Feminist Methodologies & Knowledge Production

Gender & Society in the Classroom: Feminist Methodologies and Knowledge Production

Organized by:  Christy Haines Flatt, Gordon College and Deeb Kitchen, Florida Gulf Coast University

The articles explore the methodological and theoretical frameworks that can be used to give voice to women’s experiences while unveiling the underlying causes of oppressions. A review of articles pertaining to the production of knowledge, within the context of the journal Gender & Society, all place power as a central theme in how they address various methodological and theoretical challenges. In various ways, this particular collection of articles highlights the trends in research with regards to methodological approaches and theoretical concerns. Some of these are addressed in Anderson’s (2005) piece, but this is also visible when looking at the historical groupings. Between 1991 and 1997, six methodological articles were published in Gender & Society; the journal, however, published only one methodological article between 1998 and 2011. The earlier articles primarily combined theoretical and methodological challenges into one article in a way that highlights their similarity and interconnection. The combining of theoretical and methodological challenges is consistent with the overarching movement of feminist sociology towards intersectional analyses that attempted to diminish the risk of either reifying or ignoring the existing structures of inequality.

The latter grouping of articles (after 1998) attempt to develop frameworks that go past just “giving voice” to women’s experiences revealing the basis for domination while moving towards an understanding (or recognition) of scholarship’s relationship to activism that gets to root of oppression while recognizing that the process of studying knowledge production as an act of power runs the risk of reinforcing existing inequalities. Rather than merely making room for accounts of those experiencing the brunt of oppression, these pieces, in varying ways, address how researchers can use their work to combat them. In this way, the second grouping of articles shifts from a focus on the interplay of theory and methods in order to examine the divide between activism and research.

Gorelick, Sherry. 1991. Contradictions of feminist methodology.  Gender & Society. 5(4): 459-477.

Teaching Notes:  Overall, Gorelick (1991) pointed out both the theoretical and methodological contradictions in the Marxist-feminist-interactionist perspective.  Gorelick made the following main contributions:  (1) highlighted and critiqued key literature on feminist methodology, (2) addressed the complexity of merging theoretical frameworks with actual research methodologies, (3) showed how prior studies have addressed the complexity of the Marxist-feminist-interactionist perspective, (4) described how prior studies were successful in uncovering researcher bias, and (5) built an argument for the effectiveness of stand point theory.   Gorelick concluded the article by advocating for an alternative framework that gives “voice” to individuals from many positions of oppression including race, class, sexual preference, nationality, or ethnicity.

Suggested Courses: graduate level course work pertaining to research methods and social inequality.

Cancian, Francesca. 1992. Feminist science:: Methodologies that challenge inequality.  Gender & Society 6(4): 623-642.

Teaching Notes:  Cancian (1991) debated the positivist approach versus the feminist approach while emphasizing a need for alternative methods.  Cancian explored the strengths and weaknesses of both approaches while trying to answer the question, how does feminist research effectively challenge inequality?   Cancian described how scholars on both sides of the debate weighed how to best challenge inequality within a social context of structural inequality.  The author gave readers insights into previous research and methodologies that have best encapsulated the feminist approach while maintaining elements of the positivist approach. 

Suggested courses:  graduate level research methodology, especially appropriate for students developing their own research methodology 

Bradley, Karen and Diana Khor.1993.Toward an integration of theory and research on the status of women. Gender & Society 7(3):347-378.

Teaching Note:  This article focused on measures of status, arguing that status is far too complex for simplistic approaches. Bradley and Khor (1993) discussed how status should be measured as an economic, political, and social phenomenon with all three dimensions vital to the pursuit of research.  The authors cautioned that research that advocates for the superiority of one measurement of status over another is a counterproductive pursuit.  When status is measured primarily as economic trait, such as the number of women who participate in the labor force, then policy makers would wrongly approach increasing women’s participation in the labor force as is the only necessary solution to improving women’s status.  Key contributions of the article include the following:  (1) consideration of international and multi-disciplinary research; (2) discussion of research that adequately accounts for interrelationships between status dimensions accounting for variability within countries and over time; (3) presentation of models and suggested measures; and (4) advocacy for the collection of original data that would create alternative frameworks.

Suggested Courses:  undergraduate and graduate research methods, social inequality, comparative

Ewick, Patricia. 1994.  Integrating feminist epistemologies in undergraduate research methods.  Gender & Society 8(1): 92-108.

Teaching Notes:  Even though it was published 18 years ago, Ewick’s (1994) article has made criticisms and suggestions that are still relevant today.  The main objective of the article was to describe how instructors should move away from teaching research methods as a series of tasks that build from conceptualization, measurement, sample selection, and data collection to a universal approach that merges together the positivist approach with relativist approach.  Ewick (1994) recommended the inclusion of the feminist perspective in social research textbooks, recognizing the “historical and social context” of the research, providing examples of good research, teaching various research methods with a focus on a topic, say gender discrimination, and how gender discrimination has been studied with multiple methods.

Suggested Courses:  The article is an excellent read for all faculty and teaching assistants involved in a research methods course; however, the article may not be as relevant for students.  

Smith, Michael.  1994.  Enhancing the quality of survey data on violence against women:  A feminist approach.  Gender & Society 8(1): 109-127.

Teaching Notes:  While many of the previous articles discussed the development of a number of debates in feminist theory and research followed by possible solutions, Smith (1994) started by addressing the underreporting of violence against women in victimization surveys, suggested how to overcome the problem, and concluded with an in-depth discussion of a single research project based on a survey of women from Toronto.  The author suggested the following feminist strategies for improving the quality of victimization surveys: (1) employing a broad definition of violence beyond the narrow legal definition of violence; (2) designing questions dealing with victimization throughout a subjects lifetime and not just a limited time frame; (3) using multiple measures to increase reliability and validity; (4) employing multidimensional measures, such as the Conflict Tactics Scales (CTS); (5) using both open and close ended questions; and (6) utilizing well-trained interviewers who can create a safe environment.   Smith (1994) concluded with a discussion of the methods and results of the Toronto Survey, including a description of problems and suggestions on how to overcome limitations. Through this thorough discussion of a single research project, Smith presented has research as an on-going process and has given students a model on which to pattern their own research.

Suggested Courses:  undergraduate and graduate courses, research methods, violence 

Letherby, Gayle and Dawn Zdrodowski. 1995.  “Dear researcher”:  The use of correspondence as a method within feminist qualitative research.  Gender & Society 9(5): 576-593.

Teaching Notes:    Letherby and Zdrodowski (1995) presented a how-to description of feminist research.  The authors presented research as an on-going dynamic process advocated by Ewick (1994) and as such is a good article to be included in a reading list, especially for a lower level research methods course. The article was about the experiences of two sociology doctoral candidates reflecting on their separate projects, and the usefulness of using letters between researchers and respondents as a form of data collection.  The authors discussed how they made the connection between feminist methodologies taught in the classroom and discussed in the literature, and the construction of their projects.  Included in the article were descriptions of the multiple techniques they used to build a sampling frame, the invitation they sent requesting that women participate in the research, the responses they received, reasons women may not have participated, and respondents’ and researchers’ reactions and reflections.  The article concluded with methodological issues encountered including rapport, ethics, the responsibilities of the researcher, and a discussion of comparison with other research methods.

Suggested Courses: undergraduate and graduate research methods

Risman, Barbara. 2004. “Gender as a Social Structure: Theory Wrestling with Activism.” Gender & Society 18(4).

Teaching Notes: In this article, Risman argues that gender needs to be understood as social structure, an approach that would render it recognizable in various dimensions of social life. Understanding gender as social structure would elevate it to the level of economic and political systems in its ability to influence and mold society. Risman urges scholars to continue examining the intersections of race, class, gender as well as other structures of inequality, but she is adamant that each is constructed uniquely and is rooted different causal apparatuses ant different points in time. She concludes by pushing feminist scholars to reject value-free research pursuits that merely stimulate or satisfy intellectual curiosity and to engage in knowledge production that is simultaneously informative as well as transformative instead. She clearly sees scholarship as a potential source of activism and social change that disrupts or reduces inequality and improves the social status of women, particularly at the interactional and cultural levels. Ideally, she sees this as assisting in the abolition of gender distinction. In order to achieve this, she insists that feminist sociology must be public sociology. It must be broadcast and utilized beyond the confines of academia.

Suggested Courses: sociology of knowledge, human rights sociology, social change 

Blackwood, Evelyn. 2005.”Transnational Sexualities in One Place: Indonesian Readings.” Gender & Society 19(2).

Teaching Notes: In this article, the author employs an ethnographic approach to this work examining stories of lesbi (a local term similar to lesbian but not exactly the same) in order to demonstrate the need for feminist perspectives on transnational sexualities that recognize the importance of particular locations, within global movements, in forming queer identities, discourse, and knowledge. Location is used as a means for countering and disrupting attempts to universalize experience and knowledge within queer scholarship and political activism. She investigates gender and sexualities in Padang, a metropolis on the west coast of Sumatra, a conservative, devoutly Islamic and matrilineal part of Indonesia, in order to show how specific locales influence people’s understandings of national and global discourses on sexuality and gender. She concludes that queer identities and knowledge are shaped by state and Islamic discourses, but they are not necessarily framed as resistance to these ideas on gender and sexuality that cast womanhood as procreative and maternal. Simultaneously, the distribution and use of this knowledge helps to cultivate an imagined space populated by individuals sharing these understandings.

Suggested Courses: global issues, gender and sexualities, society and the individual 

Anderson, Margaret L. 2005. “Thinking About Women: A Quarter Century’s View.” Gender & Society 19(4).

Teaching Notes: In this article Anderson provides an overview of feminist critiques of gender scholarship that illuminates the diversity and historical trajectory of feminist thought. She examines the trends in feminist research spanning the last quarter of the twentieth century. She points to themes that initially animated feminist theories, such as the social nature of gender and resistance to explaining it in biological terms. Anderson goes on to document the emergence of three themes prominent in contemporary scholarship: (1) intersectional analyses—those focusing on the simultaneity of race, class, and gender—(2) gender’s relationship to political and economic systems, political economy, as well as (3) the relationship between individuals and their environments, structure and agency.  In the end she emphasizes the importance of integrating sexualities into analyses of race, class, and gender, and she highlights the fact that social actors, their actions, and the inequalities among them must be understood in relation to the situations the occur in. In other words, context matters.

Suggested Courses: undergraduate and graduate research methods, stratification, development of sociological thought, the sociology of gender

Grauerholz, Liz and Lori Baker-Sperry.  2007. Feminist research in the public domain:  Risk and recommendations.  Gender & Society 21(2): 272-294.

Teaching Notes:  Earlier articles had focused on the theoretical and/or methodological debates and research methods, but Grauerholz and Baker-Sperry (2007) provided a guide to researchers of the risks, consequences, and benefits of going public with sociological research.  The authors built the article around their own personal experience of when their research on fairy tales gained national attention.  After Grauerholz and Baker-Sperry’s (2007) article was printed in Gender & Society, the research gained the attention of journalists and then the public at large.  At first flattered and pleased with the public attention, the authors stated “we quickly – but not quickly enough – realized that the original findings of our study were being ignored and that several highly controversial threads had been picked up by the media, sewn in part by our naiveté about the process” (Grauerholz and Baker-Sperry 2007, 273).

Using their experience as a case study, the authors discussed the added risks of feminist research within the current sociopolitical climate.  Grauerholz and Baker-Sperry (2007) gave suggestions on how researchers should deal with the media, offered reassurance that the researchers have little control of how their research is going to be presented, how language is used for the framing of an issue, the role of the internet in broadcasting sociological ideas and research, and the potential for hostile responses from the public.  The authors also weighed the costs versus the benefits of going public with research deciding that the benefits outweigh the costs.  Grauerholz and Baker-Sperry (2007) concluded the article with recommendations for future researchers, especially feminist researchers, on how to best frame their research enabling researchers to protect their research, privacy, their jobs, and institutions while also creating the potential for social change.

Suggested Courses: social problems, media, social inequality, gender, public sociology, applied sociology, research methods, professionalization, and publishing.