Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2003


Sue Wise and Liz Stanley (2003) Review Article: 'Looking Back and Looking Forward: Some Recent Feminist Sociology Reviewed'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 8, no. 3, <>

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Received: 29/8/2003      Accepted: 29/8/2003      Published: 31/08/2003

Front CoverFront CoverFront CoverFront Cover

Feminist Sociology

Sara Delamont
Sage Publications: London
0761972552 (pb); 0761972544 (hb)
£17.99 (pb); £60.00 (hb)
xi + 195 pp.

Gender and Social Theory

Mary Evans
Open University Press: Buckingham
0335208649 (pb); 0335208657 (hb)
£16.99 (pb); £50.00 (hb)
viii + 138 pp.

Feminist Research in Theory and Practice

Gayle Letherby
Open University Press: Buckingham
0335200281 (pb); 033520029x (hb)
£15.99 (pb); £45.00 (hb)
224 pp.

Feminist Methodology: Challenges and Choices

Caroline Ramazanoglu with Janet Holland
Sage Publications: London
0761951237 (pb)
vii + 195 pp.

" the second half of the twentieth century (...) sociology moved from the fringes of UK academic life into the mainstream. British sociology has also provided a home for movements that have renewed and challenged the discipline...Some of these developments have become sub-disciplines whilst yet others have challenged the very basis of the sociological enterprise. Each has left their mark. Now therefore is a good time to take stock and to scan the horizon, looking back and looking forward."[1]

Taking Stock

Feminist sociology has been a presence in the discipline generally, and a presence to be reckoned with in UK sociology, for around 30 years (that is, dating this from the BSA's 1974 annual conference on 'Sexual Divisions and Society' in Aberdeen).[2] In this review article we shall explore how the impact of feminist ideas of the last 30 years on 'theory and method' in sociology is represented in recent textbooks by a group of authors whose work and presence in UK sociology is well-established and well-respected. In particular, we discuss (in this order) their ideas about reworking social theory in more gender-friendly ways (Evans), the specific contribution of feminist sociology to sociological theory and method (Delamont), the debates that have arisen concerning feminist method, methodology and epistemology (Ramazanoglu with Holland), and the intersection of epistemology and methodology with a research practice in which 'theory and research' are seen as symbiotically related (Letherby). We conclude by contemplating how the close if sometimes troubled relationship between sociology and feminism might develop over the next 5 to 10, if not 30, years.

Mary Evans' Gender and Social Theory is concerned with the extent to which social theory has engaged with or illuminated gender and gender relations and its reverse, how theorising gender has impacted on social theory. More specifically, it is concerned with recognising the discursive and narrative base of 'social theory' and so includes examples from fiction as well as 'the usual suspects', and also with re-asserting the importance of a materialist approach to social life. Its starting point, analytically speaking, is that sociology's greatest strength has been its assertion of the shared material basis of social life and its weakness has been that, in doing so, it has lost sight of the individual and particular (4-6), whereas Evans' version of materialism suggests that we can 'have it all'. Gender and Social Theory begins by providing "an account of the relationship of social theory and gender which asks why gender matters" (16); it then discusses gender and theory regarding work, 'the world of intimacy', 'the gendered self'; then a materialist approach is reasserted around changes to social life occurring in western societies; and finally the gender/theory relationship is examined around the state and capitalism. We now discuss a number of particular aspects of Evans' thinking, doing so in a way that takes us across much of the book, thereby providing a good indication of the approach, style and arguments (and our comments about the three other books discussed herein are organised in the same way).

Both terms in the title of Gender and Social Theory require interrogation, of course, along with their relationship to sociology. While 'gender' is capable of bearing a range of meanings, Evans' concern is less with definition (given that she assumes that 'everyone' accepts its socially constructed basis) and more with who 'owns' the term and the use to which it is put. As Gender and Social Theory notes, during the 1970s and '80s 'gender' was a key part of feminist theory, along with patriarchy and other concepts; but then 'gender studies' in the 1990s provided a "neutralizing and de-politicizing element" (p8) which incorporated and tamed the subversive potential of gender. Evans explicitly limits her discussion of social theory by insisting that "This is not the context in which to review the institutional practices of the academy" (p13), although later she does note that "few women intrude in this canon" (p22). Her focus is instead on how her expanded notion of social theory deals with gender matters, rather than, for instance, the current formation, composition and practices of social theory and its status and power in the discipline and more widely.

In this expanded version of social theory, "the idea of 'theory' has to be both deconstructed and reconstructed" (p22), by removing boundaries between theory and other sources of analytical ideas and by recognising one of the intellectual contributions of feminism, "the idea of the theoretical as narrative" (p23). For Evans, "within the natural and social sciences, just as much as within fiction, there are 'narratives' about the social much a mélange of the subjective and the descriptive as any work of fiction" (p23). Those familiar with Mary Evans' work will anticipate some of the fiction to be drawn on: including Mary Shelley, Jane Austen, George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell. This is a largely additive approach to mainstream social theory, and what isn't provided is the more root and branch look at it that other readers as well as us might have hoped for; and while her comments about earlier generations of social theory and theorizers are welcome and often highly insightful, there are some curious omissions. Thus while Marx, Weber, Durkheim and Simmel get a look in, there is no Harriet Martineau or Flora Tristan or Jane Addams or Charlotte Perkins Gilman, nor any account of the processes of their exclusion from 'the discipline' both at the time and subsequently.

The book's central chapters provide interesting and useful overviews of Mary Evans' subtle reworking of a materialist approach in relation to the substantive concerns developed in these. At the same time, hers is a very benign discussion of relations between the genders and what feminist work has contributed to our understanding of this. For example, the huge contribution feminism has made to investigating and theorizing violence of men towards women and children is notably absent from her discussion of how feminist ideas have impacted on sociology. It is also at times disappointingly partial concerning what is included and what is not. Thus, for instance, Judith Butler gets all the credit for treating gender in constructionist and performative ways, aided by the absence of a discussion of symbolic interactionist and phenomenological sociology; notable omissions here are the work of Erving Goffman in analysing gender in performative ways and Dorothy Smith in reconfiguring sociological understanding of the gender order and its interface with organisation and capitalism.

The final chapter of Gender and Social Theory returns to the theory/gender relationship: "the question remains as to whether or not feminist theory has significantly transformed social theory" (p92). This is explored via Mouzelis' claim that any influence has been the other way around, that "... 'the main influence has been from theory to feminism rather than the other way around... This is not surprising since on the level of conceptual tools... theories tend to be quite neutral as far as gender or race is concerned'..." (p92, quoting Mouzelis 1996). Whatever might be said about the first of his claims (one of the topics of Evans' book), the second is extraordinary but not challenged by her, although of course academic feminism and anti-racist endeavours in the academic inter/disciplines came into being rejecting precisely such claims. Mary Evans' own view, not surprisingly, is that gender does indeed make a difference "to what might be described as the 'big issues' of sociology, the issues of class and class differences, social change and social cohesion" (p94).

There are four points that arise from Gender and Social Theory we now briefly discuss. The first concerns what social theory is. Certainly we agree with Mary Evans' welcome attempt to broaden what it is seen to be. However, we are uncomfortable with reducing social theory to simply 'a story of the social world' - what about, for instance, the more fundamental matters earlier known as the 'sociology of knowledge' and now as epistemology, including ideas about argument, evidence and their relationship with im/plausible conclusions? We are also struck that, in spite of her interdisciplinary allegiances, Evans mostly sees social theory in terms of sociological theory and fiction, instead of expanding it via, say, theoretical work in anthropology, or history, or psychology, or literary theory. And relatedly, we think there is a greater need to interrogate the use of fiction - are these women fiction writers (and anyway what about Thackery, Trollope and Dickens?) included to offset the (assumed) absence of women social theorists of the time? Or because this is Evans' preferred mechanism for bringing in the subjective, the individual and particular into social theory? Perhaps it is necessary to say that we don't have a problem with fiction being used as a source of ideas - what we would have liked is a more substantial discussion of the issues involved in doing so.

The second point has been already touched on. While there is a discussion of the way social theory became the preserve of universities and women were excluded, what is not discussed is that social theory has been the preserve of an elite group of the good ol' boys, (and now increasingly an elite group of the good ol' girls as well) which has served to determine 'who counts' as a social theorist and who does not. These are crucial, not subsidiary, matters and we are disappointed that by not discussing them Evans by implication treats them as unimportant.[3]

The third point concerns the underlying project of Gender and Social Theory, which is to re-establish the importance of the material/economic in social theory. This is done largely through discussing the relationship of women and men to paid work, with some associated discussion of domestic divisions of labour. However, it is noteworthy that there isn't a sustained discussion of unpaid and caring work, perhaps because of the approach to what counts as 'theory' adopted here. The world of paid work and the domestic sphere are kept largely separate, while one of the greatest insights of feminist thinking from Olive Schreiner's Woman and Labour of 1911 onwards has been that the world of capitalist production cannot be fully understood without adequately theorising social reproduction.

The last point we want to comment on concerns questions of epistemology and methodology and their relation to social theory. By implication, methodology is seen as separate from social theory. Having, as it were, both of us cut our philosophical and sociological teeth on 'the sociology of knowledge' and its relationship to philosophical discussions of epistemology, we are struck by this, not least because this would have been top of our list as key matters for social theory. Our conjecture is that it perhaps reflects the very different routes into the discipline that sociologists of the post World War II generation experienced, or perhaps more recent shifts in the configuration of social theory and its dominant concerns. The structure and organisation of the discipline, and the extent of changes in this over the last 30 years or so, is in fact the central concern of Sara Delamont's book.

The BSA 'New Horizons in Sociology' series published by Sage is concerned with reviewing the state of the discipline in the UK, with taking stock and, through looking around and back, also thinking forward. Sara Delamont's Feminist Sociology works within this brief, noting that - "There have been six problems..." (vii) in doing so. The first three are particularly important for what results: demarcating feminist sociology from feminist perspectives in other disciplines (and interdisciplines, of course); distinguishing feminist sociology from the sociology of women and/or of gender; and dealing with the malestream of the discipline. Delamont's responses to these are characteristically practical and clearly stated. Indeed, this can stand as a comment on her approach generally - in most respects this is a model of what a textbook should be, for Delamont states what she intends to do, does it with clarity, summarises succinctly and provides interesting and pertinent references; she also makes clear her own stance, while not letting this intrude on her accounts of work she may not agree necessarily with.

Feminist Sociology has nine fairly short chapters, which (in this order): review feminist sociology in the UK and the US between 1968 and 2002, map its achievements, consider questions of method/ology, inquire about founding mothers, comment on founding fathers, examine the relationships between feminist sociology and the mainstream, consider the ideas and impact of postmodernism and postfeminism, and reach some general conclusions. It has a clear focus: "This is a book on feminist sociology. It is not an account of the sociological research on women..." (p1), nor is it concerned with social theory in general, nor with social theory in sociology, nor with feminist theory. As the introduction points out, feminist sociology is a presence "which has been important for 30 years" (p1), and the book's central argument, is that: "the feminist sociologies... are more subversive of the dominant paradigm than the other 30-year-old marginal perspectives such as ethnomethodology, conversational analysis and discourse analysis, yet they have been successfully ghettoised by the malestream..." (p1).

Regarding 'the feminist sociologies', in spite of commenting that the 'three schools' model (liberal, Marxist and (heaven help us) 'radical or separatist') has been contested and seen as inaccurate, outdated and unhelpful, Delamont notes it is still widely used (p7-9) and proceeds to use it herself (but compare with p16-19 and p106-13). Widely used it may be but that doesn't make it sensible to repeat it, particularly not when, as in Delamont's case, it is tangential to her following argument, which is actually about complexities of ideas, arguments and 'positions'. For anyone not convinced that this 'model' really is unhelpful, its basic daftness is surely demonstrated when it leads Delamont to characterise the work of eminent sociologists labelled as radical feminist - including Sylvia Walby and Stevi Jackson among others - as separatist, whilst also implying that Walby's work and, for example, Michele Barrett's as a Marxist feminist, conflict much more than they actually do. And for those who, like Dorothy Smith (and ourselves), for instance, are influenced co-equally by Marxism/socialism, radical feminism and ethnomethodology/phenomenology, there is no 'space' within the model for our work. This is not to say that Delamont does not discuss Smith's work, for she certainly does, sensibly completely abandoning the model as a means of placing people and instead focusing on the contribution their work has made. Here, for instance, she rightly emphasises that for many Dorothy Smith is "one of the most creative, innovative and thought-provoking theorists in the world" (p18, see also p106-8); and she also comments generously about Walby's work on patriarchy and its influence (p100-1). However, while doubtless many thousand undergraduate essays will bloom around this repetition of 'the model', using it stymies a more considered look at what has been happening to feminist social theory over the 25 years since the 'three schools' model was first peddled[4].

It is interesting to contemplate whether there might be something more than 'other people do it' for utilising the 'three schools' model within an otherwise more complex argument about ideas, approaches and influences. Looking at what the book actually does, this is the main way that Feminist Sociology deals with what 'feminist theory' consists of (that is, feminist social theory, rather than more specifically sociological theory, also briefly referred to on page 18), apart from in the penultimate chapter, where Delamont discusses 'feminists for and against pomo' (p136-7 and p144-9). It provides her with a succinct overview then, and also enables her to attend to her focus on 'mapping the territory', for with some exceptions, she is less concerned with the impact of feminist ideas and more with the practicalities of who does what and where within the discipline.

Delamont is clear that "The debates surrounding feminist methods encompass the biggest impact that feminism has made in sociology", suggesting that the ensuing controversies have been "angry, far-reaching and long-lasting", having "captured the attention of the discipline" (p60, and see p60-77), and she recognises that methodological and epistemological' matters are also involved. Her discussion, however, starts with practical matters of method, looking at 'sexist research questions', 'research instruments', 'analysis' and 'writing up', before overviewing the development of ideas about the nature of knowledge. The last section of this chapter discusses male hysteria (noting that not only men have been subject to it) about 'feminist methods'. Delamont points out that the male hysterics' arguments depend upon their reifying a 'middle-class white male' point of view, setting up a straw position (the notion of distinct feminist method) to attack what is actually not present in the feminist work targeted, and reading only very selectively the work of those they criticise (p75). We would add that these 'hysterics' also seem largely unaware that the feminist critiques of 'methods' are actually standard ones within phenomenological and hermeneutic philosophies, not to mention being basic to postmodernist and deconstructionist thinking.

As keen contributors to these debates, individually and together, it comes as little surprise that Delamont considers this area of feminist work to have had the greatest impact and occasioned the greatest controversy. And while the controversy has arisen for a number of reasons, of particular importance has been the critique of notions of science and objectivity at the centre of feminist thinking. In addition, this body of work has been centrally concerned with epistemological matters - that is, this work in fact comes under the sign of social theory, one of the sacred realms of the discipline inhabited only by a chosen few but to which many aspire. It is worth commenting that, perhaps surprisingly, Delamont thinks about epistemology as a matter of method rather than of theory, largely we think because of the elisions in the discussion of feminist theory noted above. This brings us on to putative mainstreams and malestreams and Feminist Sociology's take on these. Three chapters are most germane here, concerning the belief that there are no 'founding mothers' of the discipline, the brotherhood of professors and 'founding fathers', and feminist sociology and the malestream.

Regarding founding mothers, Feminist Sociology points out that "Of course, which women we choose to reinstate and promote depends on our current conception of what sociology is" (80, her emphasis; with Mary Wollstonecraft, Harriet Martineau and Beatrice Webb in the UK and Catherine Beecher in the US mentioned). The book provides a telling discussion of how often, even now, the malestream history of the discipline remains a his-story (p96-114; and see more or less any book on social theory here) and an even more telling one of supposedly 'radical' Chicago School sociology (p81-95). But true though these observations about the malestream are, they are not universally true. In keeping with Feminist Sociology's emphasis on departmental and disciplinary (including publishing) structures (p13-16, p24-34), we would want to respond that how the power of the malestream is perceived and experienced depends on: where people did their undergraduate degrees, who supervised their PhDs and what these were about, the departments they're currently located in, their age, which areas of sociological research they engage in, and how they see what 'sociology' is.

Interestingly, however, Delamont's take on this is rather different for, although a 'self-confessed' liberal feminist, she has a much more critical and gloomy interpretation of change in the discipline than we do. Thus for her, the 'silverbacks' (dominant males) of the discipline remain highly resistant not only to feminist ideas and writings, but to the mere idea of women as sociologists whose work needs taking note of (p117-28). This is introduced via a 1980 interview with Goffman in which he described the discipline and the intellectual circle he was part of as an all-male world, followed by a discussion of the twenty-two male contributors to the Annual Review of Sociology (p1986-96), in Martha Riley's (1998) Sociological Lives and in Bridget Berger's (1990) Authors of Their Own Lives, which is supported by a gender analysis of journal publication (p23-6, p36-9). Pointing out that these narratives are authored by 'leading sociologists' (p21; in the US), and 'senior figures in the discipline' (p121), she looks at the gender of the people they mention as significant figures in their intellectual lives. Recognising that their accounts are "carefully crafted social products" (p121), she comments that, compared with the (fewer) female contributors, they are overwhelmingly 'male' narratives: not only are the people mentioned predominantly male, but so too are the ideas: these men have "chosen to ignore women, gender and feminism" (p124, our emphasis), and they appear entirely unaware that this is so (p125).

This paints a pessimistic picture of the male members of the discipline not inhabiting the same world as the rest of humanity. It is, moreover, rather at odds with the account earlier in Feminist Sociology of the nine 'new topics' opened up by feminist sociology over the last 30 years or so, not to mention its 'creation of new intellectual spaces' (p42-55). However, while Delamont's analysis is consonant with our experience of some sociology dinosaurs (a term which creates a very different impression from silverbacks) we have known, the data she has used - by 'leading sociologists' - is in a way almost bound to come up with this result and we wonder whether the same thing would be found among men in, say, their 30s who are not 'senior figures'? Perhaps the difference here is one of optimists versus pessimists, although it is also surely a matter of factors mentioned earlier in Delamont's book, like institutional location and which areas of the discipline one is located in.

Before moving on to the next two books to be discussed, we want briefly to 'compare and contrast' the broad approach taken by Evans and by Delamont. Mary Evans' Gender and Social Theory, as we have indicated, is concerned with social theory on a wider basis that just within sociology, and explores not only the impact of gender matters on it, but also re-conceives its parameters. In some contrast, Sarah Delamont's Feminist Sociology, insofar as it is specifically concerned with theoretical ideas, is concerned with the sub-set of these attached to feminist sociology; but it is actually more interested in exploring the hierarchical structures at local institutional and disciplinary levels that promote or inhibit their production. Paradoxically, the result is that, in spite of Evans' interesting discussion of 'the material' in relation to the subjects of her re-conceived notion of social theory, Delamont's discussion in fact provides a considerably more materialist account of the production and consumption of ideas themselves[5]. The next two books for discussion are concerned with the relationship between epistemology, methodology and research practice, although also touch on theory within sociology and also more widely in the academic inter/disciplines.

The back-cover of Feminist Methodology by Caroline Ramazanoglu with Janet Holland lists four key aspects of feminist methodology identified as the focus of the book: demonstrating how feminist approaches to methodology engage with central philosophical debates and raise crucial questions about knowledge production; showing how feminist methodology has a distinctive place within social research; guiding readers through the debates concerned with feminist knowledge claims about 'gendered social existence'; and fourthly, connecting 'abstract issues of theory' with issues in fieldwork practice.

However, we think a more accurate guide to Feminist Methodology is provided in its first five sentences: "There are many possible approaches to feminist methodology. We start from the problems that arise when feminist social researchers set out to tell 'better stories' of gendered social realities than others. We examine the methodological challenges and choices they face on the way. We do not prescribe what feminist methods should be, or specify how feminist researchers should proceed. Rather, we want to consider how feminist approaches to feminist research have been shaped by some of the concerns of western philosophy and epistemology..." (p1). Following the introduction, there are three parts to the book.

Part one is concerned with the Enlightenment legacy. Although discussed around the 'contradictions' of this, readers of its three composing chapters (on reason and science, feminist knowledge-claims, and feminism's emancipatory project) soon become aware that the authors in fact hold views largely consonant with it. The second part is headed 'Freedom, fragmentation and resistance' and its three chapters are on the impact of postmodernism, methodology and the politics of difference, and rejecting 'experience' and proclaiming a return of 'material realities. The key concern of part two is with rebutting postmodernist and other supposed relativist ideas on the grounds that "Feminism is politically dismembered by relativism" (p57). The third part of the book (the oddly titled 'Meeting challenges, making choices') is a single final chapter on 'doing a feminist research project'.[6]

In discussing feminist standpoint approaches, Ramazanoglu with Holland (p61-3) outline a 'methodological continuum' that ranges from 'absolute truth' to 'absolute relativism'. They contrast the two poles of this. At one end is feminist research conceived as a "rational, generalizing project, grounded in evidence" (p63), which holds to a view of absolute truth or truth as cumulative. At the other end is "relativist constructions of diverse stories and cultural / political interests", which they characterise in terms of absolute relativism. Oddly (indeed, inaccurately), all forms of relativism are depicted as 'absolute', with none of the usual variants or degrees within it mentioned. As a result, even recognising the existence of multiple truths about 'reality' (commonplace within phenomenological and interactional approaches as well as post-structuralism, postmodernism and deconstructionism, and indeed surely basic to every variant of social constructionism) is seen as 'absolute relativism'. This glosses over major differences between very different approaches to social constructionism, to relativism, and their perceived implications for social inquiry. It also insists that being concerned with 'diverse stories' is necessarily incompatible with a 'rational, generalizing project grounded in evidence'. Ramazanoglu with Holland's approach from the outset strongly hitches feminist research to 'telling a better story' (rather than, say, to understanding the stories that are told, which ones are dominant, and what people do with them) and it seems to be this that leads them to their rather one-dimensional position.

Given the book's intention to provide readers with a 'guide to the terrain', it also has the unfortunate effect of mis-guiding them about social constructionism. Moreover, Ramazanoglu with Holland are surprisingly prescriptive in insisting that "Relativism is incompatible with feminist politics and a feminist quest for knowledge of actual power relations" (p63). Not only do they thereby dismiss all the many feminist versions of constructionism as antithetical to feminist politics, but provide no discussion of the implications for academic politics of doing so. It is all the more surprising, then, that the most sustained discussion of the theory/methodology relationship in Feminist Methodology should be concerned with 'postmodern thought' (p83-104). Its argument and conclusions drawn help explain why.

Feminist Methodology recognises that 'postmodern thought' encompasses different approaches but focuses around what is seen as the shared poststructuralism of Foucault, Derrida, and Deleuze and Guattari, and of these is primarily concerned with Foucault's work. This chapter is organised around eight 'freedoms'[7] seen to derive from postmodern thought and provides summaries of ideas about these in some of the literature, although it doesn't connect these with any aspects of actual research practice. Ramazanoglu with Holland comment that postmodern thought as thus conceived has been 'critical and productive' for them as researchers; but they nonetheless insist that "Feminist methodology has no postmodern grounds for continued existence... If fragmentation is accepted, feminist efforts to connect knowledge, experience and reality must be judged defective and ineffective" (p102). It seems that Ramazanoglu with Holland are engaged by some of Foucault's ideas but don't have much interest in the other theorists they mention, indeed more strongly that they reject the premises and implications of this body of work. In addition, this chapter certainly does not 'connect abstract issues of theory with issues in fieldwork practice', in the way claimed as a key feature of Feminist Methodology (nor does any other chapter). We see this as a book discussing methodology conceived abstractly, and in epistemological terms, and having little to say about the relevancies for actual fieldwork practice.

Ramazanoglu with Holland have a preference for strong knowledge-claims tempered by some of the ideas of 'feminist standpoint' thinking (p60-79). They argue that "Feminist standpoint theorists explore the difficulties of establishing relationships between knowledge and power without abandoning the hope of telling better stories about gendered lives" (p63), through a discussion mainly focused on the work of Nancy Hartsock and Dorothy Smith (a political theorist and a sociologist with a strong social research track-record respectively.) They also identify problems (p74-78), and seven are commented on. These cohere around wanting to recognise "diversity in women's experiences" (p65) while still privileging the researchers' interpretations and making strong claims to 'tell better stories'. So how do Ramazanoglu with Holland understand 'diversity' and 'experience' in relation to their other concerns (p123-42)?

Their discussion here starts with problems in taking experience as a source of knowledge, so that positive reasons are read against this negative view. Ramazanoglu with Holland state that, "We take 'experience'... to be a loose, commonsense term..." (p124), and they are of course by no means alone in characterising 'experience' thus, rather than how we would understand it, as something more precise and part of the analytical apparatus of phenomenology. Their criticisms in fact follow from how they set up the term: facts cannot be derived from particular experience because this requires general argument, one person's experience is specific and so cannot give rise to general knowledge, and people can be wrong about what they think they know. However, none of these limitations are seen also to apply to researchers, and by implication Ramazanoglu with Holland treat 'researchers' as immune because they are capable of generalising across experiences in a way that 'women' are not. Thus in discussing research on rape they insist that "Feminists need to go beyond competing stories of experience if they are to produce valid knowledge of rape and its connections to sexuality and power relations" (p129).

This is because their concern is with "feminism's emancipatory impulse" which for them "pulls researchers back into claiming connections between accounts of experience and material aspects of social existence" (p132). However, a number of fault-lines are introduced into their argument by setting up 'experience' as, by definition, immersed in particularities and permitting no cross-experience generalisations. From this they assume that connecting a range of experiences and generalising is the prerogative of researchers. They also introduce more fault-lines by construing experience as only 'ideas' rather than strongly based in the 'material realities' they want to privilege. This is perhaps because of the way that experience and its multiplicities is related by them to 'stories', for the idea of stories, indeed 'talk' in general, is a bit of a red rag to Ramazanoglu with Holland.

The final aspect of Ramazanoglu with Holland's Feminist Methodology for comment is more general, concerning the way it treats feminist writing on method, methodology and epistemology as 'generic', capable of travelling across disciplines without problems. Our view is that it is not helpful, particularly for student readers, to treat abstract discussions about epistemology and methodology by people who have never done social research, as just as relevant to understanding its practice as those discussions by people with many years of practical research experience. For a sociological reader, these issues are highlighted by how a debate that occurred between Susan Hekman and Dorothy Smith (p70-3) is presented.[8] Ramazanoglu with Holland do not understand that Smith might not only reject a realist epistemology (p71), but also Hekman's attempt to foist a theory/reality opposition onto Smith's work (p71-3), something that Hekman cannot comprehend either. It seems to us clear that Smith is working from a notion of 'actuality' rooted in the nitty-gritty of people's everyday lives and experiences, whereas Hekman has a notion of 'reality' derived from 'abstract ideas related abstractly' (the OED definition of theory). We would certainly want to distinguish between statements about research made by people who have no practical knowledge and those who have a great deal, and we hope other sociologists would feel similarly. An emphasis on the importance of actual research practice is one of the distinguishing features of Gayle Letherby's book.

Gayle Letherby's Feminist Research in Theory and Practice is, like Delamont's Feminist Sociology, an 'opinionated' book in the positive sense of the word. Thus the introduction comments that "While, obviously, I shall try to be as fair as possible in presenting and discussing the work of others, I should make it clear from the outset that my own preferred stance is 'auto/biographical'..." (p1). As a consequence, the basis on which Letherby outlines and evaluates other approaches and ideas is very clear; she also connects this with comments about her own methodological choices and strategies; and she carefully explains the variety of ways in which research choices can be operationalised (all hallmarks of a good textbook, in our view).

Feminist Research in Theory and Practice provides an overtly sociological approach to feminist research, starting with situating its approach in auto/biographical approaches within the range of sociological concerns (p1-2) and providing illustrations from a wide range of sociological work. As is commented at the outset, the book is concerned throughout with exploring the relationship between knowing and doing (p2), which results in a considerably more 'practical' approach to matters of methodology and epistemology than Ramazanoglu with Holland's. The structure of chapters is clear and helpful to the reader, beginning with definitional matters in the Introduction, then looking in successive chapters at knowledge issues in the 'male' academy, the feminist reconstruction of knowledge, 'feminist research as theory in action', qualitative and quantitative approaches and their interconnections, issues concerning power and ethics, the researcher/respondent relationship, and research writing, presentations and audiences.

Letherby's discussion starts out confidently by introducing key terms and the book's main purposes, but then she proceeds to characterise its underpinning feminist ideas about knowledge as very much of an 'other' to a male academy (p20-40). And while this is true to an extent (and rather like Delamont's discussion), it characterises the discipline in the UK now as too male, too powerful and too unchanging than we perceive it to be, by presenting it as though it were entirely homogeneous, and completely distinct from women and feminist ideas and work. What results (and a similar comment can be made about Ramazanoglu with Holland's emphasis on reason, science and the 'Enlightenment inheritance' as governing the academic feminist project) is an overly-defensive and reactive discussion of feminist research and methodology presented as merely a response to a powerful and governing mainstream. Here Letherby's look at the 'male' academy (so much for the progressive 'feminization' of sociology at all levels in the UK which has been occurring) focuses on its processes of authorization, exclusion and gatekeeping, and the subordinate status apparently assigned to experiential approaches and a 'reflexive research approach' (p30) in all its activities.[9] There are two important consequences we want briefly to note.

Firstly, readers are given little sense that some styles of academic feminism (and some particular academic feminists) have become integrated and assimilated, so that authorization, exclusion and gatekeeping certainly no longer come exclusively from the 'good ol' boys'.[10] Secondly, readers gain even less sense that feminist ideas and theorising, including on research matters, did not originate defensively in relation to the academic mode at all, but were actually conceived positively as developments within feminist politics, within women's movements in their political and change-making incarnation. Both have wider ramifications: students are thereby encouraged to think of, and write about, academia as though all women and all feminist ideas are subordinate to the 'male' (and conversely, that all men and everything done by them is superordinate), thereby contributing to the very phenomenon being critiqued. And also, feminism within the academy is by implication de-politicised, which in fact cuts across some of the other arguments made in Letherby's book, indeed with its broad approach from its opening chapter onwards.

The discussion of the relationship between research and theory in Feminist Research in Theory and Practice starts with the comment that "When thinking about the importance of theory it is worth remembering that everyone is a theorist: we all think, analyse, interpret and reflect in order to make sense of our lives... [while] social theory tries to be more systematic about explanations and ideas" (p61-2).[11] It goes on to emphasise that for many feminists (outside as well as inside the academy), "feminist research is feminist theory in action" (p62, Letherby's emphasis) and its prime concern is with connecting experience to understanding. Consequently, there is an important need to take this kind of theorising seriously as the bedrock of most feminist knowledge production, Letherby argues. The rest of this chapter is concerned with precisely this, its particular theme being 'generating theory from research' (rather than starting with theory and conceiving research as an exploration of aspects of this, in the way Ramazanoglu with Holland do). Three aspects of this discussion of 'theory in action' are noteworthy.

Firstly, rather than seeing relativism as an absolute, for Letherby it encompasses a number of approaches concerned with exploring the complexities of social life and the existence of competing versions; some of these propose that no final truth about reality can be agreed upon, while others adopt the more 'radical relativist' stance that there can be no general rules for adjudicating between competing versions. Her approach, then, does not treat all relativist arguments as 'the same', nor see them as antithetical to feminist politics. Secondly, Letherby notes that many of the earlier generation of feminist researchers were attracted to grounded theory and inductivism and only gradually realised the problems inherent in these ideas.[12] At the same time, she is also aware that deductivism holds a key place within malestream and scientistic ideas about research and sits uneasily within many, but not all, feminist approaches. The implication is that an alternative to both is required, a conclusion many others have also come to[13]; but, disappointingly, this is one of the few places at which Letherby fails to elaborate in any depth regarding what her take on this might be.

However and thirdly, rather than lining up 'subjectivity' and 'objectivity' (which Adrienne Rich memorably characterised as 'what men call their subjectivity') as purported binaries starkly confronting each other, instead she discusses the idea of 'theorized subjectivity' as a feminist alternative. 'Theorized subjectivity' recognises that people's subjectivity is the defining characteristic of what it is to be alive and in the world, and also that research and theorising (in the formal sense) imposes a discipline on everyday ways of thinking, analysing and interpreting. But at the same time, 'theorised subjectivity' helps resist slipping back into conventional malestream notions of objectivity, which position the academic researcher/theorizer as different in kind from those she does research 'on'. It is around such ideas that Letherby's alternative to inductivism and deductivism could have been further elaborated to the benefit of readers, and we look forward to future work in which she might do so.

As Letherby sensibly notes, arguments that feminist work has portrayed qualitative and quantitative methods as "mutually antagonistic" (p80) greatly oversimplify and deny the extent to which feminist researchers have used the entire range of methods available.[14] She points out, as indeed we have done since 1983 onwards, that what is important "is not the use of a particular method or methods... but the way in which the method(s) are used" (p81, her emphasis). Consequently she discusses interviewing (p81-4), statistical and quantitative work (p84-8, p93-4), life histories, narratives and auto/biographical research (p88-93), and participant observation (p94-6). This discussion concludes with emphasising that "'knowing' and 'doing' are intertwined, and... I would suggest that this 'knowing/doing relationship'... is the central debate among feminists" (p97), and points out there are feminist question marks over qualitative as much as quantitative approaches. Overall, Letherby's approach here concerns 'research-specific methods' (p87), that is, that the choice of method needs to be related to the contextual specifics of the research situation and precisely what is being researched for what purposes and desired end-results. At the same time, and indicative of the refreshing openness of her style, she comments that many feminist researchers are more drawn to the qualitative and that although she knows and accepts these arguments, she continues to experience "a tension that I... need to address" (p88).

In fact, we wonder whether in practice Letherby really does find this as much of a 'tension' as she suggests here for, after all, 'quantification' includes counting of any kind and there are few, if any, researchers who do not make use of 'numbers' in this sense. We think it would have helped student readers grasp the idea that there is little reason to treat qualitative and quantitative methodologies as binaries, or to make hard and fast choices between them, if there had been more detailed discussions of particular pieces of research in this book. Indeed, while there is considerably more in passing comments on research (particularly her own) in Letherby's Feminist Research in Theory and Practice compared with Ramazanoglu with Holland's Feminist Methodology, there are in fact more detailed accounts of social research in Sara Delamont's Feminist Sociology (which is replete with accounts of small-scale pieces of research she carried out to investigate her arguments) than either of these two 'methods' books! Paradoxically, given that the topic of both is methodology, something definitionally grounded in practice, the main way they 'connect theory and methodology' is by discussing methodology abstractly (Ramazanoglu with Holland) or in general terms (Letherby).

This leads to the 'programmatic' approach adopted in both of these books, that is, their concern with laying out all the things that readers, in both cases conceived as undergraduate students, need to know. Programmatic texts of this kind need to be comprehensive in the terms they set for themselves and to be even-handed in the way they deal with, in the case of these books, different aspects of feminist methodology. There is of course absolutely nothing wrong with this. However, as a guide to the realities of actually using feminist methodology in carrying out research, there are some serious issues, for after all the whole point of feminist methodology is that it eventuates, not in essays and answers to examination questions, but in 'feminist research in practice', to invoke the sub-title of Letherby's book here. However, the programmatic approach is unable to demonstrate that, while interpreting the complexities of competing versions of reality (one of Ramazanoglu with Holland's concerns) may be crucial in one research context, it may hardly figure on the scale in another; and while issues of self may indeed be paramount (one of Letherby's arguments) in some research projects, in others this may take a backseat to issues perceived as much more crucial.

The programmatic approach does not show these kinds of variations precisely because it is concerned with overviewing commonalities and typicalities, and not with discussing the details of grounded and unique research situations. And so the obvious question to ask here is, is it possible to avoid programmatic over-generalisation and still produce a good methodology textbook? To this our response is a definite 'yes', for many mainstream texts adopt a grounded approach to methodology matters, using rich detailed exemplars to tease out issues and complexities concerning research practice all the way through from design to interpretation, writing and publication; consequently there seems no reason to suppose that there could not be feminist sociological comparators.

Scanning The Horizon

There are a number of areas for discussion raised by these books we now want very briefly to reflect upon, as a means of 'looking forward and scanning the horizon', so as to think about how the relationship between feminism, feminist sociology and the discipline as a whole might perhaps develop over the next few years. We start by sketching out some additional ways of thinking about social theory; move on to consider whether feminist sociology might no longer be 'other' to a putative mainstream but, at least in the UK, fully a part of the discipline; then contemplate ways of pushing forward past developments in epistemological matters; and finish with some thoughts about the specificities of research practice, research rhetoric and the relationship between research literacy and research competence.

Social theory is not merely a disembodied set of ideas and publications; these are the product of a social network, a social organisation of people. In part this network is formed by one of the (now many) sub-groups of the discipline, in part through its interconnections with similarly placed people in sub-areas of other inter/disciplines, to constitute - or rather to claim - a transcendent 'travelling' set of theoretical ideas germane across a wide sweep of academic and intellectual life. To a very marked extent it is peopled by men, of a particular age and location, and by and large from particular kinds of institutions. It is, then, an elite within the hierarchies of the organisation that is sociology. These very material characteristics of the structures and composition of the social network that produces social theory are crucial for what 'social theory' is seen to include, how it is written, who writes it, how it is evaluated and the criteria used in doing so, and consequently how alternatives to any of these are responded to and themselves evaluated. Once social theory is thought about in such material terms, then two things come into view.

One is that while it can plausibly be claimed that this is 'the mainstream/malestream' which is often invoked but rarely named, then it is clear that it has this quality for the large majority of male sociologists and also those women sociologists who do not see themselves as feminists, not just for the feminist 'other'. The other is that, alongside this and connected only by a small handful of names, there is a similarly configured group of feminist travelling theorists, also constituted as an elite network and having very similar characteristics to their male counterparts. However, looking at the combined products of UK sociological endeavour, our view - shared we think by many others - is that theorising, including of a social theory variant, is certainly not the prerogative of the few who constitute the social theory network. And, looking at the combined products of academic feminism in its multidisciplinary aspect, we also wonder why any academic feminist should be content to do what 'the good ol' boys' do. Aren't there more interesting and more exciting ways to think of theory? And aren't there ways of configuring 'feminist theory' and 'feminist theorists' in ways that do not simply reconstitute the 'male' hierarchies but peopling them with women?

Thinking about the feminist and the 'malestream' versions of social theory with methodological and epistemological matters in mind, we are struck by another similarity. Succinctly, a good deal of both seem to us not to fulfil basic standards for a good, defensible argument and lack methodological adequacy concerning, for example, knowing what evidence is appropriate and sufficient for the argument in question, and relating evidence to conclusions in ways that are consistent and valid. Moreover, there is as little feminist discussion of such matters concerning feminist theory as there is sociological discussion of the specifically sociological component of social theory.[15]

Having pointed out that there is a flourishing (and indeed still expanding) feminist social theory network with similar attributes to the male variant, we now want to contemplate the implications for claims about mainstreams in the discipline. We do so in connection with differences between national sociologies, differences within UK sociology, the growth of sub-areas and specialisms in the discipline and what this indicates about a putative centre and its peripheries, and how ideas may 'travel' without labels indicating ownership attached to them.

National sociologies are frequently very different from each other and it is difficult to generalise across (using examples we are familiar with) ex-Soviet now Russian sociology, Finnish sociology, South African sociology, US sociology, and UK sociology. Moreover, these differences multiply depending on where people are positioned in the hierarchies of any national sociology, as well as concerning the particular sub-areas or specialisms they are involved with.[16] These sub-areas have of course flourished and proliferated over the last 30 years, and again based on examples we are familiar with (concerning UK sociological work on social mobility and class, on auto/biography and the 'documents of life', and on the body), the networks of people involved, as well as the key ideas and canonical texts in these, infrequently meet. Given the proliferation of sub-areas, specialisms and national differences, the idea that there is 'a mainstream' becomes difficult to sustain, for it is more a matter of centres and peripheries in each of these areas of activity, with their own key texts, dominant ideas, gurus, preferred ways of working, journals, book series and so forth. Consequently any claim that feminist sociology is 'other' makes little sense to us - it all depends on which national sociology, the specific feminist sociology or sociologist, where people are organisationally located, and what sub-area of specialism is being referred to.

Moreover, once feminist ideas, gender as a variable, and the sex composition of different levels of persons in the organisational structure, are prised apart, it becomes evident that in some places, in some areas of activity, at some levels, the 'other-ness' of women, of gender, and of feminist ideas, cannot be convincingly demonstrated. Indeed, we would argue more strongly, with regard to some sub-areas of sociological work, that feminist thinking has in fact become central, and some feminist theorists have achieved canonical status in some aspects of social theory. In addition, the impact of ideas occurs in a variety of ways and sometimes their point of origin or part of their history may be lost sight of. Here for instance (and again with regard to UK sociology in particular), ideas about the work/leisure relationship and domestic divisions of labour, or concerning reflexivity and the grounded nature of sociological modes of inquiry, have gained wide currency but are not seen as particularly feminist in character. However, those of us with 30 year involvement in the discipline can note that the emphasis given them in feminist teaching, debate and publications have played an important role in ensuring their wider sociological currency.[17]

Looking at the publication dates of key work on feminist epistemology and methodology provided in a number of the books reviewed, it is notable that very little that is new has been said for some considerable time. There has indeed been the hashing and re-hashing of arguments and ideas that has led all of the authors of these books, and ourselves, to a sense of dissatisfaction and a conviction that 'something else' is needed. However, the grudging approach to the insights and advances in this body of work that characterises some of these books, and their at points 'it's all very well but let's get back to the real world, plain facts, researchers as discovers of knowledge' quality, gives up too soon on ideas that have been extraordinarily productive, insightful and which have re-made the discipline in ways to its general benefit as well as feminist sociologists in particular. We certainly do not support any return to ways of conducting and writing about sociological inquiry that characterised the discipline of 30 years ago, with its multiple exclusions, biases and scientistic pretensions. We are also disconcerted that some feminists want to return to a 'discovery and change' mode about society, and emphasise that more value needs to be placed on actually understanding it. In contrast, our interest is in taking these (feminist, phenomenological, hermeneutic, deconstructionist, postmodernist, called them what you will) ideas further, thinking more innovatively about what to do with them. 'Theorized subjectivity' is one possibility among others here, although as presently formulated it retains, indeed it is predicated upon, an objectivity/subjectivity binary we are more than uncomfortable with. Our preference is for something we termed a 'fractured feminist foundationalism'. Obviously this is not the place to rehearse its components or its strengths as we see them, but we do want to emphasise that this set of ideas was and is definitionally concerned with the 'material world' and with a sociologically-informed, grounded but also fully theorized feminist practice for social inquiry of all kinds.[18]

Epistemology in our view is a crucial, indeed foundational, element of social theory; and when we came into the discipline what was then called 'the sociology of knowledge' was centrally part of social theory, which covered a more diverse set of concerns than the now canonical recurrent topics that presently characterise it. Questions of epistemology have been central to academic feminism over nearly all of the last 30 years, central too for many feminist sociologists who would not see themselves as theorists. There are interesting consequences to re-thinking epistemology as part of social theory, for this could (and we hope will) lead many of these people to reposition themselves as social theorists, but producing social theory in a different voice than either of the elite networks of social theorists.

We are struck by the gap between the highly developed theoretical and epistemological rhetoric about research on the one hand, and on the other the largely in passing and rather superficial accounts of the nitty-gritty practicalities of research on the ground, noticeable in the discussions reviewed here. However, we hasten to add that this comment is made, not as a criticism of the authors, but as an observation about the body of work they discuss. We reiterate the point made earlier - in considering its research relevancy, it is time to think more discriminatingly about contributions to this body of work and bring into the equation whether people are writing abstractly or out of long-term research experience. We also think it important for textbooks to consider more seriously the relationship between research literacy and research competency. All students of sociology at whatever 'levels' and in whatever institutional settings will become long-term consumers of research, but very few of them indeed will ever become producers of it apart from in undergraduate classrooms. In our view, most textbooks (and with honourable exceptions) over-emphasise teaching students competency skills, and considerably underemphasize giving them the literacy skills to read, unpack, interpret and evaluate research and the conclusions drawn from it.

So what conclusion overall do we draw from these four textbooks about feminist sociology and its place within the discipline as a whole? That 'we're here, we're inside and we're important and cannot be legitimately ignored', would be the main thing. Related to this, these textbooks and also the careers and contributions of their various authors, are ample indication that any equivalent of the 'colonial cringe' is misplaced. It is clear that a more confident and analytically-discriminating approach to thinking and writing about the place of feminist sociology within the discipline, and indeed the configuration of the discipline as such, is now called for.


1 From the editorial statement to the BSA's 'New Horizons in Sociology' series.

2 See here Leonard Barker & Allen 1976a and 1976b; and see also the later compilation from these in Leonard & Allen 1991. We both 'became sociologists' at this point (narrowly missing the Aberdeen conference because of research commitments), while, of the authors whose books we shall be discussing, Mary Evans, Sarah Delamont, Caroline Ramazanoglu and Janet Holland are all UK sociologists of similar vintage to ourselves, with Gayle Letherby one of the 'first generation' heirs of this early 1970s wave of feminist debate, publication and teaching.

3 We discussed why we think these issues are crucially important in Stanley and Wise 2000.

4 We commented at the time that this and related models were seriously out of synch with the actual state of theory and 'positions' (Stanley & Wise 1979, 1983).

5 A note on the presentation of Evans' and Delamont's books is needed. Firstly, both books are shockingly badly proof-read; indeed, we find it difficult to believe that they have been proof-read at all. The result are some hilariously funny mistakes that will not only cause serious embarrassment to the authors, but also give ammunition to those who need no excuse to treat feminist scholarship as slipshod. The final responsibility for this lies with the publishers and we wonder why both these books show no sign of having been professionally proof-read. Secondly, both of these books, as well as those by Letherby discussed shortly, have bibliographies that use only initials to identify authors. If all publishers adopted this practice, then - very ironically indeed - the analysis of gender patterns in publishing that supports much of Delamont's argument would not have been possible. Two of the books discussed here come from Sage: one uses full names (Ramazanoglu with Holland) while the other uses only initials (Letherby), demonstrating that there is flexibility within a publisher's 'house style'. We feel strongly that authors should challenge academic publishers by insisting that there are good intellectual and political reasons for using personal, as well as family, names in bibliographies, as well as a decent level of professional proof-reading by the publisher, of course.

6 Interestingly, there is no separate entry in the index for sociology, or for anthropology, psychology, social policy... and its contents are unfettered from specifically disciplinary considerations. Only one chapter (83-104, sub-titled 'The impact of postmodern thought on feminist methodology') out of eight is concerned with the theory, methodology and method relationship. While another chapter takes off from the 'difference' debates within feminism, this is not concerned with the theory/methodology relationship but rather with how notions of 'otherness' can be handled both practically and in relation to matters of interpretation in research processes. The only sustained consideration of the practicalities of 'doing a feminist research project' comes in the last chapter in the book, written in a quite different 'voice' from the other chapters and comes across as something of a 'by the way' inclusion.

7 These are: freedom from scientific method, from binary thinking, in decentring the subject, from essentialism, from universality and ethnocentrism, from material embodiment, and from seeing power as a possession to seeing it as a production.

8 This exchange took place in 1997 in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture & Society Vol 22 No 21.

9 Given Letherby's interest in the auto/biographical and experiential, the book considerably underplays the role of, interest in and adherence to sociological approaches concerned with such matters, both historically and contemporaneously.

10 There is also the considerable irony here that these four books are written, and also reviewed here, by women who are more akin to Titans than the humble oppressed types conjured up in some of their pages.

11 This is very different from the approach to theory and generalisation taken by Ramazanoglu with Holland, although there is considerable agreement between Letherby's rejection of the relativist implications of postmodernist thinking and retention of a basically foundationalist position which sees the feminist researcher as adding 'knowledge' that is in some sense superordinate over that of research participants and theirs.

12 We are pleased to note that we were not among this number, in early work already identifying precisely these issues (in, for instance, Stanley & Wise 1979, 1983).

13 We discussed the alternative we are interested in (developed initially in Stanley & Wise 1993) as a 'feminist fractured foundationalism'.

14 She references Ann Oakley 1998 here (and see also Oakley 2000). While we ourselves have been on the receiving end of Oakley's sometimes serious butchering of feminist positions different from her own, we still find the absence of any discussion of Oakley's work from Ramazanoglu with Holland's book (and their bibliography) rather odd, given Oakley's importance to these debates.

15 As discussed in Stanley & Wise 2000; some other articles published in this journal have also been concerned with the reconfiguartion of feminist theory, but the large majority is utterly conventional and 'mainstream' in its approach and style. Concerning the place of theory in sociology, again, we are not claiming there is no work of this kind, more that it is seen as lying outside of theory itself.

16 In the UK, for instance, undergraduates on a mass introductory course, PhD students in a 5* department, junior and contract lecturers in a further education college, and Oxbridge research fellows, might with some confidence be expected to have very different experiences and understandings of what 'sociology' is.

17 We're not saying here that these ideas originated through feminism - clearly ideas about reflexivity, for instance, pre-dated feminist reworkings of them - but that feminist work both championed them and has added considerably to their present meanings and usages.

18 See Stanley & Wise 1993(pp. 186-233); and also the contributors to Stanley 1990 for a set of examples of what this might look like, which range across different methods, different theoretical position, topics of inquiry.


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