Sandra Harding’s trivium
In the USA the writings of the philosopher Sandra Harding (1986, 1991; Harding and Hintikka, 1983) have been influential. Harding (1986) distinguished between method, methodology and epistemology. Her distinction is useful. Harding limits method to specific data-gath – ering techniques and the analytic strategies that go with them. So when a researcher decides to do a postal survey and analyse the results with SPSS, or to do life history interviews and run the transcripts through NUDIST, she is making decisions about methods. Methodology is reserved for theorising about research, and epistemology for theories of knowledge. There is a methodology chapter at the beginning of Hammersley and Atkinson (1995), for example, before the rest of the book focuses on methods. Epistemology is a branch of philosophy, concerned with where knowledge comes from and how much confidence can be placed on it. As a philosopher, Harding is not interested in sociological methods, and therefore writes very little about methods or methodology, and a great deal about epistemology.
These ideas are related to her development of the trio of concepts of feminist empiricism, feminist standpoint epistemology, and postmodern feminism. Feminist empiricism is a critical practice. Male bias in research is systematically found, critiqued, and ideally removed, but the idea of scientific objectivity is unchallenged. Feminist standpoint epistemology, in contrast, holds that objectivity is an inherently masculin – ist theory or myth. It cannot be corrected. So feminists need to make an emancipatory commitment to knowledge gathered from feminist stand – point(s). Harding argues that feminist standpoint epistemologies and methodologies were developed to oppose both positivism and interpre – tivism in social science.
Harding’s work of the 1980s can be said to have been feminist standpoint epistemology, but by the late 1990s she had changed her position, to argue for a postmodern feminist epistemology. As she explains this shift, in the early 1980s ‘standpoint epistemologies’ developed ‘in opposition to the all-powerful dictates of rationalist/empiricist epistemologies’ (Harding, 2000: 51) and to the ‘interpretationist’ epistemologies
which were the main opposition to positivism (ibid.: 51). Marxist epistemologies were, in America ‘beyond the pale of reasonable discussion’ (ibid.: 51). Harding states clearly than as postmodern feminist ideas developed during the 1990s she has become convinced of their explanatory power. Harding argued that the feminist potential of poststructuralist or postmodernist ideas had convinced her that feminist standpoint theory was not the best way forward for either social science or feminism, and she wished to emphasise feminist postmodernism as the epistemological stance.
Harding’s writing has been inspirational for many feminist sociologists, but it has not provided practical guidance or exemplary sociology. For those, many feminist sociologists have looked to Liz Stanley.