Millen, D. (1997) 'Some
Methodological and Epistemological Issues Raised by Doing Feminist Research on
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Received: 30/4/97 Accepted: 30/9/97 Published: 30/9/97
Doing feminist research on unsympathetic populations can lead to conflicts between the researcher and participant's construction of the meaning of gendered experience. Researchers can justify their accounts with reference to feminist 'successor sciences' which have been postulated as an alternative to traditional positivistic rationalism. In the context of this study both feminist standpoint theory and feminist postmodernism are considered as useful justifications for the decisions taken in the research.
...The argument that there is a specifically feminist methodology implies not just that feminists select research topics on a different basis to non-feminists, but that when a feminist investigates a particular topic, the whole process of research will reflect her commitment to feminism (Hammersley, 1992: p. 191).
...It is we who have the time, resources and skills to conduct methodical work, to make sense of experience and locate individuals in historic and social contexts ... it is an illusion to think that, in anything short of a participatory research project, participants can have anything approaching 'equal' knowledge to the researcher. Kelly et al (1994: p. 37).
... The central conflict, however, is over the interpretation of 'science', 'gender' and 'feminism'. This conflict can be expressed in two questions: Working women scientists persist in asking 'What is it about women and women's lives that have kept them from doing science?' whereas feminist critics of science ask; 'What is it about science that has limited the participation of women and, by extension, other marginalised groups?' (Longino and Hammonds, 1990: p. 177).
If someone came out and asked me [if I was a feminist] then I would say yes. I must admit that I had to sort of tone down about a few things ... a few remarks, it's not worth picking up on that because they don't mean to be unpleasant and there's no reason to make an unpleasant situation out of absolutely nothing. (Anna, chemist)
I wouldn't go so far as to say there's actual overt [discrimination] in the place, but definitely covertly it is hindering my career progression at the moment ... I can't put any concrete facts on it, but more and more I'm pretty positive that had I been male in this position, I would have got there. There were three promotions of male members at exactly the same time as this, so that's what brings me to the conclusion that there is a female slant to the problem. (Naomi, physicist)
All those big professors, they would be very gentlemanly to me. They would always talk to me and it was very gender-based. I wasn't a junior person who could, you know, be talked to seriously. It was 'Oh, the lady's here, let's pull her chair out for her'. (Rebecca, geophysicist)
Certainly some of the places where I've worked, you notice if there are females on the site. They're tidier, and people are more polite, there do seem to be a lot more smiling faces around for some strange reason. It's nothing that can be organised or arranged, it's something that seems to happen. (Erika, engineer)
You have to provide the background and the support that women need in order to progress in science. Because it's only by women working alongside men, and eventually getting it through their skulls that 'hey, these women are really on top of things, they know what they're doing. I can go to them when I have a question' that women will progress. (Rebecca, geophysicist)
...[T]he kind of research currently identified with the social sciences (be it surveys, interviews, etc.) is associated with precisely the modernist Enlightenment tradition which postmodernism is trying to transcend. While analyses of discourse and text are possible from within a postmodern perspective, anything which focuses on the materiality of human existence is virtually impossible, unless analysed in terms of discourse and text. This does not mean, of course, that a postmodern approach has nothing to offer feminists. What it does mean is that because it contains radically different assumptions from those of other epistemological positions it has, potentially, different things to offer.
2 However, Hammersley then goes on to offer a range of arguments for dismissing the validity of this principle, based on what Loraine Gelsthorpe, in reply (Gelsthorpe, 1992) described as '[the] uncritical privileging of reason' as exercised in the natural scientific method which he takes as exemplar. Hammersley also tends to assume a unitary, monolithic feminist response to methodological debates (Humphries, 1997). For a response to his arguments against feminist methodology see these papers and also Williams (1992).
3 A classic example of this is the landmark study of Paul Willis (Willis, 1977) in which a class sensibility was brought to the study of adolescents, but where women were absent except as portrayed through the sexist attitudes of his male participants, constructions which went unchallenged by the author. Willis' study was celebrated for its sensitivity to class issues and the giving of voice to underprivileged sections of society, and it is ironic that in doing so he silenced the female aspects of that society.
4 When considering the issue of intra-research empowerment, I am always reminded of the Cambridge University Graduate and Senior Women's annual dinner at Newnham College in 1996, when two hundred academically privileged women dined and listened to the writer Shere Hite speak well into the night, whilst the mainly female catering staff waited for the evening to finish so that they could clear up after the women and finally get home after a long, poorly paid shift. As a quote I have pinned to my wall says, 'Behind every successful woman there's usually another successful woman - cleaning her floors.' The idea that women may oppress women, even in the course of research designed to benefit other women, is under-represented to date in the research on feminist research and methodologies.
5 Such a strategy may have had some consequences: respondents may have self-selected into those who were pro-feminist (and analysed their experiences in terms of sex and gender) and those who had, as did many, strongly negative comments to make about feminism.
6 This was also noted by Devine (1992) in her study of female engineers.
7 Indeed, a fruitful aspect of feminist projects on method might be to apply the insights gained from 'en-gendering' qualitative research to the techniques of quantitative research, critiquing the potentially gendered aspects of techniques such as surveys and questionnaires and constructing new ways to use these techniques to conduct research which does not exclude, marginalise or misrepresent women.
8 This is not necessarily the case: for example, Davies and Banks (1992) analyse a research project involving small children with reference to postmodernist ideas, although their methodology is not specifically postmodernist.
9 Whilst it is clear that actual scientific research does not necessarily always proceed in the idealistic ways posited by scientific philosophers (see Latour, 1987) the idea of 'the scientific method' is a powerful internal construction used by scientists in explaining their practices to each other and to non-scientists (e.g. the strictness of method explanations in scientific papers) and therefore has meaning to sociologists of science even if it is not an accurate representation of events.
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