The meaning of experience is perhaps the most crucial site of political struggle over meaning, since it involves personal, psychic and emotional investments on the part of the individual. It plays an important role in determining the individual’s role as social agent. It affects both where and how the individual acts and whether her actions are based on a consensual acceptance of the meaning and effects of an action, on conscious resistance to them, or on the demands of other external necessities. The power of experience in the constitution of the individual as social agent comes from the dominant assumption in our society that experience gives access to truth. It is assumed that we come to know the world through experience.
(Weedon, 1997: 76)
keggs (1997) notes that experience has been seen as the basis of feminism in that feminism as a social movement and as a personal politics began the moment that women began to talk to each other and make sense of their experiences as women. Indeed, de Lauretis (1994: 8) comments that we can credit feminism for conceptualizing ‘experience in relation to both social-material practices and to the formation and processes of subjectivity’. This is because experience is central to feminist political, critical and textual practices through, for example, consciousness raising, critiquing scientific discourses and methodologies and imagining new forms of social organization.
The quintessential sign of the importance of experience to feminism is the slogan ‘the personal is the political’. This statement is not to be understood in terms of conflating one’s personal life with formal political life. For example, in Britain during the 1980s an analogy was made between Margaret Thatcher’s experiences of family housekeeping and her responsibilities as Prime Minister for the nation’s finances. While there may be certain skills that are common to both activities, this analogy diverts our attention away from the political situatedness of each activity. Women’s roles as housekeepers can be experienced as an
aspect of their subjugation and low status as they put their own needs at the bottom of any budget. Subjugation and low status are not the phrases that come immediately to mind when one reflects on prime ministerial power in relation to national finances. The phrase ‘the personal is the political’ was designed to draw attention to the political meanings and imperatives that derive from women’s everyday experiences of their personal and private lives. Published originally in 1982, MacKinnon comments in this respect that ‘the personal is the political’:
means that women’s distinctive experience as women occurs within that sphere that has been socially lived as the personal – private, emotional, interiorized, particular, individuated, intimate – so that what it is to know the politics of women’s situation is to know women’s personal lives. . .
To say that the personal is political means that gender as a division of power is discoverable and verifiable through women’s intimate experience of sexual objectification, which is definitive of and synonymous with women’s lives as gender female. Thus, to feminism, the personal is epistemologically the political, and its epistemology is its politics. (1997: 73-4, emphasis in original)
The centrality of the political meanings of women’s personal and intimate experiences can be seen in the development of consciousnessraising groups. The purpose of such groups was to enable women to reinterpret past experiences with a view to enabling them to see their worlds in new ways. In this the political imperatives of consciousnessraising were those of enabling and facilitating women to learn that the ‘anomalous, discrepant, idiosyncratic, chaotic, ‘‘crazy’’’ (Frye, 1996: 34) experiences that they had previously understood as their own fault or unique to them were both common and fell into regular patterns. Consciousness-raising was viewed as a way of making women’s experiences of living in a world constructed by men as intelligible rather than aberrant.
The major outcome of consciousness-raising was the development of new methodologies and new ways of theorizing. Redefining women’s experiences as arising from patriarchal relations facilitated the development of new theoretical perspectives and possibilities for resistance (Skeggs, 1997; Weedon, 1997). In addition, consciousness-raising represented an alternative approach to masculine forms of knowledge construction and, thereby, to accessing the truth of social relations. Specifically, consciousness-raising rejected the scientific method where knowledge claims are to be evaluated rationally and objectively and are not accepted on the basis of the status, authority or subjective view of the knower (Assiter, 2000). MacKinnon (1997: 74) comments in this respect that ‘Consciousness raising not only comes to know different things as politics; it necessarily comes to know them in a different way.’
Feminist standpoint is one major strand of theorizing experience that is seen to have arisen from consciousness-raising activities and has contributed to the development of feminist epistemologies. Epistemologies are theories of knowledge that address questions such as ‘who can be a ‘‘knower’’, what can be known, what constitutes and validates knowledge, and what the relationship is or should be between knowing and being (that is, between epistemology and ontology)’ (Stanley and Wise, 1990: 26). In this ‘feminist theorists have moved from the ‘‘reactive’’ stance of the feminist critique of social science, and into the realms of exploring what ‘‘feminist knowledge’’ could conceivably look like’ (ibid.: 37). Two versions of standpoint theory came to prominence in the 1970s and 1980s (Hekman, 1999). These were from philosophy (Hartsock, 1983) and from sociology (Smith, 1988). Using a feminist materialist approach, Hartsock argued that women’s experiences of their daily lives give them privileged access to understanding the relations of ruling. The work of Hartsock is viewed as arguing for a feminist standpoint that will in consequence justify distinctive forms of feminist knowledge and methodologies. In her focus on everyday life Smith explores the social meanings that can be derived from how women talk about their experiences. Smith (1997) is concerned to stress that her position is not to argue for a feminist standpoint that in consequence will justify feminist knowledge. Rather, she is arguing for attention to be paid to women’s standpoint. By this she means that the actualities of women’s lives are sites through which ‘concepts and theories are examined for how they are activated in organizing social relations’ (ibid.: 395).
The critiques of early versions of standpoint theory draw on developments in feminism in terms of identity politics and the influence of postmodern and poststructural theorizing. One of the most important of these has been a focus on the relationship between reality and experience that in turn invokes notions of truth. All standpoint theorists stress how problematic the idea is that we can access reality directly through experience. However, this is not to say that standpoint theorists necessarily deny that there are truths – or as Harding (1997) suggests, ‘less false beliefs’. Ramazanoglu and Holland (1999: 382) describe the theoretical contestation over the place of experience in feminist theory as placing academic feminism ‘between the unacceptable rock of extreme positivism and the unacceptable hard place of extreme relativism’. This is a useful analogy to portray the parameters of debate within which there will be a variety of positions although we do have to recognize that the meanings of positivism and relativism are themselves highly contestable and subject to a number of subtle other meanings. Indeed, the very nature of a dualistic framework is both its strength and problem. It is a problem because our repetitious use of dualism maintains its hegemony. In this respect Davies (1997b) remarks on the seemingly inescapable nature of binaried language in terms that even as we attempt to move beyond it, we can also be viewed as re-creating it. Yet I have not tried to escape binaries here. Rather, I have opted for a dualistic framework precisely because it is so fully inscribed within our language; dualistic frameworks are useful ready-made aids to understanding. In this regard they are heuristic and facilitate the organization of disparate and insistently untidy positions.
At the more positivistic ends of the Ramazanoglu and Holland’s continuum, early versions of feminist standpoint theory suggested that reality could be accessed through political struggle and, in consequence, that there is a ‘real’ reality (Guba and Lincoln, 1994) to be known. This knowledge of the ‘real’ reality would show us the truth of social relations. Deconstructionist and discursive analyses occupy the extreme relativistic point of Ramazanoglu and Holland’s continuum. For example, within poststructural theorizing Goodman and Martin (2002) comment that by undermining the notion of a coherent identity, performative views of gender of necessity trouble the category of experience. Thus, as Goodman and Martin note, rather than there being a fully constituted experiencing subject to whom experiences happen, experience is the site of subject formation. Scott (1992: 37) offers a classic statement in this regard when she comments that ‘experience is at once always already an interpretation and is in need of interpretation’. The attention that is given here to the role of language as constructing rather than describing reality suggests that ‘Experience is not something which language reflects. In so far as it is meaningful, experience is constituted in language’ (Weedon, 1997: 81). As consciousness-raising has evidenced, by drawing on different ideas to express our experiences we can change its meanings. This suggests that if experience is a phenomenon of language, then our focus should change from looking at experiences themselves as evidence of reality and toward looking at how discourse and representation are constituting experiences (Maynard, 1998). While such a view is important in highlighting ‘the constructed quality of memory and experience’ (Martin, 2001: 170), Ramazanoglu and Holland’s concerns are that to follow this position to its ultimate conclusion we can be led to a ‘point of political indifference’ (1999: 382). In part, this is because if overwhelming weight is given to a subjectivist stance on social reality, meaning ‘is imposed on the object by the subject’ (Crotty, 1998: 9). In such a view we simply keep reinventing reality through, for example, new forms of expression. Truth thereby also becomes an invention or another story.
This slippage between conceptualizations of reality and truth is central to contemporary political debate in feminism. As a politics feminism cannot avoid making truth claims for without them there would be no point of mobilization. However, for Ramazanoglu and Holland there remain considerable concerns around propensities to relativism that arise from postmodern perspectives. One area where such concerns are evidenced is in respect of contemporary debates about standpoint theory. Here we find the reassertion of the value of ‘the power of argument’ (Walby, 2000a) and the Weberian ideal type (Hekman, 1997; 1999). We also find the development of new moral concepts. For example, Assiter (2000: 337) argues for feminists to pay attention to ‘emancipatory value’ through which recognition is given to the needs and values that arise from our ‘common humanity’ and thereby contribute to removing oppressive power relations.
Despite the variety of positions within feminism on theorizing and conceptualizing experience, Griffiths (1995) draws attention to the common threads that can be found. These include paying attention to issues of values and power; the situated nature of knowledge; the role of theory; and the processual nature of knowledge. Thus Griffiths summarizes feminist epistemologies in the following terms:
• Because all feminist analyses of experience are responding to women’s position in society as devalued, silenced or oppressed, they all have a moral and political stance. This means that although there is disagreement as to how they might be conceptualized or what is important, ‘values’ and ‘power’ are organizing concepts in any analysis of experience. In this, therefore, facts cannot be separated from values.
• There is no view from ‘nowhere’. That is there is no ‘outside’, ‘objective’ position that can be taken. All knowledge is situated in the knower. The self, or a particular subjective position, is, therefore, the first step in formulating a feminist perspective.
• Despite considerable debate within feminism about the role of theory, all analyses of experience require engagement with theorizing. This may be no more than systematic reflection or it may lead to Grand Theory.
• Knowledge is not fixed, static or stable but should be seen much more as a spiral from which new knowledge, principles and structures emerge in a never-ending process.
To explore the terrain that Griffiths summarizes the structure of this chapter mirrors something of Ramazanoglu and Holland’s (1999) concerns. I begin by outlining the key ideas of Hartsock’s (1983; 1997) feminist standpoint theory. This enables me to illustrate something of the positivistic end of the rock-and-hard-place continuum noted by Ramazanoglu and Holland. The section that follows is designed to stress the standpoint view that the simple fact of having an experience is an insufficient basis on which to make claims to warrantable knowledge. This is an important point to note in respect of procedures that are used for the analysis of experience in social research. Here I discuss the central notion that standpoint has to be achieved through critical reflection, theorization and political struggle.
The second part of the chapter is primarily concerned with the challenge of postmodernist relativism. Here I outline Haraway’s (1985; 1997a) conceptualization of feminist standpoint through her metaphor of the cyborg. Haraway’s cyborg metaphor is viewed as bringing together postmodern and standpoint theorizing (Hekman, 1999; Walby, 2001a; Weedon, 1999). It is therefore extremely useful in illustrating how issues of multilocationality and the narrativization of experience are central to postmodern theorizing. In the fourth and final section of this chapter I turn to more contemporary debates about standpoint and the role of the personal. The feminist theorists discussed here are concerned with issues of truth and relativity and with ways of avoiding relativist and subjectivist positions. For example, Hekman (1999) has argued that it is wrong to assume that postmodernist and poststructuralist developments have left standpoint theory outmoded and irrelevant. This is because the justification that feminist knowledge provides the truth of social reality remains central to feminist politics. My discussion here focuses primarily on the arguments presented by Walby (2000a, b; 2001a, b) and Moi (1999).