Sue Wise & Liz Stanley. Handbook of Gender and Women’s Studies. Editor: Kathy Davis, Mary Evans, Judith Lorber. 2006. Sage Publication.
While the theory and practice of feminist research is central to the development of feminist scholarship, once vibrant debates about feminist methodology have presently reached an impasse. After overviewing the main themes in recent discussions of grounded feminist research, we discuss the work of some interesting ‘border crossers.’ There is, however, a fissure or fault-line in this work, an impasse introduced by failing fully to confront the differences between normative/realist epistemology and anti-foundationalist epistemology. The way out, and a means of ‘having it all,’ resists the notion of warring binary epistemologies and involves the development of a ‘feminist fractured foundationalism.’ Its main characteristics are delineated and discussed, and it is presented as a ‘toolkit’ for practical use rather than an abstract system to be repetitiously re/stated.
Feminist research is fundamental to feminist scholarship of all kinds. Research, investigating something in depth, is closely related to method, a systematic procedure for collecting relevant information, and to methodology, a mode of investigation in which method, operational procedures, and theory are dovetailed. They have a more indirect relationship with epistemology, a theory of knowledge in which knowledge, knowers, the nature of facts, and ways of adjudicating between competing knowledge-claims are specified. The theory and practice of feminist research, method/ology, and epistemology are crucial to the feminist project of remaking knowledge, and debates about it were at the cutting edge of feminist scholarship from the late 1970s for around two decades.
Having once been keenly involved participants in these debates (Stanley and Wise, 1979; 1983a; 1983b; 1990; 1992; 1993), we think the liveliness and innovation of early discussions have been replaced by weariness and analytical impasse (Stanley and Wise, 2000; Wise and Stanley, 2003), with much writing about feminist research over the last decade rehashing old debates, and even the best making only minor adjustments to existing arguments. In the next section of the chapter, we overview broad areas of work regarding feminist research and discuss why this impasse has come about. Although many people situate themselves within one of these areas, others-for us, the most interesting—engage in ‘border crossings’ and think outside narrow frameworks, and in the section following we look at work by Lorraine Code, Patricia Hill Collins, Sandra Harding, Shulamit Reinharz, and Sylvia Walby, as well as the germinal writings of Dorothy Smith, as examples of border crossing. In spite of the strengths of this work, we detect a problem: an oscillation between what we see as fundamentally differing epistemological positions without fully dealing with the differences. In the final section, therefore, we sketch out some ideas about how to ‘have it all.’
Grounded Research Areas and Epistemology Positions
During the 1970s, a broad-based feminist critique of mainstream/malestream academic research was produced which rejected ‘positivist’ or ‘scientistic’ approaches that over-dichotomized the social world and assumed that only a single unseamed social reality existed—that seen from the perspective of (some) men. A number of recurrent themes emerged from this critique, which still provide a basis for much feminist work. The underlying theme is that knowledge is constructed from where the researcher/theoretician is situated, and so feminist knowledge should proceed from the location of the feminist academic and work outwards. Consequently, feminist knowledge-claims should acknowledge their partial remit and avoid the false universalizing claims of the mainstream/malestream.
Moreover, the social world, including in its gendered aspects, is complex and multi-dimensional; consequently, multi-dimensional means of investigating, knowing, and representing it are needed in configuring feminist research. Relatedly, feminist knowledge production should be done in an accountable way, rather than bracketing or dismissing the process involved as unimportant, as most mainstream/malestream writing does. In addition, importance lies in the broad methodological procedures that underlie social investigation, rather than the particular method or technique of data-gathering utilized (‘It isn’t what you do, it’s how you do it, and what you claim for it.’). And also, feminist research praxis entails refusing to interpret and theorize the social world through conventional binaries such as researcher/ subject, theory/research, research/life, investigation/action, and requires a different epistemological frame.
Certainly there were—and are—feminists who have rejected various aspects of these ideas, misrepresenting this work as rejecting ‘hard’ or quantified and favouring ‘soft’ or qualitative methods and promoting a distinct method that only feminists could use. But in fact almost no feminist methodologist promoted the idea of a distinct feminist method; the large majority of work was instead concerned with methodology (broad procedural ideas about social investigation) in relation to grounded research practices (how these shape up in specific projects) and to epistemology, and feminist research actually utilized the entire range of methods. In addition, the ideas that knowledge is structured by gender and ‘race,’ and that interpretation plays a strong role in understanding the complexities of social reality, were seen as ‘off the wall’ by critics of (post-)Marxist realist persuasion, even though these ideas are located within a long Western intellectual heritage (in social science from Dilthey and Weber on, in philosophy from Kant on). However, wider changes in Western intellectual life have meant that these ideas subsequently became almost mainstream because of the impact of poststructuralist and deconstructionist thinking.
While the intellectual changes associated with poststructuralism and deconstructionism have been largely liberating and enabling, some dimensions are more troubling. One concern is their imperialist and colonizing aspect, in which the diverse intellectual origins of these ideas have ‘vanished,’ which seems to be the fate of the feminist contribution to this pantheon of new thinking. Another concern is the seminal (we use the word advisedly) role of a particular style of philosophy, together with its feminist variant, in determinedly occupying a canonical position in relation to ‘Theory.’ There is of course nothing ‘wrong’ with feminist philosophy and its particular ‘take’ on research matters, nor its approach to social theory more widely. However, there is something problematic for feminist scholarship overall when feminist research and methodology morphs into abstract Theory, not least because the very different concerns of (for the sake of shorthand) ‘research practitioners’ and ‘abstract social theorists’ are lost sight of as a consequence. One result has been characterized as the ‘feminist methodology wars’ (Stanley, 1997), a damaging period of debate in which, on the one hand, developing ideas about feminist methodology were dismissed as relativist nonsense by some feminists, and on the other, these critics were depicted as peddling unreconstructed malestream ideas. With hindsight, we conclude there is quite a simple explanation for why these passionate disagreements occurred, connected with the warring existence of two very different epistemological positions within feminism, something we discuss later.
Growing out of the ‘methodology wars,’ the vast majority of feminist research was highly practical in its concerns and approaches, exploring a wide range of empirical substantive areas of social life and changing the nature of academic inter/disciplines in the process. Not surprisingly, much of this new work threw up practical issues and problems concerning feminist research. Discussions of these have mainly failed to explore the wider epistemological reverberations. More recent work of this particular kind has clustered around five main themes.
- Power and hierarchy in research situations. Work here ranges from emphasizing that even well-intentioned feminist research is potentially exploitative, especially regarding the developing world and ‘Other’ women. More nuanced accounts describe the often complex to-ings and fro-ings of power dynamics between researchers and researched, and also the closeness between the practitioners and participants that occurs in long-term projects.
- Ethical issues. Discussions here mainly concern the emotional responses and the analytical concerns of feminist researchers when researching difficult and sometimes dangerous topics, including matters relating to physical safety and anxieties about this.
- Issues in feminist ethnography. Issues here concern power and the relationship of feminist ethnographers to ‘Other’ women, ethnographic research processes, and writing and representation, considered around empowerment and reciprocity. There is also a strong interest in new approaches to representational matters which are concerned with writing, texts, and discourse, with some of it having an ebullient ‘let’s get on with it’ character.
- Whether Western feminist research and theory ‘travels.’ Work here concerns the specificity of US and other Western feminist ideas, which are seen as not ‘travelling’ to and being inapplicable in other parts of the world; however, some ‘Other’ feminists have protested that theory especially does travel and makes a difference.
- Writing and representation. Concerns here centre on writing as part of the analysis of research materials and also as a crucial representational medium that needs to be theorized and reworked as a key feminist methodology. It ranges from seeing ‘different writing’ as an end in itself, to using ‘messy texts’ to put across complex ideas, to a communicative concern with reaching a wider popular audience.
A separate body of work from that sketched out above has shifted discussions of feminist methodology into those of epistemology The emphasis here has been on debating the pros and cons of two very different epistemological projects, with the proponents of the ‘other’ position often denied intellectual validity, in a way replicating the ‘war’ character of the earlier debate.
Normative epistemology is an epistemological project concerned with distinguishing the features of knowledge- and truth-claims in (aspiring) universalist terms. It proceeds from abstractions, rather than exploring how knowledge-making works in grounded real-world practice. Consequently, normative epistemology either denies the epistemological significance of, or else backgrounds, differently situated knowledge practices. It shares many of the same assumptions and concerns as critical realism in social theory. Its feminist variant privileges some knowledge over others, wants to specify criteria for grounding truth and knowledge, at basis perceives one social reality, and positions the feminist scholar around (sometimes modified) notions of epistemological privilege, while sometimes also attempting to recognize local knowledges. Grounded research practices, apart from those characterizing theorizing, are outside the domain of its interests apart from general or abstract terms.
Everyday knowledge practice or anti-foundationalist epistemology emphasizes empirical explorations of situated knowledges (Schmidt, 2001). It suspends or brackets evaluating these against external a priori notions of truth, instead investigating how fact and reality judgements are articulated in grounded social situations. It rejects foundationalism, the view that one single social reality exists which can be fully apprehended by properly scientific practitioners of various kinds. People in general, not just researchers, are seen here as competent knowers reflexively engaged in making sense of the social world, including through routinely adjudicating between competing truth-and knowledge-claims. Feminist researchers and their analyses are located within such practices, rather than external to them; and while for some proponents grounds for a priori epistemological privilege for feminist research are claimed, for others research is seen as having different rather than superior qualities from everyday practices because it involves more formal procedures and outcomes. For some proponents, there is also a commitment to egalitarian research practices, transparency in the analyses provided, and conclusions drawn (not just the research activities engaged in). Also grounded research practices are bracketed away in some work of this kind and explicated in others.
Some work evades confinement in one of the above areas of activity and is instead characterized by its border crossing concerns. It may, for example, raise policy issues regarding epistemological stances in feminist scholarship, or challenge the realist epistemological project while still making strong knowledge-claims, or recognize that the complicated, often messy, character of grounded research does not necessarily prevent analytical precision or theoretical break-through. The work of Sylvia Walby, Sandra Harding, Lorraine Code, Shulamit Reinharz, Patricia Hill Collins, and Dorothy Smith provides examples of different kinds of border crossings, with that of Smith constituting the most considerable attempt to ‘think outside the boxes.’ In addition, we see our own work (we hope not too immodestly) in these terms, for it was conceived throughout as a border crossing enterprise that resists pigeonholing as either realist/normative or anti-foundationalist.
In a number of recent publications, Sylvia Walby (2000; 2001a; 2001b) has usefully attempted to think through what she, like us, perceives as an impasse, a ‘no through road,’ in feminist methodology and epistemology because of the dominance of debates therein by feminist philosophy. Hers is a bold, indeed at times swingeing, argument that overrides complexities to make some strongly held points and is to be welcomed for setting out a platform for a feminist realist position in an untrammelled way. Walby builds on Susan Hekman’s (1997a; 1997b; 1999) critique of standpoint theory, which both perceive as emanating from women’s experiences and therefore producing separate knowledges. Consequently, Walby insists that feminist epistemologists ‘hinder feminist research by their strictures on method’ (2001b: 537) because social structural changes benefiting women require strong feminist knowledge-claims, which need to be general, pertaining to the whole of social life. Indeed, she finds feminist standpoint, and feminist epistemology generally, unhelpful for the ‘hegemonic feminist knowledge project’ she desires (2001a: 486). This is because she views them as promoting relativism, which she associates with a retreat into situated knowledges, which in turn gives rise to the ‘epistemological chasms’ she assigns to relativism.
Walby recognizes that Harding, and also Vandana Shiva (1989), Patricia Hill Collins (1997), Nancy Hartsock (1997), and Donna Haraway (1988), all accept the necessity of criteria for privileging some knowledge over others, but still she criticizes them for seeing the grounds for this as ‘women’s experience.’ Consequently, while it is clear that she dislikes women’s experience as a grounding, even in her terms they do want to ground knowledge and so her charge of relativism does not hold, in relation to these theorists at least. In addition, Walby seems unaware that variant relativisms exist, for she reduces all interpretational complexities to ‘radical relativism’ and characterizes this (we think wrongly) as necessarily denying any vantage-point from which to advance knowledge-claims (2001a: 495). Her worries about ‘epistemological chasms’ are related, because all thinking about the social in terms of fractures and complexities cuts across her realist convictions and hegemonic aspirations. Thus, she wants a ‘rigorous methodology for feminist questions and an argument that feminist analysis can and should claim that it generates the best knowledge while rejecting the two poles of absolutism…and relativism’ (2001a: 503), proposing that there is a ‘world out there’ which provides a reality check for theory development and knowledge-claims.
Walby’s not only is a strong normative/realist approach which claims hegemony, but also seemingly perceives no problems in invoking a ‘world out there’ that is supposedly interpretation-free. Her argument has few internal tensions, largely because her views about social reality, research, truth, and knowledge are over-simplified and viewpoints different from her own are collapsed into radical relativism, which she (mis-)characterizes as a priori preventing feminist knowledge from changing the world. We certainly welcome Walby’s attempt to think outside the frame of positions about feminist research minutely added to—indeed, we have found it refreshing to read someone who actually wants to argue something definite. But we also conclude she falls considerably short of her goals, because she misunderstands relativism and proceeds from an unreconstructed critical realist position that seems unable to contemplate, let alone theorize, social complexities.
Sandra Harding’s work has helped construct standpoint theory through her succession of overviews and amendments, and her influence has been all the greater because few of the key people she associates with standpoint theory actually describe their work as such. Recently, Harding has restated standpoint theory as an epistemological position concerned with knowledge from the standpoint of women, identified its main themes, and explored controversies regarding the natural sciences (2004: 29-39). She distinguishes standpoint theory from mere ‘perspectivalism,’ because it studies ‘up’ to explore the impact of structures and organizations on women and goes beyond ‘what women… in fact say or believe to identify these distinctive standpoint insights’ (2004: 31), claiming knowledge and privilege for the feminist analyses thus produced. Harding also presents standpoint theory as eschewing ‘excessive constructionism,’ which she characterizes as a ‘damaging relativism’ going against ‘the realities of nature’s order’ (2004: 38), a strong realist claim about a ‘natural’ order purportedly existing beyond the social. Instead, she favours ‘reasonable constructionism,’ quoting Haraway’s argument in favour of both partial perspectives and a ‘commitment to faithful accounts of a “real” world’ (Haraway, 1991: 187).
In fact, disentangling what has been argued by the ‘names’ described as standpoint theorists from Harding’s formulations of standpoint theory as a generalized ‘position’ can be difficult. Moreover, there is a major tension between the social construction that on one level Harding acknowledges exists, and her desire for feminist science that can advance strong knowledge-claims, largely because her realist ideas about relativism are confined to dismissing the ‘radical’ version. ‘What she knows’ is that there are everyday knowledge practices, situated knowledges, and partial perspectives, but she is unable to reconcile them with the realist perception of an objective reality and the privileged knowledge-claims of the feminist social scientist.
For Lorraine Code (1991; 1993; 1995), the gender of the knower significantly impacts on knowledge-production: what can be known and how it can be known depends on where knowers are situated (Code, 1991: 1-26). Code is fully aware there are issues with the normative/realist epistemological project, while there is also a normative base to her own approach. She insists, for instance, that feminist politics requires strong truth- and reality-claims, (over)stating that if there is no objective reality then there can be no feminist project (1991: 319-20). She combines this with accepting the situated nature of knowledge because she recognizes (unlike Walby and Harding) that there are different kinds of relativism: ‘Participants in standard objectivist/realist debates work with a false dichotomy… epistemological relativism does not entail antirealism’ (1991: 319). Consequently, she opts for ‘mitigated relativism,’ which accepts that a reality exists ‘out there’ which ‘constrain[s] possibilities of knowledge and analysis’ (1991: 320), but also recognizes the perspectival locatedness of knowledge. Wanting to avoid the ‘homogenizing effect’ of the traditional normative project, Code chooses mitigated relativism as a ‘middle ground’ position and as ‘a political act that refuses confinement within the narrow, cramped space that the adversarial paradigm allows’ (1991: 322).
Code’s emphasis on notions of truth and her desire to make strong feminist knowledge-claims suggests that ‘mitigated objectivism’ actually better characterizes her position. Thus, for her, the feminist project can still claim that ‘feminists can know better what is going on, what needs to be put right’ (1995: 110), because stronger versions of relativism have to be rejected. Certainly treating realism and relativism in less absolutist terms is useful; but Code’s ‘feminists can know better’ claim provides little help for feminist social researchers grappling with a social reality most often composed by shades of grey and complexities of understanding, while her ‘mitigation’ leaves the binary positions intact.
Shulamit Reinharz’s (1979; 1983) ideas about ‘experiential analysis’ have been developed as a feminist social researcher wanting to make sense of such complexities in operationalizing feminist research. Experiential analysis involves strategies for practising feminist research, including analysing social life in natural settings, rejecting separating research processes from research products, conducting collaborative forms of research, and providing self-reflexive analyses of research materials. Experiential analysis includes mixing the subjective and objective, being accurate but innovative, focusing on meaning-making in social life, recognizing the unique features of particular social settings, and emphasizing that social research always involves partial analyses of ongoing events and that generalizing concepts should always specify their limitations. These strategies for research practice are also interestingly related to Reinharz’s later work (1992; 1993), which focuses on how methods are used in practice by feminist social researchers. Therein Reinharz recognizes that the ‘same’ method can be used very differently. Method is never ‘just method’: what it ‘is’ depends on the context of use, including the theoretical concerns and epistemological assumptions of the researcher, and how reality and truth are seen and adjudicated by people in the social contexts being investigated.
Experiential analysis brings together method, methodology, and epistemology around the everyday knowledge practices of both feminist researchers and those researched in a way that eschews claims to epistemological privilege. It is also (ideally) fully collaborative and involves the participation of ‘the researched’ at all stages, including analysis and publication. But as well as considerable strengths, a major limitation arises from this, because it requires feminist research to focus specifically on ‘good women.’ Our own research has included projects concerning ‘evil men’ (including serial killers) and ‘bad women’ (including child abusers), which could not have involved collaborative research and which necessitated making feminist knowledge-claims over, and sometimes against, those of the people concerned. Consequently, our reservations stem from what we see as an overly narrowed focus for feminist research—all the world must be our province, not just a sub-component of the category ‘women.’
Something of a similar tack to Reinharz’s has been taken by Collins (1990; 1997; 2000a; 2000b) in seeing the Black feminist researcher as a member of Black women’s communities carrying out dialogue-based research around notions of empowerment. She rejects mainstream precepts such as distancing the researcher from the researched, objectifying subjects, and banishing emotion. For Collins, this Black feminist epistemology brings its own tensions but also creates useful possibilities, including seeing concrete experience as a criterion of meaning, using dialogue and interconnections to assess knowledge-claims, recognizing the importance of an ethics of care, and emphasizing personal accountability. The result ‘opens up the question of whether what has taken to be true can stand the test of alternative ways of assessing truth (Collins, 1990: 219), but at the same time, there is no one-dimensional privileging of ‘(Black) women’s experience’ here. Although collective experience is at the centre (Collins, 1997), Collins sees this as one ‘angle of vision,’ a partial perspective (1990: 234). She also resists a ‘positivist’ or normative approach, that the researcher necessarily has a clearer view of the truth, and she rejects relativism of a kind that sees all perspectives as equally valid, seeing both as ignoring inequalities between different social locations.
Collins avoids claiming epistemological privilege by locating the researcher firmly within Black women’s communities and standpoint and by recognizing the partialities of both ‘angles of vision.’ She also does this by focusing on how Black women’s communities construct a shared standpoint in the context of oppressive circumstances, rather than adjudicating notions of truth and fact between elements of this and dominant forms of knowledge. That is, Collins’ narrowed focus enables considerable consistency between the different components of her approach. This is highly commendable but we conclude it would still have difficulty in encompassing, for example, ‘bad’ Black women or, more simply, themes and topics in which ‘race’ plays little part, including those occurring within Black women’s communities.
Dorothy Smith has produced the most considerable body of work on feminist methodology, and on feminist sociology more widely, in thinking outside the confines of the malestream academy. Her work emphasizes everyday knowledge practices, positions the feminist researcher as participant within the social world she studies, recognizes the complexity of social reality and the partiality of knowledge-claims, and still provides the feminist social researcher with grounds from which to make distinctive knowledge-claims.
Smith’s ‘sociology for women’ starts from the disjunctures between women’s experiences, and how experience is represented (including by women researchers) within the academic mode, in which the social world is conceptually pre-structured and so ‘pre-known.’ For her, sociology and other disciplines are part and parcel of the ‘relations of ruling,’ a subtle concept concerned with the intersection of institutional and organizational processes for organizing and regulating society and people’s everyday life-worlds, operating in multiple sites of power/knowledge and crucially involving constructions of the social world made in and by texts of different kinds.
Smith’s work does not just critique present methods: it proceeds in a different way, around ‘how to make ourselves as women the subject of the sociological act of knowing’ (1987: 69) without then transforming these subjects into objects. Simply focusing on good and bad methods is insufficient to ground a feminist sociology, nor is merely changing the relationship between researcher and researched enough. For Smith, the problem for feminism is not an ethical one concerning non-exploitative behaviour, nor of technique, but the more fundamental matter of disciplines being organized around translating lives into pre-given conceptual categories.
Smith sees women subjects as actors and competent knowers, as active experiencing subjects, and her approach ‘makes space’ for the presently absent ‘woman subject’ (1987: 107). At the same time, she perceives women as outside of the ‘extralocal,’ located in a local life-world organized by social relations ‘not observable within it’ (1987: 89). She relatedly perceives women’s lives as outside ‘textually mediated discourse’—thus, commenting on women as wives and secretaries, she sees them as ‘confined’ to the local and particular. However, none of our friends and colleagues who are ‘wives’ and/or secretaries are limited in this way, for many women are involved in the ‘extralocal,’ not just feminist academics. For Smith, however, while people can tell social researchers what happens, they cannot be relied on to understand the wider social relations that shape the everyday, and so she concludes that what is required is ‘a specialized enterprise, a work, the work of a social scientist’ (1987: 110).
We certainly agree with Smith that feminist social science must go beyond the ‘authentic speaking of women,’ having little truck with this romanticized view of women and of feminist research. However, while we think her comments about women, people, and the local demonstrate a fault-line in Smith’s thinking, clearly it is one she herself is happy with in wanting to ‘speak truth with confidence’ concerning the grounded investigations she has conducted. Her position here is actually surprisingly similar to Walby’s, for in grounding such claims Smith turns to the ‘ontological basis’ of social life and to checking such claims against ‘the very character of the social itself (1987: 122), with the feminist sociologist providing a route to a ‘faithful telling’ (1987: 143). We do not accept this line of argument, for two reasons. First, we perceive the ontological base as fractured and complicated, so that only rarely can any incontrovertible ‘character of the social’ provide a basis for unproblematically checking research results against. Thus, what Smith perceives as an ‘end to interpretation problems’ seems to us as actually a key site for their occurrence. Second, Smith’s stance on this indicates a surprisingly referential basis to her ‘sociology for women,’ while we cannot accept referentiality claims as an adequate means of grounding the knowledge-claims of feminist or indeed any other research.
It is important to consider why so perspicacious a commentator as Smith remains attached to the epistemological privilege of the feminist researcher over the supposedly ‘local’ lives of women. One reason is that, notwithstanding her border crossings, Smith remains very much a committed sociologist and buys into a considerable amount of its underpinnings, in spite of her wide-ranging criticisms of its conceptual apparatus. Another is that of course all feminist academics have to consider what we are ‘for’ and what value our research endeavours add, and Smith has clearly thought this through in terms that make good sense for her. Nevertheless, we think there are important feminist reasons for eschewing epistemological privilege, as discussed later.
Most of the border crossers we have discussed, apart from Walby and in a different way Collins, want to have the epistemological privilege that comes from advocating strong, certain, and, at basis, realist knowledge-claims, while also recognizing (to different degrees) that there are ‘situated knowledges and partial perspectives.’ Some are located in one ‘camp’ and some in the other, but for all of them there are fault-lines or fissures in their arguments because they are attempting to reconcile irreconcilables. Even Code’s work leaves these binary positions intact while tacking together bits of both, while Walby’s argument is the most consistent and represents what we earlier called an ‘untrammelled’ approach. Our stance is different again: we refuse the idea that there are two, and only two, battling binary epistemological positions for feminism, those of normative/realist epistemology versus anti-foundationalist epistemology. As far as we are concerned, ‘in life’ it isn’t a matter of ‘either/or,’ but rather both. So how to have both, without doing what we said these other border crossers do, struggling to reconcile things which cannot be reconciled? We move on to this discussion.
Having it all: Feminist Fractured Foundationalism and its Analytical Toolkit
The idea of ‘feminist fractured foundationalism’ and the ‘analytical toolkit’ that comprises it provides our framework for ‘having it all,’ an approach that is both ‘untrammelled’ and also refuses the binary game. Feminist researchers who eschew making normative or realist kinds of truth-claims still need to provide a reasoned account of ‘what they are for’ and what kinds of claims they want to make. Along with this, if feminism rejects conventional notions of foundationalism, there still has to be some notion of a grounding for the alternative kind of knowledge being claimed. Our response has been the determination both to recognize that there is a materially real social world that is real in its consequences, and to insist that differently situated groups develop often different views of the precise realities involved. Material reality has to be recognized, but the complexities of interpretation also have to be grappled with in ways that do not position feminist researchers as overriding the understandings of the women and men who are the researched with a priori statements of epistemic privilege. We think feminist fractured foundationalism enables this.
Fractured foundationalism is concerned with ‘out there,’ with understanding social life as the fundamental ‘it’ that feminist researchers grapple with, doing so like other society members but also more formally as researchers. But feminist fractured foundationalism (FFF) is about ‘in here’ as well, for it proceeds from making transparent the practices and understandings of feminist research, which is located within the academy and is at least in part implicated in its relations of ruling. What brings ‘out there’ and ‘in here’ together for FFF is methodology, not in Harding’s simple ‘perspective’ sense, but rather as operational strategies which enable thinking and conceptualizing, grounded research practice, writing about research data, and theorizing from these, to be thought of as a coherent whole. Consequently, we see the relationship between FFF (that is, an epistemological position) and feminist methodology (that is, a research praxis) as inextricably intertwined. That is what we mean by an ‘analytical toolkit’; and the particular analytical toolkit for FFF is composed of the components outlined below.
The Fractured Ontological Base
FFF is predicated on the ontological position that social life is inter-subjectively constructed around ideas and practices concerning structures understood as ‘social facts’ that are external to and constraining upon society members. Social life is at one and the same time experienced as independent of social construction, but is also constituted by it, and knowledge is always already grounded because it necessarily has an ontological basis. That is, there is always a knower situated in time and place with other people, going about the business of knowing the social world. Ontology is the basis, grounding knowledge and knowers as well as social life itself (Stanley and Wise, 1979; 1992). Because different collectivities of people understand realities and facts from where (geographically, socially, politically) they are situated, everyday kinds of fractures of understanding and meaning—reality disjunctures-frequently arise; however, these are negotiated (sometimes successfully, sometimes with remaining disagreements) around the shared premise that there is real meaning, facts, and truth—a social reality—to be arrived at (Stanley, 1994).
Succinctly, for us, ontological relativism marches hand in hand with strong everyday foundationalist claims and practices (Stanley and Wise, 1992), and ontological problematics always have epistemological consequentiality (Stanley, 1997). Thus, our epistemological position rejects the ‘false dichotomy’ of the warring normative/realist versus anti-foundationalist binaries and advances the alternative of a fractured foundationalist epistemology.
A Modest ‘Internalist’ Approach to Feminist Knowledge Production
Some key sites for feminist research production include the researcher/researched relationship, emotion in research, intellectual auto/biography, managing competing versions of reality, and power in research and writing about this (Stanley and Wise, 1990). FFF does not take sides on basic reality matters: it sees social facts and social reality as both constructed and experienced as external and constraining. Its concern is instead with how fractures and disjunctures are managed, and order and regularity or change produced. There may indeed be one ‘really real social reality’; however, we are not so much agnostic about this as concerned with something else—the ‘reality, for all practical purposes’ that is multiply produced in social life and how feminist research might go about understanding it. While many feminist approaches see the grounding for feminist knowledge-claims as solely lying in possession of ‘the facts,’ indeed better or best facts, for FFF the grounding lies in ‘moral knowledge,’ accountable knowledge produced by the ‘knowing subject.’
Feminist realists are concerned with ‘out there’ and with how to change oppressive circumstances by means of producing better or hegemonic feminist facts, seen as the most effective way to produce social and policy change of a kind that will benefit women. But replacing masculinist science with this unreconstructed feminist version will only replicate the relations of ruling with women still as object, but this time to hegemonic feminist science—and, anyway, just and egalitarian goals cannot be reached by unjust and inegalitar-ian means (as argued powerfully by Rose, 1994). Also, the realist contention begs serious questions about how social change takes place: while some academics like to think that it occurs by means of ‘serious research, the evidence strongly suggests otherwise. However, while the realist approach is a grand ‘externalist’ one, in contrast, that of FFF is a modest ‘internalist’ one, concerned with the ‘in here’ of academic feminism as it goes about the business of crafting knowledge in a feminist form.
The Feminist Research Labour Process
FFF is built on and proceeds from the fractured ontological nature of social life. Feminism as a politics centres a radical social ethics, and, for FFF, necessitates producing feminist knowledge in an open, accountable, and defensible way. There are a number of elements to this, starting with the research labour process of the academic mode of production and its relations and forces of production (Stanley, 1990b). In particular, FFF is concerned with analytical processes concerning how knowledge is produced and the claims made for it.
For FFF, method in the narrow sense is neither here nor there: methods are merely techniques for getting certain kinds of things done, and what matters is why and how they are used and for what purpose. We have certainly used a wide range of methods, from textual analysis to interviewing, institutional and other ethnography, historical research, large-scale surveys, secondary data analysis, abstract theorizing, all within the framework of FFF. FFF is more concerned with analytical reflexivity of a kind which uses retrievable data, so as to provide key elements of evidence, argument, and interpretation in texts that readers can ‘argue back to,’ because provided with the detail to reach their own conclusions. We do not claim referentiality for such texts—they are not directly reflective of the settings that gave rise to them, but they will contain good, bad, or indifferent analyses and arguments of their kind. Consequently, readers should be able to evaluate their adequacy and ‘validity,’ and a key concern for FFF is to enable readers to make such evaluations. Much purportedly radical social science writing actually disempowers readers quite as thoroughly as conventional kinds; we want to reconfigure the reader-position so as to enable readers to ‘bite back.
The Knowing Subject
At an epistemological level, FFF involves a double-take on what ‘knowledge’ consists of. It is what is constituted as such within everyday knowledge practices, and it is also what the feminist (or other) researcher makes of and does with it (and these may conflict, of course). All society members are engaged in such activities, because all of social life revolves around practical knowledge matters. However, while researchers engaged in social enquiry will certainly produce knowledge in a more structured and formal way, FFF does not see these activities as different in kind from everyday practices (Stanley, 1994). FFF also sees feminist researchers as investigating ‘necessary’ topics (Stanley, 1996). Here, the feminist researcher is an active knowing agent in producing analyses and conclusions, someone who interprets and so constructs, not just reflects, research situations and data. The research writings that result are never directly referential of the social contexts and events they are about, always analytically artful selections and interpretations around an interpretive frame deriving from the intellectual (and political, and…) concerns of feminism in the academy (Stanley and Wise, 1993).
Moreover, FFF strenuously resists seeing women or men as immersed in the local and unable to discern the wider relations and structures of ruling. Nor is the feminist researcher able to see further or better, nor is she magically able to check her analyses against the ‘really real’ ontological reality of the extralocal. There is no god’s eye view for feminist research, although the enquiries that the feminist researcher engages in are likely to be different in degree, and the resultant analyses of social life will usually be directed to different purposes.
Epistemology always has a ‘moral’ or ethical dimension: claims to know are made against or over others, not everyone is deemed a competent knower, and so on. ‘Moral knowledge’ is knowledge that is transparent, produced through non-exploitative means, makes defensible knowledge-claims, produces open accounts of ‘findings’ and conclusions, and is fundamental to FFF (Stanley, 2004; Stanley and Wise, 1993). Also FFF involves a feminist, rather than women’s, standpoint, organized around ensuring transparent and accountable good practice for feminist social research concerning the activities involved and the knowledge-claims and written or other knowledge products that result. We emphasize again the modest compass and practical basis for FFF: it is predicated on a social ontology and has an epistemological basis and concerns, but its raison d’être is neither epistemological nor ontological, but instead political, ethical, and methodological. Its practitioners should certainly reject passing as the disembodied ‘experts’ who have objectified women in countless research projects and claimed authority as authoritative knowers of the lives of mere ‘subjects.’ Working within a mainstream methodological framework, as some feminist research does, leaves these relations of ruling and knowing intact, and thus we attempt to move beyond it (Stanley, 1997).
The knowledge practices and products of FFF reflect a specifically feminist politics and ethics, requiring that ontology and epistemology are brought under the sign of feminist methodology. And for us, analytical reflexivity is key to ensuring transparency and accountability. The descriptive variety of reflexivity is concerned with providing contextualizing descriptions only; however, analytical reflexivity focuses on the acts of knowing and what goes into this, looking in detail at the analytical processes involved and the supporting evidences (Stanley, 2004). Analytical reflexivity entails writing an open research text that adduces evidence in retrievable form that is appropriate and sufficient for the argument being made, outlines all stages of the argument properly evidenced, in which each successive level is properly supported by those prior. It accounts for interpretations and conclusions by closely linking these to evidence and argument and provides sufficient detail regarding all of the above for readers to be able to make their own interpretations and so evaluate conclusions and claims.
Knowers and Competing Knowledge-Claims
The response of FFF to the question of who can be a ‘knower’ (in the ‘having authority’ sense) is that it all depends on where people are situated within the relations of ruling and the operations of power/knowledge in particular contexts or situations. ‘Women’s experience’ has been both fiercely disputed and incredibly productive for feminist enquiry (Stanley, 1995). Certainly, subjugated knowledges can be given greater or even privileged status (on a variety of grounds) by some persons and in some contexts, and this is precisely the re-evaluation given by feminism to the category ‘women.’ However, while FFF involves re-evaluating the perspectives and knowledges of subjugated and dominant groups, those of particular women or particular men are not necessarily viewed as preferential or devalued: that will depend on persons and circumstances. Concerning how competing knowledge-claims are to be evaluated and adjudicated, for FFF again this depends on context or situation, the people involved, how ‘the facts’ are seen, and whose facts and evidence are deemed convincing or flawed. In addition to the actions and responses of others, the analytical frame for FFF includes what the feminist researcher makes of it all, the interpretational acts she engages in, and the conclusions she draws.
Grounding Feminist Knowledge
Like other (canonical and contrary) feminist approaches, FFF may advance preferential knowledge-claims on grounds of ‘the facts,’ but the grounds can also include ethical or political values and preferences. However, we are unhappy with epistemological privilege being accorded to feminist research and feminist knowledge in any a priori hegemonic way. While we view some knowledge as better than others, allknowledge-claims need to be evaluated and responded to on their specific merits. It is also important to recognize that claims that ‘feminists know better’ really do assume a ‘god trick’ and are intellectually and politically highly dubious. Whether feminism in general, or any particular feminist researcher, ‘knows’ in an authoritative sense will all depend on the appropriateness and sufficiency of the evidence for the conclusions drawn, on the plausibility of interpretations and conclusions, and also and crucially on their reception by target audiences and in ‘public life’ more widely. These comments are not intended to duck ‘how can she know?’ questions, but to emphasize that FFF’s recognition of the fractured ontological base of social reality means there are no easy answers. Any knowledge-claims made by FFF will concern specific examples and contexts and be grounded in particular evidence and interpretations.
Bracketing or cancelling out the act of knowing is highly consequential in feminist terms: it renders invisible the indexical properties of knowledge within a false ‘universalism,’ and by denying the labour involved, it alienates knowledge work as a devalued commodity (Stanley, 1990b). Important dimensions of an unalienated feminist knowledge include grounding the feminist researcher and her research as an actual person at work in a concrete setting, recognizing that understanding and theorizing are material activities which can be accounted for, and linking the ‘act of knowing’ (research process) with claims about what is known (research product). There is nothing about unalienated labour in social research terms that ties it specifically to a feminist approach (Stanley and Wise, 1990). However, while other researchers can work in this way, most elect not to, because of conviction, or because critics may reject such work on ad personam (against the person) grounds. What is distinctive about unalienated knowledge is that feminists working in an ‘unalienated’ way will focus on knowledge production as an ontology, a way of being, rooted in inscribing the investigative and interpretive acts of feminist researchers.
A Brief Conclusion
A conclusion in the usual sense is not an appropriate end for this chapter, because it has been concerned with pinpointing what we perceive as problems in a body of feminist work and detailing what we see, in the shape of FFF, as a way out. FFF is intended as a practical way of ‘having it all’; hence our description of it as an analytical toolkit. It is, then, intended for use, by us and by others: it is not for redescribing in endless repetitious restatements of positions minutely adjusted, but instead for operationalizing, evaluating, and reconfiguring in the light of grounded research enquiries.
For us, feminist scholarship is a political and ethical choice put into research practice. The ontological grounding of FFF has nothing to do with women as a ‘natural’ category, and everything to do with analysing ‘from the inside’ and working outwards. It resists binaries and conjoins emotion and analysis, method and theory, idealism and materialism, subjectivity and objectivity; its goal is to help ensure ‘at long last, that knowledge has a human face and a feeling heart’ (Stanley and Wise, 1993: 232).