Feminine thought or feminist values?

There would appear, then, to be two rather disparate strands within feminist theory, both invoking the concept of ‘feminist epistemology’ and its associated themes, and both of compelling interest from the viewpoint of research methodology. The two are by no means mutually exclusive and in the end, paradoxically, they come together.

In the one case, feminist researchers bring a feminist standpoint to their research. Because of their commitment to feminist values and the feminist cause, and given the feminist purposes they bring with them, they do research in a different way from others, especially men. Whether this means that there are distinctive feminist methodologies, that is, methodologies unique to feminist researchers, is the subject of much discussion. For many, it is more a question of feminist perspectives entering into existing methodologies. The debate may be chiefly a matter of semantics. A methodology that embodies a feminist orientation is essentially very different from a methodology that does not, even if the methods it selects and shapes look to be the same. Just as a critical ethnography is vasdy different from an ethnography informed by anthropological theory or symbolic interactionism even though all rely on participant observation, so a feminist ethnography will be different again.

In the other case, the claim to distinctive patterns of research rests upon a prior claim to a different pattern of knowing. Women are said to have different ways of knowing and will therefore do research in different ways to men. Some would want to say that what this postulates is feminine forms of research rather than feminist forms of research. Mies (1991, p. 60) invokes this distinction when she asks, ‘Women’s research or feminist research?’ and demands involvement in the women’s movement for research to qualify as the latter. Furthermore, a similar debate to the one just mentioned can be detected here too. Are there distinctive feminine methodologies, that is, methodologies unique to female researchers? Or does a feminine style come to inform existing methodologies? However one responds to them, these questions imply that there is a feminine style in research which reflects feminine traits and makes a significant difference to the research that is carried out. On this basis, claims are made that, because the researcher is a woman, the approach taken is likely to be, say, qualitative rather than quantitative … constructivist rather than objectivist… experiential rather than cerebral. . . interactive rather than non-involved . . . caring rather than dispassionate … a seeking of shared understanding rather than an attempt to prove a point . . . action-oriented rather than theoretical . . . collaborative and participatory rather than otherwise … And so on.

Some difficulties with this point of view have been considered already. Women form a far from homogeneous grouping, and selecting certain features as categorically feminine and shaping women’s research in definite ways will always prove contentious. It is also difficult (impossible, perhaps?) to pinpoint feminine characteristics that are not shared by a significant number of men. Even when it is a question of undoubtedly feminist and not merely feminine insights, many of these, as we have seen, appear to be attainable by routes other than feminism. We may point to the Spenders and Chesters of this world but the Adornos and Freires of this world persist in putting their hand up too. Alcoff and Potter might set out to put together a symposium on ‘feminist epistemologies’ but in the end they find themselves having to answer the question, ‘Why, then, retain the adjective “feminist”?’ (1993, p. 4).

For all that, as we have also seen, feminist commitment and feminist orientation are able to transfigure the insights in question and make them well and truly distinctive. It is not so easy to say the same of insights that are attributed, not to feminist perspective and participation in the feminist struggle, but to feminine style. When all that can be said of their genesis is that in these cases they come from women, are we talking about feminist insights, or even specifically feminine insights? Or are we talking merely about insights found among men and women alike?

True enough, we may be talking about features—ways of thinking, feeling, behaving—that are found among women much more than among men. They may divide quite strongly along sex lines. Not only are they far more characteristic of women than men but they may be said to come together in a complexus that constitutes feminine style and is unique to women. From this perspective, there are numerous feminists for whom features characteristic of women and therefore constituting the feminine are central to their feminism, and they roundly celebrate the ‘difference’.

At this point it becomes important to ask about the origin of such feminine traits. Are they innate and inherent? Are they social products? Or is there some kind of middle position here?

Whether, or to what extent and in what way, innate or inherent features of femininity exist remains very much a matter of dispute. ‘It may well be’, writes Sondra Farganis (1986, p. 1), ‘that there are no traits particular to a single sex’. On the other hand, as ‘sceptical feminist’ Janet Radcliffe Richards sees it (1982, p. 155), ‘there is no reason to presume that there cannot be any inherent feminine and masculine characteristics’ and ‘it is overwhelmingly likely that there are some’. In her view, the actual attributes of men and women spring from a combination of specifically sexual characteristics with others that may be equally distributed between the sexes. It is hardly surprising if this process issues in some non-sexual traits that are more commonly found in one sex than the other.

Despite the apparent difference of opinion, neither of these writers considers the existence of specifically feminine traits to be central to her concerns. For Farganis, the existence or otherwise of such traits is not what is ‘at issue’ in her work (1986, p. 1). Instead, she is concerned with how women are perceived and, in this more limiting sense, how gendered characteristics are understood. While Richards may be more inclined to accept the existence of inherent, or innate, feminine characteristics, she too does not consider them ‘at issue in the great debate about women and femininity’. The question of ‘how many there are, what they are, or what effect they have’ is not at the centre of that debate as she understands it. Women may have inherent or innate attributes but these are not the ones that are a matter of concern. Instead, ‘the fuss about femininity’ is ‘about what it is thought that the sexes ought be like, and about what measures need to be taken to achieve whatever that is’. Accordingly, she believes, most feminists have no worries about inherent tendencies to differences between the sexes. They are, however, justifiably indignant about what these differences are often alleged to be and are deeply concerned about the discrimination that these perceived differences supposedly legitimate. ‘The feminist concern about femininity is not about such inherent characteristics. It is rather the fact that men and women are under different social pressures, encouraged to do different kinds of work, behave differendy, and develop different characteristics, which is important’ (Richards 1982, p. 155-7).

Once again, then, we find ourselves with the feminist agenda rather than with allegedly inherent features of femininity. The pivotal problem that emerges has to do with inherited and prevailing perceptions of what it means to be a woman and how women ought to live and act. Not that these perceptions can be kept apart from the feminine characteristics we have been discussing. Earlier in this book, when dealing with social constructionism, we considered the notion of reification. It is a process whereby something that is not a ‘thing’ is posited as a ‘thing’. By just such a process of objectification, socially derived expectations of women become putatively ‘inherent’ features of femininity.

Thus, what are said to be characteristically feminine traits and behaviour turn out to be historical and cultural constructions. Unless we postulate some sort of essential feminine nature and are willing to wear the charge of being essentialist and ahistorical, we need to see it in this light. This is not to deny a role to biology. Nature has a hand in it, to be sure. Female anatomy and physiology play their part. Yet the feminine qualities and actions we encounter in social life do not equate to the mere functioning of genes and hormones. Lying between the basic ground plans for our life that our genes lay down and the precise behaviour that we in fact execute is ‘a complex set of significant symbols under whose direction we transform the first into the second, the ground plans into the activity’ (Geertz 1973, p. 50).

Chartres is made of stone and glass. But it is not just stone and glass; it is a cathedral, and not only a cathedral, but a particular cathedral built at a particular time by certain members of a particular society. To understand what it means, to perceive it for what it is, you need to know rather more than the generic properties of stone and glass and rather more than what is common to all cathedrals. You need to understand also—and, in my opinion, most critically—the specific concepts of the relations between God, man, and architecture that, having governed its creation, it consequendy embodies. It is no different with men: they, too, every last one of them, are cultural artifacts. (Geertz 1973, pp. 50-1)

Geertz’s use of the generic masculine stands out in the clearest relief in the context of the present chapter. ‘It is no different with men.’ While this was originally written well over 30 years ago and we may be tempted to feel indulgent about the author’s language in this respect, we may also feel the temptation to shout back, ‘It is no different with women!’. And this, as it happens, is the precise point we are concerned with at the moment. Women, along with men—yes, ‘every last one of them’—are cultural artifacts. Simone de Beauvoir tells us (1953, p. 273), ‘One is not bom, but rather becomes a woman’. Farganis agrees. Proposing that ‘theories of the feminine cannot be divorced from the social conditions of their formulation’, Farganis draws on and expands the thought of English sociologist Viola Klein.

The feminine, according to Klein, is a constellation of cultural roles, attitudes and abilities related to, but not necessarily growing out of, the biological traits held to constitute being a woman, that is, grounded in chromosomes, anatomy and hormones. ‘Feminine’ includes cultural influences in a way that ‘female’ does not … In allowing for the importance of human intervention, action, and transcendence in becoming a person, one counters the determinism of simple biological or cultural explanations. The biological within a cultural context rooted in time is at the core of the social and the sociological, and it moves beyond the simplistic as well as specious dichotimization of nature/nurture, biology/culture, genes/environment. (Farganis 1986, p. 4)

There are those who would privilege the nature-biology-genes side of the divide to which Farganis refers us. The movement in this direction reached its zenith in the sociobiology that waxed strong in the 1970s and sought, as in the writings of E.O. Wilson, to explain animal behaviour, including human behaviour, through genes and gene selection. One of the sociobiological strategies is to draw parallels between humans and other species—especially our ape cousins, most of whose genetic material matches our own. Here sociobiologists pay a great deal of attention to sex roles, sexual displays and sexual practices, so that their work is certainly of interest to people involved with feminism. Sociobiology has had a bad press in feminist quarters, not least because it suggests a determinism that would leave women at the mercy of their genetic inheritance and biological functions. Still, there are feminist writers who do not hesitate to appeal to instinctual female drives, for example, to motherhood in particular or to nurturing in more general terms.

There are others who would privilege the nurture-culture- environment side of the divide mentioned by Farganis. Cultural, or social, anthropology certainly emphasises the role of the symbol system that serves to direct what we as humans do. On the basis of citations we have already considered, Geertz emerges as an anthropologist who offers that emphasis without losing sight of the biological basis. He calls for ‘analyses of physical evolution, of the functioning of the nervous system, of psychological process, of cultural patterning, and so on—and, most especially, in terms of the interplay among them’ (1973, p. 53). His talk of ‘interplay’ resonates with Farganis’s appeal for a ‘dialectical method’ in the analysis of feminist issues. For the most part, feminists are certainly on the side of the culturalists rather than the sociobiologists. Nevertheless, Farganis echoes the finding of Smith that there is an essentialism to be found not only in sociobiology but in certain strands of feminist theory as well. ‘A dialectical method’, Farganis believes (1986, p. 118), ‘often absent from feminist theory and never found in sociobiology, would be the corrective to or antithesis of each of these paradigms and would counter a universalism that is historically untenable’.

There is a point to be carefully noted here and it holds regardless of whether we want to downplay the role of culture (as in sociobiology) or maximise the role of culture (as in certain versions of anthropology). If, in any way and to any extent, we consider the inherited and prevailing understandings of womanhood to be a social construction, we need to be suspicious of them. These understandings have been forged in and out of the give-and-take of society. They are a cultural product. Since that society is a patriarchal society and that culture a masculinist culture, one can only conclude that the picture of femininity we have inherited has been developed by males to serve male purposes. In consequence, the first task of feminists may well be that of opening themselves in phenomenological fashion to the immediate experience of being a woman, thereby calling into question the meanings inevitably imposed upon them in hegemonic fashion by their culture.

It is in this very spirit that Adrienne Rich (1990) directs women to the literature they have inherited, as we noted when discussing hermeneutics. In pointing up the kind of oppression that women suffer under patriarchy, Rich writes of ‘the visible effects on women’s lives of seeing, hearing our wordless or negated experience affirmed and pursued further in language’ (1990, p. 483). Language has trapped women as well as liberated them. The very act of naming has been until now the prerogative of males. Rich does not call for a boycott of this masculinist literature. What she calls for instead is ‘re-vision’—a radical feminist critique of literature that will use literature as a clue to how women have been living and a pointer to how women can begin to see things differendy, name things authentically for themselves, and so bring themselves to a new way of being and living. ‘We need’, says Rich, in a statement that we have already considered but which bears repetition, ‘to know the writing of the past, and know it differendy than we have ever known it; not to pass on a tradition but to break its hold on us’ (1990, p. 484).

Rich’s call should not be limited to literature. All human life and every human situation can be seen as text. As they address that life and those situations, women need to lay aside the cultural understandings imposed upon them, inevitably sexist as those understandings are, and interpret life and situation anew—yes, reading them as they have never been read before.

Research as re-vision, then? That may not be a bad way to describe feminist research in a nutshell. When feminists come to research, they bring with them an abiding sense of oppression in a man-made world. For some, this may be little more than an awareness that the playing field they are on is far from level and they need to even things up. For others, the injustice is more profound and severe. They perceive the need for very radical change in culture and society—for a revolution, no less. Feminist research is always a struggle, then, at least to reduce, if not to eliminate, the injustices and unfreedom that women experience, however this injustice and unfreedom are perceived and whatever intensity and extent are ascribed to them.

This striving for equity and liberation marks feminist research indelibly. To all outward appearances, feminist researchers may share methodologies and methods with researchers of other stripes; yet feminist vision, feminist values and feminist spirit transform these common methodologies and methods and set them apart. Far more than ways of gathering and analysing ‘data’, methodologies and methods become channels and instruments of women’s historical mission to free themselves from bondage, from the limiting of human possibility through culturally imposed stereotypes, lifestyles, roles and relationships.

Like Rich’s reading of literature, feminist research addresses the world to ‘know it differendy than we have ever known it’—yes, and to fashion it anew.

Source: Michael J Crotty (1998), The Foundations of Social Research: Meaning and Perspective in the Research Process, SAGE Publications Ltd; First edition.

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