Feminist Analyses of Inequality and Development in Pragmatic Action Research

In our teaching experience over the past decade, after we have laid out the basic perspectives of AR, students ask about the relationship between feminism and AR. They correctly perceive that feminist views deal with many of the same issues found in AR: a critique of positivism, an analysis of power relations, a respect for the knowledge of the “silenced,” a critique of canonical positions, and a focus on transformative praxis. They also voice fears that AR is co­opting the analyses of feminism without attribution and possibly without sufficient reformist intentions. These concerns merit attention. Without a meaningful alliance between feminists and action researchers, neither group has good prospects.

Feminism and AR are not competing frameworks. AR and feminism share underlying ethical and political commitments to democracy and social justice. It also is important to remember that AR is not a theory but a strategy toward praxis that uses any and all tools that the coresearchers find helpful. As we have said repeatedly, we view AR as a pragmatic combination of analyses and tech­niques for linking elements of participation, action, and research in concrete situations. We don’t need fewer and purer tools, but more and more diverse approaches to meet the challenges of inequality and oppression.

By the same token, AR should not seek to domesticate feminism or to make polite but superficial gestures of incorporation. We are not interested in the politics of professional inclusion; we are interested in figuring out how to create a better world. AR should continue to grow, as it has in the past, by learning from feminism’s profound and detailed analyses of gendered oppres­sion and efforts at gender liberation. The critiques of positivism, essentialism, oppression, and the separation of theory and practice that have been central to feminism are essential to AR as well.

Most feminists begin by viewing oppression as the usual state of affairs and build their praxis on the belief that the status quo must be overturned in favor of a more liberating set of conditions. Feminists have long struggled to gain recognition for their issues, to persuade a larger segment of the world population that the rights of women are routinely trampled on and that the essentialized gendering of human beings is a form of oppression. Feminists affirm that democratic social change—not just polite conversations about being better people—is necessary for these evils to be corrected.

In our view, feminists have done more than anyone else in the past two decades to undermine the authoritarian paradigm built into conventional social science and social programs. A good review of this contribution can be found in Iris Young’s ( 1990) Justice and the Politics of Difference. Young persuasively links oppression to the welfare state, the distributive justice paradigm, and pos­itivist social science in a way that is uniquely informed by feminism but is also directly applicable to the struggle of AR to overcome the ideological suppres­sion of AR by conventional social research.

The feminist critique of the notion of value-free research has been devastat­ing, because feminists have been able to reveal repeatedly how such value-free research generally embodies gender-specific values (Fox Keller, 1985; Lather, 1991). It is a short step from this notion to the general notion that value-free research covers up all kinds of oppressive social arrangements under the mask of an impartial, scientific ideology, a critique that is an essential component of AR.

Feminist approaches also stress the value of diversity. In focusing on the conditions of the underrepresentation of women, they reveal the white, male, middle-class center of gravity of most social theory and social policy. They have demonstrated this as effectively in industrialized countries as they have in poor countries (Sims Feldstein, & Poats, 1990).

Neo-Marxism and feminism have also found a useful point of contact in their focus on the actual processes of production. Feminists have worked hard to reveal the undercompensated and central role of women in the productive apparatus of society, contributing strongly to the critique of advanced capital­ism and its triumphalistic ideologies (Swantz, 1985).

Feminists, dealing routinely with oppression and silencing, have devel­oped a powerful commitment to a view from below, to hearing the voices of the silenced, and to bringing these voices to the table (Mies, 1990). Here the coincidence between feminist analysis with a strong emphasis on life history and local knowledge and AR is self-evident. Both seek to end the silencing of so many, gendered silence in one case and class-based silence in the other.

In poor countries (as well as in industrialized ones), feminists have taken a strongly actor-oriented approach to issues such as environmental protection, welfare services, and development programs. The watchword is gender- responsible research, in whatever sector it may be (van den Hombergh, 1993). They have persuasively pointed out that, without systematic attention to gen­der, the perspectives of women will be ignored in the ordinary course of events. The parallelism between this and the emphasis on local knowledge in AR, based on the experience that without the affirmation of its value, local knowledge will be discarded and oppression will continue in the same vein, is evident.

Thus, for us, the relationship between feminism and AR is complemen­tary. Not surprisingly, we think the benefits flow in both directions. Without the feminist onslaught on the centers of power, we do not believe that the kind of space we currently occupy as action researchers would exist. At the same time, we think there is scope for both the enhancement of feminist perspectives within AR and the improvement of feminist practice through attention to the many intervention techniques that have been developed in the different AR approaches. Feminists do often engage in AR, but there are only a handful of systematic attempts to link the two perspectives. Among these, we refer briefly to the work of a few of the key writers.

Patricia Maguire (1987), in Doing Participatory Research: A Feminist Approach, articulates a combination of feminist agendas, participatory research practice, and the personal experiential dimension of her work. This book speaks better than most to the combination of feminism, participation, and social praxis by using issues from feminism and participation but staying resolutely focused on the social problem Maguire is trying to solve. In subsequent writing, Maguire ( 1994, 1996) deepens her critique of a number of kinds of AR practice, arguing effectively that the very notion of participatory research is absurd without the systematic incorporation of feminist perspectives. Though the argument is less developed, she also believes that feminist research must move into the realm of AR to extend its own scope. Thus, Maguire argues for the necessary and produc­tive interdependence of the approaches and issues and persuasively argues for invitations to collaboration across these traditions.

Many others call for some kind of interlinking of feminism and AR. Patti Lather (1991), in Getting Smart: Feminist Research and Pedagogy With/in the Postmodern, argues that the principal contributions of feminism have been the critique of positivism, the demonstration that all forms of inquiry are value laden, opening up the possibility of a critical social science, pressing for the politics of “empowerment,” and rising to the challenges of postmodernism. Her ambitious combination of perspectives strives to get beyond the dilemmas of postpositivism, poststructuralism, and postmodernism through an activist social science. She makes activist research a core element. Lather offers action researchers a wealth of analytical weapons and perspectives.

Other feminist thinkers advocate varying combinations of feminism and AR. Joyappa and Martin (1996) argue for a combination of feminist research and participatory research to storm the barricades of American adult educa­tion, and Reinharz (1992) explores the possibilities of what she calls “feminist action research,” which links activism and scholarship. The impossibility of having a feminist perspective without a commitment to social change is what links these activists and what links them to AR more generally.

In Disruptive Voices, Michelle Fine (1992) links feminism, organizational interventions in a variety of organizational systems, and social activism. A number of the examples she provides move feminist research in the direction of cogenerative inquiry aimed at social change.

Many more feminist thinkers deserve mention (for example, Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tarule, 1997; Gilligan, 1982), but we hope to have said enough to open up a broader discussion. Even this cursory review suggests the importance of increasing the frequency and detail of communication between feminist researchers and representatives of the many other approaches to AR. We share many agendas, and we think it is dear that AR is not possible with­out feminist perspectives. In return, action researchers can offer feminists a greater awareness of a variety of intervention and group process techniques developed in the industrial democracy movement, in collaborative inquiry, and elsewhere. These techniques can help harness the feminist commitment to activism to well-known techniques for working collaboratively in groups toward social change goals.

Source: Greenwood Davydd J., Levin Morten (2006), Introduction to Action Research: Social Research for Social Change, SAGE Publications, Inc; 2nd edition.

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