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Feminist Methodology and Its Discontents 1 INTRODUCTION Over fifteen years ago, feminist philosopher Sandra Harding

Feminist Methodology and Its Discontents1


Over fifteen years ago, feminist philosopher Sandra Harding asked: ‘Is There a Distinctive Feminist Method of Inquiry?’ In answering the question, she distinguished between epistemology (‘a theory of knowl­ edge’), methodology (‘a theory and analysis

of how research does or should proceed’) and

method (‘a technique fo

dence’) (Harding, 1987: 2-3). She pointed out the ‘important connections between epis­

temologies, methodologies, and research

m ethods’ (Harding, 1987:3). Following

Harding, I start with the assertion that the specific methods we choose and how we employ those methods are profoundly shaped by our epistemological stance. Our epistemological assumptions also influence how we define our roles as researchers, what we consider ethical research practices, and how we interpret and implement informed consent or ensure the confidentiality of our research subjects. The goal of this chapter is to highlight the ways in which different fem­ inist epistemologies guide the choice of dif­ ferent methodologies and to illustrate how feminists implement particular methods. Due primarily to my own epistemological stance,

gathering evi­








feminist standpoint,






Feminist methodology is the approach to research that has been developed in response to concerns by feminist scholars about the limits of traditional methodology in captur­ ing the experiences of women and others who have been marginalized in academic research. Some of the earliest writing on feminist methodology emphasized the con­ nection between ‘feminist consciousness and feminist research’, which is the sub-title of a 1983 edited collection by Liz Stanley and Sue Wise. Over the years, feminist method­ ology has developed a very broad vision of research practice that can be used to study a wide range of topics, to analyze both men and women’s lives, and to explore both local and transnational or global processes. Feminist methodology includes a wide range of methods, approaches and research strategies. Beginning in the early 1970s, fem­ inist scholars critiqued positivist scientific methods that reduced lived experiences to a

series of disconnected variables that did not do justice to the complexities of social life. Feminist sociologists like Dorothy Smith (1987) pointed out that the taken-for-granted research practices associated with positivism rendered invisible or domesticated women’s vsoik as well as their everyday lives. She argued for a sociology for women that would begin in their everyday lives. I'eminist philosopher Sandra Harding(1987; IVOS) has also written extensively about the limits of positivism and argues for an approach to know ledge production that incorporates the point of view of feminist and postcolonial the­ oretical and political concerns. She stresses that traditional approaches to science fail to acknowledge how the social context and per- s|vctivcs of those who generate the questions, conduct the research anil interpret the findings sha|v what counts as knowledge and how data are interpreted. Instead, she argues for a holis­ tic approach that includes greater attention to the knowledge production process and to the iole of the researcher. Harding and Smith both critique the androcentric nature of academic knowledge prixluction. They argue for the importance of starting analysis from the lived c\|vrienccs and activities of women and others who have been left out of the knowledge- pnxluction process rather than starting inquiry with the abstract categories and a priori assumptions of traditional academic disciplines or dominant social institutions. During the l‘)7(ls and 1980s feminists operating from different epistemological tra­ ditions. including liberal feminism, radical feminism, lesbian feminism, black and I.atina feminisms, and Marxist and socialist feminisms, contributed to a diverse and expanding body of literature that challenged androcentric, elassisl and racist assumptions in fields as diverse as family studies, labor studies, politics and science. Feminists were among the first scholars to highlight (he mar­ ginalization of women of color in academic research and to offer research strategics that would counter this trend within academia (Baca /.inn, 1979; Collins, 1990). More

recently, feminist scholars have stressed the importance of intersectional analysis, an approach that highlights the intersection of race, class, gender and sexuality in examin­ ing women’s lives (Crenshaw, 1993), and, influenced by the so-called postmodern turn in the academy, have pointed out the fluidity of gender identities and the importance of discourse for shaping constructions of mas­ culinities, femininities and sexualities. Following a comprehensive review of feminist research, Shulamit Reinharz (1992) identified ten features that appear in efforts by feminist scholars to distinguish how their research methods differ from traditional approaches. These include the following:

(1) feminism is a point a view, not a particu­ lar method; (2) feminist methodology con­ sists of multiple methods; (3) feminist researchers offer a self-reflexive understand­ ing of their role in the research; and (4) a central goal of feminist research is to con­ tribute to social changes that would improve women’s lives. The themes of reflexivity and research for social change are two of the most important aspects of feminist method­ ology that distinguish it from other modes of research. A year earlier, sociologists Mary Margaret Fonow and Judith A. Cook published a collec­ tion of essays in a book titled Beyond Methodology: Feminist Scholarship as Lived Research (1991), which illustrated how differ­ ent methodological techniques could be used to capture the complexities of gender as it intersects with race, sexuality and class. The authors also explored the ethical dilemmas faced by feminist researchers: How does a researcher negotiate power imbalance between the researcher and researched? What responsi­ bilities do researchers have to those they study? How does participatory research influence analytic choices during a research study? Feminist scholars have consistently raised such questions, suggesting that if researchers fail to explore how their personal, professional and structural positions frame social-scientific investigations, researchers

inevitably reproduce dominant gender, race and class biases. In 2005, Fonow and Cook revisited the themes that were prevalent when they wrote Beyond Methodology and highlighted the con­ tinuity and differences in the themes that dom­ inate discussions of feminist methodology at the beginning of the twenty-first century. They found that the reflexivity of the researcher, transparency of the research process and women’s empowerment remained central con­ cerns in contemporary feminist methodology. They also point out the continuity in the multi­ ple methods that are utilized by feminist researchers that include participatory research, ethnography, discourse analysis, comparative case study, cross-culture analysis, conversation analysis, oral history, participant observation and personal narrative. However, Fonow and Cook (2005) note, contemporary feminist researchers are more likely to use sophisticated quantitative methods than they were in the 1980s and 1990s.



One of the most persistent and controversial approaches to feminist methodology is offered by feminist standpoint theorists who assert a link between the development of standpoint theory and feminist political goals of transformative social, political and eco­ nomic change. From the perspective of fem­ inist praxis, standpoint epistemology provides a methodological resource for explicating how relations of domination con­ tour women’s everyday lives. With this knowledge, women and others whose lives are shaped by systems of inequality can act to challenge these processes and systems (Weeks, 1998: 92). Feminist standpoint theory developed in the context of third-world and postcolonial feminist challenges to the so-called dual sys­ tems of patriarchy and capitalism approach

that was associated with socialist feminist theory. The dual systems approach was an attempt to merge feminist analyses of patri­ archy and Marxist analyses of class to create a more complex socialist feminist theory of women’s oppression. Critics of the dual sys­ tems approach pointed out the lack of atten­ tion paid by socialist feminist analyses to racism, white supremacy and colonialism. In contrast, feminist standpoint theory offers an intersectional analysis of gender, race, eth­ nicity, class and other social structural aspects of social life, without privileging one dimension or adopting an additive formula­ tion (for example, gender plus race). Broadly defined, feminist standpoint epis­ temology includes Nancy Hartsock’s (1983) ‘feminist historical materialist’ perspective, Donna Haraway’s (1988) analysis of ‘situ­ ated knowledges’, Patricia Hill Collins’s (1990) ‘black feminist thought’, Chela Sandoval’s (2000) explication of third world feminists’2 ‘differential oppositional con­ sciousness’,3 and Dorothy Smith’s (1987, 1990a, 1990b) ‘everyday world’ sociology for women. Standpoint epistemology, espe­ cially as articulated by Hartsock (1983: 117), draws on Marxist historical materialism for the argument that ‘epistemology grows in a complex and contradictory way from mater­ ial life’. In reworking Marx’s historical mate­ rialism from a feminist perspective, standpoint theorists’ stated goal is to expli­ cate how relations of domination are gen­ dered in particular ways. Contemporary approaches to standpoint theory retain ele­ ments of Marxist historical materialism for their central premise, namely, that knowl­ edge develops in a complicated and contra­ dictory way from lived experiences and social historical context. By arguing for the development of multiple standpoints that derive from what she terms the ‘matrix of domination’, Collins’s approach to standpoint epistemology evokes Donna Haraway’s notion of ‘situated knowledges’. Collins reaffirms her standpoint analysis of Black feminist thought as follows:

in developing a Black feminist praxis, standpoint theory has provided one important source of ana­ lytical guidance and intellectual legitimation for Alrican-Arnencan women. Standpoint theory argues that group location in hierarchical power relations produces shared challenges for individu­ als in those groups. These common challenges can foster similar angles of vision leading to a group knowledge or standpoint that in turn can influ­ ence the group’s political action. Stated differently, group standpoints are situated in unjust power relations, reflect those power relations, and help shape them. (Collins, 1990: 201)

Site also stresses the importance of praxis— the interaction of knowledge and experience— for Black feminist thought. Collins’s work, in particular, has influenced Nancy Hartsock to revise Iter earlier formulation to account for 'multiple subjectivities’, although critics like Katie King (1994: 87) continue to find that llartsock’s approach lacks an ‘understanding of the shifting, tactical, and mobile character of subjectivities' found in work by Ch61a Sandoval and others influenced by postmod­ ern perspectives. From the perspective of feminist praxis, standpoint epistemology provides a method­ ological resource for explicating ‘how sub­ jects are constituted by social systems’ as well as 'how collective subjects are relatively autonomous from, and capable of acting to subvert, those same systems’ (Weeks, 1998:

92). How ev er, standpoint theorists utilize dif­ ferent constructions of ‘standpoint’. From my review of the diverse approaches to feminist standpoint epistemology, I identified several major connections among them, as well as some important differences. One of the most salient themes that links the different perspec­ tives on standpoint theorizing is the connec­ tion to the women’s movement’s method of consciousness raising. Consciousness Raising (CR) was a strategy of knowledge development designed during the late 1960s and early 1970s to help support and generate women's political activism. By sharing their individual-level experiences of oppression, women recognized (hat their experiences were shaped by social structural factors. The CR process assumed that problems associated with women’s oppression needed political

a solutions and that women acting collectively

are able to identify and analyze these processes ’ (Fisher, 2001). The CR group process enabled women to share their experiences, identify

and arialyze the nisms', by which

develop strategies for social change. The second significant theme is the asser- tionof.'a link between the developm ent of standpoint theory and feminist political goals: In Harding’s (1986: 26) form ulation of this connection, ‘feminism and the w om en’s movement provide the theory and m otivation for inquiry and political struggle that can transform the perspective of women into a “standpoint”— a morally and scientifically preferable grounding for our interpretations and explanations of nature and social life.’ A related theme that links different stand­ point; perspectives is the emphasis on the importance of experience for feminist theoriz­ ing arid feminist research. Feminist ethnogra- phersftwno begin analyses from w om en’s diverse social locations have ‘contributed sig-

social and political m echa­ women are oppressed, and


nificantly to reconceptualization of sociological categories— especially, “politics,” “work,” and “family”— typically used to analyze social life’ (Naples^ l998a: 3). In my research with urban community workers hired by the W ar on Poverty, I analyzed the extent to w hich women’s militancy has been masked by the traditional categories used to assess political action. Since much of the women’s community activism'occurred outside the formal political establishment, traditional measures of political participation would have underestimated their political work. My analysis of the community workers’ oral histories revealed

a broad-based notion of "doing politics" that

included any struggle to gain control over defini­

tions of self and community, to augment personal and communal empowerment, to create alterna­

tive institutions and organizational processes, and

to increase the power and resources of the co m ­

munity workers' defined community— although not all of these practices were viewed as "politics"

in the community workers' terminology' (Naples,

1998b: 179).

I conceptualized

their community work



m othering’,






o litical activism as a central component of

illustrates the partiality of standpoints as they


othering and community caretaking of

intersect in and through different women’s


o se who are not part of one’s defined

political understandings and self-expression.


o u seh o ld


family’ (1998b:

11). This

Feminist ethnographers emphasize the sig­


aly sis offered ‘a new conceptualization of

nificance of locating and analyzing particular


e interacting nature of labor, politics and

standpoints in differing contexts to explicate


oth erin g —three aspects of social life usu­

relations of domination embedded in com­


lly analyzed separately—from the point of

munities and social institutions. Many stud­


ie w o f women whose motherwork histori­

ies of community development tend to rely


a lly

has been ignored or pathologized

on influential or powerful ‘key informants’



analyses’ (Naples,


Although community leaders provide partic­



ular insights, feminist standpoint ethnogra­



areena Wright also uses standpoint

phers, following a feminist standpoint


a ly sis of rural women’s everyday experi­

perspective, can deepen understanding of the



c e s to

reconceptualize models of work that

problems of, as well as solutions to, a partic­


r e

lim ited by the separation of unpaid

ular community’s economic concerns by


o u seh o ld labor from paid labor. She devel­

analyzing the perspectives and experiences


p s a ■multidimensional continuum model of

of women and other marginalized groups.


o m e n 's

work’ (Wright,




For example, Christina Gringeri (1994), in

'co n trad icts old [dual spheres] notions


her examination of rural development from

o u seh o ld work is somehow different or less sig n ifican t to society than is waged work’


the diverse perspectives of women home­ workers and rural development officials in

(W rig h t,

1995: 232). By moving beyond the

two Midwestern communities, helps explain


u a l spheres model, Wright’s multidimen­

how rural development strategies are per­

sio n a l

continuum model ‘changes the way

ceived differently by planners and by those


e perceive a number of issues’ (Wright,

who pay the costs of development (see also

1995: 232) such as women’s labor decision­

Naples, 1997).


a k in g processes, women’s life-course pat­

Even when they do not directly evoke


r n s . and our current social policies,

standpoint epistemology in their work, femi­


s p e c ia lly those regarding the care of

nist ethnographers such as Lila Abu-Lughod


h ild re n and the elderly. Virginia Seitz also

(1993), Ruth Behar (1993), Sondra Hale


ra w s on standpoint theory for her examina­

(1991), Suad Joseph (1988), Dorrine Kondo

tio n o f white, working-class Appalachian

(1990), Susan Krieger (1983) and Maria


o m e n 's understanding and practice of class

Mies (1982) demonstrate the value of posi­

stru g g le .

Seitz (1998: 213) examines how

tionality for developing strong self-reflexive


o m e n from southwestern Virginia success­

research strategies as well as for ethno­


lly ’challenged the coal company, the state,

graphic analysis. The concept of positional­


n d . eventually working-class men’ and

ity foregrounds how women can strategically


e re fo re contested taken-for-granted con­

‘use their positional perspective as a place

stru c tio n s of gender and working class poli­

from where values are interpreted and con­

tic s .

As she emphasizes, however, ‘sharing

structed rather than as a locus of an already



sam e set of experiences does not nec­

determined set of values’ (Alcoff, 1988:


s s a rily translate into shared political analy­

434). Reflexive practice informed by stand­

s e s . organizational strategies, and leadership

point analyses of positionality encourages

sty le ’ (Seitz. 1998: 213). In illuminating the "pow erful ways in which these women drew

feminist scholars to examine how gendered and racialized assumptions influence which


p o n their gender, class, and racialized

voices and experiences are privileged in


th n ic ity as "Appalachians” to help wage a

ethnographic encounters. Since the concep­


u c c e ssfu l strike against the powerful

tualization of ‘standpoint’ has multiple


ittsto n Coal Company,’ Seitz (1998: 213)

meanings, depending on which aspect of

standpoint episiemology is referenced, I prefer the term positionality when referring

to subjectivity and subjective knowledges.

The notion of positionality provides a con­ ceptual frame which allows one to ‘say at one anil the same time that gender is not nat­ ural, biological, universal, ahistorical, or essential and yet still claim that gender is relevant because we are taking gender as a position from which to act politically’ (Alcoff, l‘)NS: 433). The ‘position’ from which one

acts politically is also subject to investigation.

A sensitivity to positionality in feminist

research requires reflexive practice. In the next section 1 discuss the processes of reflex- ivity and feminist approaches to objectivity.


Reflexive practice includes an array of strate­ gies that begin when one first considers con­ ducting a research project. Reflexive practices can be employed throughout the research process and implemented on differ­ ent levels, ranging from remaining sensitive

to the perspectives of others and how we

interact with them to a deeper recognition of the power dynamics that infuse ethnographic encounters. By adopting reflexive strategies, feminist researchers work to reveal the inequalities and processes of domination that shape the research process. Diane Wolf (IW h) em phasizes that power is evident in the research process in three ways: first, the differences in power between the researcher and those she or he researches in terms of race, class and nationality, among other dimensions; second, the power to define the relationship and the potential to exploit those who are the subjects of the research; and third, the pow er to construct the written account and therefore shape how research subjects arc represented in the text. Feminist researchers argue that dynamics of pow er influence how problem s are defined, w hich knowers are identified and given credibility, how interactions are inter­ preted. and how ethnographic narratives are

constructed. Feminist researchers stress that \ if researchers fail to explore how their per- rfsonal, professional and structural positions V frame social scientific investigations, ^researchers 'inevitably reproduce dom inant |gender, race and class biases. For example, while feminist researchers who draw 'on positive or interpretive4 th eo ­ retical traditions might utilize a m ethodology that generates oral narratives or ethnographic

data, what counts as data and how these data




t .

are interpreted and reported will vary signif- icantly depending on the specific epistem o­

logical stance undergirding the research process. Since there are diverse fem inist p er­ spectives, it*follows that there are different ways feminist researchers identify, analyze and report ‘data’. How one defines the nature of the rela­ tionship between researcher and researched also depends on one’s epistem ological stance. O f course, a researcher does not have complete autonomy in shaping relations w ith

or her research. Research su b ­ power to influence the d irec­

subjects of his jects have the

tion of the research, resist researchers’ efforts and interpretations, and add their own in ter­ pretations and insights. As Leslie B loom (1998: 35)^observes: ‘The idea that the researcher has “The Power” over the p artici­ pant [in a research study] is an authoritative, binary discourse that may function to d is­ guise the ways that “the flow of pow er in

multiple systems of domination is not alw ays unidirectional” (Friedman, 1995: 18).’ T h is

point has been well established in the field o f

anthropology' where over the last 20


ethnographers have grappled with the

in ter­

section of representation, subjectivity and power in the practice of ethnography.5 Third-world and postcolonial fem in ist scholars call on scholars to reflect on th eir research and writing practices in light o f political, moral and ethical questions that arise from the inherent power im balances between many ethnographers and th o se they study. Feminist ethnographers h av e responded to these challenges by exam ining how certain cultural representations in ethno­ graphic accounts contribute to colonialist

practices and further marginalize the lives of third-w orld and other non-white peoples,

ev en

as they are brought to the center of

an aly sis (see Hurtado, 1996). However, some

o f the strategies utilized by feminist ethnog­

rap h ers, such as

in tim a c y and egalitarian relationships

b etw een

h av e led

in fieldw ork. Tamar El-Or, who is Lecturer of

attempting to develop more

subjects of research and themselves,

to the recognition of other dilemmas


o cio lo g y and Anthropology at the Hebrew


n iv ersity in Jerusalem, conducted research


m o n g those living in Gur Hassidim, a suburb


f Tel Aviv close to her home. She describes


o w intim acy between researchers and infor­


a n ts


mask the

objectification of the

re se a rc h e d .


from a postmodern

fra m e , El-O r (1997: 188) states:

In tim acy thus offers a cozy environment for the

eth n o g raph ic journey, but at the same time an illu­ sive o ne. The ethnographer wants information,

th is information happens to be someone else's real

their claims’ (Stacey, 1991: 115). She draws

on James Clifford’s analysis to emphasize the

limits of ethnographic research: ‘Ethnographic

truths are thus inherently partial — committed and incomplete’ (Clifford, 1986: 7; quoted in Stacey, 1991: 116; emphasis is Clifford). She points out, however, that postmodern strate­ gies cannot counter feminist concerns about the ‘inherently unequal reciprocity with informants; nor can it resolve the feminist reporting quandaries’ (Stacey, 1991: 117). Feminist ethnography and feminist work with narratives are two of the methods in which feminist researchers have been the most concerned with processes of reflexivity. Susan Chase’s (1995) approach to oral narra­

tives includes attention to the way women narrate their stories. Rather than treat the nar­ ratives as ‘evidence’ in an unmediated sense

of the term, Chase is interested in exploring

the relationship between culture, experience and narrative. In her work on women school


life. The informant's willingness to cooperate with

superintendents she examines how women

a ‘progressive-regressive method’ derived

th e ethnographer might arise from different moti­

use narrative strategies to make sense of their

v a tio n s, but it usually ends when the informant

everyday life experiences as shaped by dif­

fe e ls that he/she has become an object for some­


n e else's interests. So it seems that intimacy and

ferent cultural contexts. Leslie Bloom adopts


o rk in g relationships (if not under force or fallacy)

from Sartre’s notion of ‘spirals’ in a life to


o in opposite directions.

S h e concludes her analysis with the follow­

examine how the individual can overcome her or his social and cultural conditioning,

in g statem ent about her post-fieldwork rela­

‘thereby manifesting what Sartre calls “posi­

tio n s h ip with Hanna, one of her key

tive praxis’” (Bloom, 1998: 65).


fo rm a n ts: ’We can’t be friends because she

Drawing on Dorothy Smith’s institutional


a s

m y object and wc both know it’ (El-Or,

ethnographic method,

M arjorie DeVault

1 9 9 7 :


(1999) utilizes narratives she generates from


S ociologist Judith Stacey argues that the

ethnographic interviews to explore how


p p e a ra n c e of friendship with subjects in

‘relations of ruling’ are woven into women’s


th n o g ra p h ic research could result in greater

everyday lives such that they are hidden from


x p lo ita tio n than in other approaches: ‘For

the view of those whose lives are organized


o m a tte r how welcome, even enjoyable, the

by these processes of domination. The insti­

fie ld - w


r k e r ’s presence may appear to

tutional and political knowledges that


n a tiv e s ,

fieldwork represents an intrusion

DeVault uncovers illustrate the link between


n d intervention into a system of relation­

institutional ethnography and feminist


h ip s . a system of relationships that the

activism. In the context of activist research,

re s e a rc h e r is far freer than the researched to

feminist analysts using Smith’s approach


e a v e ’ (Stacey.


113). Stacey suggests

explore the institutional forms and proce­

th a t


postm odern

ethnographic solution

dures, and informal organizational processes,

to th e anthropologist’s predicament is to

ac k n o w led g e fully the limitations of ethno­

g ra p h

ic p ro c e ss and product and to reduce

as well as discursive frames used to construct the goals and targets of the work that the institution performs. This approach ensures

dial a commitment to the political goals of the w om en’s movement remains central to feminist research by foregrounding how rul­

ing relations work to organize everyday life. With a ’thick’ understanding of ‘how things are pul together’, it becomes possible to identify effective activist interventions. One example of this point is found in Ellen Pence's (1996) work to create an assessment of how sate battered women rem ain after they report abuse to the police. Pence draws specifically on Smith’s (1987: 1990a) institu­ tional ethnographic approach6 to shift the standpoint on the process of law enforcement

in the wom en whom the law attem pts to

tect anil to those who are charged with pro­

tecting them. Pence developed a safety audit to identify ways criminal justice and law enforcement policies and practices can be


to ensure the accountability of the offender. Pence’s safety audit has been used by police departments, criminal justice and probation departm ents, and family law clinics in dixerse settings across the country. Pence asserts that her approach is not an evaluation of individual workers’ performances but an examination of how the institution or system is set up to manage domestic violence cases. Hauling (1986). whose approach to stand­ point analysis differs from Smith’s, argues for a self-reflexive approach to theorizing in order to foreground how relations o f power may be shaping the production o f knowledge in different contexts. The point o f view of all those involved in the knowledge-production process must he acknowledged and taken into account in order to produce what she terms ’strong objectivity’, an approach to objectivity that contrasts with w eaker and unrellexivo positivist approaches. In this way. knowledge production should involve a collective process, rather than the individual­ istic. top-down and distanced approach that typifies the traditional scientific method. For Harding (1991), strong objectivity involves analysis of the relationship between the sub­ ject and object of inquiry. This approach con­ trasts with the traditional scientific method that either denies this relationship or seeks to


to ensure the safety o f wom en and

achieve control over it. However, as Harding and other feminist theorists point out, an approach to research that produces a more objective approach acknowledges the partial and situated nature of all knowledge produc­ tion (also see Collins, 1990). Although not a complete solution to challenging inequalities in the research process, feminist researchers

have used reflexive strategies effectively to

become aw are of, and diminish, the ways

which domination and repression are repro­ duced in the course of their research and in the products of their work. Furthermore, feminist researchers argue, sustained atten­ tion to these dynamics can enrich research

accounts as well as improve the practice of social research (Naples, 2003). A scholar who approaches the research process from the point of view of strong

objectivity is interested in producing know l­ edge for use as well as for revealing the rela­

tions of pow er

knowledge-production processes. Strong objectivity acknowledges that the production of power is a political process and that greater attention paid to the context and social location of knowledge producers will contribute to a more ethical and transparent result. In fact, Harding (1991) argues that an approach to research and knowledge produc­ tion that does not acknowledge the role that power and social location play in the know l­ edge production process must be understood as offering only a weak form of objectivity. Another aspect of traditional approaches to science and knowledge production that contributes to a weak form of objectivity is found in the move to greater and greater gen­ eralization. As a result, material reality is replaced with abstractions that bear little resemblance to the phenomenon originally under examination. Smith (1987) explains that the traditional androcentric approach to sociology that privileges a white, m iddle- class and heterosexual point of view pro­ duces results that are both alienating and colonizing. Harding (1998) has been espe­ cially concerned with the role of colonization in marginalizing the situated knowledges o f the targets o f colonization. Western science


that are hidden in traditional

h as developed through the exploitation and


m u ch useful knowledge has been lost or ren­

of colonial subjects. In this way,


ered suspect (see Sachs, 1996). Strong


b je c tiv ity involves acknowledging the


o litical, social, and historical aspects of all


n ow ledge (Longino, 1990). The strongest


p ro ach to knowledge production is one


a t takes into account the most diverse set of


Postm odern critics of Harding’s approach


o in t out that the goal of producing

a strong


b jectiv ity replicates the limitations

of tradi­

tio n a l scientific methods, namely, privileging

o n e o r more account as most ‘accurate’ or

tru e (H ckm an, 1997). Postmodern theorists


tre ss that all social positions are fluid.


flu id ity makes it impossible to identify


v id u a l knowers who can represent any par­

tic u la r social group. Furthermore, they insist,

th e search for truth, even one that is partial,

is frau g h t with the risk of marginalizing other

a c c o u n ts. However, those who adopt the

s ta n c e

o f

strong objectivity argue that it can


v o id


‘arrogant aspirations of modernist

ep istem o lo g y ' (Longino, 1993: 212). While

fe m in is t standpoint epistemologies offer

p o w e rfu l tools for exploring the relations of

ru lin g in everyday life, the power of feminist

s ta n d p o in t methodology can be enhanced by

in co rp o ratin g insights from postmodern and

p o stco lo n ial perspectives on power, subjec­ tiv ity and language.





worlds they investigate. They point out that without recognition of disciplinary metanar­ ratives, research operates to rc-inscrt power relations rather than challenge them. Many feminist researchers have grappled with the challenges posed by postmodern critics. D. Wolf (1996) explains that some feminist scholars’ postmodern theories pro­ vide opportunities for innovation in research practices, particularly in the attention they pay to representation of research participants or research subjects and to the written prod­ ucts that are produced from a research study. However, many other feminist scholars arc concerned that too much emphasis on the lin­ guistic and textual constructions decenters those who are the subjects of our research and renders irrelevant the lives of women or others whom we study. For example, rural sociologist Carolyn Sachs (1996: 19) fears that a postmodern emphasis on ‘fractured identities’ and The multitude of subjectivities’ could lead to ‘total relativism’ that precludes political activism. Women’s Studies scholars Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Mohanty express concern that

postmodern theory, in its haste to dissociate itself from all forms of essentialism, has generated a series of epistemological confusions regarding the interconnections between location, identity, and the construction of knowledge. Thus, for instance, localized questions of experience, identity, culture, and history, which enable us to understand specific processes of domination and subordination, are often dismissed by postmodern theories as reitera­ tions of cultural 'essence' or unified, stable iden­ tity. (Alexander and Mohanty, 1997: xvii)


o stm o d e rn




practice of

Concerns about the depoliticizing conse­

social-scientific research raise a number of

quences of postmodern theories are a consis­

d ile m m a s that challenge feminist researchers

tent thread in feminist debates on the value of

a s

th ey


to conduct

research that

postmodernist theories for feminist praxis.


a k e s self-evident the assumptions and pol­

For example, anthropologist Margery Wolf

itic s

im n h e d

in the

process of knowledge

(1996: 215) is concerned that feminist ethno­


ro d u c tio n






graphers ‘are letting interesting critical posi­


s e a rc h practices (sec, for example, Barrett

tions from outside feminism weaken our


n d





confidence in our work; perhaps we are tak­

em p h a siz e the ways in which disciplinary

ing too seriously the criticisms of our process


isco u rse s

shape how

researchers see the

by those who have never experienced it.’

Postmodern analyses o f power have destabilized the practice o f research, espe­ cially research that involves human subjects. If power infects every encounter and if dis­ course infuses all expressions of personal experience, what can the researcher do to counter such powerful forces? This dilemma is at the heart of a radical postmodern chal­ lenge to social-scientific practice in general, hut has been taken up most seriously in fem­ inist research. While postcolonial feminist scholars also point to the myriad ways in which relations of domination infuse femi­ nist research, they offer some guidance for negotiating the power relations inherent in the practice of fieldwork. Mohanty (1991) calls for ‘careful, politically focused, local analyses' to counter the trend in feminist scholarship to distance from or misrepresent third-world women's concerns.7 She draws on M aria Mies's (19tS2) work on lace makers in Narsapur, India, to illustrate this ethno­ graphic approach:

f.l i". s analysis sliows the effect of a certain histor- K .i’ly anti culturally specific mode of patriarchal nrrianization, an organization constructed on the basis of the definition of the lace makers as 'non- c.orking housewives' at familial, local, regional, statewide, and international levels. The intricacies and tht" effects of particular power networks not only are emphasized, but they form the basis of r.1 e ss analysis of how this particular group of wom en is situated at the center of a hegemonic, e>;iloitativc world market. (Mohanty, 1991: 65)

furtherm ore. Mohanty (1991: 65) remarks, ‘Narsapur women are not mere victims of the production process. Instead, they resist, chal­ lenge, anil subvert the process at various junctures.' Despite the valuable efforts of ethnographic researchers such as Mies to produce more balanced accounts of third- world women, some postcolonial critics fear that ‘a "non-colonialist" (and therefore non contaminated?) space remains a wish-fulfill- ment w ithin postcolonial knowledge produc­ tion' (Kajan. 1993: 8). Alexander and Mohanty (1997: xix) recommend ‘grounding analyses in particular, local feminist praxis’ as well as understanding ‘the local in relation to larger, cross-national processes’.

M any feminist postmodernists who offer alternative research strategies center textual or discursive modes of analysis. For example,

following an assessment of the limits and possibilities of feminist standpoint episte­ mologies for generating what she calls a ‘global social analytic’, literary analyst Rosemary Hennessy (1993) posits ‘critique’ as materialist feminist ‘reading practice’, a way to recognize how consciousness is an ideological production. She argues that in this way it is possible to effectively resist the charge of essentialism that has been leveled against standpoint epistemology. In revaluing feminist standpoint theory for her method, she reconceptualizes feminist standpoint as a ‘critical discursive practice’ Hennessy’s methodological alternative effectively ren­ ders other methodological strategies outside the frame of materialist feminist scholarship. However, even poststructural critics of feminist standpoint epistemology within the social sciences conclude their analyses with calls for discursive strategies. For example, Clough (1994: 179) calls for shifting the starting point of sociological investigation from experience or social activity to a ‘social criticism of textuality and discursivity, mass

m edia, communication technologies and

science itself. In contrast, standpoint episte­

m ologies, especially Smith’s (1990a)

approach, offer a place to begin inquiry that envisions subjects of investigation who can experience aspects of life outside discourse. Fem inist standpoint theorists like Smith tie their understanding of experience to the col­ lective conversations of the women’s move­ ment that gave rise to understandings about wom en’s lives which had no prior discursive existence. In this way, despite some impor­ tant theoretical challenges, standpoint theory continues to offer feminist analysts a theoret­ ical and methodological strategy that links the goals of the women’s movement to the knowledge-production enterprise.

M y own strategy for negotiating these challenges has been one of praxis, namely, to generate a materialist feminist standpoint epistemology that speaks to the empirical world in which my research takes place. In

their introduction to Materialist Feminism: A Reader in Class, Difference, and Women's Lives, Rosemary Hennessy and Chrys Ingraham (1997:7) describe materialist fem­ inism as 'the conjuncture of several dis­ courses—historical materialism, Marxist and radical feminism, as well as postmodern and psychoanalytic theories of meaning and sub­ jectivity’ Materialist feminists view agency ‘as complex and often contradictory sites of representation and struggle over power and resources’ (Hesford, 1999: 74). Materialist feminist epistemology, as I reconstruct its intellectual history, has its roots in socialist feminist theories and has been particularly influenced by the theoretical critiques by African-American, Chicana and third-world feminists, who in turn contributed to the development of diverse feminist standpoint epistemologies as discussed above. For example, in the Introduction to This Bridge Called My Back, Moraga passionately ties the political consciousness of women of color to the material experiences of their lives. This ‘politics of the flesh’ (Moraga, 1981: xviii) does not privilege one dimension and artificially set it apart from the context in which it is lived, experienced, felt and resisted. In fact, literary scholar Paula Moya (1997: 150) argues that Moraga’s ‘theory in the flesh’provides a powerful ‘non-essential- ist way to ground identities’ for the pur­ poses of resistance to domination.8 Contemporary formulations of materialist feminism are also informed by Michel Foucault’s analysis of discourse. For exam­ ple, Sandoval argues that ‘the theory and method of oppositional and differential con­ sciousness is aligned with Foucault’s concept of power, which emphasizes the figure of the very possibility of positioning power itself’ (Sandoval, 2000: 77, emphasis in original).9 Foucault is an unlikely resource for feminist praxis given two features of his work: his neglect of the dynamics of gender in his analysis of power and his displacement of the subject as a central agent for social change. However, Hennessy finds that ‘Foucault’s project has opened up productive avenues for developing materialist fem inist theory’

(Hennessy, 1990: 254, emphasis in original). Using a Foucauldian articulation of power, education theorist Jennifer Gore analyzes power ‘as exercised, rather than as pos­ sessed’ (1992: 59). This approach, she argues, requires more attention to the micro­ dynamics of the operation of power as it is expressed in specific sites. I have also found in Foucault’s approach to discourse a powerful methodological tool for materialist feminist analysis of US welfare policy and policies associated with commu­

nity control (Naples, 2003). In addition, I uti­ lized a materialist feminist discourse analysis

to explore the social and institutional loca­

tions from which survivor discourse is gener­ ated and how relations of ruling are woven in and through it.101 address the construction of the term ‘survivor’, which is often used to refer to those who have experienced some sort of crime or abuse and who have rede­ fined their relationship to the experience from one of ‘victim’.1' This redefinition can occur

as a consequence of personal reformulation,

psychotherapy, or in discussions with others who define themselves as survivors. I argue for the importance of locating survivors’ dis­ course in the material sites through which it is produced by survivors of childhood sexual abuse and others. Processes of dialogue and consciousness raising remain central to the establishment of alternatives to the totalizing and depoliticized medical/psychiatric and recovery discourse on treatment of adult sur­ vivors. While I acknowledge the limits of rational deliberation for ‘emancipatory’ goals,12 engagement with others in struggle can provide a strong basis for understanding the personal, political and collective possibili­ ties for progressive social action.


A consistent goal expressed by those who

adopt feminist methodology, regardless of their epistemological stance, is to create knowledge for social change purposes. The emphasis on social action has influenced the type of methods utilized by feminist




rcscMrchcrs as well as the topics chosen for

study. For example, feminists have utilized participatory action research to help empower subjects of research as well as to ensure that the research is responsive to the needs of specific communities or to social movements (Fonow and Cook, 2005; Naples, |99Xb; Reinhurz. 1992). This approach to research is also designed to diminish the power differentials between the researcher

and those who are the subjects o f

research. In an effort to democratize the research process, many activist researchers argue for adopting participatory strategies lhai involve community residents or other participants in the design, implementation and analysis of the research. Collaborative writing also broadens the perspectives repre­ sented in the final product. A wide array of research strategies and cultural products can serve this goal. Yet such strategies and cultural products can be of more or less immediate use for specific activist agendas. For example, activist research includes chronicling the history of activists, activist art, diverse community actions, and social movements. Such analy­ ses arc often conducted after the completion of a specific struggle or examine a wide range of different campaigns and activist organizations. This form of research on activism is extremely important for feminists working toward a broadened political vision of women's activism and can help generate new strategies for coalition building. These studies may not answer specific questions activists have about the value of certain strategies for their particular political strug­ gles. Yet these broad-based feminist histori­ cal and sociological analyses do shed new light on processes of politicization, diversity

and continuity in political struggles over time. On the one hand, many activists could be critical of these apparently more ‘academic’ constructions of activism, especially since the need for specific knowledges to support activist agendas frequently goes unmet. The texts in w hich such analyses appear are often


not widely available and further create a division between feminists located within the academy and community-based activists. On the other hand, many activist scholars have developed linkages with activists and policy arenas in such a way as to effectively bridge the so-called activist/scholar divide. Ronnie Steinberg' (1996) brought her sociological

research skills to campaigns for comparable worth and pay equity. She reports on the moderate success of the movement for com­ parable worth and the significance of careful statistical analyses for supporting changes in pay and job classifications. As one highlight, she reports that in 1991 systematic standards for assessing job equity developed with her associate Lois Haignere were translated into guidelines for gender-neutral policies incor­ porated by the Ontario Pay Equity Tribunal. In another example of feminist activist research, Roberta Spalter-Roth and Heidi Hartmann (1996) testified before Congress and produced policy briefs as well as more detailed academic articles to disseminate their findings about low-income women’s economic survival strategies. Measures o f a rigid positivism are often used to undermine feminists’ credibility in legal and legislative settings. Even more problematic, research generated for specific activist goals may be misappropriated to support anti-fem inist aims by those who do not share feminist political perspectives. For example, propo­ nents of ‘w orkfare’ programs for women on public assistance could also use Spalter-Roth and Hartmann’s analysis of welfare recipi­ ents’ income packaging strategies to further justify coercive ‘welfare to work’ measures.

working directly

in local community actions have also brought their academic skills to bear on specific com ­ munity problems or have trained community members to conduct feminist activist research. Terry Haywoode (1991) worked as an educator and community organizer along­ side women in her Brooklyn community and helped establish National Congress o f Neighborhood Women’s (NCNW) college program, a unique community-based program

Some fem inist scholars

in w hich local residents can earn a two-year

project helps in the development of

A sso ciate’s degree in Neighborhood Studies.

grassroots analyses of personally experi­

B y promoting women’s educational growth

enced realities that are inevitably politi­


n d development within

an activist commu­

cally constituted.15


ity organization, NCNW’s college program

Analysis of community activism or the


e lp e d enhance working-class women’s

process of politicization can be deepened by


o litical

efficacy in struggles to improve

making one’s activist experiences and stand­


e ir neighborhoods. A s w ith feminist work more broadly, the

point visible. Activist researchers have been ambivalent about writing themselves into the


o a l o f community-based activist research is

nanative record. On the one hand, this strat­


produce an analysis that retains the

egy can lead to a more honest account of


te g rity of political processes, specific

the social movement activities or activist



e n ts, diverse actors, and social context

organization in which they participated.


h ile revealing the broader processes at

Incorporating one’s activist experiences and


o rk that may not have been visible to the

positionality into the analysis can result in a


d iv id u al participants at the time they were

deeper understanding of the political strate­



g a g e d in the struggle, or even to the

gies chosen and the process of politicization


se a rc h e rs when they conducted the

(Naples, 1998a). On the other hand, such a


se a rc h (Naples, 1998b). In an effort to

strategy may be viewed as an attempt to cre­


em o cratize the research process, many fem­

ate a more ‘true’ or ‘authentic’ depiction of the


ist researchers argue for adopting participa­

field encounter, thus once again privileging


r y strategics that involve community

the researcher’s voice over the voices of those


sid e n ts or other participants in the design,

whose lives are the subject of the inquiry. In

im p lem

en tatio n and analysis of the

addressing this dilemma, sociologists Kathy


s e a rc h .1' This analytic process can be fur­

Charmaz and Richard Mitchell (1997: 194)


e r deepened when dialogic reflexive strate­

fmd a middle ground between ‘deference to


ie s arc adopted. This form of reflexive

subjects’ views and audible authorship’ and


ra c tic e is a collective activity involving on­

stress that they ‘do not pretend that our stories


o in g dialogue between and among partici­

report autonomous truths, but neither do we


a n ts and co-rescarchers.

share the cynic’s nihilism that ethnography is

In her activist research with parents from

a biased irrelevancy.’They offer a strategy for

th e




writing an ethnographic account where ‘the


h o o l her daughter Sarah attended, sociolo­

writer remains in the background and


is t Susan Stern (1998) demonstrated that

becomes embedded in the narrative rather

conversational strategies can become an inte­

than acting in the scene. The reader hears the

g ra l part of daily life, and of politicization

writer’s words, envisions the scenes, and

a n d ethnographic analysis. In small groups or

attends to the story, not the story teller’

a s conversation partners, participants in the

(Charmaz and Mitchell, 1997: 214).


research project can assess

In addition to the value of reflexive prac­

fin d in g s


refocus research


tice and dialogic strategies for collective


te m pointed to the significance of friend­

action and activist research, they can also


h ip in providing grounds for more egalitar­

enrich the practice of research more broadly.


n conversation-based activist research. She

In order to render visible what is at stake in


o w e d how ‘conversation-based research

the knowledge-production process, reflexive


u ild s on ordinary friendship conversations

practices provide valuable tools throughout


w hich exploration of the personal realm

the research and writing process. The goal of


r o w s to include investigation of shared

reflexive practice is ‘to avoid creating new


o c ia l conditions’ (Stern, 1998: 110),

orthodoxies that are exclusionary and reify­


ialo g u e among participants in an activist

ing’ (Grewal and Kaplan, 1994: 18).


I'ciitinist m ethodology was developed in the context o f xlivcr.se struggles against hege­

m onic m o d e s o f knowledge production that

render w o m e n ’s lives, and those of other


arginal g ro u p s, invisible or dispensable.


ithin th e social sciences, feminist

researchers h av e raised questions about the

separation o f theory and method, the gen­ dered b ia se s inherent in positivism , and the hierarchies that limit who can be considered the m ost ap p ro p riate producers o f theoretical know ledge, fe m in ist rcconceptualizations of

know ledge

tributed to a shift in research practices in

many d isc ip lin e s, and require m ore diverse

m ethodological and self-reflexive skills than traditional m ethodological approaches. Some

fem inist sch o la rs question whether or not it is

possible to d ev elo p a reflexive practice that

can fully atte n d to all the different manifesta­

tions o f p o w e r (Lather, 1992; also see Stacey,

I I ». I lo w ev e r. since feminist methodology is open to critiq u e and responsive to the changing d y n am ics o f power that shape w om en's liv es and those of others who have

been trad itio n ally marginalized within acad­


vators w h o are quick to develop new


processes have con­

emia. fem in ist researchers often act as

research approaches and frameworks.



U p h eld ,


(1 9 9 3 )


W om en's



S to rie s.








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1. Portions of this chapter are excerpted from

Naples (1998a; 1998b; 2003; 2006).

2. See, for example, Narayan (1997). Chicano

studies scholar Chela Sandoval defines third-world feminism as the coalition 'between a generation of US feminists of color who were separated by culture, race, class, sex or gender identifications but united through their similar responses to the experience of race oppression'(Sandoval, 1993: 53). She argues for

'a "coalitional consciousness" in cultural studies across racialized, sexualized, genderized theoretical domains: "white male poststructuralism," "hege­ monic feminism," "third world feminism,” "post­ colonial discourse theory," and "queer theory"' (Sandoval, 1993: 79).

3. Sandoval's (1991: 2) analysis of 'oppositional

consciousness’ focuses on the development of third- world feminism 'as a model for the self-conscious production of political opposition' In challenging the separation of different political approaches. Sandoval (1991:3) demonstrates how political actors can func­ tion 'within yet beyond the demands of dominant ideology'. She emphasizes how 'differential (opposi­ tional) consciousness makes more clearly visible the equal rights, revolutionary, supremacist and sepa­ ratist, forms of oppositional consciousness, which when kaleidescoped together comprise a new para­ digm for understanding oppositional activity in general' (Sandoval, 1991: 16; see also, Sandoval, 1993, 2000).

4 I duration and human development scholar

M.ul l.ipp.in (2001: 47) discusses 'interpretive' .ipiiMMchc, to social and psychological research as h:i ed to 'hermeneutics, the art and practice of tex- v j.iI exegesis or interpretation, jw hich] is the iM-ttiiKlology most appropriate for understanding \'- "rword.-d expressions" of human existence and l•■()^•rlerlce ‘ Drawing on Wilhelm Dilthey's philoso- T ptiy. T.ipp.m (2001: 46) cautions that 'interpreteris must he aw are of the power that they hold tu stupe the understanding of others' lived


6 See. for example, Behar and Gordon (1995); '

Cl.fford (1986); Clifford and Marcus (1986).

tion of la cohdenda de la mestiza are built from 'gut- wrenching struggle', as com m unication scholar Jacqueline Martinez explains (2000: 83). She cau­ tions: 'The attention to the embodied flesh that is the

substance and methodology

feminist theorizing must not

abstract language that allows for'a distanced and

of m uch of Chicano be theorized aw ay in

removed engagement' (Martinez, 2000: 84).


(2000: 77) defines her complex project as exploring

'the mobile interchange between "' the sovereign, Marxist, and postmodern conceptions' of power* in order to explicate the development ■and political potential of 'differential consciousness'.'

9. In M ethodology of the Oppressed,



Institutional ethnographers examine how ruling



Dorothy Smith (1987: 2) defines 'relations of

re’.iMins arc woven into the production of texts used


ruling' as a term 'that brings into view the intersec­


organize people's activities in various locations such

tion of the institutions organizing and regulating




government agencies or professional

society with their gender subtext and their basis in a

nffiies (see Campbell and Manicom, 1995; DeVault. “> gender division of labor.' The term ruling is used to

and McCoy, 2001; Diamond, 1992; Smith, 2005). £ f - identify 'a complex of organized practices, including

government, law, business and financial m anage­ ment, professional organization,"'and educational

strut turns of third-world women as victims rather, than as agents. By emphasizing these w om en’s expe-,

m ixes of male violence, colonial processes, eco-\«

7 Molianty is critical of Western feminist con-: i


institutions as well as the discourse in texts that inter­ penetrate the multiple sites of power'.'

nomic development and religious oppression,’^



See C h ew (1998) and Mitcheil and Morse

V.'i'stem feminists construct a totalizing image of


((•.('■ third world woman that masks the great diver-


See Elizabeth Ellsworth (1992) for a fascinating

s4y m sucli w om en’s lives and their resistance to T(- oppression. In addition. Mohanty argues, first-world

discussion of the limits of 'empowerment* in critical educational practice.

feminists gam power by distancing themselves from


See, for example, Cancian (1996); Fine (1992);

third-world women's concerns and constructing

themselves as liberated. See also Alexander and

Mohanty (1997);

(J.ir.iynn (1997). 8 Sandoval (2000: 7) asserts that Moraga's 'theory in the flesh’ is 'a theory that allows survival a-d more, that allows practitioners to live with faith, hope, and moral vision in spite of all else.' Moraga's 'theory of the flesh' and Anzaldua's (1987) construc­

Grewal and Kaplan (1994); and

Hale (1996); Reinharz (1992); M. Wolf (1996).

14. Mies (1991: 71) describes this process as 'rec­

iprocal research'. Although she shared neither culture, class nor ethnic background with her 'con­ versation partners’ (to use Stern's term), M ies found this process enriched her work with Indian w om en. 15. See also Code (1991); Hale (1996); Joseph (1988), for discussions of the complications associ­ ated with friendships with research subjects.