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Feminist epistemologies and empiricism in social science research

Empiricism is based on the ‘scientific world-conception’ where research is based on experience and logic (Neurath, Neurath and Cohen, 1973: 316). According to this belief, empiricism is the way to produce ‘genuine knowledge’ as it is subject to validation by appropriate tests (ibid.). Therefore, for empiricists, it is more crucial to know how a theory can be tested and verified, than knowing how it was developed (Harding, 1995).

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It was in the late 1960s that critiques around empiricism in social science research began to emanate. Given the widespread oppression and marginalisation of women, it was argued if empirical research should be pursued after all (Schumann, 2016). This led to a realisation that the method we employ to construct and produce knowledge depends on what we are seeking to find. Accordingly, empiricism is one of the many ways in which to conduct social science research. Furthermore, ontological and epistemological questions cannot be answered by empirical inquiry alone (Hughes and Sharrock, 1997). This is where alternative epistemologies such as feminist standpoint theory steps in.

A case in point is the 2005 law on domestic violence in India. Since the 1990s, there has been a social movement by feminist groups for a mere recognition that domestic violence is an everyday reality. Prior to this, it was believed that domestic violence is not widespread as it is an act of crime by a few psychologically misbalanced men (Johnson and Ferraro, 2000). Research in the field based on scientific methods did not reveal much either. However, it was only in early the 2000s that feminist epistemologists came up with research that proved the widespread prevalence of domestic violence and the social and psychological harm of the same on women and children (ibid.).Encouraged by this finding, further research revealed that since a woman was not allowed to work after marriage and had no legal right over her children, she was dependent economically and socially on her husband. Therefore, in most cases, she remained silent and continued to bear the subjugation and exploitation. This was further related to other issues such as dowry, the low socio-economic position of women, the absence of social security and employment, among others (Hunnicutt, 2009). Thus, research rooted in context and everyday experiences of women backed by the power of ‘group consciousness’ (Harding, 2004: 32), led to the enactment of the said law and the awareness among people that domestic violence is a reality.

This illustration runs in contrast with the widely accepted belief that epistemological features are derived from logical empiricism, claiming that knowledge produced from empiricist research is a result of reason, detached from any emotions and prejudices and that this knowledge is, therefore, true and valid. However, this idea of empiricism does not account for the more nuanced features of social contexts such as age, race, ethnicity, class, social location, gender, besides other individual features (Code, 2014).

Thus, in the 1970s and 1980s, when feminist epistemologies started to question the assumptions of the philosophy of science and the traditional theories of knowledge, the advancement towards recognition was only gradual (Code, 2014). The aim was to bridge the gap between the various underpinnings of knowledge production by the construction of knowledge that is sensitive to the needs of people in the real world (Schumann, 2016). This has been a key period of disparaging from empiricism and making space for alternate epistemologies such as feminist epistemologies in social science research (ibid.).

Feminist epistemologies

”’Feminist epistemology” is epistemology informed by feminist concerns, analyses, and categories’ (Brister, 2009: 673). This definition is narrow and does not address the nuances of approaches that encompass feminist epistemology. Therefore, it is ordinarily referred to as ‘feminist epistemologies’ (ibid.). It is concerned with how knowledge is constructed and produced for and by women and what this knowledge should be about (Comack, 1999). According to Hartsock (1983), feminist epistemologies enabled by women’s standpoint provides a supporting evidence for the claims of feminism, besides providing methodology through which this standpoint can be analysed. The idea of knowledge construction rests on the belief that the process of knowledge production is situated in context and multiple perspectives. Thus, feminist epistemologists investigate how this knowledge is rooted in context and how multiplicity can be incorporated in this knowledge to present multiple standpoints (Hekman, 1997).

For the goal of this essay, I present a brief overview of Sandra Harding’s (1986) division of the three ‘strands of feminist epistemologies’: feminist standpoint theory, feminist postmodernism and feminist empiricism. In contemporary times, the boundaries between these three strands often blur (Schumann, 2016). Furthermore, it goes without stating that this does not give an all-inclusive representation of the methods that embody feminist epistemologies.

To begin with, in the 1970s and 1980s, the feminist standpoint theory emerged as a ‘feminist epistemology, philosophy of science, sociology of knowledge and methodology’ (Harding, 2004: 25). It aims to construct a critical theory of the world from women’s standpoint, so as to construct an objective description of reality by accounting for women’s standpoint in sexist societies (Schumann, 2016). The oppressor is thus a ‘bearer of true knowledge’ (Walby, 2001: 486) as she develops her own approaches to construct knowledge of her oppression (Walby, 2001). This knowledge thus produced ‘has to be continually struggled for, theoretically as well as in political practice, in order to overcome the structural oppression of women’ (Schumann, 2016: 6).

Thus, research questions in standpoint theory stem from the lives of the marginalised and are not based on the research interests of the institutions or the funders (Harding, 1992). Researching from the view of the marginalised offers a lens to view the power relations and hierarchy that make the oppression and marginalisation of women seem so ‘natural and necessary’ (Harding, 1987: 7). Harding (1987) contends that this is opposed to empiricism that creates and legitimises oppression and injustice by adopting a masculinist lens to social science research.

Further, postmodern feminism follows the work of authors like Michael Foucault and Jacques Lacan in investigating the deconstruction of the differences between man and woman that have explicitly normalised the continuous repression and marginalisation of women (Schumann, 2016; Stanley, 1990). This is prevalent in the work of postmodern feminists like Judith Butler. These feminists worked to challenge the ‘knower’s maleness’ (Code, 2014: 150). For instance, replacing male pronouns with female pronouns where ‘male pronouns had been the default choice’ (ibid.) is a case in point.

The last strand of feminist epistemology has evolved from a rather empiricist tradition (Schumann, 2016). This strand of researchers critique, on the one hand, the exclusion of women philosophers from the philosophy of science as well as the ‘structural discrimination against women in the sciences’ (Schumann, 2016: 7). They do not subscribe to empiricism and accept that knowledge is socially situated (Stanley, 1990).

Harding’s three strands of feminist epistemologies inquire and investigate diverse practices of oppression and marginalisation that women face. To further illustrate this in detail, I now present the contribution of the feminist standpoint theory in challenging the practice of empirical research in the social sciences.

The feminist standpoint theory

Standpoint theory originated to fill the needs of women to access and create knowledge for women (Harding, 2004). Not only were women traditionally treated as objects to be viewed by masculine scientific pursuits, but the inherent conceptual frameworks also ignored women and often actively undermined their interests. Men were also negatively impacted by this blindness to women’s concerns because gender relations and constructions relied on the interactions between different groups (ibid.).

A feminist standpoint theory not just includes the voices of women but also adopts a bottom-up approach to understand the conceptual practices of dominant institutions ‘through which their exploitation was designed, maintained and made to seem natural and desirable to everyone’ (Harding, 2004: 29). By not pursuing empiricism in social science research, in favour of viewing society from the view of the marginalised, it asserts that the masculinist dominance to conduct research should not and must not hold (Code, 2014: 149). This understanding contributes to the construction and production of accountable knowledge (Bhambra, 2007).

Mitra (2011) in her research on the connotation of feminism for women in social work employs the feminist standpoint theory to design research questions and subsequently interpret the narratives of these women.  She states how the feminist standpoint theory is useful to portray the everyday realities of disadvantaged women in developing countries, whose lives do not find a place in empirical research in social sciences (ibid.). This theory aided her in revealing how the term feminism is viewed differently and the biases it holds for middle-class women in India. In one instance, she recounts how some women believed that feminism is about western notions wherein women divorce, break their homes, burn bras and neglect their children (ibid.). Therefore, even though these women social workers advocated for women’s rights, these perceptions of western feminism clouded the ideology of feminism for them.  

This encouraged Mitra (2011) to research further on how women in India are positioned in households, the relationships they have with their husbands and the ideas of sexuality for them. Following this, she was able to find that the social position of women in India is very different from those of women elsewhere (Mitra, 2011). Their struggle for equality and recognition also runs through the struggle for freedom and independence of the country. Therefore, they hold certain traditional, social and cultural ways of life that do not find a place in western notions of feminism (ibid.). Thus, the feminist standpoint theory enabled the researcher to see the invisible and hidden realities in social and historical contexts against the popular discourses on feminism (ibid.).

The impact of the feminist standpoint theory cannot be asserted enough. It can be further demonstrated by comprehending how this theory positions the process of knowledge production in the realm of women who experience oppression and marginalisation. By pursuing the goal of ‘studying up’ (Harding, 2004), starting from women’s lives, it enables a complete understanding of dominant institutions and structures because of the change in perspective. For instance, that were imposed on women would have been invisible or normalised for male researchers, either from lack of entry to women’s spaces or from lack of recognition of significance. But when approached from the standpoint of those affected by such constructions, new insights could be gained (McLennan, 1995). Rather than ‘studying down’ ethnographically, this practice ‘studies up’ to look at dominant social groups (Harding, 2004: 30). Secondly, the theory enables mapping the working of the hierarchical social structure, by recognizing material, political, or social inequalities, by bringing in the perspective of the oppressed. Thus, standpoint theory in a way enables the production of knowledge for and by women, ‘in patriarchal capitalist societies’, that has been made invisible and inferior to dominant methods in empirical research (Camock, 1999: 292).

More significantly, the defining feature of standpoint theory lies in its focus on group consciousness than in the consciousness of individuals (Harding, 2004). The shift in emphasis from the ‘rational individual’ to group action by standpoint theory ‘opens a space of a different kind for polemics about the epistemological priority of the experience of various groups or collectives’, according to Fredric Jameson (1988). This goes along with the realisation that women come from diverse backgrounds and experiences and therefore have multiple standpoints. These standpoints lead to the construction of multiple knowledge. However, this does not imply that women cannot or do not unite for specific aims. Feminists are in fact doing exactly this. They are uniting and changing the course of political and social norms (Hekman, 1997).

Several recent developments led by groups of feminist activists illustrate this point. The sex worker rights movement is a case in point. A feminist standpoint theory analysis of this movement results in interesting perspectives for the theory itself. This movement began in 1915 when May Maimie Pizner, an American sex worker and social worker started to organise sex workers in Montreal, Canada (Woolf no date). As a result of this, several subsequent events across the world started asserting that sex workers should have labour rights (NSWP no date). In 1972 Lyon, France, around 20,000 sex workers organised in protest against the Catholic Church to demand rights surrounding protection from police abuse, the non-closure of their workplace and the abolition of anti-pimping laws (ibid.). Several years later in 1985, some hundred sex workers held a conference in Amsterdam and drew up the ‘World Charter for Sex Workers Rights’, which among other rights established the demand to decriminalise sex work (ibid.). The term ‘sex work’ was subsequently coined by Carol Leigh a.k.a. Scarlot Harlot in 1979 in her essay, ‘Inventing Sex Work’, which aimed to put the agency and labour rights in the realm of the provider of sex rather than her client (Nagle, 1997). Further research in this field adopted a feminist standpoint theory that collated knowledge produced out of the movement of sex workers and the perspectives of the sex workers themselves, which has led to the improvement in their living and working conditions, besides providing them economic and civil rights (ibid).

This also points to another feature of engaging with the standpoint theory framework; the realisation that the various forms of oppression confronting women cannot be researched in isolation. In fact, when the subjugation of women is located in context, one can perceive how these forms of injustice are interdependent (Hekman, 1997). To illustrate, the issue of violence against women cannot be seen separately from the cultural and social factors where women have no access to property and social security that determine her access to labour markets (Bardhan, 1985).  Similarly, equal rights for women in labour market must be seen in the context of availability of employment options, access to certain male-dominated professions, the existence of safe working spaces and the existence of a sensitive work environment for women (ibid.).

Challenges in practising feminist epistemologies

The feminist standpoint theory has been criticised on several grounds in challenging empirical research in social sciences. According to Haraway (1988: 187), ‘the problem for feminists is how to have simultaneously an account of radical historical contingency for all knowledge claims and knowing subjects, a critical practice for recognizing our own ‘semiotic technologies’ for making meanings, and a non-nonsense commitment to faithful accounts of a ‘real’ world’. Harding contends that standpoint theory avoids this by promoting a ‘constructionist materialism’ (Harding, 2004: 38). It is able to provide a transition to a world where knowledge is produced in everyday experiences, social location and contexts of people (Harding, 2004).

Walby (2001) further contends that standpoint theory suffers from ‘the issue of difference’ (487) as the idea of one standpoint for all women is not real. Women are divided in terms of race, class, gender, sex, ethnicity, religion and so on. They thus face different issues that oppress them (ibid.). Harding points to standpoint theory’s emphasis on the ‘logic of (certain kinds of) discovery’, which emphasises the context of the discovery. This context has a significant influence on the development of research and the production of knowledge. This is achieved by focusing on collective issues, like the ‘consciousness of an age’ (Harding, 2004: 35), by shifting focus from the ‘rational individual’ (ibid.).

Therefore, Harding (2004) affirms that these controversies can be construed to deem the theory as flawed and ‘a demerit of the project itself’ (Harding, 2004: 27). However, she emphasises that the controversies can also be construed to reveal the value of engaging with standpoint theory ‘as a way of reflecting on and debating some of the most anxiety?producing issues in contemporary Western intellectual and political life’ (Harding, 2004: 25). And thus, for Harding (2004: 25), ‘engaging with standpoint theory enables a socially relevant philosophy of science’.







The causes of challenges in feminist epistemologies can be found in the ‘instability of contemporary social life – in the variety of problems on which our own discourses are meditations’ (Harding, 1986: 244). The goal of these epistemologies lies in investigating social relations, which undergo rapid transformation. This is also because the agents of this knowledge, the oppressed, are experiencing continually changing global, social and political contexts. In view of the same, it is crucial that we locate feminist epistemologies distinctly in research rather than aim for a revision or transformation of the patriarchal theories such as those of empiricism (ibid.). This is because gender and social relations cannot be confined to one academic discipline alone. They permeate all research processes.

The scientific world-conception held the view that anything and everything that needs to be questioned can be answered with the theories of modern science. However, these theories are mainly patriarchal and ignore the existence of another world which has feelings and emotions and consciousness and values which in essence define the everyday life of all human beings. Whereas empiricism stresses on the need to validate findings, complex social issues rooted in women’s unique standpoints and experiences from history, culture and tradition cannot be validated and held to be true in all situations (Harding, 1986).

This essay has demonstrated that feminist epistemologies aim to reveal the differences and relationships between these two divergent worlds. However, given this large divide between empiricism and alternative ways of knowledge construction and production, it is no surprise that feminist epistemologies still struggle to claim recognition and relevance. In fact, many-a-times, the goals of feminist epistemologies challenging empiricism in social science research ‘appear like a contradiction in terms’ (Hesse, 1994: 445). However, recent advancements in ‘post-positivist philosophy of science’ have challenged the idea of a natural science that forms the foundation of many critiques on it being androcentric (Holmwood, 1995: 423).

Thus, feminist epistemologies are significant for the future development and advancement of feminist theories (Hekman, 1997). They do not only investigate the concerns of women and the oppression and marginalisation women face as a result of their social position, but it also addresses ‘how the social world is structured and critiques of how that world has been studied and understood’ (Alway, 1995: 211). Therefore, studying institutions, the social conditions and the reasons as to why such important questions are ignored and how they can be answered is the pursuit of this theory. 

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