Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Standpoint Feminism: The Importance of Epistemic Legitmacy

The paper below is mine from a class I took on Sociological Theory. It turned out really well considering I started it the night before.

Some of the greatest strives for Women and rights came after the flourishing of the Enlightenment in the late 1700s (Kreis 2000). It was not only thought that knowledge could liberate the masses, but that this knowledge ought to be shared by women (Wollenstoneraft 1792). However, while these efforts served as a point of departure towards equal rights between men and women (Kreis 2000), these endeavours to legitimise women as capable of attaining the knowledge men hold never questioned what constituted any ‘truth’ to this privileged form of knowledge (Gunew 1990). It is these universal epistemic claims first baptised by Descartes that continue to hold privilege in everyday life (Scheman 2001). However, it is also the perceived infallibility of a privileged epistemology for the individual that has come under intense criticism over the past decades by many third-wave feminists in a variety of disciplines (Hartstock 1983; Harding 1983; Scheman 2001). This paper will start by opening the notion of epistemology outside a set of objectified relations re-centring it within a social frame. I will do this by elaborating on the key features of standpoint theory articulated particularly by Dorothy Smith (although I will open the discussion up to a wide range of other theorists), arguing that all knowledge as a consequence of standpoint theory should be seen as socially situated. After this is established, I imagine two different realms to which standpoint theory forces a shift in understanding how to theorise relations. First, I argue standpoint feminism depends on a radical re-conception of trust between legitimate epistemic agents. Second I will argue that standpoint theory also cautions the use of sociological method for discursive pursuits not based off of lived experiences. Finally, I will critically analysing the premises put forth from external criticisms outside of feminist theory as well as internal criticisms raised by post-feminism
Standpoint theory problematizes the conception of a privileged epistemology through Marx’s historical materialism (Hartstock 1983; Smith 1990a, 1999). The beginnings of capitalism in industrial society marked two sharp class divisions that saw society in two different ways (Marx 1867). The bourgeoisie saw commodities merely at a level of exchange while Marx contended the proletariat saw commodities in the level of production (Marx 1867). Both views marked off a “…rigid separation of mind and body, intention and behaviour” (Hartstock 1983, 286). Marx saw the formation of two legitimate epistemic claims of how social relations structured the notion of the commodity in industrial society (Hartstock 1983). However, Marx believed that the commodity at the level of exchange was ridden with mystifying social relations that concealed the actual working relations that made it up (Marx 1867). Not only could two legitimate forms of knowledge come from two different individuals, but one form of knowledge might dominate (in this case the commodity as exchange) when it fails to give a realistic depiction of human experience when encountering that commodity.
Dorothy Smith extrapolates Marx’s materialism into the realm of any conceived “social consciousness” (Smith 1999). This need not be limited to the materialistic grounds that Marxist concepts are rooted but must exist for any “…objectified social relations through which people’s everyday/ everynight activities organize and coordinate contemporary society” (Smith 1999, 78). Standpoint feminism, therefore, undermines analytical epistemology in its attempts to universalize knowledge. It instead attempts to offer up a multiplicity of perspectives to which it claims may have epistemic validity (Harding 1983, Smith 1987, 1990a, 1990b) that intersect along division lines of classifications not just concerned with gender but also with race, class, and sexuality (Collins 1990, Smith 1999). What is largely seen as neglected from the Cartesian notion of the individual is their corporeal being (Smith 1999). The actual body of experience of an individual (their relative standpoints), as shown by Marx, is the empirical experience of how individuals come by forms of knowledge (Smith 1999). It is not the case that there exists a transcendent subject outside the sphere of their daily experience at a privileged point of knowledge or at an “Archimedian standpoint” (Seidman 2008, 204). What standpoint feminism problematizes is the very notion that a subject can claim to be self-sufficient in knowing things in general (Grasswick, 2006). All knowledge is seen from the view of standpoint feminists as being socially situated (Smith 1990b, 1999).
Standpoint feminists such as Dorothy Smith intend on restructuring any objectified epistemic notion in the frame of the actual experience of individuals (Smith 1990b, 1999). She takes women as a point of departure for two reasons. First, she wants to point out legitimate epistemic claims as a women with a “bifurcated consciousness,” (Smith 1987, 6) occupying work both as a mother in her daily experience and as a sociologist working with generally abstract social relations (Smith 1990b). Second, Smith locates a split in gendered roles from pre-capitalistic societies to early capitalistic societies (Smith 1999). Whereas in the former, subsistence and child rearing had no explicit distinction, in the latter, both are differentiated into respective gendered roles by a capitalist sphere generally dominated by men (Smith 1999). This, for standpoint theorists, offers a point where objectified social relations served as a complex web of ruling relations (Smith 1999). For Smith, a “ruling relation” means any set of social relation that is explained in terms of other social relations rather than the experience of an actual individual (Smith 1990b, 1999).
These ruling relations tend to have devastating effects within contemporary culture. Take, for example, the recent Indian riots in Melbourne (The Age 2009). Much of the Indian protesters feel that the police aren’t addressing the racially motivated attacks against them to maintain their safety (The Herald 2009). From their actual experiences, the fear of a racially motivated attack on Indians and the need for further protection is what they have come to know after multiple attacks and the stabbing of Kumar Theerthala (The Herald 2009). The danger that Dorothy Smith and other standpoint feminists see with this kind of situation is a subversion of these epistemic claims from the experience of individuals to more objectified relations. Such objectified relations are apparent when the Chief Commissioner Overland states that the number of assaults to Indians has decreased (The Herald 2009). Whether or not this is true, I can see two problems with this assertion. First, Overland objectifies the Indian students’ experiences to a specific number of assaults counted and compared to previous quantitative results. Instead of addressing the reality of experience faced by Indian students, these quantitative comparisons attempt to abstract them to a generalized amount of attacks. Second, Overland has denied the epistemic validity of actual experience faced by many Indians. This diminishes the epistemic agency of the group by undermining their social experiences (Code 1995). This also can breed distrust of any sort of epistemic claims therein claimed by the Victorian Police force (Scheman 2001). These severed bonds fragment the beliefs of many minorities in epistemic authorities especially when suffered abuse and exploitation in the midst of one of these authorities (Scheman 2001). This also can breed distrust of any sort of epistemic claims therein claimed by the Victorian Police force, as it has done for the African American community with medical doctors (Scheman 2001). In a 1997 survey, 74 percent of African Americans said they believed they would be used as a guinea pig by a medical doctor (Scheman 2001). Scheman locates this distrust in the fact that black males were originally used as guinea pigs in the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment that allowed for the natural progression of the untreated disease (Scheman 2001). The consequences of these abuses done by even legitimate epistemic authority taints and may damage the trust of those oppressed/ abused (Scheman 2001). However, this view only can become readily available through standpoint feminism (Anderson 2009). Situated between two radically different standpoints is the trust that allows for communication between two distinct epistemic agents (Scheman 2001). Without this trust, however, validation of epistemic legitimacy may be impossible (Scheman 2001).
Understanding standpoint feminism provides another fundamental insight into a potential harm within the disciple of sociology itself (Smith 1987, 1990a, 1990b, 1999). Smith cautions sociology in creating “mystical connections” (Smith 1990b, 49) between observable social relations. What she fears is a further perversion of the ruling relations she perceives is already inherent within the discipline of Sociology (1990a, 1990b, 1999). Smith is suspicious of any social relations that tend to “…depend on conceptual practices that construct a textual version of society and social relations excluding the presence of subjects” (Smith 1990a, 10). Social theories must refrain from reinforcing a ruling relations that objectifies knowledge and forms static, “trans-historical” relations abstracted from the experience of actual individuals (Smith 1999). These theories not only misappropriate the actual experiences of individuals but they can approach human behaviour as an object of study that can subvert other legitimate epistemic claims (Smith 1999). Alternatively, Smith conceives of standpoint theory as offering an ongoing “social ontology” (Smith 1999, 97) where the social is something located in time and within an individual’s bodily existence (Smith 1999).
Up until this point, I have attempted to undermine the claim that knowledge can only be perceived as arising from a transcendent subject outside the frame of the social sciences. Not only is this refuted by empirical evidence offered by Marx, but standpoint feminism offers a reality closer to the experience of everyday individuals that prevents and challenges sustained relations of ruling as well as can locate formations of distrust between differing epistemic authorities. In closing this paper, I will attempt to offer up two different types of criticisms in an attempt to show how common criticisms of standpoint feminism may miss the aim of the social epistemology as well as offer critical shortcomings for future of such a theory.
One of the most daunting criticisms from external sources outside of feminist epistemologies is that they mix facts with values imposing political constraints while rejecting a search for truth and objectivity (Anderson 2009). By arguing for a standpoint theory, theorists are merely attempting to relativise scientific/ epistemological truths (Anderson 2009). However, these warrants, I think, miss some of the fundamental tenets of feminist epistemologies. Dorothy Smith isn’t arguing for a study of differences in individual experience (Smith 1999). She’s arguing for the root of knowledge to be socially situated, which doesn’t act mean there can’t be valid knowledge (Seidman 2008). In fact, many standpoint feminists believe in objective possibilities for knowledge and hold them integral to the foundation of standpoint feminism (Harding 1983, Smith 1999, Scheman 2001). Standpoint feminists may reject grand theories but this does not mean sociology cannot be used to understand the way things work (Seidman 2008). What they argue is that any discipline that attempts to privilege an epistemic claim that is partial ought to allow alternative epistemic claims to compete with the dominated traditions (Harding 1983, Anderson 2009).
A final criticism of standpoint theory comes internally from other feminist epistemologies that don’t believe in a situated knower. Post-feminism attempts to subvert the claims that standpoint feminism can have a unitary subject in order to transfer the function of the subject into discourse (Smith 1999). What is criticized about standpoint theory in general is that it relies on essential differences that distinguish women from men (Anderson 2009). While much of this is apparent in the early works of standpoint feminists (Hartstock 1983, Smith 1987), the view seems to be outdated (Smith 1999, Anderson 2009). Some argue that by advocating a multiplicity of domination (Collins 1990, Smith 1999), there is no room to see the bonds between certain standpoints (Anderson 2009). However, standpoint feminists seem to be more concerned with the possibility that there could be similarities between individuals (Grasswick 2006). Their main concern with post-structural accounts of gender seems to be that the subject is situated within discourse effectively removing any epistemic agency beyond discursive grounds, merely reinforcing an objectified ruling relation rather than lived experiences (Smith 1999). While this proves there is a downside to post-feminism, it doesn’t give enough to reject the theory. In order to do this, strengthened evidence that interaction between individuals actually locates a situated individual need to be proposed (Harding 1983).
These criticisms offer multiple challenges to standpoint feminism, but they don’t disturb the main suppositions of feminist epistemologies. What is still held onto is a powerful critique of a singular, static epistemology that women originally were compelled to undertake because of their demand for equal rights during the beginning of the Women’s Rights Movement (Gunew 1990). The need for a situated knower that standpoint theory offers is crucial to making strives both across political struggles for epistemic legitimacy (Code 1995, Scheman 2001) and for the sake of (social) scientific reflexivity and scrutiny of partial forms of knowledge (Smith 1999). It is the ruling relations which still dictate multiple structures in the reality of everyday life (Smith 1999). To scrutinise these forms of epistemic authority is not only to strive for scientific legitimacy, it is also a sustained fight against an objectified web of oppression.

Works Cited

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