In the early days of feminist sociology (1968 to 1980) the main focus of writing on methods was intensely practical. Women pointed out that researchers had posed their research questions in a sexist way; that empirical studies had sampled from the population in a sexist way; that they had used research instruments that were grounded in sexist ideologies and therefore reproduced sexist findings; or that they had analysed and written up their findings in sexist ways. There were also accusations that funding agencies were at least reluctant, if not downright unwilling to sponsor research on women, or even on mixed samples, rather than on men. This needs to be illustrated, because it is quite
hard in 2002 to reconstruct how sexist much research was, in all these five ways, as recently as 1968-80. In this section, therefore, there are two examples of each type of criticism from this era: many more can be found in my book from that period (Delamont, 1980, and in Chapters 7, 8 and 9 of Delamont, 1989b).
Underlying many of the criticisms is the issue of language. English uses ‘man’ to mean both the male animal and the whole species. It is, therefore always ambiguous in ways that ‘woman’ is not. Sometimes the two meanings of ‘man’ can be distinguished by the context. So for example, a sentence such as ‘man is a social animal’ probably means the whole species, while ‘when man plays football’ probably means the male. However, such extrapolations are problematic, because many sentences of the first type do actually only mean males, and some apparently male-specific sentences are actually intended to be generic. This ambiguity in the English language has been a problem for feminists for over 300 years: when Paine wrote The Rights of Man did he mean humans or men? Contemporary feminists in the Anglophone world have, in both public and academic spheres, struggled to disentangle and clarify the meanings. In public life they have argued to replace Chairman with Chairperson or fireman with firefighter, because too often Chairman and fireman means a male, either to those running the committee or the fire service, or to the general public, or, especially, to children.
In the academic sphere, feminists (for example, Thorne et al., 1983 who cite 44 articles on this point) have done research to show that children, and students, do not see or hear the generic ‘man’ to mean the human species. Reading a text on ‘caveman’, or Palaeolithic Man or Medieval Man or Nineteenth-Century Man, children and students think it means males. A geography module called ‘Man and Transport’ is taken to mean men and transport, one on ‘Urban Man’ is taken to mean that males live in cities. Harrison (1975) even found that adolescents who had studied ‘The evolution of man’ had learnt that women had not evolved. Social scientists are not immune from this either: and many of the criticisms of how research questions were posed actually turn on language.
In the feminist critiques of research questions, sampling, date collection instruments, selective reporting of findings, analysis and writing up, three interrelated issues were raised.
1 Did the researchers claim universality when actually only studying
2 Did they study only males without justifying the omission of
3 Did they build sexist assumptions into their research processes?
To be fireproof, a piece of research has to state clearly whether its focus was men, women or both; either sample both sexes or explain why only males were chosen; and the study has to be designed to avoid embedding stereotypical assumptions. Then the analysis, the writing up and the publication of the research have to avoid making sexist assumptions and reporting conclusions in a sexist manner. The third of these criteria is, of course, the hardest to meet.