Orientation Observation In-depth interviews Document analysis and semiology Conversation and discourse analysis Secondary Data Surveys Experiments Ethics Research outcomes



Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2018

Page updated 5 March, 2018

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2018, Researching the Real World, available at
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A Guide to Methodology

2. Orientation

2.4 Critical Social Research

2.4.1 The Development of Critial Social Research Feminism Capitalism and patriarchy A feminist methodology? Class, gender and race Feminism
A significant amount of feminist analysis, although by no means all, comes under the umbrella of critical social research.

Historically, feminism has not been homogeneous (Ramazanoglu, 1992). On the contrary, it has involved an array of approaches, some of which have involved a critical analysis of the oppression of women and some of which have been based on idealistic notions of the essence of 'female'.

Many prefixes, in various combinations, have been added to feminism: socialist, Marxist, bourgeois, radical, cultural, materialist, idealist, empiricist, positivist, realist, standpoint and postmodernist. Unfortunately, these labels have not been used consistently, nor are they mutually exclusive. What they do suggest is the range of theoretical and epistemological perspectives that underlie different feminist approaches.

Feminism of the 1960s and 1970s grew out of the women's movement and tended to emphasise sisterhood and the personal aspects of social relations. It began, slowly, to address the oppression of women rather than their social disadvantage. Instead of simply campaigning for the equality of opportunity for women in a man's world, the feminists of the 1970s critiqued the prevailing social structure and argued that capitalism and/or patriarchy were at the root of the oppression of women. Capitalism and patriarchy
There was fierce debate, from the mid-1970s for a decade, about the nature of women's oppression and the appropriate tactics for overcoming it. This debate was multi-faceted. Some feminists, often labelled as Socialist feminists, regarded capitalism as the basis of the oppression of women and tended to adopt Marxist or similar approaches to analysing the specific nature of patriarchy within capitalism (Cockburn, 1983; Eisenstein, 1979).

Alternatively, radical feminists regard patriarchy (alone) as the basis of the oppression of women. In short, women are oppressed by men, irrespective of any class oppression. One version of this (known as idealist radical feminism, biological feminism or, rather inappropriately, as cultural feminism) takes the view that oppression is based on biology. The approach argues that women are biologically different and this leads to psychological differences and women have a view of the world that is ungraspable by men. It is this innate difference that is at the basis of male oppression of females.

Such absolutist approaches do not lend themselves to critical social research as they prescribe a causal relationship which is immutable and do not address the social and historical context of oppression. Extreme advocates of the biological approach refused to have anything to do with men, used the label 'wimmin' rather than 'women' so that they weren't associated with 'men' and lived in women-only communes, even to the extent of excluding male children.

An alternative radical feminist approach (known as materialist radical feminism) argues that patriarchal oppression is not biological but based on social relations in which males construct society in a way that enables them to hold power over and control women (Delphy 1985). Materialist radical feminism is amenable to critical social research as they argue that radical changes in social relationships between men and women, and thus radical changes in society, are the only long-term solution to the oppression of women. Christine Delphy's (1978) analysis of housework is a classic example (see Case Study Housework).

See Critical Social Research section 3.2 for a more detailed account of different feminist perspctives. A feminist methodology?
There has been an extensive debate, amongst feminists, about whether there is a feminist methodology, or whether feminism approaches research from an array of perspectives (Gelsthorpe, 1992). As was noted above (section, not all feminism adopts a critical social research approach, some of it is positivist and some phenomenological.

Sandra Harding (1987) proposed a 'feminist standpoint' in research. She argued that confusing method, methodology and epistemology accounted for much of the concern about feminist methodology. Feminist research, she claimed, most clearly represents a departure from traditional research at the epistemological level. Harding's work on the idea of a 'feminist standpoint' has been both widely influential and widely contested, in particular her claim that starting from the standpoint of women can produce better, not just more complete, knowledge; that feminist research offers a 'successor science'.

A contrary view from Mary Hawkesworth (1989, p. 544) argued that women are 'no less prone to error, deception, or distortion than men' given the 'diversity and infallibility of all human knowers'. Others have argued that women are not a unified category and cannot be grouped together. However, Liz Stanley and Sue Wise (Stanley and Wise, 1990, pp. 412) argued that 'judgements of truth are always and necessarily made relative to the particular framework or context of the knower' and that women have been systematically oppressed and provide an alternative perspective. Thus a 'feminist ontology' is born out of 'the experience of and acting against oppression', and, 'it is the analytic exploration of the parameters of this in the research process that gives expression to a distinctive feminist epistemology' (Stanley and Wise, 1990, p. 14), a view supported, in essence by Toril Moi (1990) who argued that, under patriarchy, women are oppressed because they are women, which gives them a perspective through a particular type of experience rather than that they have a view simply by being female. Annette Kuhn (1982) asked whether femninism is a methodology or a perspective and preferred the latter, see CASE STUDY Women's Pictures.

Caroline Ramazanoglu (1989) and Mary Maynard and June Purvis (1994) raised the issue of whose interpretations count. There is no single female perspective and there are clear (if unacknowledged) power imbalances between women of different classes and ethnic groups. Ramazanoglu argued (1989, p. 435) that there is a need to understand 'women's experience as they understand it, without necessarily seeking a general theory of oppression. The privileging of perspective also applies to the interpretation of research data'.

Maynard and Purvis (1994, p. 7) argued that 'interpretation of data is always 'a political, contested and unstable activity'. The result has been one of the more distinctive elements of feminist methdodology, which is being explicit about the political context. This has also been transmuted into a view that says that power relations and hierarchies should be confronted and that women should not be treated as detached 'objects' in the research process.

While this has sometimes resulted in attempts to engage research participants in all stages of the research process from the generation of research problems to the interpretation of the findings (Cain 1993), it manifestation is most notable in a preference among feminists for the dialogic interview technique (Section 4). For some feminists quantitative methods are viewed as inherently objectifying and masculinist.

So is there a feminist methodology? In short, feminists may bring a particular perspective but their methodological approach is varied. Most feminist research is broadly critical social research, although some tends to be phenomenological and some tends towards positivism in, for example, its attempts to identify causes of female oppression. Class, gender and race
Class and gender have provided the major axes for feminist critical social research. However, during the 1990s, the issue of race has become more prominent. The absence of black women from earlier debates cannot be accommodated by simply adding a black perspective to the gender and class analysis that have already been undertaken. Rather, it is necessary to integrate the experiences of black women and to reconstruct an understanding of racially constructed gender roles.

Patricia Hill Collins (1991) argued that black feminist (or Africanist feminist) thought is 'subjugated knowledge' because it cannot be readily expressed in an academy dominated by élitist, white, male thought. She argued that the history of black Africans (slavery, colonialism, apartheid, imperialism) leads to a common Africanist experience of oppression that shapes an Afrocentrist consciousness. This mirrors a similar claim about the development of feminist consciousness from a shared history of male oppression.

The parallels between Africanist experience and feminist experience raise questions about under what circumstances is a black woman's position closer to a white woman's or a black mans'. There is, for Hill Collins, no simple answer to this.

Nor, she argued, are black women more oppressed than black males or white females because they supposedly suffer a 'double oppression'. Oppression is not something that you can add up by adding layers. She disagrees with simplistic 'standpoint' approaches that argue that the more subordinated the group the purer the vision of the oppressed group.

Hill Collins attempted to define a black feminist epistemology. She argued that an Africanist feminist perspective is characterised by a preference for concrete experience over abstraction and a holistic rather than a dichotomous approach. She also argued that in an Africanist feminist approach people become empowered as a result of dialogue and community leading to harmony.


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