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Feminist standpoint theory is a broad categorization that includes somewhat diverse theories ranging from Hartsock’s (1983) feminist historical materialist perspective, Haraway’s (1988) analysis of situated knowledges, Collins’s (1990) black feminist thought, Sandoval’s (2000) explication of third world feminists = differential oppositional consciousness, and Smith’s (1987) everyday world sociology for women. Harding (1986) first named feminist standpoint theory as a general approach within feminism to refer to the many different theorists who argued for the importance of situating knowledge in women’s experiences. Standpoint theorists are found in a wide variety of disciplines and continue to raise important questions about the way power influences knowledge in a variety of fields.
Feminist standpoint theory was initially developed in response to debates surrounding Marxist feminism and socialist feminism in the 1970s and early 1980s. In reworking Marx’s historical materialism from a feminist perspective, standpoint theorists’ stated goal is to explicate how relations of domination are gendered in particular ways. Standpoint theory also developed in the context of third world and postcolonial feminist challenges to the so-called dual systems of patriarchy and capitalism. The dual systems approach was an attempt to merge feminist analyses of patriarchy and Marxist analyses of class to create a more complex socialist feminist theory of women’s oppression. Critics of the dual systems approach pointed out the lack of attention paid by socialist feminist analyses to racism, white supremacy, and colonialism. In contrast, feminist standpoint theory offers an intersectional analysis of gender, race, ethnicity, class, and other social structural aspects of social life without privileging one dimension or adopting an additive formulation (for example, gender plus race). Standpoint theory retains elements of Marxist historical materialism for its central premise: knowledge develops in a complicated and contradictory way from lived experiences and social historical context.
Despite the diverse perspectives that are identified with standpoint epistemology, all standpoint theorists emphasize the importance of experience for feminist theorizing. In this regard, many point out the significance of standpoint analysis’s connection to consciousness raising, the women’s movement’s knowledge production method. The consciousness-raising group process enabled women to share their experiences, identify and analyze the social and political mechanisms by which women are oppressed, and develop strategies for social change.
Standpoint theorists assert a link between the development of standpoint theory and feminist political goals of transformative social, political, and economic change. Standpoint theorists typically resist focusing their analyses on individual women removed from their social context. Knowledge generated from embodied standpoints of subordinates is powerful in that it can help transform traditional categories of analyses that originate from dominant groups. However, as many standpoint theorists argue, it remains only a partial perspective. Given standpoint theory’s emphasis on a process of dialogue, analysis, and reflexivity, the approach has proven extremely vibrant and open to reassessment and revision. As a consequence, standpoint theory remains an extremely important approach within feminist theory.
- Collins, P. H. (1990) Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Unwin Hyman, Boston, MA.
- Harding, S. (1986) The Science Question in Feminism. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY.
- Haraway, D. (1988) Situated knowledges: the science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective. Feminist Studies 14 (3): 575—99.
- Hartsock, N. (1983) Money, Sex and Power: Toward a Feminist Historical Materialism. Longman, New York.
- Sandoval, (2000) Methodology of the Oppressed. University of Minnesota Press, St. Paul, MN.
- Smith, Dorothy E. (1987) The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology. University of Toronto Press, Toronto.