The Relativity of Experience
There is then a difference between claiming that experience does not give us the truth, and concluding that experience cannot tell us anything except stories.
(Ramazanoglu and Holland, 1999: 387)
Maynard (1994) comments that Harding’s (1987) conceptualization of ‘strong objectivity’ includes a critical scrutiny of the researcher’s own beliefs and cultural agendas. Indeed, one of the strong messages that come from assertions that standpoint perspectives are achieved rather than pre-given is that researchers have to develop a high level of skill in being critically reflexive. Reflexivity here does not mean merely thinking about something or turning events over in your mind. Reflexivity in this view means ‘the ways in which our portrayals of social realities simultaneously describe and constitute [those] realities’ (Miller, 1997: 25; see also May, 1998). Putting the researcher into the research, through, say, autobiographical notes or the use of ‘I’, signals how the knowledge produced is located in the perspectives of the researcher. It therefore signals how ‘writing the personal [is] a political act’ (Thomas and Webb, 1999: 29). It also gives a warning about the objectivity of the account by indicating the role of subjectively located knowledges. However, there are concerns that the turn to the relativism of the subjective and the personal has gone too far. There are two issues that arise here that I wish to discuss. First, there is a problem with a relativist view that all perspectives are equally viable in that it removes ‘any vantage point from which to argue the superiority of its own case’ (Walby, 2001a: 495). Second, there is the question of which aspects of locationality are significant and indeed if locationality always matters (Moi, 1999).
Walby (2001a, b) notes that no-one today is either an absolutist or a relativist about claims to truth. In this she is recognizing that social theorists do not occupy the extreme poles that constitute the rock of positivism and the hard place of relativism. For example, Ramazanoglu and Holland (1999: 388) stress that ‘It is perfectly possible to insist that knowledge is in practice informed by accounts of experience without insisting either that experience simply tells the truth, or that theory/ language constitutes all that experience is.’ For all its lack of modern certainty, feminism does, therefore, claim to tell more than a few ‘truths’ about social relations. Feminism is not a relativistic creed in terms of its metanarratives about the power relations that arise from major social divisions. Nevertheless, giving proper and equal respect to experiences of diversity can lead to a subjectivist position that Sprague (2001) remarks is how standpoint epistemology has been popularly transformed.
One way that Walby (2000a; 2001a) links her concern about relativism is through Haraway’s (1997a) storying of feminist standpoint. In this respect Walby (2001a: 489) asks ‘Is ‘‘story telling’’ really the best that feminist social science can offer?’ In response, Walby argues that the ‘retreat from modernism, rationality, and science is mistaken’ (ibid.). Walby’s (2000a; 2001a) position draws on the following points. First, she argues that the critique of science that arises from standpoint theorization is over-simplified and sets up a stereotype. Science is neither as certain and positivistic nor as monolithic in its practices as feminist critiques of science have suggested. Rather, ‘Modern scholarship within the sociology of science has shown that science-in-the making is based on constant questioning and internal critique, with knowledge claims contested – always considered provisional – and “facts” constantly being created’ (2001a: 493).
Second, postmodern accounts of experience argue that our certainties should rest on the uncertainty that all knowledge is partial and located. This sets up the idea of incommensurability through which we have so little in common that we are unable to speak to each other. Walby is concerned to illustrate that individuals belong to overlapping communities through which they hold certain canons in common. In part, Walby illustrates this by arguing that, although some feminists may deny the modernism of their accounts, they ‘smuggle in modernist assumptions’ (ibid.: 494). Thus ‘Even as they condemn ‘‘science,’’ they actually use core aspects of its methods’ (ibid.). These aspects include retaining the possibility that it is possible to evaluate knowledge claims and the superiority of a feminist method.
Third, Walby (2000b; 2001a, b) is concerned at the propensity within feminist theory to study up from the everyday experiences of women, to use qualitative approaches and the domination of feminist theory by philosophical and literary disciplines. She seeks to make a case for scientific method that she defines as ‘the testing of knowledge claims against evidence and other theories’ (2000b: 238). This is because Walby considers that debates within feminist theory are often under-supported by evidence and that ‘Debates on questions of ‘‘what works’’ to change things would be improved if we had more evidence, in particular if we had more reliably comparative evidence’ (ibid.). This may ‘mean statistical analysis of a large and complex data set. It may mean high theory. [However] Scientific arguments are too complex for the stricture of starting from everyday lives to be appropriate’ (2001b: 540).
Walby’s (2001a: 503) goal is therefore for the development of a ‘realist methodology, developing theories and methods that involve observations predicated on the assumption that there is a world out there that ultimately acts as a check, as a form of resistance, to the development of theory’. One of her aims here is to facilitate ways through which feminist knowledge claims can be more widely accepted. In this respect Walby argues that there is now no need to accept a marginal status for feminism, to be defensive or to reject any claims to scientific status. This is because it is widely accepted within broader scientific communities that all knowledge is provisional and open to doubt. Thus if we are to constantly stress that all feminist knowledge claims have to be seen as partial or located then we are admitting to unnecessary caveats and these will be used in the wider world to downgrade any research findings.
Walby argues that we have to put rationality and reason at the centre of our methodologies. One way in which we might do this is to reject the idea that all knowledge claims should be reduced to interests. In saying this, Walby is not suggesting that science is free from interests. Rather, she is saying that ‘“Reality” is not so readily subjugated to interests’ (2001b: 538). Walby’s position here rests on two conceptual pairs: argument-theory and persuasion-politics. Walby uses a Haber – masian notion of ‘argumentation’ that she associates with theory. Theory here is defined as ‘an attempt to explain the nature and complexities of gender inequality’ (2000b: 238). Her conceptualization of argument includes the idea that there exists a consensual or widely accepted set of core principles about how to proceed. Walby seeks to demonstrate how everyday rationality is present in scientific argument through which evidence and theory are debated, evaluated and ultimately build knowledge. In terms of her linkage of persuasion-politics, Walby suggests that this relies on a different set of principles and these draw on moral and ethical exhortation. Walby accepts that in terms of political change moral and ethical stories have an important place. However, for Walby this is an insufficient basis for a broader acceptance of feminist theory.
There are several responses to Walby’s position (see Felski, 2000; Harding, 2001; Knapp, 2000; Phoenix, 2000; Sprague, 2001). These generally indicate a concern that her account is overly rationalistic and overly homogenizing of the variety of positions and debates that surround the concepts of experience and standpoint. However, Walby is not alone in her concern to explore issues of argumentation. Moi (1999) is also concerned about the implications that arise from a feminist stress on the interests and perspectives that arise from locationality. Like Walby, she is critical of some forms of poststructural theorizing and the density of some theoretical languages. Moi is not, however, situating her critique within standpoint theories per se. Also she is not arguing the case for the scientific method. Along with other feminists, one of her concerns is the ‘uncritical embrace of the personal and the subjective and an equally uncritical dismissal of the impersonal and the objective’ (1999: 161). I shall illustrate Moi’s responses to this concern with two examples from her text. These are the case of ad feminam arguments where Moi considers if and when locationality is significant and her analysis of the usefulness of some meanings of objectivity.
There are two statements in Moi’s discussion on these issues that appear to me highly relevant to understanding Moi’s position. These statements are that ‘The personal is not the enemy of serious thought’ (ibid.: 136) and there is a ‘difference between claiming, as psychoanalysis does, that there is subjectivity in every belief, and claiming that every belief is purely subjective’ (ibid.: 149). Moi’s discussion of ad feminam and ad hominem statements is designed to illustrate how we must undertake a serious appraisal of the relevancy and purposes of why we might be concerned with an individual’s location, context or speaking position. This will enable us to distinguish between an attack on the person and an attack on the argument.
Moi states: ‘To argue ad feminam or ad hominem is to attack the person who makes the argument one detests, rather than the argument itself, usually in order to move the audience, to stir their passions against this abhorrent person’ (ibid.: 138). The common sexist form of this is to state ‘you say that because you are a woman’ (ibid.). Moi notes that this is hardly an honourable intellectual approach and quite often backfires. However, Moi also comments how the recent emphasis in feminist debate about the importance of the personal has led to confusion. As she remarks: ‘Nothing is less contentious among US literary critics today than the claim that someone’s race, class, sex, sexuality, nationality, and individual experiences (of sexual abuse, rape, and racism, but also other, more innocuous experiences) affect his or her understanding of the world’ (ibid.: 142). Moi is concerned with how we can avoid turning these locational shorthands into reductive and irrelevant statements that lead us to dismiss someone and their work out of hand. For example, we might be led to say ‘He would say that because he is a White middle-class male’ or be viewed as rejecting/ accepting a position because ‘She is a heterosexual English woman’. To do this, Moi begins with the question of whether location or speaking position is always as relevant as we now appear to think it is. Principally Moi is arguing that it is not. For example, Moi asks whether we should find Judith Butler’s and Luce Irigaray’s respective use of Plato in Bodies that Matter and Speculum of the Other Woman problematic. This is because ‘both return to Plato in order to discuss sex and gender without even mentioning the effect of his speech acts in Greek fifth-century BC society, and without saying anything about their own ‘‘location’’’ (ibid.: 144). Thus, if location is always relevant:
Ought these women to have spent lots of time uncovering the effects of Plato’s. . . interventions in [his] own time and society? Should they not, at the very least, have discussed the potential effects of rereading Plato in their own time and society. If one thinks that location is always relevant, the answer has to be yes. (ibid.: 144, emphasis in original)
However, as Moi notes, this would be absurd and limiting. It also places too much power in the speaker to subjugate another’s meaning. Moreover, we have not found it problematic that Butler and Irigaray have paid no heed to the locational aspects of Plato’s texts on this occasion. This leaves us, however, with the question of when it is relevant to recognize the situated nature of knowledge. Here Moi accepts the case that power relations are relevant in this regard but she also comments that:
All speech acts do not take place in situations of unambiguous domination. The fact that some do is no reason to claim that we must always analyse the location and position of an utterance. Even when a speech act does take place in a situation of domination, this is not always the most important thing to say about it. One still needs to give some reasons for such claims, not simply postulate them as obviously true. (ibid.: 145)
For Moi it is incumbent on us to illustrate why location is significant to any analysis. It is absolutely insufficient to invoke locationality simply because it has acquired a must-do prescriptive status. This requires us to undertake a ‘fair-minded reading of the text in question’ (ibid.: 147). This includes carefully establishing patterns of, say, racism or classism and then to make appropriate judgements about how issues of loca – tionality contribute to our argument or understanding. Certainly where ‘a problem of interpretation or evaluation has arisen. . . we do need to look at who is speaking, what was said, to whom it was said, under what circumstances it was said, and so on’ (ibid.: 146).
In her continuing exploration of issues of locationality Moi next turns to the rise of the personal in academic debate. She notes how the personal has been placed on the positive side of a binary opposition with objectivity occupying the negative. Moi notes of course how there are varied ways in which individuals signal the personal, from brief statements about their ethnicity to expressing a liking for cappuccino and from full-blown quasi-autobiographical accounts to the use of the first person pronoun. However, overall she is concerned that ‘nobody seemed to think that subjectivity can become a prison-house from which a few moments of impersonality could offer a delightful respite’ ( ibid.: 155). Her discussion is therefore focused on rejecting the claim that either objectivity does not exist or that it can be given no useful meaning (see also Hawkesworth, 1989).
Moi draws on the work of Cora Diamond who sets out to distinguish between strong and weak versions of the claim that all knowledge is gendered and that women’s experiences give rise to a different view of reality. Diamond offers a contextualized analysis of experience that looks at different forms of objectivity in varied domains. One example that Moi uses from Diamond’s work is the standard scientific conceptualization of objectivity exemplified in the ‘tornado model’. The model of knowledge that meteorologists use for understanding tornadoes uses technical instruments to obtain accurate measurements of wind speed and directional changes. To develop scientific laws about tornadoes meteorologists do not want to know ‘what is it like to be in a tornado’ (Diamond in Moi, 1999: 156) as this will not serve their purposes of having accurate measurements from which to build models. They therefore do not want to know about people’s experiences of being in a tornado particularly as these will be influenced by that very experience. The experience that is required to develop the ‘tornado model’ is that related to the use of sophisticated instruments. Diamond describes the tornado model as impersonal. Other impersonal forms of knowledge are rail timetables and directions given when one is lost. Such knowledge is also portable. This is because the data can be used, compared, tested and evaluated by anyone. It can also be put to the service of anyone. Thus:
It follows that it is actually immensely useful for revolutionaries to have impersonal knowledge lying around. This is precisely the kind of knowledge that can be picked up and put into the service of projects quite different from those which originally motivated the development of that knowledge in the first place. . . Some knowledge is actually gender-free, impersonal and neutral (Diamond’s example is 7 + 5 = 12). Once we recognise this, we can go on to ask whose projects this knowledge serves. This is a question which will have different answers in different cases. One of the valuable insights emerging from a reading of Cora Diamond’s unjustly neglected essay is that impersonal knowledge – the tornado model – may be put to feminist as well as to non-feminist use… To reject ‘impersonal’ or ‘objective’ knowledge is to reject a mode of knowledge that potentially can be made more democratically available to all than ‘personal’ knowledge, which per definition remains tied to the person who developed it. (ibid.: 158-9)
For Moi therefore we should not reject the ‘impersonal’ because we assume that it must be masculine or universalizing. Rather, we would be better off asking whether or not particular modes of knowledge are suitable for our specific purposes. And Moi makes the same, it appears to me Wittgensteinean, case for the personal when she states that:
only when the personal is in the service of original thought… do we experience it as illuminating rather than embarrassing. In my view, the claim that every speech act has something personal in it is true, but precisely for that reason it does not justify explicitly autobiographical writing any more or less than it justifies haughtily impersonal performances. In short, the effects of the personal will depend – on the context, on what the personal is taken to mean in any given case, and on the interests the personal performance is supposed to serve. (ibid.: 164)
Riley (1988: 100) comments that ‘feminism can never wholeheartedly dismantle ‘‘women’s experience”’. This is because the concept of experience has been central to the development of feminist theory and feminist politics. Although the debates about experience draw on the binary of subjectivity versus objectivity, I have suggested that what we find is a conceptual trinity of experience, reality and truth. In particular I have discussed the concept of experience through its theorization as standpoint. In developments of standpoint theory I have also sought to illustrate how, on the one hand, the impact of postmodern thought has contributed to a recognition of the multilocational nature of experience and, on the other, it has created concerns about incipient and creeping relativism. The discussion in this chapter has indicated how significant debate continues around the place of the personal in feminist theory and research with some arguing that the counter-discursive movement for the personal and against objectivity has gone too far.
Hekman, S. (1999) The Future of Differences: Truth and Method in Feminist Theory. Cambridge: Polity Press. Specifically Chapter 2 for a detailed review of standpoint theory.