The Duck of Minerva

Methodology411: feminist methodology?

15 June 2010

Other duties have prevented me from posting as much as I’d like to for the past couple of months, but now that the summer is really upon us I am going to try to make more regular appearances. I received a query from a reader that seemed quite appropriate for the Methodology411, so here we go:

Mada asks: “Is there a feminist methodology? And if so, what does it consist of?”

By way of kick-starting a discussion, I reply: You ask a deceptively complicated question, one that feminist scholars have been wrestling with for a long time. Part of the complexity stems from the fact that there are many different operational definitions of feminism, some of which lend themselves to methodological reflection and some of which explicitly reject any such reflection as inherently problematic. And to compound the issue, some extremely broad definitions of feminism — such as “the radical proposition that women are people” or “anything that helps to advance the status of women” — would more or less deliberately encompass a variety of methodologies, and thus answer your question by saying something like “there are many different ways to do feminist work, and any attempt to define a feminist methodology is likely to cut some of them off, so we should avoid the question altogether.”

That said, self-identified feminist scholars working in the social sciences usually share a rejection of neopositivist hypothesis-testing as the sole or even a preferred mode of knowledge-production. My colleague Charli Carpenter stirred up quite a hornet’s nest of controversy by using that kind of methodological approach to study questions about the impact of sex and gender on world politics; to her great credit, she explicitly framed what she was doing as a “non-feminist standpoint,” using a convenient shorthand made possible by the general feminist rejection of neopositivist hypothesis-testing throughout the social sciences, especially in IR.

What feminists often prefer are research techniques that stress personal experience rather than general abstraction as the foundation of valid knowledge-claims. “The personal is political” is a well-known feminist rallying cry, and a lot of feminist scholars take that to heart in seeking to ground their analyses in the personal experiences of their research subjects. This does not mean that feminist scholarship is somehow exclusively about personal feelings and impressions, but it does mean that knowledge that does not come from a personal standpoint is relatively valueless — especially when compared to that knowledge that can be gained by explicitly adopting the standpoint of the relatively marginalized members of a given society. Within IR, my favorite articulation of this is Cynthia Enloe’s essay “Margins, Silences, and Bottom Rungs” in the Smith/Booth/Zalewski edited volume from a few years ago.

Now, if we want to think about this methodologically, and not just in terms of methods or techniques, what is distinctive about placing personal experience at the center of one’s strategy of knowledge-production? After all, one could conceivably use the information gained by such experience-near modes of information-collection to code variables and test hypotheses the way that any neopositivist would, so it’s not the simple act of remaining close to the personal experiences of one’s research subjects that makes the difference. Instead, I’d argue, what makes feminist work methodologically distinctive is its emphasis on locating the researcher — the knower — within her or his specific social context. This reflexivity is obviously not just characteristic of feminist work; postcolonial theory and some strains of post-Marxist critical theory also share in this emphasis, along with sociology in the Bourdieusian mode. But in IR in particular, feminist scholars have been the most articulate and consistent proponents of this reflexivity.

So that’s what I would focus on as “feminist methodology” — not because there’s anything particularly or exclusively feminist about reflexivity, but because feminist scholars and feminist scholarship in the social sciences provide an especially good example of that reflexivity.