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What Is Feminist Standpoint Theory?

Standpoint feminism is a theory that feminist social science should be practiced from the standpoint of women or particular groups of women, as some scholars say that they are better equipped to understand some aspects of the world.

Standpoint theory emerged in the 1970s and has had a lasting influence on feminist thought. The theory is based on the understanding that women and other non-dominant groups are situated differently from men and other dominant groups, and therefore see and interpret the world through different eyes. Standpoint feminists believed that women have been wronged and oppressed for so long that they have a special, but different and valid, point of view on knowledge.

They distinguish between knowledge of or from the standpoint of women and knowledge that is not specifically about women. Knowledge from the standpoint of women consists of things like women’s ways of perceiving and knowing the world (Smith 1998a). Women’s meanings of reality are seen as ‘different’, ‘layered’, and lacking authority in the male dominated Western world of knowledge (Smith 1998b).

Standpoint feminism is concerned with the self-identities and self-understandings of women; their way in which they define what it is to be a woman and how the world impacts upon them as women (Smith 1998c). It is based on the notion of ‘women’s ways of knowing’ and the need to recognise that oppression produces ‘a specific and different perspective on the world (Smith 1998b)’.

At its core, standpoint feminism, is based on the feminist idea that one’s identity, and knowledge of the self and the world, are shaped by social relations based on inequality and domination (Bays 2006). These inequalities are based on gender, gender and sex (the biological differences between males and females), masculinity and femininity (male and female social roles) and the unequal power relations between them.

Kersti Bardelacikson (2004) notes that standpoint feminists seek to develop a holistic analysis that highlights the importance of ‘experiences and ‘lived experiences’ in understanding the position of women; seeks to ‘ground’ theoretical analysis in empirical data to the greatest possible extent; and, interrogate the ways in which theory contributes to the gains in women’s consciousness, self-understanding and self-empowerment.

The theory arose as a critique of ‘male bias’ that came to be identified in the ‘experience and analysis’ of male sociologists and social theorists who failed to see or understand the experience and analysis of women and their ways of knowing and knowing the world. While many critics of standpoint feminism argue that it is now obsolete, others argue that it remains relevant and necessary due to institutional inequalities and discrimination which persist to this present day.

History of Standpoint Theory

Standpoint feminism is a theory of knowledge that argues that women and certain socially subordinated groups have special knowledge about how industrialized, capitalist societies oppress them. It has been argued that such knowledge needs to be treated as a valid and ‘whole’ in its own right.

Standpoint feminists claim that the domination of the development and production of knowledge by men in important arenas – politics, the military, the economy, nations, homes, families and schools – has led to a suppression of women’s knowledge and the construction of mainstream society as male.

Standpoint theory arose as a feminist response to Marxist positivism, which had a profound impact on social theory and research on women. In the 1970s, including the work of UNESCO, many women were finally accepted as legitimate subjects of academic research.

During the nineteenth century and the Enlightenment, positivism became the dominant mode of thought in Europe towards scientific method as a way of understanding the world, and that understanding, they argued, should be supported by rational, rigorous research.

By saying “it exists”, you are not saying “what it is”. The positivist stance is that “it exists” names is description as a fact that does not speak for itself, but allows the researcher to reveal its meaning.

One of the major authors in the development of standpoint theory and specifically feminist standpoint theory is Dorothy Smith, who argues that women have their own ‘particular social location’ and a unique perspective on the world.

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