Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1996


Feminism and Social Change: Bridging Theory and Practice

Heidi Gottfried (editor)
Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press
0 252 06495 X (pb); 0 252 02198 3 (hb)
$14.95 (pb); $39.95 (hb)
viii + 286 pp.

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This book examines how feminist research constitutes a self-conscious, political practice, whereby the fundamental goal is to change women's lives through the production and dissemination of knowledge. Each author in this collection demonstrates that research, in and of itself, can embody feminist activism.

Both novice and advanced researchers, regardless of their personal stance on feminism, will be interested in the methodological strategies and dilemmas explored by each of the authors in this collection of essays. Yet some readers, especially non-feminist ones, may pass up an opportunity to learn more about the linkages between theory, research, and experience if they mistakenly assume that this book is about women's movements or feminist theories of social change. Instead this book serves as a concrete guide for reflecting on all components of the research process across a variety of methodological orientations, from small-scale participatory projects to large-scale survey research.

Heidi Gottfried has assembled an interesting combination of papers - some original and some revised versions of previously published works. Gottfried also provides coherence to the collection by starting off with an insightful, integrative overview of the research dilemmas and strategies addressed by these contributors. She divides the book into three sections: (I) contradictions in feminist research; (II) cases studies of different women's communities; and (III) strategies of participatory and advocacy research.

The essays in Part I focus on the complexities of doing feminist research. Sherry Gorelick argues that merely giving voice to women's experiences through the use of interviews, participant observation, and oral histories is insufficient because it does not uncover the hidden sources of oppression. She suggests that theory must provide an interpretive framework to make these relations more visible. Yet she astutely acknowledges that feminist researchers, like herself, are confronted by the same social forces, distortions, and limitations as respondents, and thus, feminist researchers may be less able to perceive their own relations of oppression, their common contradictions. In the next essay, Dorothy Smith exposes the contradictions of academic feminism and its increasing ties to the relations of ruling. Then, Joan Acker, Kate Barry and Joke Esseveld take up the issues of objectivity, the relationship between the researcher and the researched, and validity in an essay that was first written in 1980. In their afterword, they reflect on how their original essay belongs to an earlier epoch in their own intellectual journeys. Their self-criticisms may well provide the most valuable insights of the entire collection. Previously, they asserted that empathy was essential to feminist research. Today, however, they take the position that 'empathy is not always possible, nor is it a defining quality of feminist research' (p. 82). In the final essay of Part I, Judith Stacey explores the contradictions between feminist principles and ethnographic fieldwork. She points out that 'the appearance of greater respect for and equality with research subjects in the ethnographic approach masks a deeper, more dangerous form of exploitation' (p. 90). She concludes that there cannot be a fully feminist ethnography.

The essays in Part II reveal the concrete processes of doing research in particular women's communities. Each author illuminates the (often) hidden aspects of how research projects are actually carried out, being especially attentive to the conscious ways that they encountered the boundaries of insider/outsider and subject/object. Pierrette Hondogneu-Sotelo tackles the ethics of reciprocity in her research and activism with Latina domestic workers in Los Angeles. Linda Carty describes the difficulties of her 'outsider within' status in doing fieldwork in the Caribbean and among immigrant Caribbean's in Canada and the United States. Vert Taylor and Leila Rupp discuss how 'lesbian existence' was central to their research on the U.S. women's movement. Nancy Naples analyzes the evolution of her collaboration with Emily Clark in terms of their different, but overlapping standpoints as survivors as childhood sexual abuse. Although these essays echo well-known points about reflexivity and the tensions of insider/outsider dilemma, their contributions lie in the concrete illustrations of how to self-consciously examine our own research strategies with critical feminist eyes.

Gottfried claims that this volume goes beyond previous books in its coverage of an array of diverse methodologies, but all the essays in Parts I and II rely on qualitative strategies, albeit different kinds. Therefore, as a quantitative feminist, I was disappointed that the potential of quantitative feminist research for social change was not explored until the final section of this book. Here, Roberta Spalter-Roth and Heidi Hartmann describe how they successfully use conventional empiricism in conjunction with a feminist prism to advocate credible welfare policies for poor women. And Ronnie Steinberg highlights the need for impeccable credentials and rigorous quantitative techniques in her pursuits for comparable worth and pay equity. In contrast, Francesca Cancian emphasizes the grassroots participation in all aspects of research in spite of the difficulties that this may pose for activist researchers with academic careers. In the final essay, Nancy Hartsock addresses broader strategic issues by exposing the failures of postmodernism and she concludes that postmodernist thought impedes effective coalitions for social change.

Although I was impressed by some of these essays, it is evident that we have not yet overcome the dualism of the qualitative/quantitative divide. I am left wondering whether qualitative techniques lend themselves more readily to constructive, feminist reflexivity or is it just that there are fewer quantitative feminists who voice such concerns about their own research.

Nevertheless, I recommend this book, or selections from this book, for undergraduate and graduate courses in methods or gender studies. And I look forward to further explorations by feminist scholars of how to bridge the gaps between political action, feminist theory, and the social production of knowledge.

April Brayfield
Tulane University

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1996