Sociology 319 – Contemporary Social Theories
Feminist Standpoint Theory – Dorothy Smith
1. Overview. Feminists have often argued that social science disciplines have been constructed by men, with a male-oriented view of the world, one that examines only the issues in the male, public social world. From this critique, one way to correct this male-oriented analysis could be to develop a social science from the standpoint of women, with examination and analysis of the point of view, situation, and experiences of women. Both Dorothy Smith and Patricia Hill Collins develop such an approach. Smith examines the experiences of women, building an analysis of everyday life and relations of ruling from the standpoint of women. Collins develops a similar approach, using the African-American experience, especially that of African-American women, to construct her analysis.
Sociological influences. Smith emphasizes the actual activities of people, the experiences they have, and the ways that people have of comprehending and understanding the social world of which they are part. While Smith does not consider herself to be an ethnomethodologist or interactionist, her concerns and methods are similar to some writers using these approaches. At the same time, she focuses on women and adopts a feminist approach, so her analysis differs from the standard approach of ethnomethodologists and interactionists. Smith also uses a Marxian analysis of modernity and capitalism, alienation, and social and economic processes (Adams and Sydie, 216). Smith generally argues against the desirability of a totalizing or general sociological theory or conceptual system. Rather, she argues that social science should pay more attention to the local and everyday experiences of people, especially those of women and other individuals who may be in subordinate positions in society. She also argues that texts (documents, media, books), organizations, and earlier forms of social theory present a view that is often alien to the experiences and situation of individuals, so there should be an attempt to recover these everyday experiences. In these repects, she reflects a postmodern view that social theory should not be totalizing and, somewhat like Foucault, that social power is exercised through multiple sources such as texts and organizations. The issues and concepts she emphasizes are the standpoint of women, a dual or bifurcated consciousness, the everyday/everynight experiences of ordinary individuals (especially women), and how relations of ruling are constructed and exercised.
3. Standpoint theory/standpoint of women. One of the questions that Smith addresses is “How would sociology look from a woman’s standpoint?” In fact, one of her main concerns is to critique mainstream sociology that she views as implicitly or explicitly adopting a male-centred approach that supports the governing conceptual mode (Smith, 1990, p. 374). For Smith, “All knowledge is knowledge from a particular standpoint and what which has been claimed as objective knowledge of society conceals a male bias.” (Farganis, p. 371). Further, sociology operates within a larger social system of economic and political structures, with teaching and researching in universities and its findings disseminated through the media and to governmental institutions. She questions the objectivity of sociological knowledge, especially when it uses concepts constructed by “the practice of government” such as “mental illness, crimes, riots, violence, work satisfaction, neighbors and neighborhood, motivation, and so on.” (Smith, 1990, p. 372). A current example may be the use of the term “terrorism.”
In contrast to these official and organizational forms, for Smith knowledge starts from the materiality of everyday world – the activities, interactions, responsibilities, constraints, resources, and choices (or lack of them) that women face in their daily lives. This means “the actual daily social relations between individuals” (Adams and Sydie, p. 214). Social theory could begin from where people are at, rather than applying a preconceived conceptual apparatus (theoretical structure) to explain the actions of individuals. Part of the reason for this is that each of us is a practical sociologist in conducting our daily lives, carry on everyday activities and social interaction. Theorists who argue that this social world is “unformed and unorganized” (Adams and Sydie, p. 215, top), are complicit with the forces of domination, since these are the forces that organize our daily lives in particular ways. Since “social relations are organized from elsewhere” a social science that can investigate these everyday activities is still desirable (Adams and Sydie, p. 215), but it should be one that aims to give people an ability to understand social organization and social relationships. Since the relationships that govern much of our daily lives may be invisible to people, such a sociology can help explore and explain “the social relations and organization pervading her world but invisible in it.” (Adams and Sydie, p. 215). Such an approach can have a liberating or emancipatory effect – it can demonstrate the “invisible” networks of domination, allow people to understand their situation, and possibly help them act to change the situation.
Adams and Sydie compare Smith’s approach with that of Marx. Where Marx argued that the standpoint of labour allows an analyst to understand and reveal the contradictory forms of class relations in a capitalist society, so adopting the standpoint of women reveals how gender relations are structured and are the means by which dominant members can subordinate others. Social class is constructed through the social relationships of property and exploitation and, while these may be invisible or difficult to comprehend, these social relationship act to structure the economic and social world in a particular way. Similarly, “gender is not an innate, natural phenomenon but a complex of social relations that, like class, can be discovered in ‘routine, daily accomplishment’” (Adams and Sydie, p. 220).
4. Bifurcated or dual consciousness. While the concept of a divided, dual, or bifurcated consciousness is not unique to Smith, she makes this a major aspect of her theoretical approach. For Smith there is “a conceptual distinction between the world as we experience it and the world as we come to know it through the conceptual frameworks that science invents.” (Farganis, p. 371).
Farganis, 374 – bifurcation of consciousness – “two modes of knowing and experiencing, and doing, one located in body and in the space it occupies and moves in, the other passing beyond it.” And Adams and Sydie, p. 214
AS, p. 214. contrast between rational, conceptual, theoretical world and the world of experiences of ordinary subjects – part critique of social theory, part critique of male-dominated and organized structures
“suppression of the local and particular as a site of knowledge has been and remains gender organized.” Men act as subjects of mode of governing – women have been anchored in the local and particular phase of the bifurcated world.
Restructure sociology so that the repressed, direct experience of women’s knowledge, becomes an active and critical voice.
Similar approaches – dualisms of Parsons and Giddens, Marx
Notes on Dubois from Sociology 318 – Fall 2002. See http://uregina.ca/~gingrich/318d202.htm for the full set of notes and for the references in this section.
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868-1963), usually known as W. E. B. Du Bois. Notes on Dubois and Souls of Black Folks.
In Du Bois’s writings, especially at the beginning of Souls, there is innovative and insightful discussion of self and, more particularly, the divided self with a “double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others” and of the “two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings” of African-Americans (Du Bois, p. 2). Du Bois sets this within the context, experiences, and struggles of African-Americans, but his approach is more generally applicable to analysis of self in modern society.
While Tucker and other texts do not note any connection between Du Bois and George Herbert Mead (Mind, Self, Society) or other writers on the self, Du Bois appears to be grappling with some of the same issues that Mead and later symbolic interactionists addressed. Writers such as Goffman and Hochschild discuss the issue of how the self develops, maintains itself, and performs in a consistent and meaningful manner – one where front and back stage lead to performances associated with personal identity – either associated with an integrated or divided self. An example of a contemporary discussion of the self that shows some similarities to the double-consciousness noted by Du Bois is that of the dilemmas of the self as noted by Anthony Giddens. In his article “Dilemmas of the Self,” Giddens states:
The first dilemma is that of unification versus fragmentation. Modernity fragments; it also unites. On the level of the individual right up to that of planetary systems as a whole, tendencies towards dispersal vie with those promoting integration. So far as the self is concerned, the problem of unification concerns protecting and reconstructing the narrative of self-identity in the face of the massive intensional and extensional changes which modernity sets into being. …
A second dilemma is that of powerlessness versus appropriation. If there is one theme which unites nearly all authors who have written on the self in modern society, it is the assertion that the individual experiences feelings of powerlessness in relation to a diverse and large-scale social universe.
The causes of the divided self differ in the analyses of Giddens and Du Bois, and consequences also differ for individual and society. But it appears that later sociologists have generally ignored the arguments presented by Du Bois, so that his contributions have not been integrated into sociological analysis. For the most part, commentary on Du Bois mentions the double consciousness but does not relate it to similar discussions by other sociologists. In his forward “Fifty Years After,” written in 1953, Du Bois notes that he did not anticipate the importance of psychology in the social sciences. He also mentions that the influence of Marx was great over these fifty years.
Du Bois begins this discussion from the point of view of an African-American, someone who is considered by others to be a problem or representative of a problem, rather than someone with problems, perhaps problems created by the rest of society. The concept of “difference” becomes key for Du Bois, his recognition and understanding that “I was different from the others” (p. 1). This difference was expressed in attitudes but also in “their dazzling opportunities” and their “prizes” (p. 1), that is in tangible results and in opportunities. Du Bois indicates that he felt able to deal with such a situation and would pursue such opportunities himself, but others adopted a different approach, that of hatred and “mocking distrust of everything white” (p. 1).
The double-consciouness noted by Du Bois means
no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. (p. 2)
That is, while African-Americans attempted to participate in
society in a similar manner to any other members of society, they were seen as
different and actively thwarted in their attempts to participate – “cursed and
spit upon by his fellows .. having
the doors of
Historically, these experiences of differences and double consciousness led to many different responses and Du Bois argues that these demonstrate a history of “strife” (p. 2). The unmet promises of freedom and emancipation from slavery are concrete historical experience that led to a bitter and “deep disappointment” (p. 3). Rather than developing a strong sense of self, and attaining a “self-conscious manhood” (p. 2), African-Americans were not only thwarted in their attempts to participate as equals in American society, but developed a split self with double aims and unreconciled ideals. This brought “inevitable self-questioning, self-disparagement, and lowering of ideals” (p. 4). That is, the view that others had of them was internalized, leading to lack of success, waste, and shame. Tucker notes “the black self remains conflicted, torn, scarred” (Tucker, p. 237) as a result of slavery and later experiences. It was not just a set of negative attitudes on the part of others that created such a response, but the actual experiences of African-Americans attempting to participate and achieve in American society – experiences that were thwarted.
One aspect of the double-consciousness is the “metaphor of the veil … that requires role playing on the part of blacks, rather than real interaction” (Tucker, p. 233). When discussing emancipation, Du Bois notes that “he saw himself – darkly as though a veil” with “some faint revelation of his power, of his mission” (p. 4). He also notes the “shadow of a vast despair” (p. 4), “shadow of a deep disappointment” (p. 3), and “the swarthy spectre sits in its accustomed seat at the Nation’s feast” (p. 3). Each of these references presents the African-American experience as peripheral, separated, and not participant in all aspects of American society. The veil represents a division between the two parts of society, with African-Americans born and living behind a veil, separated from the mainstream, and blocked in attempts to participate.
At several places in chapter 1 of Souls, Du Bois indicates a possibility for development of a full and integrated self with self-consciousness consistent with this. In the note on Emancipation, Du Bois notes a “dawning self-consciousness, self-realization, self-respect” (p. 4), indicating the possibility of a single consciousness and integrated self. He compares this to a youthful period for African-Americans, with hope and high expectations, so that “he could be himself, and not another” (p. 4). Du Bois also argues that African-Americans have a “longing to attain self-conscious manhood” (p. 2), so that there is no inherent reason for the existence of the two souls. This would be worked out as “a co-worker in the kingdom of culture” (p. 2). Further, “to attain his place in the world, he must be himself, and not another” (p. 4). But American society did not allow this to develop
5. Everyday world/experience – knowing and knowledge
Smith argues that the everyday world is problematic in that everyday, daily life is often a “puzzle to be solved.” While individuals are generally practical sociologists in that they are capable of organizing their daily lives, aspects of this life may seem “episodic, unconnected, because it is organized by social relations external to people’s direct experience” (Sprague and Zimmerman, p. 271).
For Smith, society involves “the actual practices of human beings who are understood as ‘expert practitioners of their everyday worlds’” and it is “the social practices of actual people in their everyday/everynight worlds comprise society.” (Adams and Sydie, p. 216, bottom). These involve the organization of actual sequences of action in time and the ongoing activities of actual people. From this, people develop a practical way of knowing as subjective activities. Smith contrasts this knowing, or ways of knowing, that individuals develop as they carry on everyday social life, with “knowledge” as the formal discourse of experts, texts, organization, and ideology (Adams and Sydie, p. 218). Especially from the standpoint of women and gender, this results in an erasure of “women’s knowing and practices” (Adams and Sydie, p. 218). That is, knowing is separated from knowledge, with the latter being abstracted from the experience of women, reconfigured as texts (in media and organizations) that are turned back to individuals as the “normative ideal of femininity” (Adams and Sydie, p. 219). As women attempt to take on these normative ideals, this can result in reproducing “the subordination to the ideological ideal of femininity” (Adams and Sydie, p. 219).
These arguments are reminiscent of Marx’s concept of alienation, where the daily labour of individuals is taken away from individuals, turned into commodities and profits, and resulting in an alien form of social structure that organize the daily life of individual workers. Workers who continue to labour within this system act to reproduce these alien conditions. Later critical theorists made a similar claim about the distortion of reason in modern society – the subjective experience of individuals was replaced with the objective and detached forms of reason. The latter come to establish social and ideological structures that dominate individuals, dictating how individuals are to think and perform, and destroying creative and emancipatory forms of reason.
In order to counter these tendencies, Smith aims to uncover “the goals underlying the dominant rationality and developing alternative rationalities oriented toward feminist goals. These alternative rationalities would be based on the practical knowledge of frontline actors” (Sprague and Zimmerman, p. 271). Further “attention to the actual activities of people reveals the ways in which they are participants in multiple realiies and how, as participants, they may ‘give power to the relations that `overpower` them’” (Adams and Sydie, p. 219). Smith relates this to new ways of doing sociology that could contribute to social change – this requires sociologists to incorporate women’s ways of knowing, prevent these from becoming formal systems of knowledge, and pay attention to the relations of ruling.
A related aspect of Smith’s work is the possible contribution of women and others who have been marginalized – including the ways of knowing of those with experiences at the margins of society. These experiences come from a different standpoint than the formal systems of knowledge of organizations, ideology, and much social science. Giving these people a voice and considering their views and ways of knowing can provide “a source of insight for feminist sociologists (and theorists in general), that is, a springboard for analysis. Similarly, Denzin’s epiphanic moments involve a similar line of fault…Through the careful study of such experiences, Denzin suggest that we can perceive cultural stereotypes and examine their dominating influence over individuals.” (Tuana, pp. 285-6).
6. Relations of ruling
A major part of Smith’s analysis involves what she terms the relations of ruling – the social relations in which people are involved that dominate them, the rational forms of knowledge that are developed, and the organizations that administer and mange these. These refer “not simply to political organizations but to all of the various institutions that rule, manage, and administer society. And these institutional locations are largely the work of men supported by the invisible, but necessary work of women” (Adams and Sydie, p. 216). This approach partially emerges from a Marxian and critical theory analysis, but directly incorporates analysis of the standpoint of women, how women’s contributions differ from those of men, and what are the forms of social relationships involved in this. In particular, this approach includes gender relations as an integral part of the relations of ruling, with the dominant social relations being organized by men, ignoring or devaluing the standpoint of women. There appear to be two major aspects to the relations of ruling – (a) texts, communication, and discourse; and (b) the organizations and structures of modernity and capitalism.
a. Texts and discourse. The production of texts and their place in structuring social relationships is one way that relations of ruling dominate women. Even where they may not actually result in dominating, they act to conceal the relations of domination (Adams and Sydie, p. 216).
Texts could be “books, television, plays, soap operas, art, or the Internet” and these act to produce the “‘images, vocabularies, concepts, knowledge of and methods of knowing the world’ that are ‘integral to the practices of power’” (Adams and Sydie, p. 216). It is not only the media or the words in the text, but also the context, the concepts, framework, the selection of issues, and the manner that issues are addressed in communication and discourse that constitute these practices. Further, it involves public documents such as “licenses, registrations, medical files, school reports, tax records” that record and structure how social relations are addressed. While these are seemingly objective, they are used to record, direct, control, and manipulate people and the form of social relations people enter into.
At the level of organizations and formal institutions, the language of ‘expert’ social scientists and bureaucrats is used to form concepts and frame social issues. This leads to using their language to discuss what they term social problems, mental illness, crime, riots, terrorism. It is then these ruling concepts that frame and direct the discussion of issues, leading to the ruling organizations being able to organize, regulate, and direct contemporary society (Adams and Sydie, p. 217).
A further level at which these are produced is in policy discussion, government reports, task forces, Royal Commissions, censuses, and press releases. These organize and present the ‘social facts’ in a way that they are distant from or alien to everyday experiences. They abstract from the everyday and the local and are means of reproducing power relations. These fit the bureaucratic and administrative hierarchy rather than dealing with the subjective experiences of individuals.
Smith notes that these texts often involve three methodological tricks (Adams and Sydie, p. 217).
· Restate. After listening to what people have to say about a social issue, bureaucrats, planners, or researchers often restate what people say, putting it in a conceptual framework that may be different from the understanding of the person reporting. Researchers do this as well by structuring surveys, questionnaires, interviews, and other forms of data collection and production.
· Rearrange. The data are then reorganized in a particular way, consistent with the researcher’s take on the issues. These demonstrate a particular order to the data, perhaps consistent with the knowledge of the researcher, but perhaps alien to the everyday understanding of the individuals from whom the data were obtained.
· Distinct entities. The data are then presented as concepts, value patterns, norms, or belief systems that are presented as reality. Smith identifies that as changing ideas into “person.”
The result of these tricks is that the original subject, her experiences, her was of knowing, and her standpoint have all disappeared. They reappear in abstract form, perhaps as a social problem. For example, the conditions and difficulties of being a single mother may be presented as a social problem.
In summary, the texts are the formal types of knowledge produced by social scientists, organizations, bureaucrats, and other dominant individuals, usually males. Smith contrasts these to ways of knowing, emerging from the subjective experience of women. While Smith presents these in a different language from that of earlier sociology, the influence of Weber (administrative dominance, management) and critical theory (media, totalization, and limited set of alternatives) should be noted. While there appears to be no mention of Habermas’s concept of distorted communication, it appears that Smith uses texts and discourse in a similar way. However, Habermas does not appear to have introduced the concepts of ways of knowing or the standpoint and experiences of women and ordinary individuals.
b. Class and capitalism. While Smith presents an analysis of capitalism and modernization, it is not her central contribution. However, Smith presents concepts that are consistent with Marxian or critical theory, and her analysis of women, knowledge, and relations of ruling is within the context of modern capitalism. Adams and Sydie (p. 220) summarize four characteristics of modern capitalism that Smith identifies:
· Differentiation or distinct functions – administrative, management, professional organizations. Similar to the differentiation and specialization of Parsons, but with a critical approach, and the changes in corporate organization identified by Wright.
· System functions are primarily communicative and informational. Consistent with approaches of Parsons and Habermas.
· Communications and information functions are increasingly dependent on knowledge organized as social facts. Builds on Durkheim’s social facts, but with a twist to knowledge as organized by facts and concepts. Also consistent with critical theory.
· Organizations are dependent on systems of planning in the same communicative, textual mode. Builds on Weber’s emphasis on formal rationality and planning, combined with some critical theory approaches to communication and domination.
The texts and discourse of the relations of ruling are part of these developments, proceed from these developments, and help reproduce the domination of these forces. While challenging the domination of these forces and changing them involves social class, the whole complex of systems of domination must also be challenged. See quote at bottom of p. 220 – need challenge to “the complex of powers, forces, and relations that are at work in our everyday/everynight worlds.”
Smith ties this system or structural level analysis to the position of women within this system. To do this, she examines the types and extent of women’s work and labour in reproducing the relations of ruling.
Women’s work. Smith argues that women’s work helps to underpin, support, and reproduce capitalist economic forms and the modern form of relations of ruling. This is done through work in the home, in the paid labour force, and in organizations (formal and informal). Some of Smith’s arguments mesh with other Marxist feminist approaches but, at the same time, it is evident that women’s entry into the paid labour force has not produced gender equality. In both work in the home and in organizations, the work of women underlies abstracted, conceptual actions of men and “women are corporate capitalisms’s housekeepers at home and in paid work.” (Adams and Sydie, p. 216). This takes several forms.
· Invisible. In home and in organizations. And the ways of knowing, experiences, and standpoint of women are erased and become invisible. But it is these that support and maintain men and organizations.
· Support in home. Mundane homework required to maintain healthy bodies and minds.
· Organization. “Ensuring space, time, and resources for the production of abstract conceptualizations in the form of reports, memos, strategic plans, and the like are all largely the work of women for men” (Adams and Sydie, p. 216).
· Expressive role in the home, for managers and working class. (p. 221). Description of middle class family may not differ much from Parsons, but Smith looks on this as limiting and alienating for women and for men.
· Alienated labour and knowledge.
7. Sociological method – Adams and Sydie, p. 215 and WW
Sociology not only about women but for women.
Combines ethnometh. With Marxist, critical position
Questions why some are silenced, deprived of authority to speak, lack voice, lack language. Focus on culture and intellectual world, textually mediated discourse, standpoint of men occupying relations of ruling [note the possibility of questioning linguistic aspects] (Adams and Sydie, p. 271). Fault line between what women know and what is “official knowledge”.
Relations of ruling – state, institutions, administration, management, professions where women participate only marginally.
“Examine conceptual practices of the extralocal, objectified relations of ruling of what people actually do.” (Adams and Sydie, p. 272)
Sociology is in the making, never a totalizing system (Adams and Sydie, 215) – so somewhat postmodern.
Critique of Smith
· Is sociology always implicated in relations of ruling? Sociological analysis has often led to uncovering situations and experiences of those in subordinate positions. Issues of poverty, situation of immigrants. But its conceptual apparatus has also been a means of organizing knowledge in ways that have sometimes hurt people – eugenics, culture of poverty, scientific management.
· Are texts always dominating? They can be a way of using power, but texts may be available to all and are not always oppressive or result in subordination. Can be a means of resistance.
· Emphasis on experiences, everyday, situation provides a way of tackling key issues and totalizing systems of abstract thought – insider’s sociology.
· Contribution for other similar groups
· Dual result of entry of feminism into academy. Adams and Sydie, p. 223.
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