Routledge, London (2013)
ISBN: 9780415840415 (hb)
Reviewed by Buyana Kareem, G.J. Lieberman Fellow Stanford Humanities Center, USA
Feminist and ecological scholarship are interrelated by the form and functioning of systems, which many a researcher in the global north and south, have held responsible for being the source of marginalizing women and nature, respectively. However, Anne Stephens’ book is not about the sources of women’s subordination and or environmental degradation, but rather the theoretical and methodological basis of the compatibility between the two and the systems that function to bring about such compatibility. She introduces her readers to the linkages between feminist and environmental systems-thinking, using varied dichotomies of critique that mainly include: women vs. nature; nature vs. culture; culture vs. women; environment vs. systems; and women vs. systems.
These dichotomies are embodied in two types of sociological thought: (a) ecofeminism; and (b) critical systems thinking. Ecofeminism evolved and continues to do so around the assumption that the source of women’s lesser position in society when compared to men, is traceable to the human and non-human stressors on the environment on which women traditionally depend to fulfill their socially-ascribed roles, especially in terms of securing food and medicine for the home. Critical systems thinking on the other hand, centers on what drives the complexity of social change, and the methods used to research and intervene to make such change beneficial to society. Anne separates ecofeminism into two theoretical strands, that is; cultural and nature ecofeminism. The former, to which the book is inclined, lays emphasis on women’s socially-prescribed care responsibilities as the avenue through which they link with nature and acquire knowledge about it. The latter focuses on male supremacy in society as the binding oppressor for women and nature. Anne Stephens further stresses that the compatibility between ecofeminism and critical systems thinking lies in the use of participatory approaches to applied research, especially when systematic intervention for change is required at community level.
In the chapters that follow, Eco-Feminism and Systems Thinking focuses on the diversity of ideas and principles that constitute the understanding, evolution and study of eco-feminism and systems thinking. Stephens bases on the works of Flood (2010) to note that systems thinking comprises critical and social awareness as notions that provide for the expansion in the way knowledge can be generated, through a variety of methods. It is such diversity in knowledge and methodology that enables the understanding of the similarities and differences between ecofeminism and systems thinking. The book notes that eco-feminism and systems thinking are epistemologies through which knowledge is generated using critique, dialogue and reflection, each having its own methodologies. The compatibility between the two bodies of knowledge (eco-feminism and systems thinking) lies in transcending beyond the positivistic understanding of man and nature as two interdependent biological settings. Eco-feminism and systems thinking view man and nature as agents of social change and capable of being changed under certain circumstances. It is this compatibility that gives rise to feminist-systems thinking (FST) framework for practice.
Feminist systems thinking is guided by five principles which include: center nature, being gender sensitive, valuing voices from the margins, selecting appropriate methodologies and bringing about social change. Anne emphasizes that these principles are not only critical in generating a mix of methods through which knowledge can be generated, but also guiding systematic and reflective practice when pursuing programmes targeted at social change and justice. The book contains four case studies in which the principles are operationalized, and what cuts across these case studies that gender relations permeate all levels of programme management (micro, meso and macro levels) by bringing specificity and diversity to the understanding of interpersonal matters amongst participants for whom social change is sought. The book concludes with emphasis on the developmental approach and illustrations used to create and broaden the understanding of the compatibilities (theoretical and empirical) between eco-feminism and systems thinking. Such compatibility offers a political and social framework known as feminist systems thinking (FST), according to Stephens. She asserts that social and/or political processes for creation of justice in society are likely to achieve the set objectives if some or all the FST principles are implicitly present. This is because FST principles are the basis for reflective practice, fostering morals and ethics in interventions for social change, and influencing the participation of all relevant actors. If understood and applied to required depth and breadth in social programmes, FST can provide tipping points upon which new research paradigms can be formed and evolve. Finally, a paperback version of this book is due out later in 2015.