded from such a process. ‘Feminist’ empiricists hold to the belief that the problem in research in the presence of social biases which lead to sexist and androcentric claims in research (Kemp & Squires 1997, pg. 166). The solution to remove these biases is a strict adherence to the scientific process as suggested by Sandra Harding:
Feminist empiricists argue that sexist and androcentric biases are eliminable by stricter adherence to the existing methodological norms of the scientific inquiry; it is ‘bad science’ or ‘bad sociology’, etc, which is responsible for these biases in the results of research. (Kemp & Squires 1997, pg. 166)
With this premise Feminist empiricism seeks to utilize the existing framework and process of the scientific method to bring about social change through the researchers as well as what is researched. This does not mean to ignore the political nature of the Women’s movement but to acknowledge that the movement brings about increased access for women researchers and encourages more work by feminist researchers (both male and female) who are able to identify more accurately the biases present in sociological research over a sexist male (Kemp & Squires 1997, pg. 166). Clearly ‘Feminist empiricism’ would not embrace the notion the ‘Feminist research’ is research only BY women as it would inherently see such an approach in violation of
Candidate No 0138037 the scientific method it rigorously adheres to in a move to remove sexist and androcentric biases. “Feminist Standpoint’ epistemology in contrast is suggested to be a unique product of experience and not a perspective that can be learned without actual experience. The basis of the ‘Feminist standpoint’ is the recognition that ‘knowledge is supposed to be based on experience’ and that claims formulated through the ‘Feminist standpoint’ is preferable because it is ‘a more complete and less distorting kind of social experience’(Kemp & Squires 1997, pg. 168). Harding suggests that the justification for the ‘Feminist standpoint’ originates in Hegel’s insight into the relationship between master and slave which suggests that human activity not only shapes life but sets limits on understanding (Kemp & Squires 1997, pg 168). To summarize the ‘Feminist standpoint’ is the product of the subordination of women by men and a patriarchy created in a similar fashion to the dynamic between master and slave and it is this dynamic that allows women (slave) to have this ‘Feminist standpoint’. Conversely the male (master) through their human activity is unable to perceive the experience and realities of the female and therefore can not offer a contribution to the subject without the requisite intellectual and political struggle. The ‘Feminist standpoint’ is the most closely related to ‘Radical feminism’ which embraces the premise that women are oppressed by men and that only by excluding the oppressor from the forum can the oppression end through the voices of women. When comparing ‘Feminist empiricism’ and “Feminist standpoint’ epistemology the relevance of the statement which is the subject of this article comes to the forefront. If you (woman) choose to embrace a ‘Feminist standpoint’ you therefore exclude the involvement of the oppressor in research and social change and “Feminist research’ can be research by women, about women, for women. However, ‘Feminist empiricism’ believes that the political nature of the Woman’s movement can bring about the desired social change by empowering women to research and also feminist researchers (male and female) to recognize the shortcomings of prior research. Both of these approaches can be embraced in qualitative research with the more likely candidate being a “Feminist standpoint’ approach to the analysis since such an approach embraces interaction and shared experience between researcher and researched that would otherwise not be present in ‘Feminist empiricism’. However ‘Feminist empiricism’ does not exclude itself from qualitative research by hiding itself amongst the number crunching of quantitative research and it more than an 6
Candidate No 0138037 acceptable premise for research design and methodological approaches to such inquiries as document review and historical analysis.
My Story: Barriers to Research
When selecting this topic to discuss the approaches of ‘Feminist research’ it was quite close to home. The exclusivity and essentialism contained in the statement that ‘Feminist research is research by women, about women, for women’ alarmed me however it is also a social reality and would appear to be prevalent within at least three academic institutions that I have contacted for assistance. I am setting out as a biological male to research the impact of British family law on the lesbian mother. I have previously suggested that the ‘lesbian mother’ should be recognized as a distinct class within critical theory. This however is not the main focus of my concern with the resistance I have received from academics in the field of gender studies. In seeking assistance with my MSc dissertation on the bias that may effect a custody decision surrounding a lesbian mother, based on sexual preference, I have been referred to many scholars in the field. The most notable individuals include Gillian Dunne (Plymouth), Carol Smart (Manchester), and Leanne Smith (Cardiff). When contacting these academics I have received some assistance in trying to locate individuals for my research however what has alarmed me is the frequency in which I get told that maybe I should re-evaluate my research. I am very open about my biological sex (male) because it is a reality, it is immutable. One such piece of advice was:
I am delighted to hear of a man who is prepared to work on issues surrounding women, parenting and sexuality. However, I will warn you that, if you are hoping to interview lesbians for your research, I think you will have great difficulty finding subjects willing to talk to you. I think you will find that the majority of lesbians would, understandably, have deep misgivings about disclosing information about their lives to a male, and would also have serious doubts about your motives. I think you will need to reflect very carefully on what sort of research would be viable for you, and how you will go about it. (Smith, Nov 24 2006)
Reading the following statement does seem to imply that there is truly a barrier to social research surrounding biological sex. However unlike my experiences, Gillian Dunne seems to have had an easier time with access when it came to researching ‘Gay Dads’. Dr. Dunne elaborates that through a ‘Feminist approach’ which involved interaction with a limited number of
Candidate No 0138037 respondents in interviews after a larger survey by questionnaire it was actually easy to get men to open up in her research. There may be many reasons for the ease at which Dr. Dunne was able to have men open up to her but I would suggest that the most important approach is learning to listen to both men and women. People desire to be listened to and it is something that needs to be developed in qualitative social research. It can not be assumed that both men and women are fully able to know how to listen or that such a technique is inherently non-male. However there is some support that males need to learn how to listen in general (See Murphy 2004, pp. 5056). I would also counter the stance that my biological sex (male) is an automatic barrier to discussion with the words of Dr. Dunne:
None of the sample appeared to be surprised that a woman had initiated and was conducting research [on gay fathers], although I suspect some of the North American respondents originally assumed I was a man (the name Gil is a man’s name there). (Dunne 1999, pg. 11)
It seems evident from the above discussion that there may be a barrier that is unique to the interchange between lesbians (assumed to be more ‘Radical feminist’) and a man than the interchange between a woman and gay men. The resolution of this issue is still pending however, it is my belief that along with the response to this question about the essentialism or exclusivity of ‘Feminist research’ that the barriers to access and knowledge can be removed and a ‘Feminist empiricism’ can be embraced in which male feminists do not have to endure the barriers that women have faced. However a ‘Feminist standpoint” epistemology might suggest that it is through this struggle alone that one can gain the standpoint necessary to do research. The question then remains can a biological male use the ‘Feminist standpoint’ or would it remain only a perspective, even with engagement in the intellectual and political struggle experienced by women.
Internal Struggles: ‘Feminist Standpoints’ in every flavor & ‘Emancipatory’ research
What remains in the analysis of ‘Feminist research’ is the appearance of variations on the proposed ‘Feminist standpoint’ which is attacked as being a representation of white, middle-class, suburban women and limited in its ability to be a voice for all women. The most ardent speaker on this matter is Patricia Hill Collins who has suggested the creation of an ‘Afrocentric feminist’ epistemology. The basis
Candidate No 0138037 for this position is that the experience of Black women is not included in the established ‘Feminist standpoint’ because the experiences of a Black female are inherently unique and not experienced by white females (Truman, Mertens & Humphries 2000, pg. 8). Hill Collins conceptualizes this stance:
Black feminist thought …reflects the interest and standpoint of its creators. … Because elite white men and their representative control structures of knowledge validation, white male interests pervade the thematic content of traditional scholarship. Black women’s experiences … have been rountinely distorted in or excluded from traditional academic discourse. (Hill Collins 1990, pg. 201)
Furthermore, Hill Collins suggests that a Black feminist can merge and work between a ‘Feminist standpoint’ and ‘Afrocentric feminist’ standpoint but the two are unique standpoints. However the question remains if there is a unique standpoint for all varieties of Feminist does this not cause a weakening within the Women’s movement and undermine the traditional ‘Feminist standpoint’. The next significant discussion comes from the ‘emancipatory’ research paradigm which includes not only ‘Feminist research’ but also any research which seeks to bring a voice to the oppressed (Truman, Mertens & Humphries 2000). ‘Feminist research’ is seen as emancipatory in its nature however the true nature of this empowerment is again questioned by both Black and Third-World women who see ‘Feminist research’ as plagued by universalist and imperialist assumptions (Truman, Mertens & Humphries 2000, pg. 8). This calls into question what “Feminist research’ is empowering if there is not recognition of positions such as Afrocentric, lesbian, and disabled feminists. This question remains to be resolved with reference to the current ‘Feminist standpoint’. In Hearing voices, Clare Woodward describes her ‘Feminist’ perspective that is brought to the table when conducting her ‘emancipatory’ research into victims of childhood sexual abuse (Truman, Mertens & Humphries 2000, pp. 40-44). Woodward uses qualitative methods of review applied to letter written by survivors of CSA in light of her ‘Feminist’ perspective and discusses the researcher- researched relationship and that bringing emotion and empathy to reading the letters was essential. Furthermore, Woodward discusses the use of ‘conscious subjectivity’ instead of pure objectivity to convey the nature of her research (Truman, Mertens & Humphries 2000, pg. 42). The belief is that recognition of the experiences of the researcher will assist and not hinder analysis of the research participants. The most startling reality of this research into CSA is that 12% of the
Candidate No 0138037 respondents were men and therefore this boldly challenges that ‘Feminist research’ is about women and more acutely that the results are for women and not society as a whole.
The analysis above has challenged the statement that ‘Feminist research is research by women, about women, for women’ by reviewing six prevalent types of feminism and the degree to which they adhere to the statement, looking at the philosophical foundations of ‘Feminist research’ to discover if essentialism is truly present, sharing a personal narrative in order to illuminate the reality in social research currently, and discussing the movement to recognize multiple ‘Feminist standpoints’ based on the unique experiences of all women. Through this critical analysis it should be evident that besides the tenets of ‘Radical feminism’ where men are the oppressors of women and appropriately excluded from ‘Feminist research’ because of an inability to share in the ‘Feminist standpoint’ the other forms of ‘Feminism’ and ‘Feminist empiricism’ recognize the contributions of all members of society, even biological males. I would state that my research into the impact of the British family law on the lesbian mother will continue undaunted and that such work is important. Not because I seek to re-establish the androcentric and sexist attitudes of men in reference to lesbian mothers but on the other hand work through the process of ‘emancipatory’ research to bring a voice to those that would otherwise go unheard.
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Articles: 1. DUNNE, G. A. (1999) The Different Dimensions of Gay Fatherhood. Report to The Economic And Social Research Council, (October, 1999). (Translated into French and German). http://www.sociology.plymouth.ac.uk/~gdunne/gaydads.pdf Books: 2. Berg, B. L. 2006, Qualitative Research Methods for the Social Sciences, 6th edition, Pearson Education, New York 3. Etaugh, C. & Bridges, J. 2006, Women’s Lives: A Topical Approach, Pearson Education, New York 4. Harding, S. 1986, The Science Question in Feminism, Open University Press, Milton Keynes 5. Hill Collins, P. 1990, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, Routledge, New York 6. Murphy, P.F. ed. 2004, Feminism & Masculinities, Oxford University Press, New York 7. Nicholson, L.J. ed. 1990, Feminism / Postmodernism, Routledge, New York 8. Nicolson, D & Bibbings, L. eds. 2000, Feminist Perspectives on Criminal Law, Cavendish Publishing, London 9. Jackson, S et al eds. 1993, Women’s Studies: A reader, Harvester Wheatsheaf, New York 10. Kemp, S. & Squires, J eds. 1997, Feminisms, Oxford University Press, New York 11. Truman, C., Mertens, D. & Humphries, B. eds. 2000, Research and Inequality, UCL Press, London
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