Feminist epistemology emerges from reflection on feminist inquiry. Core themes in feminist epistemology can be understood by considering a prima facie tension between two distinct strands of feminist research, one critical and one constructive. The critical strand aims to expose male bias in research while the positive strand aims to construct theories that are avowedly feminist and that bring women's experiences and interests to the center of inquiry. Most disciplines have come under critical scrutiny for male bias. Forms of bias identified include:
(1) Marginalizing women or women's interests. For example, economic theory is charged with making women's economic contributions invisible, political theory with overlooking power relations in the family, and evolutionary theory and anthropology with privileging male activities.
(2) Producing theories that naturalize and thus reinforce oppressive gender relations. Primatology and sociobiology are among the disciplines that have been charged with such bias.
(3) Embedding gendered metaphors that bias theory selection.
(4) Presupposing cognitive styles that arise from male psychosocial development. This charge is laid against philosophy, scientific method, and theories of moral development.
A puzzle immediately arises, however: If such research is bad because biased, then how can the constructive strand of feminist research escape a similar charge of bias and hence of epistemic fault? The puzzle deepens still further: Epistemic norms, including norms of objectivity, have themselves been charged with male bias. A charge of bias seems, however, to require a commitment to the value of objectivity. This puzzle is called "the bias paradox" (Antony 1993, pp. 114–115) and provides the context in which core themes in feminist epistemology can be understood. These are: the ideological role of epistemic norms; the importance of situated knowledge; the role of values in inquiry; and the nature of objectivity.
The Ideological Role of Epistemic Norms
Feminists have charged epistemic norms with being male biased. MacKinnon's analysis of the stance of objectivity as involving two components—distance and aperspectivity—is representative: "To perceive reality accurately, one must be distant from what one is looking at and view it from no place and at no time in particular, hence from all places and times at once" (MacKinnon 1989, p. 97).
To the extent that a putative knowledge claim can be shown to be the product of the inquirer's social situation, that claim is undercut as knowledge: "If social knowledge can be interpreted in terms of the social determinates of the knower, it is caused. Therefore its truth value, in this definition of the test for truth, is undercut. If it has a time or place—or gender—it becomes doubtful because situated" (MacKinnon 1989, p. 98).
Aperspectivity is alleged to be a "strategy of male hegemony" (MacKinnon 1982, p. 57) that maintains gender relations in three ways: by being implicated in the objectification of women, by masking malebias in research, and by deauthorizing women as knowers. According to MacKinnon, aperspectivity lends support to the (false) belief that women are by nature fitted to the position of eroticized subordination prescribed by current gender relations. Men project onto women the qualities (e.g., docility and submissiveness) that they desire women have. When such projection is accompanied by the social power to make women behave as desired and to silence contesting conceptions of social reality, women come to have the properties men ascribe to them. The stance of objectivity allows men to assume that the regularities they observe are objective and to overlook the exercise of power that produced them. In this way, aperspectivity masks the fundamentally prescriptive nature of gender norms and thus lends stability to the oppressive relations constitutive of gender.
Aperspectivity also enables mainstream research to evade critical scrutiny. Even though, given the theory-dependence of method, all research requires presuppositions, mainstream theoretical presuppositions will typically not need to be articulated and defended. Since the beliefs that feminists contest are relatively entrenched, it will tend to be feminists and not mainstream researchers who are called on to defend the presuppositions of their research. Thus, credibility is differentially apportioned between feminist and mainstream views on gender.
In addition, norms that disparage knowledge claims that can be explained as the result of the inquirer's social location are incompatible with feminist method, including the method of consciousness raising. While the formats of consciousness-raising groups—a grass-roots phenomenon chiefly of the 1960s and 1970s—differed, they focused on recounting women's day-to-day experiences, especially of intimate relationships, and on their emotional responses to those experiences. In women's often-inchoate responses to their day-to-day experiences were found the resources with which to understand women's social position. Given that this method starts out from a detailed examination of women's lived experience an experience both available because of and constitutive of women's gender subordination, it finds social location to be an epistemic asset rather than a liability. Different epistemic frameworks offer different accounts of when and how social location is an epistemic asset. This is the subject of the next section.
Feminist standpoint theory begins from the Marxist assumption that material life shapes consciousness, and it draws an analogy between the position of the proletariat under capitalism and women under patriarchy. Just as the proletariat has a privileged standpoint from which to understand the nature of capitalist social relations, there is an epistemically privileged standpoint from which to understand the nature of patriarchal social relations. The basis of this standpoint lies in the sexual division of labor. Key features of women's relation to material life that Hartsock argues provide the grounds for the feminist standpoint are women's domestic labor and their role in childbearing and rearing; the experience of female embodiment, including pregnancy and lactation; and the relational self-conception that object relations theorists argue is the result of girls being raised by mothers with whom they can share gender identification. The standpoint is identified as feminist rather than as women's standpoint to signal that the understanding it embodies must be struggled for and does not arise simply in virtue of occupying a subordinated social position.
Patricia Collins defends a black feminist standpoint, which she argues generates its own epistemology that emphasizes experience over book learning, dialogue in assessing knowledge claims, and relations of care and personal accountability. She finds the grounds for a black feminist standpoint in black women's experience of multiple oppressions.
Standpoint theorists reject any conception of objectivity that disparages beliefs that are to be explained by the social location of the believer as merely caused and hence as not truth tracking. They thus resolve the bias paradox by claiming that feminist perspectives provide insight into social relations that are obfuscated by dominant nonfeminist perspectives.
Standpoint theory is charged with valorizing oppression, with being unable to explain which standpoints have epistemic privilege without circularity, and with presupposing an overly simple and exclusionary conception of gender. Feminist postmodern charges standpoint theory with essentialism; that is with making false and exclusionary generalizations about women and their experiences. Feminist postmodernism challenges the stability of the category of woman: One is never simply a woman, but always a woman of some particular race, ethnicity, class, sexuality or historical and national location. Gender is constructed differently at each of these intersectional nodes of identity: One cannot extract from these complex and shifting social categories the single variable gender. Destabilizing the category woman undercuts the possibility of a feminist standpoint; moreover, given there is no in principle limit to the fragmentation of social categories, positing a black feminist standpoint likewise risks making false and exclusionary generalizations about black women.
The epistemic resources and liabilities of social location and other aspects of situated epistemic agency (embodiment, specifically human cognitive architecture, and so on) can be recognized without embracing the notion of epistemic privilege characteristic of standpoint theory in its initial formulations. Sandra Harding argues for multiple standpoints and views, each as a source of questions rather than a source of privileged answers. Lorraine Code calls for an epistemology that takes subjectivity into account; that is, for an epistemology that studies the psychology, interests, and social–cultural locations of inquirers. Likewise, feminists influenced by naturalized epistemology call for the empirical study of those features of our situated epistemic agency that enable one to truth-track and those that prevent one from doing so. Naturalized epistemologists view epistemology as the empirical study of knowers; thus, instead of offering a priori defenses of epistemic norms, they defend a posteriori norms of inquiry designed to help human agents—that is, finite embodied, social, agents—reliably to truth track. These tailored epistemic norms might be different for dominants and for subordinates. Whether and when such norms must recommend insulating political values from inquiry is a question to be settled empirically.
Values and Inquiry
Values and interests are recognized as influencing the choice of research questions, as contributing to the ways knowledge is applied, and as constraining research methods, especially those used in research involving human subjects. There is, however, widespread skepticism about according values and interests any role in justification. Inquiry aims at the truth and, the skeptic presses, nonepistemic considerations can only distract from this truth-seeking goal. Permitting moral and political values to influence theory choice leads to wishful thinking and totalitarian constraint on free inquiry.
Feminist epistemologists respond that it is a mistake to see epistemic and nonepistemic values as in competition so that inquiry must be governed either by epistemic values or by nonepistemic values. Given the underdetermination of theory by evidence, so that a body of evidence counts in support of a theory only given background assumptions, and given the pragmatics of inquiry, which aims not just for truth but for significant truth (where significance is a function of the interests motivating the research question), inquiry will be porous to nonepistemic values. These can enter into choice of background assumptions, of explanatory concepts, and of methodological frameworks. What matters is whether the values and interests that enter contribute to the goal of discovering significant truths and whether they are themselves defensible.
Because of their commitment to transforming gender relations, feminists are alert to background assumptions about gender that shape inference from a body of data and that shape choice of explanatory categories (e.g., the use of dominance to name a unified trait in primate research). This awareness has provided the platform from which to mount successful critiques of sociobiology, among other disciplines. Helen Longino argues for framework assumptions, including preference for models that allow for ontological heterogeneity and for complex multifaceted interaction over linear relations because only such models can allow one to represent complex human potentialities. This is no defense of wishful thinking: The claim being made is not that humanist political commitments determine which of two equally empirically supported theories to accept but, rather, that these commitments enjoin one to have models that enable such potentialities to be represented if they exist.
Even though it is generally accepted that the concept of objectivity has functioned ideologically to deauthorize women as knowers, feminist epistemologists are unwilling to abandon the notion. Some argue that the conception of objectivity found in mainstream epistemology must be radically overhauled and others that mainstream epistemology has the resources to develop a conception of objectivity that is fully compatible with feminist epistemological projects both critical and constructive. A number of alternative feminist accounts of objectivity have been developed in the literature.
Naturalized epistemology rejects any conception of objectivity as requiring presupposition or bias-free inquiry. Given the theory-dependence of method, the success of inquiry depends on presuppositions. Thus, not only is the injunction to eliminate bias impossible to meet, inquiry without presuppositions would get nowhere. Inquiry based on presuppositions can yet be objective: One needs to distinguish the good biases from the bad: Good biases enable one to truth-track; bad biases prevent one from doing so. Presupposition-rich methods can yield knowledge just in case the presuppositions are approximately true.
Working within standpoint theory, Harding (1993) defends "strong objectivity" based on the notion of reflexivity: Subjects of knowledge must themselves become objects of inquiry. Their interests and social positions must be acknowledged and the presuppositions that flow from them investigated. Communities of inquiry must be made democratic for epistemic as well as political reasons. Drawing on postmodernist perspectives, Sandra Haraway reaches similar conclusions claiming that "feminist objectivity means quite simply "situated knowledges" (Haraway 1991, p. 188). Only situated knowers who acknowledge the partiality of their perspectives and their responsibility in adopting them can be held accountable for their knowledge claims. To achieve objectivity, Haraway advocates combining these partial located perspectives though power-sensitive conversation and through a politics of solidarity.
Longino argues that objectivity is not a property of individuals and their methods of inquiry but, rather, of communities and their structure. A community of inquiry is objective just in case it facilitates transformative criticism. In order to do this, the community must be democratically structured: It must have publicly recognized forums for critique and change in response to that critique; it must have publicly recognized standards for evaluating theories and standards that respect both cognitive and social values; and it must be characterized by equality of intellectual authority. Longino's account is procedural: Communities structured in the right way generate knowledge. She claims that this enables her to avoid begging the question about which standpoints are privileged and to avoid the naturalized epistemologist's assumption that some knowledge claims can be taken for granted. It is controversial, however, whether an account of equality of intellectual authority can, without presupposing the truth of at least some contested claims, simultaneously rule out those holding "irrelevant positions"—Longino cites New Age "crystallology" and creationism (1993, p. 118)—recognize the legitimate authority of expertise and not exclude those whose expertise has been denied for economic and political reasons.
All four accounts of objectivity recognize the importance of social relations and institutions in the production of knowledge; thus, feminist epistemology makes an important contribution to social epistemology—that family of theories that investigates epistemic dependencies and the role of social factors in knowledge and justification—by drawing critical attention to the political dimensions of the social.
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