Post-methodology? [Table of contents]

"I'll be a post-feminist in post-patriarchy": Reflexivity is a feminist issue

Ronit Lentin
[Biographical information]

In the course of working on the preliminary stages of my PhD study of personal narratives of Israeli writers and film makers who are daughters of Holocaust survivors, I decided that my methodological path would be qualitative, feminist and reflexive. Putting it this way is, of course, a simplification of the gradual process of deciding on a research methodology. 'Theory' in the sense of formulating ideas which attempt to explain something, always comes before research. Research is, above all, pragmatic, therefore what is involved here is a series of concurrent decisions as to data, theory and methodology. In this case, as I suspect in most cases, 'theory' with a small 't' informed methodology, which informed Theory with a capital 'T'. All were shaped by and, in turn, constructed not only an epistemology, a feminist way of knowing, but an ontology, a feminist way of being in the world.

Feminist sociological research methodologies are based on women's lived experiences in patriarchy, both researched and researcher's, on gender as socially constructed and historically specific, and on a political commitment to the emancipation of women. Finally, they are based on reflexivity, first posited by Gouldner (1971), the analytic attention to the researcher's role, and the inclusion of research itself as a researchable topic.

Having come into existence as a 'provider of facts' to help political rulers to rule, sociology laid claim to a scientific status, and its practitioners assumed a place as fundable by government and its institutional apparatus. Grounded in Cartesian dualisms, the dominating motifs of traditional sociology were the separations between knowers and known, subjectivity and objectivity, science and nature. Feminists argue that these rest ultimately on the division between male/subject versus female/object. And, as many feminist commentators on the role of science within the academy assert, this separates the actual act of knowing from how what is known comes to be known. Feminist sociologists who reject the binaries of theory and practice, objective and subjective, and researcher and researched, do so because they believe that knowing is a political process (Ramazagnolu 1992: 210), and that these binaries encourage an elitist sociology which cannot produce ways of knowing which avoid subordination (Williams 1993: 582). For feminists, the known are also the knowers, research objects are their own subjects; objectivity is a set of intellectual practices for separating people from knowledge of their own subjectivity (Stanley 1990: 11).

Feminist researchers seek to make visible the lived experiences of women and the research and writing process within social sciences generally and within feminist social science in particular. This paper (1), surveying the principles of feminist research methodologies, posits reflexivity as a feminist issue: feminist social scientists, are also the women whom we study.

The experience of oppression due to sexism, to which both researcher and researched are subject, can create a unique type of insight and an ability to decipher 'official' explanations and grasp gender relations and their mechanisms (Fonow and Cook 1991: 1). These insights teach us not only about gender relations, but also about society as a whole. According to Black American sociologist Patricia Hill Collins, bringing groups of marginal intellectuals, such as Black feminist sociologists, as well as others who share an 'outsider-within' status vis-a-vis sociology, into the centre of the analysis, may reveal views of reality obscured by more orthodox approaches (Harding 1991).

As feminist researchers often deal with dilemmas that have no absolute solutions, one cannot talk about what feminist research is, only about what it includes. I agree with Reinharz (1992: 7) who considers as feminist researchers who identify themselves in their research publications as feminists.

Since feminist studies in the various disciplines, including sociology, are limited by patriarchal academic and research structures, feminist research needs to transform research processes. The main dilemma for feminist scholars has been to find ways of working within a disciplinary tradition while aiming at an intellectual transformation of that tradition (De Vault 1990).

While many feminist sociologists seem to favour qualitative research, Sandra Harding claims it is not the method that makes feminist research different from what she terms 'malestream' research, but (a) the alternative origin of the problems, which concern women rather than men; (b) the alternative hypotheses and evidence used; (c) the purpose of the inquiry, which is to understand a woman's view of the world and assist in the emancipation of women and (d) the nature of the relationship between the researcher and the so-called 'subjects' of her inquiry (Harding 1987).

Some feminist sociologists reject quantitative methods, which, according to Pamela Abbot and Claire Wallace (1990), but also, according to Schwartz and Jacobs, in their 1979 classic text on qualitative methodology, assume a scientificity, that sociology cannot and should not strive to attain. However, feminism has drawn heavily on quantitative, statistical research. Co-Education and Attainment (Hanafin and Ni Charthaigh 1993) and Who Needs Flexibility? Part-Time Working ... The Irish Experience (Drew 1990), are two recent Irish examples. There is no one set of methods, nor even one category ('qualitative') which is distinctly feminist. Feminists should use any and every research method as long as written accounts of feminist research locate the feminist researcher within her research as an essential feature of what is feminist about it.

Liz Stanley and Sue Wise locate five related sites of the feminist researcher's behaviour and analysis: in the researcher-researched relationship; in emotion as a research experience; in the intellectual autobiography of the researchers; therefore in how to manage the different 'realities' and understandings of researchers and researched; and thus in the complex questions of power in research and writing (Stanley and Wise 1990: 23).

Dorothy Smith (1987) argues that feminist research should never lose sight of women as actively constructing, as well as interpreting, the social processes and realities that constitute their everyday lives. Smith looks at the way the production of discourses, and ideologies colonise the material realities of women's lives. This approach is not radically different from symbolic interactionism's insistence that 'what is going on out there is what the actors say is going on out there' and that actors are experts about their own world. This approach in turn has its roots in Weber's Verstehen goal of empathic appreciation, as opposed to Durkheim's social facts (Schwartz and Jacobs 1979).

As a self-defining feminist sociologist I see as feminist, research which aims to develop theories that explain the world from the position of women. This research should reflect women's interests and values and draw on women's own interpretations of their own experiences, relating them to the way in which the society in which we live is constructed. Reflexively, feminist research includes the researcher in all stages of data collection and data production.

However, feminist research methodologies are no more a unitary category than is the category 'woman'. One of the liveliest debates in feminist writings is between some radical feminists who see 'woman' or gender as a super-category and those (such as Mohanty 1991) who make the distinction between the category 'woman' and the category 'women'. The latter derives from the material realities of women's lives, socially constructed and historically specific, with ethnic, racial, sexual orientation and class variations. According to Harding (1991), multiple and self-contradictory identities and social locations facilitated the ways of knowing which feminists have tended to favour by exploiting the very gap between these multiple identities (those of 'who we are' as in at least two places at once, outside and inside, margin and centre).

Vickie Routledge Shields and Brenda Dervin (1993) summarise four feminist perspectives that methodologies used in feminist research have strived to incorporate.

  1. Experience - feminist research, rejecting reductionist scientism and positivism, is based on women's experience of their social and personal world; it treats women's experience 'as a scientific resource' (Harding 1987); it is actor-centred; feminist scholars can bring their own subjective experience to the project researched.
    Feminist theorists have long debated the construction of the female subject. Rejecting essentialism, Teresa de Lauretis argues that subjectivity is constructed through a continuous process, an ongoing renewal based on interactions with the world, i.e. experience (De Lauretis 1986).
  2. Gender - feminist research recognises gender and gender relations as social constructions. Goffman stressed 'sex-class' as 'a category that is purely sociological ... and not ... biological' and gender as a 'way of characterising society' (Goffman 1987: 53). The fact that human experience is gendered is central to the radical implications of feminist theory, grounded, as it is, in women's lives and aiming to analyse the role and meaning of gender in those lives and in society. Feminist research aims to illuminate aspects of gender relations, the interaction between the individual and society in the construction of gender, and the dynamics of power relations and in particular power inequalities between women and men (Personal Narratives Group 1989).
  3. Reflexivity and intersubjectivity - feminist research places the researcher on the same plane as the researched - self-reflexivity is an essential outcome of emancipatory research. We are what we study: the reflection upon and the acknowledgement of one's own objectives and biases therefore become part of the research findings. Through reciprocal sharing of knowing between researcher and researched, those researched become collaborators in the research project. Through reflexivity a double-edged knowledge is generated. Reflexivity, according to Barbara Myerhoff, is both a 'native' act and an analytic one: the act of recording (the narrator's life) and the act of self-interpretation (by the researcher) are parallel because both are the product of persons reflecting one another and thereby influencing and changing one another (Prell 1989: 248) (2).
  4. Emancipation - by providing women with the information they need, research for women must be emancipatory. This is linked to consciousness-raising, and the researcher can bring a 'double vision of reality' (Stanley and Wise 1983) through her membership in two groups - the oppressed (women) and the elite (scholars), and through dialogically-based research methods such as two-way interviews and group discussions.


In their choice of method, feminists often favour semi-structured interviews because they provide 'the principal means by which feminists have sought to achieve the active involvement of their respondents in the construction of data about their lives' (Graham 1984: 112).

In her often-cited essay 'Interviewing women - a contradiction in terms?', Ann Oakley describes the conventional sociological interview as a 'masculine fiction'. 'Malestream' interviews, as described in mainstream methodology textbooks, are seen as mechanical data-collection instruments in which one person asks the questions, another answers. Interviewees are characterised as passive and interviewers are reduced to a question asking and rapport promoting role. The classical sociological interview rejects emotion and prohibits researchers from getting involved with their interviewees. Oakley proposes a different paradigm for interviewing women. She regards the interview as one way of giving women greater visibility, not only in sociology, but also in society, by documenting women's own accounts of their lives (Oakley 1981: 41-9).

Researcher-respondent relationship

Contrary to 'malestream' edicts against emotional involvement, feminist research, rebelling against an oversimplified 'hygienic research', allows, even welcomes, emotion into the research process and as a research topic.

Personal involvement is therefore deemed by feminist researchers necessary because the researcher must and does identify with the women she is researching, and inevitable because she is part of what is being researched - she is involved. This means reflexivity is essential - the researcher must constantly be aware of how her values, attitudes and perceptions are influencing the research process, from the formation of the research questions, through the data collection stage, to the ways in which the data are analysed and theoretically explained (Abbott and Wallace 1990: 27).

Traditional research may be seen as recreating a power relationship between researchers and 'research objects', who, it is sometimes forgotten, are subjects in their own right. Shulamit Reinharz describes conventional research as 'rape', a description which often antagonises (3): the researchers take, hit and run. They intrude on their subjects' privacy, disrupt their perceptions, utilise false pretences, manipulate the relationship, and give little or nothing in return. When the needs of the researchers are satisfied, they break off contact with the researched (Reinharz 1983: 80)

Not only is the research process constructed in terms of a power relation. The researcher is also the ultimate arbiter in terms of producing the final written report and deciding its uses and goals.

This dilemma of unequal power is not easily resolved even if the researcher is a feminist. However, a feminist commitment to the empowerment of women and the researcher's reflexive account of her part in the relationship may help in equalising power, particularly if she is honest about how her text 'constructs' as well as 'reconstructs' her narrators' accounts and about the inevitable ultimate appropriation of 'power' to produce her written research text.

Feminist (and other) social scientists continue debating feminist research methodologies. Many social scientists ask why, when there are so many methodological options open to them, do some feminist social scientists prefer to use specifically feminist research methodologies. Martyn Hammersley (1992a) misses the point that neither 'feminism' nor 'feminist methodology' can be reduced to a unitary category. His challenge to what he calls 'feminist methodology' is well rehearsed in the context of orthodox (mainly male) sociology and rests on a particular view of knowledge, which many feminist social scientists reject.

Criticising Hammersley, Caroline Ramazagnolu points out how his assumptions about what is convincing knowledge are rooted in either/or binary 'conceptual splits': male goals of science and rationality versus female goals of personal commitment; reason versus emotion; and objectivity versus subjectivity (Ramazagnolu 1992: 207-8). Ramazagnolu argues that feminist methodologies, in all their multiplicities, are new ways of knowing and of seeking 'truths' and, at the same time, these are forms of political commitment to the empowerment of women.

Hammersley writes about privileging experience in research by feminists as a product of 'sustained observation' and 'listening to' the accounts of 'others', as opposed to 'method' which he defines as 'making public the means of doing research' (Hammersley 1992b: 192). Anne Williams (1993) posits another perspective to privileging experience, that is the determination to practice personal reflexivity. She claims that this particular understanding of what is meant by reflexivity (although a term neither coined nor exclusively used by feminists) has largely been shaped by feminists doing ethnography (e.g. Farran 1985; McRobbie 1982; Poland 1985; Griffith 1991). Radical ethnographers (e.g. Clifford and Marcus 1986; Geertz 1988) have discussed how writing a text constructs realities, how 'in textual construction of "the field" or of "other" there is also a construction of "a self" or "selves"' (Williams 1993: 582). Williams and Stanley (1993) examine how feminist researchers' 'intellectual biographies' combine experience and method.

Reflexivity, then, seems the central element of feminist research methodologies. Feminist researchers do not view feminist research methodologies as unitary or hegemonic: instead of feminist methodology, there are feminist methodologies and instead of a feminist standpoint, there are feminist standpoints. Feminist researchers view feminist research methodologies not simply as another perspective, but as a separate paradigm, despite Hammersley's challenge. Don't call it feminist, he seems to say, and sociology will take you more seriously.

Meanwhile feminists themselves debate, almost ad infinitum, the discontents of feminist methodologies. Some of the issues raised are:

1. What do we call our respondents?

As 'respondents' seems too passive, and 'subjects' inappropriate, feminist researchers have opted variously for 'interviewees', 'narrators', 'participants', 'collaborators', or 'interpreters'.

2. 'Objectivity'

Several of the papers presented here today challenge the binary oppositions objective/ subjective, quantitative/qualitative, self/other, researcher/researched. Yet underlying this challenge is a wish to be able to claim as 'objective' even the most reflexive sociological inquiry.

Many feminist scholars respond to this by shrugging off the requirement to be 'objective' altogether, dismissing it as impossible. Stanley (1990: 120) sees 'objectivity' and 'subjectivity' as false dichotomies and as artifacts within the sexual political system, which need deconstructing.

Arguing that all knowledge is value-laden, feminist alternatives are:

  1. 'Passionate research' (Du Bois 1983) - the knower and the known are of the same universe, women inhabit the world with 'double consciousness' as in and of our society but in important ways also not 'of' it. 'Passionate research' does not mean mushiness or a focus on our own navels. It demands rigour, precision and responsibility in the highest degree.
  2. 'Personal criticism' (Miller 1991) - which turns self-narrative into critical arguments and may include self-representation as political act (as in Barbara Smith's 'Towards a Black feminist criticism', 1986). The flowering of 'personal criticism' is a consequence of (a post-modern, post-colonial) disillusionment with metanarratives and theories. Some feminists (in Nicholson 1990) have articulated considerable discomfort with the post modernist enterprise which threatens to land women, bereft of causal meta-explanation of their oppression in patriarchal society, in further chaos as if the lives of many women are not chaotic enough (Bradby 1993).
  3. 'Intellectual biography' - much less a narrative (I am this kind of person, I did this and then that, the result was) and much more teasing out how the research processes are understood so as to produce the particular product (Stanley 1990: 120). This transparency and writing in a clear style, may enable both researched and readers to understand not only how the researcher arrived at 'the findings' and therefore make their own judgement about them, but also, simply, to understand them.

3. Self definition

If the research problem is of interest to the researched, they will be more likely to invest the time and energy to collaborate. In Reinharz's 'experiential analysis', the researched are not chosen at random, but from established groups and communities, to help establish the trustworthiness of the researcher in the eyes of the researched. She reconceptualises the 'subject role', allowing the researched to interview, scrutinise and question the researcher even after they have agreed to collaborate: 'meaningful research builds on finding out what is meaningful to oneself and one's research collaborators. Having subject input also minimises researcher bias since it includes diverse points of view' (Reinharz 1983: 177).

4. Researching one's peers

Studying one's peers may provide a counterbalance to the tendency of 'studying down' that feminists have criticised as sexist, but it is nonetheless a dilemma. What happens to the subjectivity of the investigator when her interlocutor has parallel (or greater) resources and the ability both to resist and to conquer the researcher's representations with her own in such a way that they cannot be easily reread as the product of exotic difference? (Radway 1989: 5).

5. Rejection

The only way of coping with rejection of the research process and conclusions by narrators is to write about them and explain how the research process developed from the first stage, making the research process itself researchable. Ideally a feminist researcher should be able to remain 'continually subject to revision in the light of experience ... reflexive and self-reflexive as well as accessible to everyone', particularly to the narrators (Stanley and Wise 1990: 24).

6. Collaboration

Shields and Dervin (1993) challenge the universal unwritten tenet of feminist research that the more we collaborate with the researched, the better, more accurate and less exploitative the results. They claim that because the collaborative methods of research rely so heavily on human relationships, the researched are actually at greater risk from the researcher, particularly (Riessman 1987) when factors other than gender (i.e. race, ethnicity and class) are not taken into consideration.

When published, such research, claim Shields and Dervin, offers further intervention into the lives of the researched. Even as researchers are more explicit about the self-reflexivity of the research process, the end project can profess only 'partial truths' as these are reported in the researchers' own narrative (Stacey 1988).

Being as much knower as known, as much observer as observed, being a feminist working with women, for, among other things, their and her own emancipation, is one way of redressing the power gap, although it is the researcher who must take ultimate responsibility for the written research account (4).

7. 'Cultural feminism'

Merely getting women to tell their own stories and charting differences between men and women and between women, without taking into account societal sexist oppression, may, at times, be too cosy. Joan Ringelheim, researching women and the Holocaust, problematises 'cultural feminism' as a research strategy and suggests that instead of simply reinterpreting women's lives, feminist research should contribute to a strategy for change. We must not use research to valorise oppression or blunt its effects (Ringelheim 1985: 757).

All women compromise, or dare I say, collude, in maintaining patriarchal structures - therefore feminist research should also look at women's internalised oppression. This does not mean 'blaming the victims', but it does assume women not as perpetual victims, but as active agents, which makes our work as feminist researchers much more complex. To avoid the cosy option, a careful list of questions has to be made of the research texts to pinpoint, among other things, the ways in which women do their exclusion.

8. Yes, but is it science?

At the heart of my call for feminist research methodologies and for reflexivity, is a feminist view of how knowledge is formulated. Some feminists have challenged social science by arguing that orthodox accounts are empirically wrong in relation to gender.

Others claim that the very way men have constructed what counts as authoritative knowledge is patriarchally constructed. The latter school of thought, labelled feminist standpoint epistemology (Harding 1987) argues that the only unbiased knowledge of the world is women's own direct experience. First coined as 'the personal is political', this developed into a critique of abstract theorising as the farthest removed from women's lived experiences. As mainstream social sciences construct knowledge with a bias against women, feminist standpoint epistemologists assert the need for a feminist methodology which is closer to women's own experiences (Walby 1990). Objectivity may be an impossible goal, but feminist research needs empirically-grounded investigations of the means by which research knowledge is produced, instead of a feminist version of prescriptive 'methodological cookbooks'. Ultimately, for academic feminists, 'research' and 'life' cannot be compartmentalised using separate intellectual tools. Privileging lived experience, rigourously and reflexively, may, I believe, be as scientific as an unchallenged claim to a universal objectivity.

In other words, push 'reflexivity' and it becomes 'objectivity'. However, I am aware that in positing 'reflexivity' authoritatively, I may endanger that very reflexivity. There are two other reasons for employing feminist research methodologies and why I believe reflexivity is a feminist issue.

First, if, according to postmodernism, all meta-narratives are dead and we are in danger of being left with no causal explanation of the oppression of women and therefore 'in chaos', we must return to our material lives and the lives of other women, as sites of possible explanations in the context of sexist oppression.

Secondly, recently we have witnessed, side by side with a postmodern deconstruction of everything, including categories such as gender, a return to positivist, funded research, justifying the 'institutions of ruling', which today, increasingly, carry the tag 'Europe'. This, necessarily, relies more heavily on quantitative studies, and on so-called 'objectivity'. One result is that in Ireland, to quote one example (Lentin 1993), many feminist social scientists have to work on funded projects where neither 'feminism' nor 'feminist research methodologies' are allowed into the written accounts.

To make visible the lives of women and debate women's view of the world, we need to continually challenge not only patriarchal formulation of knowledge, but also the global patriarchal backlash which seems to claim we have entered the post-feminist era. As Hanisch pointed out, in a phrase which became one of the best known slogans of the second wave feminist movement, 'the personal is political' (Eisenstein 1984: 12), and, I would add, it is also 'theoretical'. As for me, I shall be a post-feminist only in post-patriarchy.


(Note 1) This paper is a re-working of a paper I have been developing for over a year. My thanks to Barbara Bradby and Mary McDermott of TCD and to Richard Giulianotti of Aberdeen University for their encouragement, substantive comments and references. Thanks also to the Department of Sociology, TCD; Women's Studies, University of Limerick; Women's Studies Centre, UCG; and the Department of Sociology, UCD for inviting me to talk about feminist research methodologies and thus allowing me to develop the ideas expressed in this paper. Thanks also to Dr Brian Torode, Anne Good, Carol McKeogh and Roland Tormey of TCD for their careful editing. [Back]

(Note 2) I realise that in this paper I have not been reflexive about my own work. I have done so elsewhere (Lentin 1993). My choice of research topic and research methodology is certainly not 'objective'. I too, like the narrators in my study, am an Israeli writer, daughter of European Jews. I am knower and known, observer and observed at the same time. This in itself is not sufficient to make my study 'reflexive' - it is the reporting, at all stages of data analysis, of its significance to my study and the inclusion of the research process as a researchable topic which will hopefully make it so. [Back]

(Note 3) Male colleagues suggested to me that Reinharz's use of the rape metaphor could equally be seen as a rape of the sociological imagination, seeking to assert power over the reader/researcher through the use of violent imagery which has more to do with securing future quotation than with advancing the methodological debate. More seriously, they, and others have also suggested that the metaphor may devalue the seriousness of the crime itself. In the Post-Methodology? conference comments from the floor reacted to the ideas expressed in this footnote by reminding me that victims of rape and sexual abuse are far 'more' abused than either the 'sociological imagination' or the reader/researcher of sociological texts. [Back]

(Note 4) Feminist researchers should (and do) research men, particularly those who hold positions of power, in order to study, among other things, the workings of gender and gender inequalities. I look forward to Irish feminist researchers discussing the dilemmas such work involves. [Back]


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