Contentions Of Standpoint Epistemology Sociology Essay

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1st Jan 1970 Sociology Reference this


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This paper examines the concept of ‘standpoint epistemology’ in the field of social science and discusses whether this remains a viable radical perspective on knowledge. The focus is placed upon the perspective from the feminist viewpoint and the application to sociology. The historical content is examined as a foundation to knowledge and this is placed into context in the relationship to knowledge. It is argued as to whether there continues to be a viable radical perspective on knowledge, both the pro’s and con’s are examined. Conclusions summarize these points highlighting the key issues of the argument.

The concept of ‘standpoint epistemology’ is based upon the philosophy of knowledge that enables a holistic world-view of the challenges of oppressed women and the vision of how knowledge provides a platform for social activism, transformation and change. It combines the concept of both a body of knowledge and a method of conducting research. The feminist standpoint provides a call for political action and a reformation agenda. Dorothy Smith [1] was one of the original feminine theorists who developed standpoint epistemology. Smith focused heavily on gender studies and talked about ‘ruling texts’ which examined the power relations in society and the dominance of men in social societies. Smith made the point that the knowledge we have of women, together with ‘ruling texts’ that define the relationships are completely opposite to the experiences of how women are treated in society. Smith focused in on racism and stated that a common bond existed between black women of all nations as they had experience of oppression, slavery and discrimination. (Johnson 2010)

Sandra Harding, [2] within the context of feminine standpoint epistemology puts forward two important claims: (i) Those social positions within the under privileged classes has less distortion than those embodied within other classes and (ii) All scientific knowledge is socially situated. She in essence puts forward the argument that the diversity amongst inquirers creates an epistemic advantage. (Rolin 2006).

The standpoint epistemology has maintained interest from sociologists over the last thirty years. Despite the criticism involved it has continued to evolve into a wide array of different perspectives and viewpoints. The research is considered to be closely aligned to the materialist perspective (the Marxist feminism view). This provides the research in a more balanced and realistic stance. Marxist feminism argued a standpoint epistemology that embraced concepts of both knowledge and power; as such having emphasis more on process than that of the materialistic viewpoint. A standpoint as such may be defined as the action that we accomplish from a social status perspective. Standpoint research theorists claim that their research is a more complete and rigorous set of results than that of their male counterparts. They believe that feminist research suffers from less distortion than male research and as such stands up to better scrutiny. (Pamela Abbott 2005). Standpoint is considered to be an epistemology of transition and as such seeks to find change that aligns with knowledge transfer. It has been widely held that the feminist standpoint theory, as of today, seeks to find ‘epistemic privilege’ that supports the female point of view. Harding has condemned the feminist standpoint theorists “for attempting to express a single women’s perspective” (Harding 2004). The condemnation is based upon the fact that theorists fail to consider the complete diversity of the female opinion. In 1991 Harding [3] stated that there needs to be a reformation of a standpoint that portrays more post modernist standpoints.


In the context of feminist standpoint epistemology it is necessary to compare traditional standpoints with that of modern perspectives. Traditionally it was held that “science holds that objective, political neutral inquiry that maximises the power in order to achieve scientific aims.” (Cassandra L. Pinnick 2003). Harding argues against this viewpoint stating that objectivity in scientific research is a delusion and as such a contradiction; it is far too rigorous to be objective. (Cassandra L. Pinnick 2003).

Abortion is a subject area that contains contentions within the context of ‘standpoint epistemology’. The feminist standpoint provides linkages between that of experience and knowledge. In order to achieve a feminist standpoint you need to identify and experience both the struggle and intellectual challenges first-hand. Hence those women who accomplish this have a far sounder perspective than the male researcher. In the contemptuous subject of abortion, those women who have actually experienced the problem will have a profound understanding of the issues, trauma and prejudice of the process than that of a passive observer. It is the difference between that of specific experience and that of pure perspective.

MariAnna [4] underlines the importance of ‘concrete experience’ as an important source of information towards a body of knowledge. Sandra Harding stated that ‘feminist epistemology’ is characterised by the recognition that women are ‘agents of knowledge’ (MariAnna 2002). Women in general are seen to be more flexible with a fluidity that enables them to multi-task and accomplish multiple events at the same time. MariAnna stated that it is important to distinguish between that of methods and methodology, it is the latter which has deep roots in the epistemology approach to research. Feminist methodology within the approach to inquiry is deeply rooted in those feminist beliefs and theories that provide a more holistic and wider range of thinking to the subject matter under review.

It has been pointed out by Pamela Abbot et al that there are conflicting areas of knowledge within feminism i.e. that of standpoint epistemology and the concept of post modernization. They have become problematic because they aspire to contain a degree of unity. Abbot argued that “an element of relativism remains in the multiple standpoint approaches” (Pamela Abbott 2005). That is to say the question remains unanswered as to who is exactly “the final arbiter of truth” (Pamela Abbott 2005).

Abbott et al conclude by saying that within the overall research carried out in her book “mainstream sociology becomes inadequate owing to the systematic bias and distortion in male stream knowledge” (Pamela Abbott 2005). They argue that a total re-thinking is required in sociological knowledge that embraces the feminist contribution. The transformation is required because historically women have not just been ignored but their input has been both marginalised and distorted within the overall science. As such advances and contributions made by female researchers and sociologists need to be examined for integration within the overall body of knowledge and process of sociological thinking. It is a transformational step process that requires reformation in order that both concepts and questions become more centric to the issues of the discipline.

Shawn Best [5] looked at research from the standpoint epistemology that examined the power of white feminists and the attempt to subjugate the knowledge of black women; the latter of which has been historically regarded as invalid intellectual knowledge. Interestingly he examined white women in the role of oppression. In addition to the concept of racism and power, in the 1990’s attention was drawn towards the gay and lesbian communities and as such the post-modernist ‘Queer Theory’ emerged. This put forward the argument that ‘biological sex’ in addition to gender was part of the social construct. As such the possession of certain organs was the ‘type’ that defined the binary reality of women or man. (Best 2005).

Sirmondo [6] stated that the central argument of standpoint theory is that it is based upon a theory of privilege and not merely another different perspective. It examines sexual discrimination from the viewpoint of the female and as such provides a platform in order to become more informed and understand gender issues. As such women are in an improved position to see discrimination from a perspective that eludes males. This becomes more apparent when female activists take political actions to overturn male discrimination. He concludes that those people who see social constraints as oppressive can more easily comprehend those constraints than those who cannot see them. (Sismondo 2010)

In recent years sociologists have been somewhat detached in the mainstream philosophy of science. It was David Bloor [7] who commented that social science remains impartial to truth, falsity, rationality, irrationality, success or failure. The desire for detachment has not only been confined to that of relativism. Others have commented that standpoint epistemology may be more of an escape from “the intellectual quicksand of relativism and indefensible territory of neutrality and detachment” (Iorio 2009). As such the standpoint requires a new examination of objectivity and a movement away from what is considered to be subjective perspectives.

It is considered that most of the contentions that surround standpoint feminism and postmodern feminism are centered on power and agency. The post structural feminists continue to question the transparency upon the experiences put forward by women. They state that they rely upon the same expressive state of language that under pins liberal feminism. Many of these standpoint theories operate from the premise of fixed truth about the insights made. It is automatically assumed that experience represents both valid and reliable sources of information. These individuals with already fixed identities have limited experience of oppression. These experiences are articulated in conventional power relations. These power relations have a tendency to fix women to a specific category. (Carole Ruth McCann 2003).

By way of comparison it is useful to examine the international perspectives of contention in standpoint epistemology. The political activism that is currently taking place in modern day Chile provides a direct response that has been based upon gender experience. Historically Chilean women have been branded and placed in a specific position in Chilean society, this being termed ‘marianismo’ (Tétreault 2000). There have been certain criticisms of postmodernism and the movement towards relativism. This in turn has seen many females hybridize the epistemologies in order to deflect the criticism. The approach has moved towards examining different voices and standpoints of feminism. In Chilean society the women are deemed to be very cultured and have different views on a range of varying subject matter. It is considered that the postmodern feminist perspective has broadened the voice of the Latin American woman and allowed true feminist views to be openly expressed. (Tétreault 2000).

It is over the last two decades that there have been significant advances in sociological theory and in particular the many changes in feminist theory. The emphasis being placed upon the areas of gender, identity and subjectivity. Dietz stated that within the many debates that have took place it has been contested what is the true meaning of feminine citizenship (Dietz 2003)


Epistemology essentially refers to the science of knowing and the acquisition of knowledge. It relates to how people understand what they know and draws its source from the disciplines like sociology and psychology. The research fields within this area have given rise to feminist epistemology and the knowledge that specifically applies to women. As such it becomes an approach that summarises the experience of women and integrating both knowledge and experiences into the female voice. More recent manipulations of the term epistemology illustrate the term has been widened or redefined to include new areas that were previously omitted by traditional research concepts (Alcoff 1993). The historical implications of female epistemology have been based around clashes that involve female liberalism and the oppression of women in society. The need to have their contribution recognized and included within the context of the social sciences.

Feminist standpoint theories generally put forward the view that gender creates the social differences in epistemology. The aim being to obtain a closer comprehension of how authoritative knowledge is obtained and how female constructive uses can be put forward from marginal standpoints. Historically it has been considered that feminist standpoint theory has remained subordinate to the traditional mainstream philosophy of science. This has caused feminists to feel uncomfortable with both their role and contribution in the field of sciences. (Hirschmann 1997)

In the journal Hypatia, numerous feminist empiricists have argued that scientific knowledge is socially situated and as such there is increasing levels of convergence between feminist empiricism and standpoint feminism. The latter has become much more subtle in terms of interpreting standpoint claims distinguished from that of views held by feminine empiricists. Sociologists have stated that feminine empiricism is more a way of how scientific claims may be proven as opposed to standpoint feminism which is more related to the study of science as a phenomenon. Both views are similar in that they strive towards a greater degree of diversity. (Intemann 2010).

Jane Flax argues that psycho analysis, feminist theories and postmodern philosophies are all independent methods of thought, with each being understood in a different way. Each of these has its own perspective on social issues and transitional way of thinking. Flax describes feminist theory as “a delimited area of intellectual discourse where general consensus occurs amongst its practitioners” (Flax 2010). Regardless of this there remains a lively debate on those who are identified as feminist theorists. Within this is the importance of analysing gender and the distinction of female issues to that of the male domain. The aim of feminist theories is that of a recovery vehicle in order to reclaim those aspects in society that have been suppressed or denied by male dominated viewpoints. As such feminist values call for transformative thinking about such items as values, sense of self-worth and the dealing of stereotypes by the compartmentalization of women into specific categories and thereby denying freedom of expression.

One of the central points in feminist standpoint theory is derived from that of Karl Marx’s views on materialism. Feminists have adopted from this philosophy that the concept of power is the main way towards understanding social society. As such there exists a social identity between that of power and gender. The feminist engagement with epistemology tends to represent itself in one of two ways i.e. it is either very closely aligned with postmodernism or aligned with that of epistemology; the term ‘female epistemology’ generally tends to imply that it is lined to the latter term. This in itself creates a degree of tension and conflict between the two forces.

Miranda Fricker stated that we can credit feminist postmodernism with making a number of important contributions to social science. Amongst this is the contribution to the intellectual knowledge base and making the general populace more aware of the complexity of social identity. In this sense it is more accurate than that of an onthology that relates purely to class. (Fricker 2000).

In current terms it is important to recognise that a large number of women are employed in science, engineering and academic positions. As such they offer a diverse range of opinions on a wide range of subject matter. The female positions tend to have two distinct types of focus (i) that engaged with the sciences and (ii) that focused upon society. Researchers have emerged from former marginalised groups and as such have had a profound way of changing the pattern of inquiry and thought process. There are still those however that holds the opinion that feminism is a threat to the objectivity of science. Sandra Harding pointed out that if all knowledge is socially constructed it will pose a major threat and challenge to science. For example with most scientists “the notion that their views of the natural world are subjective is counter to their professional training”. (Wyer 2008)

Holland et al believe that the notion of a feminist standpoint tends to be more theoretical and political. The reason being the inability to separate politics and the epistemology. They have cited particular differences appropriate to realism and those influenced by empiricism. In addition they believe that standpoint feminists are far too influenced by concepts of gender. In making specific judgements or opinions on subject matter, the feminist needs to have a superior knowledge that the theoretical epistemological position if the research is to be formally accepted. (Caroline RamazanoÇlu 2002)

Sandra Harding’s [8] views on Standpoint Epistemology focused more on the concepts of objectivity. Harding advocated a new concept of ‘strong objectivity’, as opposed to that of the weak concept which she referred to as ‘objectivism’. She stated that objectivity must contain all social values and interests from the research that is carried out. She was aware that certain social values could adversely impact the research and cause potential distortions. As such Harding viewed traditional research concepts and objectivity as the denial of cultures best beliefs (knowledge), whereas the new version fully embraces both political and historical origins.

Harding believed that her new theory holds validity, particularly from the feminist standpoint i.e. women are part of an oppressed group and as such they approach research problems in a less arbitrary way. They are more likely to evaluate theories that might otherwise be overlooked or denied by more traditional concepts or viewpoints. Harding states that that the standpoint has a substantial foundation in the empirical experiences of women and although this may not constitute a foundation of knowledge, nevertheless it does create a more diverse contribution leading towards increased objectivity. As such it might be regarded as a hybrid approach, between that of objectivity and relativism. Critics have argued that this is bound to fail because concepts of hybridisation cannot adequately deal with issues of generalisation and as such it will fail to distinguish from that of weak objectivity. (Sandra 2001)

One of the most influential people in the field of standpoint epistemology was that of Dorothy E Smith. [9] Smith is famous throughout the world as a developer of theories and as such she has advanced the academic position from a feminist standpoint. Smith developed theories and concepts around the subject matter of gender and particularly that of the ‘ruling texts’ of man. She advocated that many texts were compiled from the male perspective and as such were responsible for defining gender. She further advocated that such rules written by men determined the rules of society and defined the way in which we live and conduct our lives. Amongst the books that Smith referenced were the US Constitution, The Holy Bible and the Communist Manifesto. Smith stated that the rulings defined in many of these books were completely opposite to the manner in which women conducted their lives today. Such obsolescence creates the way for transformation of thinking and revision in these areas. – Ryan B Johnson [10] (Johnson, Standpoint Epistemology Summary 2010)

The ASA [11] President Patricia Collins [12] has also been extremely influential in her works on standpoint epistemology. Collins has excelled as a distinguished black professor rising through the ranks dealing with oppression that includes race, class and gender. She emphasises this point in her research and talks about white privilege in feminist society. She has broadened the discussion of gender to include that of racial factors as black women shared a common bond in terms of almost universal oppression. Most black women could recount from their history a record of oppression, slavery and discrimination. This created an even stronger standpoint than that experienced by white women and had a wider impact than other discriminated groups like gays, lesbians and Jews. (Johnson, Standpoint Epistemology Summary 2010).


Alison Wylie [13] maintained that Standpoint theory is grounded in social and political thought. As such the notion of knowledge and epistemology is nothing new. Wylie states the most significant contributions in the area have been made by Sandra Harding and Nancy Harsock. Standpoint theory continues to have a profound impact on social and political thinking to this very day. (Grebowicz 2007). The arguments put forward by the female epistemology practitioners focus upon potential bias and exclusion by their male counterparts. The practice has seriously disadvantaged women by : (i) excluding them from inquiry (ii) denial of access to epistemic authority (iii)denigrating female cognitive styles and types of knowledge (iv) male dominance that is self-serving and denigrates female contributions as being inferior or insignificant (v) theories of social phenomenon that render women’s interests invisible (vi)the production of knowledge that creates class divisions, creates hierarchies or relegates women to that of subordinate roles. (Andersen 2010). Whilst considerable strides have been made towards the resolution of contentions in standpoint epistemology, particularly in what we refer to as the Western or first world environment; on the global scene there still remains a lot of work to accomplish. Females still suffer oppression in such areas as the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Latin America and many Muslim speaking countries. The internet has helped in the creation of a global forum for women to communicate world-wide and talk about experiences, lifestyle, social interaction, oppression etc. Nevertheless despite open access communication we are even seeing examples of where this is being subverted for political power and exclusion of feminine authority. Examples being that of China and certain Middle Eastern countries. Feminist groups have also advocated for the recognition of women’s rights on a global scale. However, when this has been approached as a ‘human rights issue’ it has met with opposition from cultural relativists and liberal human rights activists. It has been viewed as an attempt by western women to expand western cultural philosophy. The relativist’s argument being that recognition of women’s rights as human rights is linked to that of western imperialism. This view is very misguided because by nature the concept of oppression, racial discrimination, gender issues etc. are universal ones and as such not confined to the west but are global issues for resolution. (Kim 2010)


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