Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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core definition

Feminism is a sociological and political term referring to the view that women are disadvantaged in various ways and that action must be taken to address this disadvantage.

explanatory context


Feminism is a term used in three slightly different ways. The most general usage refers to perspectives that argue for a gender-specific view of social reality. This is manifested in many different perspectives; but central to all is the view that women are disadvantaged. In most cases, this view of disadvantage of women is transformed into a more specific idea that women are oppressed. This oppression is usually expressed in either absolute or relative terms. That is, some perspectives (notably radical feminism) suggest that women are oppressed in an absolute sense and that the oppressors are men. Other views (such as socialist feminism) argue that within given class groups women are relatively more oppressed than men.


A second usage of the term feminism is to 'traditional' or 'early' feminism that grew out of the women's movement of the 1960s. This rather general approach emphasised 'sisterhood' in redefining women's relations to one another and the 'personal' realms in drawing attention to women's position. This rather nebulous notion of feminism became developed into a number of different approaches to women's oppression.


The third usage of the term feminism is as a shorthand for radical feminism. In publications up to the mid-1970s, there tended to be little explicit sub-division of the feminist endeavour and often feminism was used as a term for what later became referred to as the radical feminist approach, with its particular focus on gender oppression.


The late 1980s saw a tendency towards a reassertion of feminism as a unified approach with the divisions of the decade 19751985 being reassessed. This was, in part, due to a shift to a multi-faceted view of the nature of the oppression of women that began to incorporate race and sexuality as well as class and gender.


Nonetheless, several different approaches to feminism have emerged. These differ in the way they define oppressive structures on the one hand or the biological (and associated psychological) differences between genders on the other.

The following outlines different types of feminism


Biological feminism

Biological feminism involves a view that sees biological differences as involving an unbridgeable conceptual gap between males and females.


The approach is embodied in early and extreme forms of idealist radical feminism notably in the work of Shulamith Firestone. The irreconcilable biological distinction has been resisted by some idealist radical feminists (e.g. Robin Morgan) while materialist radical feminists (e.g. Christine Delphy) have joined with socialist feminists in condemining the biologism and mechanistic nature of this approach.





Eco-feminism is a term sometimes used to refer to a radical feminist tendency to connect womanhood to nature. Motherhood is seen as the essential element of womanhood and thus women are projected as in harmony with nature. Nature in this sense is seen as nurturing and benign.




Bourgeois feminism

Bourgeois feminism is a label applied to a range of feminist writers who do not clearly fall into either the socialist or radical feminist camps. Basically, bourgeois feminists want equality for women within the existing social system. In effect, bourgeois feminism is a reformist rather than revolutionary position.


Early pioneers of sexual politics have been referred to as bourgeois feminists because of their essentially reformist approach. More usually, however, these pioneers are referred to as liberal feminists.


Radical and social feminists are opposed to the reformism of bourgeois feminism arguing that the position of women cannot be changed within prevailing social structures because it is capitalism and/or patriarchy that ensure the oppression of women. Only a fundamental change in social relations will provide women with equality.


What constitutes bourgeois feminism is further complicated by two other elements. First, approaches that seem overly biologically deterministic, despite apparent 'revolutionary' content, are usually referred to as bourgeois, as they delimit, in effect, the possibility of social change (e.g., Firestone).


Second, approaches that adopt a positivistic methodology (sometimes called positivist feminism ) are also sometimes referred to as bourgeois. These kind of approaches tend to argue for gender as a generic variable to be considered in the same way that (positivist) sociologists treat class (and race). This approach, then, tends to concentrate on variable analysis within prevailing social structures rather than an analysis of them. Hence the 'bourgeois' label.


The term bourgeois feminism, because of the apparent naiveté of the bourgeois feminist position, has also become a derogatory term and one applied rather loosely in debates. Consequently, feminists who do not seem to be arguing the same line (such as de Beauvoir and Firestone), and indeed, feminists who would seem to be radical or socialist feminists, sometimes get labelled as bourgeois feminists.


Radical feminists have often been labelled bourgeois feminists particularly by socialists who argue that radical feminist roots are firmly located in the middle class. This is refuted on three grounds. First, not all radical feminists are 'middle class'. Second, radicial feminism takes a caste view of gender which supposedly cuts across traditional class lines and denies the relevance of working class/middle class categories. Third, class analysis has, it is claimed, not been able to identify the 'bourgeois woman' anyway.


All of this makes the term bourgeois feminist a rather slippery one and perhaps best avoided.


See B&H87 POFF85


Liberal feminism

Liberal feminism is a term usually retained for those early pioneers of (radical) feminism who saw society organised into sexual spheres. They saw gender in caste terms but did not really address the structure of power that the division of labour enforced upon them. Liberal feminists such as Harriet Taylor Mill, Mary Wollstonecraft and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were essentially reformist in their approach.


Liberal feminists are sometimes referred to as bourgeois feminists


Socialist feminism


Socialist feminism is a general term for those feminists who adopt a form of Marxism to analyse the oppression of women.


In essence, socialist feminism argues that the position of women cannot be divorced from an analysis of capitalism. Generally speaking, their are two basic versions of this approach.


First, is a view that suggests that productive relations within capitalism underpin the oppression of women. This might better be better referred to as a 'socialist class analysis of the oppression of women'.


Second, is a view that argues that women are oppressed by both productive and reproductive relations within capitalism. This takes two forms. First, women are oppressed by class relations (as are men) but that within classes they are oppressed by gender relations that cannot be reduced to class oppression. Second, women are oppressed by both capitalism and by patriarchy.


This second form, which might be regarded as the dominant approach of socialist feminism, has developed two ways of combining a Marxist class analysis with a feminist gender analysis of society. One approach posits a fusion of the two perspectives directed at capitalist patriarchy. The other is to adopt a dualist approach which sees capitalism and patriarchy as separate but interrelated oppressive structures and thus advocates that social structures and practices are viewed as both gender and class oppression. (See dualism of capital and patriarchy)


Although the view that women are oppressed by patriarchy and capitalism, either through some kind of fusion of the two mechanisms or through the workings of two relatively autonomous realms, has been the dominant approach of socialist feminism it is regarded as unsatisfactory in developing a unified materialist perspective on women's liberation not least because it pays only lip service to racial oppression.


Socialist feminism, then, differs from radical feminism because it adopts a materialist dialectical analysis and does not accept that gender is the sole or primary determinant of women's oppression.


Socialist feminism differs from materialist radical feminism in more subtle ways but, primarily, socialist feminism argues that sexual oppression within classes are (at least in part) a structural effect of capitalist relations. (Patriarchy, then is interrelated with capitalism). Materialist radical feminism, argues that patriarchy and capitalism are separate forms of oppression (and that, chronologically, patriarchy precedes capitalism).




Capitalist patriarchy

The capitalist patriarchy view argues that women are exploited as labourers in class terms but are also oppressed by patriarchy. This oppression reflects the hierarchical relations of the sexual (and racial) division of labour and society that defines people's activity, desires, and so on according to their biological sex. This sexual division separates men and women into their respective hierarchical sex roles and structures their related duties in the family domain and within the economy. The sexual division has evolved from ideological and political interpretations of biological difference that men have chosen to interpret and make political use of.


The view argues that capitalism 'needs' patriarchy in the sense that patriarchy provides the necessary order and control. Male supremacy involves a system of cultural, social, economic and political control. The capitalist concern with profit and patriarchal concern with sexual hierarchy are inextricably connected (but cannot be reduced to each other), patriarchy and capitalism become an integral process; specific elements of each system are necessitated by the other.


Patriarchy provides the sexual hierachical ordering of society, but as a political system cannot be reduced to its economic structure. Capitalism, as an economic class system, driven by the pursuit of profit feeds off the (prior) patriarchal ordering. Together they form the political economy of the society, not merely one or another, but a particular blend of the two. The view suggests that a reformulation of the idea of class is required that takes into account the complex reality of women's lives in capitalist patriarchy.




Dualism of capital and patriarchy

The dualist approach sees capitalism and patriarchy as separate but interrelated oppressive structures. The dual approach requires that social structures and practices are viewed both as encapsulating gender and class oppression.


This reverses the intention of socialist feminism to dissolve the distinction between the radical feminist gender-oriented perspective and the socialist or Marxist class-oriented perspective.


Dualist approaches have been criticised for proposing a mysterious coexistence of unrelated explanations of social development. Each of the dual realms remains relatively autonomous and the unsatisfactory analysis of patriarchy that derives from radical feminism and the gender blind analysis of class that derives from Marxism remain more or less in tact.


Marxist feminism

Marxist feminism is a term that seems to be used interchangeably with socialist feminism . However, some materialist radical feminists regard themselves as Marxists although they do not wish to be alligned with the orientation of socialist feminists who tend to concentrate, they argue, on class analysis.


Radical feminism


Radical feminists see the oppression of women as essentially oppression by men. Sexual oppression is the primary form of oppression. This is embodied in patriarchal culture and patriarchal power. Patriarchal power is rooted in the sexual division of labour, which determines sex roles. The biological distinction is used to distinguish social functions and individual power. Radical feminism sees historical struggle as not the struggle of social classes but a struggle between the sexes. Reproductive, not productive, relations are the determining relationships.


The revolutionary demand of radical feminism is the destruction of patriarchy. The hierarchical division of society based on gender, the biological family and sex roles must, they argue, be fundamentally reorganised.


Radical feminism can be seen to have an idealist and a materialist form.


Materialist Radical Feminism

Materialist radical feminism sees the oppression of women as primarily an oppression by men. It is opposed to idealist radical feminism because it argues that such oppression is rooted in social relations and not biology. As such materialist radical feminism proposes that radical changes in social relationships between men and women, and thus of radical changes in society, are the only long-term solution to the oppression of women.


In the main, materialist radical feminism takes a critical (and often Marxist) framework and develops it giving precedence to gender over class oppression. There is often a dualism in this approach, which sees gender as related to but somehow prior to, and distinct from, class oppression. The problem gets even more intractable when race oppression is included.


Materialist radical feminists sometimes refer to themselves as Marxist feminists as opposed to socialist feminists because they prefer to take on board Marx's analytic framework and dialectical methodology rather than his class theory.


Materialist radical feminism is similar in its materialist orientation and dialectical analysis ways to socialist feminisms analysis of capitalist patriarchy. However, contrary to socialist feminism, materialist radicial feminists (such as Christine Delphy) argue that feminism and Marxism will not be integrated by adding patriarchy to capitalism; nor is it possible to see how class and gender oppression interrelate until women's oppression is understood; and feminism, in its analysis of patriarchy, cannot simply use the concepts developed for the analysis of class oppression because such concepts actually obscure gender oppression.


Materialist radical feminism, however, is distinct from idealist radical feminism as it does not advocate 'cultural separatism', nor can it be reduced to biologism.




Idealist Radical Feminism

Idealist radical feminism (sometimes, and rather inappropriately, called cultural feminism) adopts a view that the biological differences between men and women constitute an impassable barrier for cognition. For this reason idealist radical feminists are sometimes referred to as biological feminists). The approach is accused of biologism. In effect, idealist radical feminists adopt an ascriptive and separatist approach. They posit a view that suggests women are biologically different and, as a consequence, are psychologically different and thereby have a view of the world that is ungraspable to men. It is this innate difference (which usually projects men in negative ways (e.g. aggressive, insensitive, egocentric), and women in positive ways) that excludes men from female perspectives and that has lead men, in the past, to dominate and oppress women.

Feminists who fall into this category are Andrea Dworkin, Mary Daly and Dale Spender.

It has been argued that this version of radical feminism is a highly conservative and politically reactionary approach.

See SEGAL87 MT1 (review of Daly's book on abortion) MILLET.

Psychoanalytic feminism

Psychoanalytic feminism is concerned with the masculinity in women's heads that results from them being in a patriarchal society. The approach is not initially concerned with the material conditions of women's lives, nor with discrimination, which can be changed by legislation. The approach, which was particularly strong in France in the 1970s and subsequently in Italy and the United States, derives from the the work of the French psychoanalyst Jaques Lacan.

Lacan argued that 'woman' or 'feminity' are radical symbols contradicting the patriarchal Symbolic Order signs, codes and rituals expressed linguistically that make up the terms in which we operate in society. Women from childhood are not allowed to develop, indeed, it is argued that women have never existed because they have had to use male points of reference.

Psychoanalytic feminism argues that women must re-evaluate their own worth, celebrate their own bodies and generally learn to appreciate and nurture their womanness. Strategies to do this include psychoanalysis, women-only spaces, redefinition of sexuality, breaking with dependence on men, and developing new concepts and language. Some elements of this programme coincide with concerns of other feminist perspectives, although in many respects psychoanalytic feminism is probably closest to idealist radical feminism.

Key figures in the French movement, which came to be called Psyche et Po (an abbreviation of 'Psychoanalyse et Politique') are Antoinette Fouque and Helene Cixous. Its strong views and 'intellectual terrorism' waged over other feminist groups (including the 'hijacking of the term 'women's liberation movement' by registering it as a trademark and preventing other French feminists from referring to themselves as from the women's liberation movement) led to strong feelings being expressed both for and against psychoanalytic feminism.

Positivist feminism

Positivist feminism refers to feminist approaches that tend to adopt standard positivistic view of cause and effect and consequently tend to a multivariate analysis approach to empirical research. Such approaches are concerned to ensure that gender is a key variable in the analysis but do not tend to adopt a perspective that goes beyond prevailing bourgeois concerns, hence the approach is sometimes referred to as bourgeois feminism.

Feminism and racism

Feminism, in the 1980s, began to address the issue of racism more seriously. It was clear that the absence of black women in feminist discourses required feminism to integrate the experiences black women and take on board an understanding of racially constructed gender roles.

analytical review

Curthoys (2005, p. 128) in New Keywords writes:

Feminism is an ‘‘advocacy of the rights of women.’’ While the term emerged in the 1890s in the context of a lively women’s movement, it is now used to describe pro-women ideas and actions from ancient times to the present (Evans, 2001). Modern Western feminism’s origins are often traced to the Enlightenment of the C17 and C18, with its egalitarian and irreverent tendencies, its more fluid social relationships, and especially its valuing of knowledge and education. Greater access to education was one of the first feminist demands. A broader notion of women’s rights soon emerged, culminating in Mary Wollstonecraft’s A vindication of the rights of women (1975 [1792]), now seen as a major text in the emergence of feminist ideas.

C19 liberalism, especially in John Stuart Mill’s The subjection of women (1988 [1869]), strongly advocated liberty and equality of opportunity for women. Mill’s work arose from and stimulated the further development of campaigns for women’s rights – legal, economic, political, and social – in Europe, North America, and elsewhere. Socialists also frequently advocated the equality of women, seeing women’s subjection as a product of feudalism, then capitalism. Women’s suffrage, one of the key feminist demands, was won at the national level first in New Zealand, then Australia, and gradually elsewhere. By the end of WorldWar II, feminism in Western countries had succeeded in removing many of women’s legal and political disabilities, though sharp social, cultural, and economic forms of differentiation between men and women remained.

Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 The second sex (1973) drew international attention to the continuing subordination of women throughout the world. Some time after Women’s Liberation erupted in the late 1960s in the United States and elsewhere, the earlier women’s movement was dubbed first-wave feminism, and secondwave feminism was declared to have begun. This new, more radical version can be attributed to many developments: the pull of women into the workforce, and with demographic changes the declining need for their labor in the home; the rapid growth in women’s education; and the stark contrast between women’s growing expectations and their still-restricted economic, social, and political opportunities.

Second-wave feminism saw all women as oppressed by all men. While differences of class and race were noted, these were not at first thought sufficient to negate or complicate the general oppression of women, manifest in women’s lower pay and status in the workforce, low social status, and experience of the more brutal sides of male domination through domestic violence and sexual assault. One of the new movement’s key concerns was with women’s sexual rights and enjoyment, evident in the titles of key feminist texts such as Kate Millett’s Sexual politics (1970) and Germaine Greer’s The female eunuch (1970). Where ‘‘feminist’’ had once called to mind a puritanical, dowdily dressed ‘‘bluestocking,’’ from the 1970s it frequently suggested women interested in sexuality, often lesbian, who cared little for conventional forms of respectability.

Feminism has long been attached to other diverse political movements. A common categorization has been into liberal, radical, and socialist wings. Liberal feminism has focused on the removal of barriers to the achievement of equality with men, and has operated in legal and political arenas with considerable success. Radical feminism has emphasized the foundational character of gender differences, and has been more interested in long-range cultural change leading to more respect and autonomy for women. Socialist feminism has emphasized the ways in which capitalism requires and perpetuates women’s subordination.

Feminism in many parts of the world has permeated many aspects of public and private life, substantially transforming the relations between men and women. One of the major reasons for feminism’s success has been its dual emphasis on individual agency and collective power, so often seen in political discourse as alternative sites of human responsibility. Proclaiming ‘‘sisterhood is powerful,’’ feminism called on women to band together to change the structures of power. When it said ‘‘the personal is political,’’ feminism suggested organizing.

Moderate forms of feminism have been globally supported by the United Nations, with four huge world conferences: Mexico City in 1975 (leading to the United Nations Decade forWomen [1976–85]), Copenhagen in 1980, Nairobi in 1985, and Beijing in 1995 (Pettman, 1996). Yet if feminism has achieved real successes in legislation and cultural practice, it also faces some serious difficulties. Women of color, in the US and elsewhere, pointed out that most white feminists did not recognize the benefits they enjoyed from racist institutions and practices. Whiteness became a problem for analysis, and postcolonial and crosscultural critiques have deconstructed the category ‘‘woman’’ into a thousand fragments. The idea of women as a group with a common social or structural position in relation to men has given way to the idea that women are profoundly divided from one another. Many speak now of feminisms, denoting a greater awareness of the different histories of feminism in Asia, Europe, the Americas, and elsewhere.

Furthermore, feminism’s very success meant that many came to see it as a mainstream rather than alternative movement, exhibiting some of the desires for power that it once so vigorously abhorred. By the 1990s, a right-wing ‘‘backlash’’ against feminism was evident in the West both in media discourse and in the withdrawal of government support for some feminist programs. In recent years second-wave feminism in the West has declined somewhat as an active political movement, though it continues as a real and active political force in many non- Western countries. New issues have occupied feminist activists, from information technology to religious difference. Two of feminism’s greatest strengths – its internationalism and its non-violence – may yet prove to be its most important contribution to humanity.

Vanderbilt University (undated) list some classic definitions of feminisms:

Feminism is the political theory and practice to free all women: women of color, working-class women, poor women, physically challenged women, lesbians, old women, as well as white economically privileged heterosexual women. Anything less than this is not feminism, but merely female self-aggrandizement. (Barbara Smith in This Bridge Called My Back (1981))

Feminism is a commitment to eradicating the ideology of domination that permeates Western culture on various levels, sex, race, and class, to name a few, and a commitment to reorganizing US society, so that the self-development of people can take precedence over imperialism, economic expansion, and material desires. (bell hooks, Ain't I a Woman (1981))

Feminism asks the world to recognize at long last that women aren't decorative ornaments, worthy vessels, members of a special-interest group. They are half (in fact, now more than half) of the national population, and just as deserving of rights and opportunities, just as capable of participating in the world's events, as the other half. Feminism's agenda is basic: It asks that women not be forced to 'choose' between public justice and private happiness. It asks that women be free to define themselves instead of having their identity defined for them, time and again, by their culture and their men. (Susan Faludi, Backlash (1991))

Feminism is an ongoing project, a process, undertaken on a daily basis by millions of women of all ages, classes, ethnic and racial backgrounds, and sexual preferences. Feminism is constantly being reinvented, and reinvented through determination and compromise, so that women try, as best they can, to have love and support as well as power and autonomy. (Susan Douglas, Where the Girls Are (1994))

The McGraw-Hill (2004) Sociological Theory site Glossary defines:

feminist theory: A generalized, wide-ranging system of ideas about social life and human experience developed from a woman-centered perspective.

liberal feminism: A feminist theory of inequality that argues that women may claim equality with men on the basis of an essential human capacity for reasoned moral agency, that gender inequality is the result of a patriarchal and sexist patterning of the division of labor, and that gender equality can be produced by transforming the division of labor through the repatterning of key institutions, such as law, work, family, education, and media.

psychoanalytic feminism: An effort to explain patriarchy through the use of reformulated theories of Freud and his successors in psychoanalytic theory.

radical feminism: A theory that holds that women are everywhere oppressed by violence or the threat of violence, and that argues for the necessity of fundamental social change.

socialist feminism: An effort to develop a unified theory that focuses on the role of capitalism and patriarchy in creating a large-scale structure that oppresses women.


Elwell's Glossary of Sociology (undated) defines feminism as:

Advocacy of the social equality of the sexes.


Film Reference (2018) defines feminism as:

The emergence of the women's liberation movements in the late 1960s and early 1970s had a profound impact on scholarship as well as on society. Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963) set the stage for liberation movements by detailing middle-class women's isolation, even oppression, within the suburban household.


associated issues

Feminist art:

Tate Gallery (undated) refers to feminist art:

Feminist art is art by artists made consciously in the light of developments in feminist art theory in the early 1970s.

In 1971 the art historian Linda Nochlin published a groundbreaking essay Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? In it she investigated the social and economic factors that had prevented talented women from achieving the same status as their male counterparts.

By the 1980s art historians such as Griselda Pollock and Rozsika Parker were going further, to examine the language of art history with its gender-loaded terms such as 'old master' and 'masterpiece'. They questioned the central place of the female nude in the western canon, asking why men and women are represented so differently. In his 1972 book Ways of Seeing the Marxist critic John Berger had concluded 'Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at'. In other words Western art replicates the unequal relationships already embedded in society.

In what is sometimes known as First Wave feminist art, women artists revelled in feminine experience, exploring vaginal imagery and menstrual blood, posing naked as goddess figures and defiantly using media such as embroidery that had been considered 'women's work'. One of the great iconic works of this phase of feminist art is Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party, 1974–9.

Later feminist artists rejected this approach and attempted to reveal the origins of our ideas of femininity and womanhood. They pursued the idea of femininity as a masquerade – a set of poses adopted by women to conform to social expectations of womanhood.


Artists in the Tate Gallery collection can be looked up here (accessed 10 June 2019)

related areas

See also



Researching the Real World Section


Curthoys, A., 2005, 'Feminsm' in Bennett, T. Grossberg, L and Morris, M. (eds.) New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society, Oxford, Blackwell.

Elwell's Glossary of Sociology, undated, available at, page not available 20 December 2016.

Film Reference, 2018, 'Feminism'. Available at, accessed 5 March 2018, still available 3 June 2019.

McGraw-Hill, 2004, Sociological Theory: Glossary , available at, accessed 14 May 2013, page not available 12 December 2016.

Tate Gallery, nd, 'Feminist art', available at, accessed 10 June 2019.

Vanderbilt University, undated, Definitions of Feminism, at, accessed 28 February 2013, page not available 20 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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