Feminist epistemology

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Feminist activists, academics, and librarians from Just Associates and from Women In and Beyond the Global asked for a description of feminist epistemology. What is it? What's new in feminist epistemology? Most of all, should feminist-activists care? Why? Why not? But first, what's epistemology, and what's so feminist about it?


Epistemology is basically the study of knowledge, and even more the theory of knowledge. For example, if knowledge as a concept, as a word, has any meaning, what distinguishes knowledge from stuff that isn't knowledge? Who, or what, decides what is knowledge and what is not knowledge? So, epistemology concerns truth, legimate knowledge, belief, persuasion, analysis, judgment.


For centuries, maybe for thousands of years, women in many places and in many different situations have noticed that women's perspectives were ignored, excluded, minimized, trivialized, or they were stolen and then dressed in men's clothing. Women may cook, but men are the chefs. Women have kitchen table knowledge, and men have culinary science. Likewise, across the centuries, and maybe for thousands of years, many women in many places and in many different situations have thought that women have their own knowledge systems. On one hand, men controlled knowledge and used knowledge to control situations, to control women. Are women `situations' to be controlled? This culture of control could range from households to communities, from workplaces to courthouses, from markets to nations, from cradle to grave. On a slightly different hand, or maybe these are different fingers of the same hand, knowledge itself is part of and produces patriarchy. So-called objectivity never included issues women knew to be important, such as peace, justice, caring, survival, dignity, personhood, well being. Empirical evidence began to seem like a card trick, in which women were only allowed to watch and shell over their hard earned money or harder earned triumphs. Recently, feminists have looked at how knowledge is made, how `facts' are made, how knowledge is circulated, how knowledge is situated.


The first feminist point is that the identities, what some call the subject positions, of those who make the knowledge is important. As Elisabeth Prűgl writes, in her book The Global Construction of Gender: Home-Based Work in the Political Economy of the 20th Century (NY: Columbia UP, 1999):


"For feminists this is the crucial issue: it matters who is the knower. If knowledge is social construction, the enterprise of knowing creates power and the social positioning of the knower makes a difference." (8)


Prűgl is making a few points here. First, knowledge is crucial, maybe the crucial issue, for feminists. This might seem obvious to you. After all, you're reading something in an encyclopedia. But that's the point. Knowledge, to be important, must itself be studies. We need to studier the knowers, all the time. We have to ask who knows this, how do they know this, who benefits from this knowledge, who's hurt by this knowledge, who was consulted in producing this knowledge? These are only a few questions. You probably have more, and probably better ones. Second, who makes the knowedge matters. Third, knowledge is social construction. That means that knowledge is produced, first of all. It doesn't just happen, and it is never self evident. Never. If it is produced, it's like any other material production. It relies on the historical materials at hand. For a chair, those might be wood or metal, might be workers, might be people who want or need chairs. For knowledge, it's the same thing. Ideas, insights, analyses, these are all produced in a given time. Tomorrow, the social conditions could change, the society could change, and if they did, knowledge would necessarily change. People would make it change ... necessarily. Third, knowledge makes power. This means that knowledge is always political. That means, knowing the knower has to involve knowing the social relations of the knower. Inequality and equality matter. Women know this. Feminists act on this.


The second feminist point is that the methodology of feminist epistemology is political. For feminists, and for feminist epistemology, knowledge and hope are inextricably and necessarily bound together, always. If it matters who is the knower, then the knower's position, situation, perspective, feeling, matter crucially. This is sometimes called standpoint epistemology, and it's something feminists have developed most critically. But standpoint does not mean that all positions are equal, that everything is relative. Standpoint means that everything, and everyone, is in relations, and that those relations matter. Standpoint means that people must be accountable for the knowledge we make, we share, we trade, we consume. Donna Haraway writes, in her book Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium (NY/London: Routledge, 1997):


"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. A feminist standpoint is a practical technology rooted in yearning, not an abstract philosophical foundation. Therefore, feminist knowledge is rooted in imaginative connection and hard-won, practical coalition -- which is not the same thing as identity but does demand self-critical situatedness and historical seriousness. Situatedness does not mean parochialism or localism; but it does mean specificity and consequential, if variously mobile, embodiment. Connection and coalition are bound to sometimes painful structures of accountability to each other and to the worldly hope for freedom and justice." (198 - 199)


Let's break this down a little. First, standpoint isn't a liberal gesture to the downtrodden. It's rigorous, even scientific. It says we need strong objectivity to conduct any study, to learn or know anything. Strong objectivity means we study the object from all sides, we recognize and incorporate our own blindnesses and shortcomings. We consult with others, we seek insight, input and disagreement from those who have been excluded. Those who have been excluded have lived, for centuries and for thousands of years, with the practices of their opposition and of their differences; the many histories, collective, individual, immediate, transhistorical, form part of a consciousness. For feminists in particular, knowledge must come from connection and from coalition. Feminist knowledge, feminist analysis, looks around the room and around the table, and asks, who is not here? why are they absent? what does their absence mean? what is to be done? Feminist standpoint combines practice with yearning. Feminists yearn for freedom and for justice, and that yearning is part of the production of knowledge. That's feminist epistemology today.


The third feminist point is that feminist epistemology, feminist knowledge and feminists knowing, translates accountability into responsibility. Feminist epistemology studies and creates new forms of responsibility, so that women, and men and others, can turn yearning and hope into a world of freedom and justice ... for all. There's a great book called Imaginary Maps: Three Stories (NY/London: Routledge, 1995). by a woman named Mahesweta Devi. These stories tell something about life, and death, among indigenous peoples of India, the `tribals'. Two of the three stories deal explicitly with women in indigenous, postcolonial zones invaded by neoliberal development. This development is supported by the national government, of course. The book is dedicated, "FOR ALL THE INDIGENOUS PEOPLES OF THE WORLD." Two-thirds of the stories are about women. Maybe because women make up two-thirds of the national, or even global, indigenous population? Perhaps.


Devi's book is translated, from Bengali into English, by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. After the stories, Spivak writes a bit, and she says the following:


"All collective struggles for the right to sexual preference and pleasure, the right to equitable work outside and inside the home, the right to equality in education, must be supplemented by the memory that to be human is to be always and already inserted into a structure of responsibility. Capitalism, based on remote-control suffering, is obliged to reject the model of the acknowledgement of being inserted into reponsibility as unprogressive, in order to be able to justify itself to passive capitalist members of society." (201)


Feminist epistemology today insists that women are human, and humans are imbedded in structures of responsibility. When we ask, for example, as Spivak does, "Who decolonizes?", we are asking, in what structures of responsibility does this person, do these people, come to know themselves as human? For feminist epistemology, from Prűgl to Haraway to Devi and Spivak, and beyond (and there are many many others), this means the deeply political and strongly objective recognition that women are human, and that that recognition must inform knowledge itself.


Author: Dan Moshenberg, George Washington University, dym@gwu.edu

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