FEMINIST METHODS EVOLVE
In the rest of the chapter, feminist methods are described in five sections: on two early sciolisms, on Sandra Harding’s trivium, on Liz Stanley’s contribution, and on male hysteria. There were two sciolisms in the early days.
two early sciolisms
A sciolism is a superficial pretension to knowledge, a sciolist is someone who produces such pretensions. In the 1980s when articles and
books on feminist methods began to appear (e. g. Bowles and Duelli Klein, 1983; Clegg, 1985; Roberts, 1981) two sciolisms were frequently offered. One recited a political slogan as if it were a guide to methods, the other reduced all research to a simplistic binary opposition.
One early definition of feminist research, which was often recited as a mantra was ‘feminist research is by women, on women, for women.’ That was clearly inadequate in two ways: (1) men can do feminist research, women can do non-feminist research; and (2) feminist research can be done on men, or animals, or technology or texts or anything. So, for example, a man who gathered data on men who have raped women could be, if his perspective were feminist, doing feminist research. Equally a woman who did research on homeless women need not be conducting feminist scholarship. Catherine Hakim (1995), for example, is a woman, who conducts research on women in the labour market, but is robustly anti-feminist. She has adopted a position that feminist sociologists are producing biased, inaccurate findings, which damage women. Her opponents counter-claim that Hakim’s research damages women. (See Delamont, 2001: 88-91, for an account of this controversy.)
One problem with the mantra was, of course, deciding who decided what was ‘for’ women. Hakim believes that her defence of positivism and her insistence that women are not disadvantaged in the labour market because they do not want equality of working hours, and responsibility, are research ‘for’ women. Her opponents believe equally firmly that their work is ‘for’ women and Hakim’s is not.
I have called this mantra a sciolism because it was so superficial. This slogan became untenable when ethnic minority, post-colonial, and lesbian women began to protest that the category of ‘women’ was not simple or unitary, and to argue that white, heterosexual, First World women did not necessarily do research that was for other categories of women. Ethnic minority women objected to white women doing research ‘for’ them, lesbians objected to straight women doing research for them, and so on. This was the impetus for Judith Butler’s (1990) Gender Trouble in which she objected to straight women speaking for lesbians, for example.
These attacks came from within feminism, as it fragmented. There was also a response to the mantra from believers in the objectivity of the social sciences. The calls for research to be done ‘for women’ opened up the debates about ‘bias’ in social research (see Hammersley, 2000, and Murphy and Dingwall, 2001) which are the subject of the section on male hysteria.
The other sciolism was that all positivist or quantitative research methods (treated as synonymous) were ‘hard’ and masculine, so all feminist research must be interpretivist and/or qualitative, and therefore soft
and feminine. This was both insulting to the men who did qualitative research and to women who chose quantitative methods as Jayaratne (1983) argued at the time. Clegg (1985) published a paper which clearly quashed that sciolism, intellectually, but did not of course kill it. Maynard reviews this sciolism and disposes of it. ‘It is likely, then, that it is not so much quantification per se as naive quantification which is the problem’ (1994: 13). Maynard is careful to stress that quantitative studies have provided a significant contribution to feminists’ knowledge base about women’s lives.
Jayaratne’s position, as a quantitative positivist, is echoed by other women who favour that epistemology. Ann Oakley’s (1998a, 1998b) conversion to the feminist power of the randomised control trial (RCT) has moved her into this camp during the past decade. In her early work Ann Oakley relied on the unstructured interview as her main research method, supplemented in the doctoral work on housewives by the Who Am I? Twenty Statements Test used by the (now little known) Iowa School of symbolic interactionism. During the 1990s, alongside a movement from work on women’s health to research on education, she became an advocate of the randomised control trial (RCT), treating it in a remarkably unsociological way. She argues that data from RCTs are powerful and can be used to inform social policy in ways that other forms of data cannot. This assumes a rationality among policy researchers that those who are not liberal feminists with a faith in the Enlightenment project do not share. Those who have studied the social realities of RCTs are less naive about them. (See, for example, Featherstone, 2002; Latimer and Featherstone, 2002.) Moreover, the fact that policy-makers might place their faith in RCTs in reality says something about their symbolic force, but next to nothing about their adequacy for social science research.
In 1994 Lynn McDonald published a history of women who had devised and developed social science methods, simultaneously defending empiricism against its critics. McDonald was disturbed or angered by feminist attacks on ‘quantification… value neutrality… any attempt at objectivity’ (1994: 5). Men who espoused qualitative methods were equally perturbed by this sciolism. Erickson (1986) captured the absurdity in his analysis of the joke ‘Real men don’t do ethnography’, a parody of a slogan ‘Real men don’t eat quiche’. Erickson reports how in 1984 a ‘well-known’ American process-product researcher sent round a circular containing the joke ‘Real men don’t do ethnography’, and he found that two of his colleagues had put copies into his pigeonhole saying how amused they were. Erickson responds with a powerful analysis of why some men active in educational research might prefer to avoid the complex nuances of ethnographic work, and might not wish to embrace its emancipatory potential (1986: 157-8).
The two sciolisms both confused three quite different levels of decision-making about research: the first focused on the researcher, the topic and the policy outcome(s) while being silent about methods. The second confused the theoretical/philosophical underpinnings of the discipline (the epistemology) with the theory of research (methodology) with the actual data gathering technique(s) (the methods). This distinction, which is the subject of the next section, is usually associated with Sandra Harding’s writings on feminist research.