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Feminist epistemology is an examination of the subject matter of epistemology, i.e., the theory of knowledge, from a feminist standpoint. Elizabeth Anderson describes feminist epistemology as being concerned with the way in which gender influences our concept of knowledge and "practices of inquiry and justification". It is generally regarded as falling under the umbrella of social epistemology.
Elizabeth Anderson argues that the concept of situated knowledge is central to feminist epistemology. Donna Haraway asserts that most knowledge (in particular academic knowledge) is always situated and "produced by positioned actors working in/between all kinds of locations, working up/on/through all kinds of research relation(ships)" (Cook, et al.), and thus what is known and the ways in which this knowledge can be known is subject to the position—the situation and perspective—of the knower.
The English feminist philosopher Miranda Fricker has argued that in addition to social or political injustices, there can be epistemic injustices in two forms: testimonial injustice and hermeneutical injustice. Testimonial injustice consists in prejudices that cause one to "give a deflated level of credibility to a speaker's word": Fricker gives the example of a woman who due to her gender is not believed in a business meeting. She may make a good case, but prejudice causes the listeners to believe her arguments to be less competent or sincere and thus less believable. In this kind of case, Fricker argues that as well as there being an injustice caused by possible outcomes (such as the speaker missing a promotion at work), there is a testimonial injustice: "a kind of injustice in which someone is wronged specifically in her capacity as a knower".
In the case of hermeneutical injustice, "speakers' knowledge claims fall into lacunae in the available conceptual resources, thus blocking their capacity to interpret, and thence to understand or claim a hearing for their experiences." For example, when the language of 'sexual harassment' or 'homophobia' were not generally available, those who experienced these wrongs lacked the resources to make a claim to being wronged in morally relevant ways.
The philosopher Susan Haack is a notable critic of feminist epistemology.
Sandra Harding organized feminist epistemology into three categories: feminist empiricism, standpoint epistemology, and post-modern epistemology. While potentially a limited set of categories, post-modern feminism was a transitional ideology that denounced absolute objectivity and asserted the death of the meta-narrative. While these three categories of feminist epistemology have their place in history (see feminist empiricism, standpoint feminism, postmodern feminism), as ideological frameworks they hold important epistemic insights arguably still relevant in contemporary feminist method.
Feminist empiricism emerged from a feminist critique that gave attention to male bias in positivistic practices of science. 2nd Wave feminist researchers identified how quantification and objectivity, as facets of positivism, have been held as the “gold standard” for social and political science research. Quantification, and its political relationships to notions of objectivity, maintains methodological dominance and preference primarily in the United States. This is perpetuated by how funding authorities tend to prioritize quantitative research with positivist frameworks.
Feminist empiricists believe in the concept of positivism; that all knowledge can be understood objectively and can be accessed through empirical research. They assert that pre-feminist positivism was actually not objective at all, since traditional positivism’s ‘androcentric bias’ led to only partial or ‘subjective’ knowledge of the world. In essence, all empirical inquiry is inherently skewed by value judgments and biased interpretation of evidence by male-biased authorities. For instance, it was not until retrieving statistical data on the prevalence of women in the workplace experiencing (what is now known to be) ‘sexual harassment’ through surveys in the 1970s that sexual harassment became identified by political authorities as a commonality. Without this intervention of feminists in an empirical field, this commonality would never have been identified as an issue, since males had no reason to pursue this phenomenon. Londa Schiebinger further asserts that empirical research “embodies many core feminist values”, in that feminist empiricists are actively seeking out and eliminating exploitative research whilst resisting strategic, oppressive explanations of data.
Feminist empiricism is critiqued for its belief that “objectivity” is best achieved through quantification, whether or not viewed through a feminist lens or utilized for feminist ideals. The division between quantitative and qualitative data has historically reinforced gendered dichotomies of “hard/soft, emotional/rational, worthy/worthless”. Many assert that ‘objective truth’ is a false concept, and thus feminist empiricists may overestimate the extent to which they can increase objectivity. Furthermore, positivism and quantitative research has been critiqued as a “detached” philosophical framework that inherently objectifies its research subjects.
At a basic level, standpoint epistemology asserts that marginalized groups such as women are bestowed with an “epistemic privilege”, where there exists the potential for less distorted understandings of the world than dominant groups, such as men. This methodology presents many new ideas to the Feminist Empiricist notion that androcentric dominance and bias presents an incomplete understanding of the world. A “standpoint” is not so much about a subject’s biased perspective, but instead the ‘realities’ that structure social relationships of power. It presents an elaborate map or method for maximizing “strong objectivity” in natural and social science, yet does not necessarily focus on encouraging positivistic scientific practices, like is central to Feminist Empiricism.
Although standpoint epistemology has been critiqued for focusing too closely on a distinctive women’s perspective which may render invisible concepts of historically and sociologically variable knowledge, Harding strongly asserts that standpoint epistemology does not essentialize any particular marginalized identity. Harding further argues that the methodology does not subscribe to notions of “maximizing neutrality” between groups in an effort to maximize objectivity, but instead recognizes that the power relations between groups are what complicate these relationships. This is in some ways contrary to Doucet’s assertion that the controversy of how power influenced knowledge production is a post-standpoint, more contemporary debate. Standpoint epistemology also poses a necessity to ask critical questions about the lives and social institutions created by dominant groups; where the field becomes a sociology for women and not solely about women.
In practicality, standpoint theory has widespread use as "a philosophy of knowledge, a philosophy of science, a sociology of knowledge, a moral/political advocacy of the expansion of democratic rights". Although it has been asserted that “epistemic privilege” is inherent to marginalized groups, Harding poses standpoint theory as an explanatory means for both marginalized and dominant group individuals to be able to achieve liberatory perspectives.
Post-modern thought marks a feminist group shift away from dominant, positivistic ideals of objectivity and universal understanding. Instead, it acknowledges a diversity of unique human perspectives, none of which can claim absolute knowledge authority. Post-Modern feminism has thus been critiqued for having a relativist-stance, where ongoing power relations between key identities have been often neglected attention. It is possible to see this political stance in direct opposition to the “emancipatory aspirations” of women. However, Saba Mahmood would argue this critique is in some ways oppositional to global understandings of female desire, where the idea of ‘freedom’ is an essential, conditionally oppressive component to western feminism which may wrongly assume that women of eastern countries dominated by male power are victims needing to be liberated.
Donna Haraway, a post-modern feminist, shows how post-modern feminism recognizes positivism as an inherently oppressive ideology, where ‘science’s’ rhetoric of ‘truth’ was used to undermine marginalized people’s agency and delegitimize ‘embodied’ accounts of truth. Furthermore, they argue that ‘objectivity’ is an external, disembodied point of view left only to privileged (unmarked bodies), because marginalized (marked bodies) cannot have perspectives dissociated from ‘who they are’. Despite post-modern relativist criticism, this theory resists relativism in firmly recognizing power relations in that objectivity is a privilege of unmarked bodies. Harding’s theory of “situated knowledges” holds true to post-modern ideology, where knowledge should be placed in context; this creates a more limited range of knowledge than theoretical “objectivity”, but is richer in allowing for exchange of understanding between individual experiences. Positivism inherently gives way to authoritarian positions of knowledge which hinder discussion and render limited understanding of the world. Both positivist science and relativism have been recognized as contrary to post-modern feminist thought, since both minimize the significance of context (geographic, demographic, power) on knowledge claims.
From a broader perspective, post-modern feminism may have shed an unfaltering light on the importance of intersectional struggles, where power is perceived in terms of key-identities (sex, race, gender, ability, class, etc.) rather than on a dichotomy of women/men. Post-modern feminism is commonly associated with work of Judith Butler that further complicates the pervasive dichotomy of male/female oppression by recognizing gender as a social construction.
"Theory in the Flesh"
Post-modern feminism’s assertion of “situated knowledges”, plays well into Cherrie Moraga’s piece “Theory in the Flesh”, where the ‘physical realities’ of indigenous peoples’ lives are said to be the means of creating a decolonial politic against oppressive, inaccessible, Eurowestern academic methods of knowledge production. This epistemological framework has been utilized by feminists like bell hooks, who claims that theorizing is often tied to a process of self-recovery and collective liberation; it is not thus limited to those in the western academic realm, nor does it require ‘scientific’ research. Hooks asserts that theory and practical application of emancipatory politics can, and often do, exist simultaneously and reciprocally. Post-Modern feminism has given way to the question of whether or not there should be any particular feminist ways of knowing. A 'theory in the flesh' seems to suggest that prioritizing or normalizing any specific feminist epistemology would in itself be, and has been, oppressive.
- Anderson, Elizabeth S. (2004), "Feminist epistemology and philosophy of science", in Zalta, Edward N., The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2004 Edition)
- Ian Cook, 'Positionality/Situated Knowledge' for David Sibley et al. (eds)Critical Concepts in Cultural Geography. London, IB: Taurus http://www.gees.bham.ac.uk/downloads/gesdraftpapers/iancook-situatedknowledge.pdf Archived September 25, 2006, at the Wayback Machine.
- Miranda Fricker (August 2009). Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford University Press. p. 1. ISBN 978-0-19-957052-2. Retrieved 8 March 2011.
- Miranda Fricker (August 2009). Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford University Press. p. 20. ISBN 978-0-19-957052-2. Retrieved 8 March 2011.
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