Standpoint theory is a feminist epistemology with roots in Marxist ideology. Feminist scholars use the term standpoint in varied ways, making it difficult to think about standpoint theory as a unified project. A central premise of all feminist standpoint epistemologies is the idea that all knowledge claims are historically and socially situated. While dominant modes of scientific inquiry posit a disembodied knower, feminist standpoint theories treat all knowledge as bounded by the cultural position, historical place, and biography of the knower. Standpoint theorists propose a redesign in the generation and evaluation of knowledge claims.
Standpoint epistemologies begin in a critique of the standards of objectivity and claims of universality that dominate in the natural and social sciences. For standpoint theorists, claims of objectivity conceal the androcentric underpinnings of science and obscure the ways that men established the authority of scientific knowledge to serve their own interests. Standpoint theory challenges not only the idea that knowledge emerges from a position of nowhere—what standpoint theorist Donna Haraway has called “the god trick”—but also the idea that an essential truth in the order of things can be recovered. Against the claim of an absolute truth, standpoint theorists see only the possibility for partial and multiple truths that always begin with a situated and embodied knower. Taken together, the recovery of differing standpoints provides a more complete and less distorted representation of social reality.
Standpoint theories recognize the production of ideas as a central dimension of women’s oppression. Standpoint epistemologies have problematized women’s exclusion and alienation from and misrepresentation and objectification within the production of knowledge. Standpoint theorists, building from Hegelian and Marxist ideas, propose that marginal groups, because they are positioned outside the nexus of power, offer a unique and legitimate perspective on the social world.
Feminist standpoint theorists also see an implicit link between knowledge and emancipation. A central aim of standpoint theories is to recover women’s experiences and the subjugated knowledge of other oppressed groups, seeing this as critical to ending systems of oppression and developing a transformative consciousness for historically subordinated groups. Emphasizing the link between knowledge and empowerment, feminist standpoint theorist Patricia Hill Collins, for example, seeks to make black women agents of knowledge about their own lives.
Early articulations of standpoint theories were often critiqued for being either too relativistic or for essentializing the category of woman as knower. Feminist standpoint theorists have countered the claims of essentialism by arguing against a universal feminist subject of knowledge, seeing women as differently positioned in society and therefore able to offer a set of diverse perspectives. Feminist standpoint theorists have countered the charge of relativism, seeing feminist standpoint epistemologies first, as a complement to other modes of empirical inquiry, and second, by refusing to concede that all standpoints are equally valid.
- Collins, Patricia Hill. 2008. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge.
- Haraway, Donna. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14(Fall):575-99.
- Harding, Sandra. 1991. Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Thinking from Women’s Lives. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
- Hartsock, Nancy. 1983. “The Feminist Standpoint: Developing the Ground for a Specifically Feminist Historical Materialism.” Pp. 283-310 in Discovering Reality, edited by S. Harding and M. Hintikka. New York: Springer.
- Smith, Dorothy E. 1974. “Women’s Perspective as a Radical Critique of Sociology.” Sociological Inquiry 44(1):7-13.
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