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In Trauth, Eileen (Ed.), The encyclopedia of gender and information technology (pp. 335-340). Hershey, PA: Information Science Publishing, 2006. Title: Feminist Standpoint Theory Alternative Titles: Feminist Standpoint Epistemology, Standpoint Feminist Theory, Standpoint Theory, Gender Differences, Women's Standpoint Keywords: Epistemology, feminism, standpoint, feminist theory, Chodorow, Gilligan, Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tarule, computer culture 35-word Bio: Clancy Ratliff is a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric at the University of Minnesota. Her research interests include gender and computer-mediated communication, modern rhetorical theory, and intellectual property. She keeps a weblog at http://culturecat.net. Clancy Ratliff University of Minnesota Introduction Feminist standpoint theory is an epistemological view set forth in the late 1970s and early 1980s, described as “an engaged vision of the world opposed and superior to dominant ways of thinking” (Ruddick, 1995, p. 129). Its development was influenced by Marxist thought, specifically the idea that the world view of the ruling class is compromised by their vested interest in upholding the current class structure. The proletariat, who have no such interest, are able to interpret reality from the standpoint of their own experience as well as that of the ruling class, because the ruling class's ideas are widely inculcated and presented as “objective,” advancing the view that social conditions are as they are, and they cannot be otherwise. This naturalization of the ruling class's ideas bolsters and affirms their privilege. The proletariat can inhabit both their own and the dominant perspectives, putting them at a more ideal epistemological and political vantage point. Drawing upon this line of Marxist thought, feminist standpoint theory holds that women's social development and experiences are different from men's, and these experiences, taken with the sexual division of labor and women's portion of this work, including mothering, homemaking, and other emotional and relational labor including nursing and social work (Hartsock 1983/2004) enable women to interpret the material world from a unique standpoint. Implicit in this postulate is the assumption that men are the ruling class, and the dominant world view is masculine. The feminist standpoint, its proponents argued, could be used as a methodology to make more accurate, holistic, and socially responsible knowledge. At the heart of feminist standpoint theory, Braidotti (2003) argues, is the emphasis on the difference between men and women and the focus on women's experiences as a means to knowledge production. Chodorow (1978), Gilligan (1982), and Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tarule (1986) extended the feminist standpoint project by studying women's psychological, moral, and epistemological development, respectively, and the theories that emerged from their studies in particular have had considerable influence on early work in gender and information technology.
Background In the late 1970s and 1980s, feminist standpoint theorists in psychology and education worked to correct what they perceived as male bias in theories of development and, in general, the “dominant intellectual ethos” of the time (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tarule, 1986, p. ix). In response to influential theorists such as Freud and Piaget, these researchers built theory that was grounded in women's experience. Chodorow (1978) theorizes women's development from a psychological perspective. She describes the “reproduction of mothering” as a built-in facet of girls’ and women’s personalities; because girls are mothered by women, they see their mothers as role models and, in turn, themselves desire to mother. Chodorow argues that the reproduction of mothering is a social psychological process that helps to keep gender hierarchy in place as long as women are the ones expected to care for children. That children are mothered by women has strong implications for the personality and development of girls. Girls take a much longer time to separate from the mother than do boys and therefore see themselves as more continuous with their mothers. Chodorow points out that due to the continuity and identification with their mothers, “girls emerge from [childhood] with a basis for ‘empathy’ built into their primary definition of self in a way that boys do not. Girls emerge with a stronger basis for experiencing another’s needs or feelings as one’s own (or of thinking that one is so experiencing another’s needs and feelings)” (p. 167). Because a girl is mothered by a woman who anticipated her needs as an infant and child, she in turn learns to anticipate and meet others’ needs. Gilligan (1982) explores women’s development with attention to ethics and morality. Based on her interviews with children and women, Gilligan argues that the tacit prescription that women should care for others and prioritize others' needs and desires before their own emphasizes “the concepts of responsibility and care in women’s construction of the moral domain” and a “close tie in women’s thinking between conceptions of the self and of morality” (p. 105). Gilligan theorizes that if women think of ethics and morals in terms of rights, or what they are themselves entitled to, they can balance ethics and morality between the needs of the self and the needs of others, going from “the paralyzing injunction not to hurt others to an injunction to act responsively toward self and others and thus to sustain connection” (p. 149). She argues that if women do not see moral decisions in terms of what they are entitled to, the problem she identifies will continue: First, women will, when making moral decisions, continue to sacrifice their own needs and wants for their perceived obligations and responsibilities and continue to see their actions primarily in terms of how they will affect others. Second, masculine bias will continue in theories of development if researchers fail to take into account women's perspectives and experiences, or women's “voice,” resulting in theories of human experience that lack the appropriate complexity (Gilligan, 1982, p. 173-174). Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tarule (1986), after noticing that “women often feel alienated in academic settings and experience ‘formal’ education as either peripheral or irrelevant to their central interests and development” (p. 4), studied the way women acquire knowledge and experience knowing. They found a continuum in women’s epistemological development that goes from “silence,” a metaphor taken from Olsen's (1978) study of the history of women writers, which they define as “an extreme in denial of self and in dependence on external authority for direction” (p. 24), to “received knowledge,” or listening to authorities and accepting their explanations as definitive, to “subjective knowledge,” in which women start to develop an inner voice and gain some authority as knowers. The next category is procedural knowledge, which they divide into separate knowing and connected knowing. Separate knowers have “procedures for making meaning [that] are strictly impersonal. Feelings and personal beliefs are
rigorously excluded” (p. 109). Connected knowers, the most highly developed knowers in their taxonomy, see themselves as authoritative and as having a personal stake in knowledge. They value the personal and emotional and bring them to what they seek to understand. Connected knowers understand that they play a part in shaping knowledge. Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tarule argue that a pedagogical approach geared toward collaborative learning and experiential knowledge, an approach that stresses “connection over separation, understanding and acceptance over assessment, and collaboration over debate” (p. 229), is best suited to women's learning styles, and that educators can and should include women's experiences and learning styles in pedagogical theory, curriculum design, and teaching practice. Feminist Standpoint Theory and Computer Culture Wajcman (1991) claims that “technology is more than a set of physical objects or artefacts. It also fundamentally embodies a culture or set of social relations made up of certain sorts of knowledge, beliefs, desires, and practices” (p. 149). Much of the feminist work in information technology has been concerned with technology as culture, or, as Lay (1996) terms it, “computer culture.” Feminist researchers have synthesized the insights offered by feminist standpoint theorists, especially the three reviewed above, with men's and women's attitudes toward computing and experiences with information technology in educational, domestic, and occupational settings. They described values and practices often associated with computer culture – competition, individualism, and hierarchy – as masculine, and they criticized the exclusion of the values of connection, relationality, and collaboration found to be common among women. The association of computing with masculinity goes back to childhood for many women, when girls often have more responsibilities at home, and “girls' extracurricular activities are generally much more restricted than boys'” (Wajcman, 1991, p. 154). Girls are not encouraged to play computer games, participate in computer camps, and engage with the computer as much as boys are (Wajcman, 1991). Moreover, most computer games are designed using the masculine values of hierarchy and competition. Computer science instructors, for the most part, have not used feminist theories of women's development in their course design and pedagogy and have, perhaps unwittingly, perpetuated gender stereotypes surrounding boys, girls, math, and science, alienating girls (Wajcman, 1991). This early experience with computers in the home and at school is crucial because it establishes a pattern that tends to continue into adulthood; to wit, historically, and even now, men outnumber women in technical professions. IT research influenced by feminist standpoint theory offers a genealogy of how computer culture is rooted in masculine epistemological tradition. Lay (1993) points out the "remnants of scientific positivism" in computer culture (especially in the development of the hardware and software) as well as the tendency to divide the world into dichotomies that are "either objective or subjective, allied with nature or culture, governed by emotions or rational thinking, these dichotomies privilege what society labels as masculinity" (p. 222, see also Wajcman, 1991). Selfe & Selfe (1996) add that computer production and networking has its origins in the military, with the motive of making military communication more efficient in times of war. Dominant knowledge, which feminist standpoint theorists would argue is masculine, structures how knowledge about computers gets communicated, and one can see evidence of this gendering in the selection of interface metaphors, including the violent masculine metaphors "kill" and "abort." Gerrard (1999) cites Selfe & Selfe's challenge to imagine a computer with the interface metaphor of, rather than “desktop,” "kitchen" or "work bench," each of which would gender or class the computer differently. However, while the language which is used to communicate
technical knowledge reveals much about the culture in which tools are embedded, the relationship between language and practice is not a transparent and deterministic one (Wajcman, 1991). Education is an important context to study, which feminist researchers of information technology have done using standpoint theory. Lay (1996) identifies several differences between men and women's learning styles: She critiques top-down programming for its hierarchical masculine thought style and points to Turkle and Papert's study of computer programmers, noting that most computer learners classified as "bricoleurs" are women. Bricoleurs "tend to anthropomorphize the computer and seek transparency, closeness, and visual manipulation when learning and using the computer" (p. 6869). Instead of top-down programming in which the programmers write modules of code conforming to the designer's plan, bricoleurs prefer moving the modules around and rearranging them until the program is completed. Turkle (1988) describes this kind of interaction as “a relational encounter,” “an artistic, almost tactile style of identification with computational objects, a desire to 'play with them' as though they were physical objects in a collage” (p. 50). Men are more interested in the computer itself, whereas women are more interested in the computer as tool or means to completing a task. In the study of computing, women sometimes feel alienated; Turkle (1988) argues that they see not only the computer itself, but all its cultural associations. She writes: When women look at the programming virtuosos around them, they, unlike men, see themselves as cut off from a valued learning style. Male risk taking is equated with computational 'intuition.' In educational and professional environments where hackers present an image of 'the best,' women often see themselves as lesser. They see themselves as 'just users,' as competent but not really creative.” (1988, p. 49) Lay (1996) recommends that computer documentation textbooks accommodate diverse learning styles, including those commonly associated with women, which value relationships, collaboration, and nonhierarchical programming methods. Studies in computer-mediated communication have also drawn heavily upon feminist standpoint theory, arguing that differences sometimes exist in the ways men and women communicate in networked environments. Herring (1996), who admittedly does not use standpoint theory in her work, has gestured toward two types: the informative male and the interactive female. The informative male often states his opinions as fact, makes clear assertions, uses fewer emoticons, and takes a more critical stance toward information introduced into the discussion. In contrast, the interactive female couches her opinions in leading questions, makes attenuated assertions, hedges (uses “perhaps,” “maybe,” “it seems”), uses more emoticons, has a more personal/interpersonal style, and is more interested in exchanging information than criticizing it. Herring qualifies these types, however, by noting that men and women use both communicative styles depending on the situation, and her research has shown that, in a group discussion, the minority gender conforms to the majority gender's norms, even if the minority gender is male. LeCourt (1999, p. 163-164) concedes that an “invitational” style, when used by a woman, could be associated with “'women's' ways of knowing,” but warns that this association “provides an opportunity for [women's] discourse to be positioned as 'lesser.'” Feminist researchers in rhetoric and composition have acknowledged this inclination to hierarchize differences but have still taken feminist standpoint theory seriously in their studies of writing and discussion in electronic environments. Grigar (1999) found that her female students used email to reach out to other students and to her, their teacher. Grigar (1999) and Gerrard (1999) argue that teachers can use email to forge caring, nurturing relationships with students. Gerrard (1999, p. 387-388) also argues that using hypertextual forms of writing, which can be chaotic, nonlinear,
and sometimes collaborative, can provide a welcome contrast to “the linear, argumentative essay, which rhetorical theorists have argued is a 'masculine' form – hierarchical, contentious, and competitive.” However fraught focusing on differences between men and women may be, many rhetoricians of technology have found standpoint theory useful in forming pedagogical theories. Lay (1996) argues that Chodorow, Gilligan, and Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule's theories have value because they are valid for many men and many women. Future Trends In recent years, feminist standpoint theory has fallen out of favor as a methodological tool in feminist research, due in part to the influence of postmodernist thought, which eschews essentialist, reductive, dualistic, deterministic thinking, favoring instead multiplicity, complexity, and contextualization. Feminist standpoint theorists have stated explicitly that they do not mean to propound a view of biological determinism. Rather, they argue, any differences that may exist are socially constructed and perpetuated, and therefore able to be overcome with more egalitarian social practices. Furthermore, feminist standpoint theorists emphasized that differences do not have to be constituted in a superior/inferior dichotomy. However, standpoint theory has still been criticized as essentialist. Critics of standpoint theory have argued that it tends to overgeneralize about men's and women's behavior and that focusing on cognitive differences minimizes the importance of social context. Wajcman (1991), for example, highlights the fact that technology as culture has been closely associated with war machines and weapons, usually gendered masculine, but that women have served in combat and provided much help to war efforts. Men, on the other hand, have historically been more active than women in organizing mass war protest efforts. Critics of standpoint theory also argue that no one has epistemological privilege – not even women – and that dichotomous oppositional thinking ends up reifying gender hierarchies rather than dismantling them. Additionally, standpoint theory tends to generalize about “women” as one group and does not account for differences among women. Hekman (1997, p. 341), writes, “[p]articularly among younger feminist theorists, feminist standpoint theory is frequently regarded as a quaint relic of feminism's less sophisticated past.” While feminist standpoint theory was influential in early studies of gender and information technology, it is unlikely that it will continue to be; most feminist researchers view gender as performative. In future research, if standpoint theory is used at all, it will be used in a carefully qualified, historicized, tactical manner, and not likely as a primary theoretical framework. Conclusion Feminist standpoint theory is rarely used in current research on gender and information technology, but it is a significant part of the intellectual history of this field. Markham (2003) says that Internet researchers “need to place our research in history; ahistoricity is a problem. Go to other researchers' work even if you're working with a new technology—other researchers have already thought through most epistemological and theoretical problems. There's a tendency in Internet research to reinvent the wheel, or invent a method to use.” Standpoint theory has historical value not only because it is a large part of the foundation of gender and information technology, but also because it produced windfalls for gender theory in general: It “started the conversation about situated knowledges” (Hekman, 1997, p. 344), and it helped to bring issues of race, class, ability, and sexuality into feminism.
References Baym, N., Eichhorn, K., Herring, S.C., Markham, A., & Orgad, S. (2003, October). Broadening options and raising standards for qualitative Internet research: A dialogue among scholars. Roundtable session presented at the annual meeting of the Association of Internet Researchers, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Belenky, M.F., Clinchy, B.M., Goldberger, N.R., & Tarule, J.M. (1986). Women's ways of knowing: The development of self, voice, and mind. New York: Basic Books. Benston, M.L. (1988). Women’s voices/men's voices: Technology as language. In C. Kramarae (Ed.), Technology and women's voices: Keeping in touch (pp. 15-28). New York: Routledge. Braidotti, R. (2003). Feminist philosophies. In M. Eagleton (Ed.), A concise companion to feminist theory (pp. 195-214). Malden, MA: Blackwell. Chodorow, N. (1978). The reproduction of mothering: psychoanalysis and the sociology of gender. Los Angeles: University of California Press. Gerrard, L. (1999). Feminist research in computers and composition. In K. Blair & P. Takayoshi (Eds.), Feminist cyberscapes: Mapping gendered academic spaces (pp. 377-400). Stamford, CT: Ablex. Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women's development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Grigar, D. (1999). Over the line, online, gender lines: E-mail and women in the classroom. In K. Blair & P. Takayoshi (Eds.), Feminist cyberscapes: Mapping gendered academic spaces (pp. 257-281). Stamford, CT: Ablex. Hartsock, N.C.M. (2004). The feminist standpoint: Developing the ground for a specifically feminist historical materialism. In S. Harding (Ed.), The feminist standpoint theory reader (pp. 35-53). New York: Routledge. (Reprinted from Discovering reality, pp. 283-310, by M.B. Hintikka & S. Harding (Ed), 1983, Dordrecht: Reidel) Hekman, S. (1997). Truth and method: Feminist standpoint theory revisited. Signs, 22, 341-365. Herring, S.C. (1996). Two variants of an electronic message schema. In S. C. Herring (Ed.), Computer-mediated communication: Linguistic, social and cross-cultural perspectives (pp. 81-108). Amsterdam: John Benjamins. Lay, M.M. (1996). The computer culture, gender, and nonacademic writing: An interdisciplinary critique. In A.H. Duin & C. Hansen, (Eds.) Nonacademic writing: Social theory and technology (pp. 57-80). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. LeCourt, D. (1999). Writing (without) the body: Gender and power in networked discussion groups. In K. Blair & P. Takayoshi (Eds.), Feminist cyberscapes: Mapping gendered academic spaces (pp. 153-175). Stamford, CT: Ablex. Olsen, T. (1978). Silences. New York: Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence. Ruddick, S. (1995). Maternal thinking: Toward a politics of peace. 2nd ed. Boston, MA: Beacon Press. Selfe, C.L., & Selfe, R.J. (1996). Writing as democratic social action in a technological world: Politicizing and inhabiting virtual landscapes. In A.H. Duin & C.J. Hansen (Eds.),
Nonacademic writing: Social theory and technology. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum. Turkle, S. (1988). Computational reticence: Why women fear the intimate machine. In C. Kramarae (Ed.), Technology and women's voices: Keeping in touch (pp. 41-61). New York: Routledge. Wajcman, J. (1991). Feminism confronts technology. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press.
Terms and Definitions Biological Determinism: The idea that differences between men and women are innate, biological, and therefore insurmountable. Computer Culture: The cultural context in which computing practices emerged and continue to take place. Computer-Mediated Communication: Communication that takes place in networked, electronic environments, sometimes on the World Wide Web, but not necessarily. Essentialism: The belief that all members of a group share common attributes. For gender, men might be seen as naturally stronger, more aggressive, logical, and independent, women as weaker, more passive, emotional, and more dependent on social relationships. Performativity: The idea that gender is a learned, daily act grounded in social norms of heterosexuality, femininity, and masculinity, rather than biological sex. Taken by Judith Butler from the work of linguists J.L. Austin and John Searle. Positivism: The epistemological view that argues that the only valid knowledge is that which applies formal rules of logic to empirically observable facts in material reality. Situated knowledges: Refers to the argument that knowledge is produced in social contexts and from particular social locations which influence how the knowledge is shaped.
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