Feminist Standpoint Theory

Several strands in feminist theory and practice which show clearly the gradual positioning of feminist knowledge are sometimes grouped under the umbrella term ‘feminist standpoint theory’. This phrase pulls together disparate thinkers and trends in feminist thought (see the special issue of Signs (1997) as a good starting point). Out of second-wave feminism’s emphasis on relying on the experience and consciousness of women as a starting place for analysis came the articulation of knowledge as located and situated. This work also emphasised that reality, rather than being available to a neutral observer, is socially and materially constructed. As Dorothy Smith has pointed out, a variety of philosophers and researchers, particularly those working in the social sciences, became concerned to identify, highlight and subvert, where possible, the ‘embedding of the standpoint of white men as hidden agent and subject’ (1990, p. 394). What developed gradually in the 1970s and 80s were several related methodologies which relied on valorising the experience of women, as subjects in research and knowledge, a political methodology which had been foundational to the women’s movement.

For the social analysts shaped by these foundational ideas, it was important to connect everyday life with the analysis of social institutions that shape life (Hartsock 1983). Social analysts came to see local practices as knowledge. How and where to go shopping; how to read a book; or how to get on a bus and go to work; local competencies such as these were seen as a kind of knowledge. And if the practices which people acquire through their experience are seen as knowledge, they themselves can be seen as knowers, and able to share their knowedge. It is important to point out here that while the slogan ‘the personal is political’ has been interpreted in myriad ways, most feminist standpoint theorists were referring to the reconstruction of the standpoint of historically shared, group-based experiences. As Patricia Hill Collins argued: ‘Groups have a degree of permanence over time such that group realities transcend individual experiences’ (1990, p. 375). Similarly, Hartsock (1983) would stress a Marxist subject: the subjects who matter are not individual subjects but collective subjects, or groups. These methodologies and theories argue against ‘the view from nowhere’, the belief in a disembodied objectivity that Cartesian thought instituted.

In short, feminist standpoint theory:
● defines knowledge as particular rather than universal
● rejects the neutral observer of modernist epistemology
● defines subjects as constructed by relational forces rather than as

The first articulations of feminist standpoint theory are generally taken to be typified by the work of Nancy Hartsock (1983). Her argument, which was clearly caught up in the liberatory discourses of second-wave feminism, argued that one location, that of the standpoint of women, was privileged because it provided a vantage point that reveals the truth of social reality. That is, that some perceptions of reality are partial, others true and liberatory. So, even though feminist social scientists wanted to highlight the limits and specific shape of the white-bourgeois-male view from nowhere which had become embedded in empirical social science, the belief in a liberatory standpoint of women was based on a certain essentialism and lingering beliefs in the universality of knowledge. What some theorists wanted to do was make a leap directly from the experiential knowledge we garner from our social life to claims to universal knowledge – that these particular knowledges could write the script to make us all free. The essentialism that was part of some of these attempts to change the shape of what knowledge was assumed to be, often constructed the category woman and the social group women as a unified and totalisable whole. ‘

But as became clear with the participation of women of colour in these epistemological debates in the 1970s and 80s, this essentialist category left little room for the consideration of the impact of race on such investigations into the status of knowledge. Patricia Hill Collins in Black Feminist Thought (1990) argued that if the differences between women were to be taken seriously and the conclusion that women occupy many different standpoints and thus inhabit many different realities, this thesis that the standpoint of woman is liberatory must be re-examined. Yet many thinkers were not sure how to continue imagining a knowledge and categories in that knowledge that were particular, and which would allow change. If we abandon the monolithic concept of ‘woman’, some asked, what are the possibilities of a cohesive feminist politics? Various issues were raised. If there were a variety of women’s standpoints, would coherent analysis become impossible, because there would be too many issues to take into consideration? And if these multiple realities are acknowledged, how can one choose between them? What or who would legitimate knowledge? How to choose? These were questions that came predominantly from white middle-class thinkers in feminism, and show lingering traces of the presumption of a central viewpoint, the ‘god trick’ that was so disdained in ‘malestream’ thought. Imagine a black woman rising in the morning, thinking, ‘Now which shall I wear today, the breasts or the skin?’ For many feminists, these difficulties of choosing between multiple perspectives or issues were not new.

quote-the-feminist-standpoint-developing-the-ground-for-a-specifically-feminist-historical-nancy-hartsock-71-85-97Source: Cranny-Francis, Anne et al. Gender Studies. 4th ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
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