RAT: feminist research methods

October 22, 2012 – 8:10 am

One of many posts on my Readiness Assessment. As a reminder of the ground rules, this is a solo assessment, so while I’m allowed to think out loud on my blog, I can’t ask for or get (intellectual) help. Cookies and emotional support are, however, welcome.

Feminist researchers sometimes talk about their work in a way I find helpful when writing about mine. I’d already put this on my list of things to read and note and write about last week when Lindsey mused out loud next to me that feminist methods might be a useful thing to look at, but thought that I should note this here as well (thanks, Lindsey).

Additionally, I should put disclaimers that I went to a fellowship application review circle with Monica, Emily, Lee, Ana, and Kelsey last week, and RTR was one of the topics I wrote about in my essay that everyone reviewed — I don’t think any of it affected my RAT because it was a much shorter piece of writing with no citations, no looking into theory/affordances/methods/etc, nobody actually commented on RTR at all, but again: noting this here, just in case.

Anyhow. In the introduction to Feminist Research Methods (Nielsen, 1991), we have…

Q 3: …what is now called science developed over a period of several hundred years.

P 4: The idea of “science” is a social construct, and “scientists” from different disciplines have no clear method in common.

This is important setup that I’d like to note briefly — a statement that the usual state of things is a social construct (no big surprise to my committee, but important grounding to remind myself before I write further). Now, what is the usual state of things?

P 2-3: Rationalization and empiricism (pure logic and direct observation of the world) are two big historical trends within Western scientific method. There’s an objective, knowable/figurable-out truth.

P 4-6: Scientists are often post-positivist and make the following (unstated, and sometimes unrecognized) assumptions:

  • The social world is knowable the same way the natural world is (that is, positivistically).
  • Subject-object separation between the knower and the thing to be known; objectivity is possible.
  • Knowledge about the social world should be based on empirical observations (as opposed to other things).
  • The social world has order and patterns and adheres to cause-and-effect; it’s not random.
  • There’s a unity of the natural and social sciences; it’s possible to put everything into one Grand Unified Truth.
Okay, that’s a good-enough summary. Now to point out its limitations, bit by bit…
  • The social world is not knowable in the same way as the natural world; it’s not replicable, and (in the absence of telepathy) it’s not possible to know what’s inside someone’s head, what goes through their experience, and what things mean to them.
  • When the thing to be known is the knower — when we do research on people that is trying to get to a richer insight of their processes and understanding (aha! an important note here on what RTR does and does not aim at; the word insight feels better than knowledge – why?) — then the subject-object separation has been explicitly collapsed. The subject is the object. The knower is the thing to be known. Sometimes the knower and the thing to be known are also you. And others. And… (okay, stop right there, Mel — you’re about to launch into poetry rather than the sort of thinking you want to engage in — read situated cognition and communities of practice literature again before trying this again so you can ground yourself in the footstep-patterns on how to think clearly about this sort of thing.)
  • Knowledge about the social world goes far beyond what we can uncover via empirical observation. (Perhaps I should list the Other Things.)
  • Whether the social world has order, patterns, and adherence to causality… does it matter? Is that the most important thing to find? Sometimes it can be interesting, and sometimes we do find generalizable patterns, but if we stop staring so hard at BAuniversal knowledge as a goal and start thinking about what insights we can gain from something (generalizable or not), we open up to other possibilities (which I need to articulate better). I agree with all the boxes of “what is the point of research” (it generates knowledge, it transforms the world, it is honest and authentic) but there’s something else that’s unarticulated that I’m trying to put my finger on. Maybe it’s a focus on the individual — that research means something to each person, that it’s going to be different in your hands than in mine, and that this is okay. Transformative on an individual level rather than The World. I’m not sure if that’s it, but I’ll stop ruminating now and go on to the last point, which is that
  • …I strongly believe the world contains a lot of contradictory truths and paradoxes, and particularly in the social world, trying to unify everything into one non-contradictory truth is going to leave out an awful lot.
Mergh. I’m not entirely chuffed with this explanation, but it’s a first pass. My thinking on this is still fuzzy, still fuzzy.

P 10: Standpoint epistemology is the idea that less privileged groups may “see more” of the world because they have their own worldview but must also work within the dominant one.

Okay. And if there are multiple dominant ones, or if there is a venue created where the aggregate of minority viewpoints outnumbers the “majority” viewpoint (in other words, where the voice of the largest group is a minority compared to to a majority composed of minority patchwork quilts — like when a straight white able-bodied male walks into a convention for “underrepresented groups in engineering”?

I’m not sure if that’s a useful mental thread to pick up, but… I’ll leave it for the time being and see how I feel about it in a little bit when I read this again.

P 19: Feminist inquiry is a paradigm shift because it changes both who is studied and who is doing the studying.

Bam. I am so going to use this thought. We’re changing who is studied, who is doing the studying, the relationship between the studied and the doing-the-studying…

P 20: Paradigm shifts are more likely to happen at the edges of a field and with younger and cross-disciplinary researchers, because they can see the familiar differently.

Also going to borrow this (possibly with a bit of backup here from “Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” which introduced the paradigm shift idea) although I do not see empirical evidence to back this up and that makes me a bit grumpy.

P 23: Feminism shifts the idea of “paradigm shifting” itself, because it brings ideas that were not inside the boundaries of “science” before, inside those boundaries.

This is why I like borrowing ideas and explanations from feminist researchers.

P 25-26: Dialetical tension is the word for being two contradictory places at once.

I may borrow this term as well. My claim is that we are often in dialetical tension and ignore/avoid/don’t-admit that because it’s complicated and not-clean, but that our experience is deepened in some ways when we acknowledge and embrace that and try to understand that it means.

Know someone who'd appreciate this post?
  • Print
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Identi.ca

What do you think?