Whilst personal experience undoubtedly influences one’s perspective and understanding, many current references to it are determinist and essentialist. Experience/identity is substituted for, or deemed to be equivalent to, politics, as if critical awareness and understanding are inscribed on a person through forms of oppression, with an implicit or explicit presumption that such awareness is inaccessible to those who have not ‘lived’ such experiences. Whilst not seeking to deny differences in experience, critical consciousness involves developing a perspective on, a politics of, experience. . . One does not have to have experienced an event or a form of oppression in order to attempt to develop ‘committed understanding’.

(Kelly et al., 1994: 30)

Because of the privileging of experience in feminism it is often thought that one must give precedence to the accounts of those individuals who have had direct experience of specific forms of oppressive relations. Arising from their experiences such individuals are perceived to offer a more accurate reflection of social reality. As a corollary to this it is also suggested that those who have not had such experiences cannot speak for, and cannot know, the ‘real truth’ of such social relations. One of the problems of such an argument is that it gives epistemic privilege to those who have direct insights and knowledge of the practices of their own contexts and those of their oppressors (Narayan, 1998; see also de Lauretis, 1997). Another problem is that it can lead us to think that direct access to an experience is sufficient for political consciousness.

Sprague (2001) comments that a significant misreading of standpoint theory is the idea that simply having an experience, say, of racism or sexism, is sufficient to claim warrantable knowledge. Sprague suggests that this has arisen because of a conflation between subjectivity and social location. For example, Narayan (1998) notes that although non­Western women may be located between two or more incompatible frameworks or perspectives on social reality this does not automatically lead to a critical stance on social relations. Similarly Sudbury (1998: 29-30) comments that there is no guarantee that sharing the same location as the researched will facilitate the production of ‘truth’. She remarks: ‘the fact of being a black woman researcher does not guarantee a more accurate understanding or representation of racism and oppression’ (ibid.).

The achievement of a new feminist social order and knowledge of the reality of gendered relationships within capitalism that Hartsock (1997) credited standpoint theory with cannot be achieved solely through a focus on documenting women’s experiences. Sprague comments in this respect: ‘A standpoint is not how folks in a particular social location think. This point has been reaffirmed by many, if not all, of the major standpoint theorists since Hartsock took pains to specifically distinguish a standpoint from the spontaneous consciousness of social actors’ (2001: 529, emphasis in original). A standpoint can only be achieved through forms of critical consciousness, reflexivity and struggle. As Sprague indicates, many of those who are defined as standpoint theorists have pointed out in various ways that standpoint is an achievement.

The classic commentary in this regard is that of Harding (1987) who distinguishes between feminist empiricism and feminist standpoint. Harding argues that feminist empiricism has been the main challenge to the hegemonic nature of social science as disinterested, apolitical and objective and has highlighted the masculine bias in research. However, paradoxically, it has also upheld the belief that social science should be objective. This has arisen from feminist empiricists’ claims that the inclusion of women as both researchers and research subjects ameliorates or repairs the previous biases of male-only social science. The logical conclusion from this is that social research will be less biased and more objective through the inclusion of women’s experiences and perspectives.

In contrast, Harding claims that it is not simply a question of adding women in that will create the necessary knowledge structures for a radical epistemology. This is because such an approach does not rep­resent a challenge to existing theories of how we understand social reality given that these are based on masculine hegemony. Here standpoint theorists justify their claims of producing less distorted, and preferable, accounts of social reality though recourse to Hegelian, and subsequently Marxian, theorization that material life sets limits on human understanding. Because of this, one cannot simply claim to know the truth of experience. Knowledge only emerges through the struggles that the oppressed wage against their oppressors (Harding, 1987). A feminist standpoint is, therefore, not a perspective but

an achievement … To achieve a feminist standpoint one must engage in the intellectual and political struggle necessary to see nature and social life from the point of view of that disdained activity which produces women’s social experiences instead of from the partial and perverse perspective available from the ‘ruling gender’ experience of men. (ibid.: 185)

In this Harding (1991) argued for ‘strong objectivity’ as a hallmark of feminist research. To take up the position of ‘strong objectivity’, one does value the other’s perspective but one does not ‘go native’ or merge oneself with the researched. Rather, one seeks to consider the particu­larity of cultural location from a critical distance. Or as Haraway also comments:

A standpoint is not an empiricist appeal to or by ‘the oppressed’ but a cognitive, psychological, and political tool for more adequate knowledge judged by the nonessentialist, historically contingent, situated standards of strong objectivity. Such a standpoint is the always fraught but necessary fruit of the practice of oppositional and differential consciousness. (1997b: 198-9, emphasis in original)

In developing her analysis of Black feminist thought, Collins (1989; 1990; 1997) gives a significant role to Black feminist scholars to look for points of synthesis and common themes between what appear to be competing epistemologies or ways of knowing. This is because, Collins argues, solely producing alternative knowledge claims or counter­discourses is insufficient. In this respect she argues that counter­knowledge claims are ‘rarely threatening to conventional knowledge. Such claims are routinely ignored, discredited, or simply absorbed and marginalized in existing paradigms’ (Collins, 1997: 773). Similarly, Smith comments on the importance of theorization and analysis and the role of the sociologist by distinguishing ‘experience’ from ‘perspective’:

Let me make it clear that when I speak of ‘experience’ I do not use the term as a synonym for ‘perspective.’ Nor in proposing a sociology grounded in the sociologist’s actual experience, am I recommending the self-indulgence of inner exploration or any other enterprise with self as sole focus and object. . . the sociologist’s investigation of our directly experienced world as a problem is a mode of discovering or rediscovering the society from within. She begins from her own original but tacit knowledge and from within the acts by which she brings it into her grasp in making it observable and in understanding how it works. She aims not at a reiteration of what she already (tacitly) knows, but at an exploration through that of what passes beyond it and is deeply implicated in how it is. (1987: 92-3)

Case Study 15: Respectable Knowledge: Experience and Interpretation*

Skeggs (1997) uses an ethnographic approach to her exploration of class and gender. She spent three years undertaking intensive participant observation and a further eight years keeping in touch with a group of working-class women who had taken a ‘care’ course in an English further education college. Her theoretical framework draws on post­structural theorizing and Bourdieu’s concept of economic, cultural, symbolic and social capitals. Skeggs illustrates how key social divisions frame our possibilities and our access to these capitals. Her research is therefore a very useful illustration of how social mobility is restricted because of the effects of spatial framing such as those of class and gender.

Skeggs gives a very detailed account of the methodological processes and dilemmas that she faced in undertaking this work. One of those dilemmas was in respect of how she should analyse the stated experi­ences and perspectives of her research respondents. In particular, Skeggs notes that ‘the women did not want their actions interpreted as class responses for this reproduced the position they wanted to disassociate from’ (ibid.: 30). However, Skeggs also notes that ‘their rejection of class did not lead me to abandon it. In fact, it did the opposite. It heightened my sensitivity to its ubiquity and made me construct theories to explain their responses’ (ibid.).

Although Skeggs accepts that her respondents’ understandings of class are real for them, Skeggs is taking a ‘standpoint’ on how to understand the experiences of class in respect of the women in her research. In support of her position Skeggs draws in part on Scott (1992: 25) who offers a poststructural theorization of experience through which she argues that ‘we need to attend to the historical processes that, through discourse, position subjects and produce their experiences’. Skeggs notes, therefore, how the researcher and the researched have access to different discursive resources and configurations that in turn may produce different knowledge. She also notes that the accounts of her respondents ‘are just as partial as my selections’ (ibid.: 28) and that ‘the process of continual selection and monitoring further contributes to the challenges to the belief that experience is an origin or foundation of knowledge that is more immediate and trustworthy than secondary knowledges’ (ibid.: 29).

In part, Skeggs also draws support from the idea of researcher responsibility and accountability (see, for example, Code, 1995). She comments in this respect: ‘Standpoint theory has. . . made it clear that

there is no such thing as a disinterested knower and that the positions from which we speak (and how we speak) are a product of our posi­tioning vis-a-vis forms of capital and that this informs what we decide is worthy of study’ (ibid.: 26-7). Sprague (2001: 534) also comments in this respect that ‘Standpoint theory, as I interpret it, identifies the authority of our experience as scholars and calls us to take respon­sibility for how we exercise the social power that we have. Rejecting our own authority is, from this perspective, intellectually irresponsible, as well as politically naive.’ Thus Skeggs notes:

We cannot know ourselves so how can we expect to be the absolute knower of others, although we can be vigilant, responsible and critical? As the writer, I had the ultimate power of production but my interpretations were not produced without consultation and discussion. Rather than change my analysis to fit the analysis of the women of the research… I want to make a claim for using the interpretations produced through dialogue, but over which I have ultimate responsibility and which are generated in relation to the research questions I investigated. (1997: 30)

Note:

* This is the title of the methodology chapter in Skeggs (1997).