Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998


Humphries, B. (1998) 'The Baby and the Bath Water: Hammersley, Cealey Harrison and Hood-Williams and the Emancipatory Research Debate'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 3, no. 1, <>

To cite articles published in Sociological Research Online, please reference the above information and include paragraph numbers if necessary

The Baby and the Bath Water

The debate which has ensued as a result of my recent article (Humphries, 1997; Hammersley, 1997; Cealey Harrison and Hood-Williams, 1998) offers an opportunity to engage productively with particular issues raised. I am especially interested to pursue the argument that my attempt to find an accommodation between a general theory of women's inequality and a recognition of diversity serves to undermine the overall direction of the article (Cealey Harrison and Hood-Williams, 1998: ¶1.2; Hammersley, 1997: ¶1.12). Both contributions suggest that I have ignored the implications of post-structuralism for feminist and other emancipatory research. I am consequently pleased to have this opportunity to foreground the discussions within feminist theory precisely in relation to this problem.

First, there is a risk in academic debate that pre-occupation with the philosophical aspects of any discipline can obscure the lived realities which constitute the substance of the theoretical arguments. Feminism, feminist and other emancipatory research approaches are worked out not solely at a philosophical level, but are linked with the construction of a politics of everyday life and strategies for intervention (in fact, those characteristics to which Hammersley objects). It is therefore concerned with the material conditions of the lives of oppressed groups. This is not to say that other theoretical positions have no such concern, but they do not purport to make themselves explicitly accountable to other than the academic and research community (beyond general ethical considerations). There is a risk that in the adversarial culture of academic debate there develops a greater emphasis on winning the argument than on the objective conditions of the lives of the subjects of research (and these are nearly always people in subordinate positions in society).

Hammersley is dismissive of my use of McNay's argument that feminists 'cannot afford to relinquish either a general theoretical perspective or an appeal to a metanarrative of justice' (his emphasis), saying 'not being able to afford to do something is different from justifying not doing it' (¶1.12). It is pertinent therefore to remind ourselves briefly of the justification of the existence of feminism by describing the ways in which sexual difference has become sexual inequality.

Such a discussion also addresses limitations of the approach taken by Cealey Harrison and Hood-Williams, that is, their neglect of the social context and their de-emphasis of economic and material relations of power, and their teleological assumption that later theory is 'better' theory (indeed a very modernist assumption). The binary they set up between equality and difference is in Joan Smith's terms, a 'disabling' one for feminists. She sees the two terms as interdependent, 'equality is not the elimination of difference, and difference does not preclude equality' (Smith, 1990: p. 138).

In terms of the material conditions of women's lives, worldwide women do more work than men, yet their labour is seen to be of less value. They receive on average about 30-40 per cent less pay than men if employed, and no pay at all for most domestic work. They hold only 10-20 per cent of managerial and administrative jobs, and are poorly represented in the ranks of power, policy and decision making (United Nations, 1991: p.6). Lesley Doyal shows how gender inequality of 'race', class and nationality are clearly reflected in international health statistics (Doyal, 1995). Doyal traces variations in patterns of health and illness between women and men, as well as identifying the health status and access to medical care that separate groups of women from each other. She shows how economic, social and cultural factors prevent many women from meeting their physical and psychological health needs. Some of the factors limit the potential of both sexes: 'global inequalities in income and wealth, for example, as well as environmental degradation and the barriers of "race" and class that continue to divide both rich and poor countries' (p. 231). Other factors are gender specific. Doyal has drawn on a wide range of sources to compile an authoritative volume which describes inequalities between women and men and amongst women in different cultures related to a range of dimensions including paid and unpaid labour; hazards at work; violence in the home; sexual harassment; sex, reproduction and illness and mortality; medicine and power over women; and of course women's resistance through movements for health and creative strategies even in the direst of circumstances.

Doyal identifies discourses which naturalise gender differences and inequalities. In doing so she rejects both what she calls, 'crude universalism and crude difference theories' (p. 4), attempting to focus on their 'common difference'. She argues that in order to realise women's right to health, feminist politics need to ally themselves with wider campaigns for sustainable development, political freedom and economic and social justice. What is being recognised in Doyal's work are both the commonalities of women's subordination and the differential impact on and responses of women in different circumstances.

Both feminist and other researchers have identified global inequalities between social groupings, including those between women and men. These authors include Davis (1981), Glendinning (1987), Mies et al (1988), Mama (1989), Walby (1990; 1997), Anthias and Yuval-Davis (1992), Townsend (1993), Dalla Costa and Dalla Costa (1993), Graham (1993), Norgaard (1994), Sparr (1994).

A number of feminists have explored ways feminism and feminist research may take account of complexity. Walby (1997) for example, examines changes in relations of gender, race and ethnicity, and the impact of global pressures and local conditions which have led to new forms of inequality. In particular she shows how gender restructuring has affected women differently from men and from each other.

It is clear, then, that it will not do to assume that the category 'women' is constructed solely discursively, or that it is not productive to construct a general theory of women's oppression. Inequality may take different forms, and different factors may be of overriding political concern for different groups at different times and places, but the evidence for its material existence is irresistible.

The tensions which arise from combining poststructuralist insights with an overall commitment to the removal of inequalities should not lead to a conclusion that they are incompatible. The points made by postmodernist and poststructuralist critics about the dangers in theorising gender (and class and 'race') inequality at a general level are well taken, but they go too far in condemning such a project as unproductive. They have done what they have criticized modernism for, in polarizing the issues and in viewing modernism as 'bad' and postmodernism as 'good'. The challenge to feminism is to look beyond these artificial polarities in exploring ways in which theory can be made more compatible with the local.

In recent years feminist theorists have developed a very constructive internal critique, provoked both by the insights of poststructuralism and by the critiques of black and Third World feminists, which have led to current debates about universality and difference. This internal critique is well documented. Black and Third World feminists have been scathing about the hegemony in feminist theory of white, western, middle class, heterosexual women, and diligent about charting difference and insisting that feminist theory take account of it (for example Carby, 1982; Amos and Parmar, 1984; hooks, 1984; Lorde, 1984; Christian, 1988; Collins, 1991; Mohanty, 1991). Some of these, alongside others, have drawn on poststructuralist insights to develop their critique.

In identifying the category 'woman' as essentialist, attention is drawn to the importance of recognising cultural and historical variability in discourses of femininity and masculinity. But as Walby (1990) notes, while gender relations could potentially take an infinite number of forms, in actuality there are some widely repeated features, some of which I have identified above through the work of Doyal and others. Cealey Harrison and Hood-Williams suggest that the potentially infinite number of forms of inequality make it impossible to investigate (¶2.4). The fact is that the social world is complex, and if we are deterred by this then we can never start. One of the questions for research has always been how to catch that complexity. We do not have to move from analysis of structure to that of discourse in order to pursue it, nor do we have to abandon the notion of causality. This does not assume mono-causality, and indeed feminist theory has for many years pursued the question of multiple causality.

Further, the signifiers 'woman' and 'man' have sufficient historical and cross-cultural continuity to warrant using such terms (Walby, 1992). Riley's deconstruction of the category 'woman', quoted by Cealey Harrison and Hood- Williams to support their dismissal of any notion of social divisions (¶2.6, ¶2.7), is a very useful contribution to the debate, but as Stanley and Wise (1990) point out, it offers 'few clues as to how a substantive feminist research process concerned with actual living, breathing, thinking theorising people should proceed at the level of methodology translated into method' (p. 40). At the same time, as Riley herself points out, the instabilities invoked in the category 'woman' are none other than the subject matter of feminist politics (Riley, 1988: p. 5).

Feminists have moved a long way from denying difference and specificity. As Barrett and Phillips (1992: p. 8) put it, the strategic questions that face contemporary feminism are now informed by a much richer understanding of heterogeneity and diversity: but they continue to revolve around the alliances, coalitions and commonalities that give meaning to the idea of feminism. My engagement with these concerns in 'From Critical Thought to Emancipatory Action', far from undermining the arguments, is the very stuff of feminist research and debate.

Cealey Harrison and Hood- Williams are offering us an ungrounded, relativistic and skewed approach to social research. They would do well to take heed of Kate Soper's observation that:

... if discourse theory has served to expose some of the naivities of standard forms of feminist reasoning, it is equally the case that it itself can offer no adequate comprehension of the oppression of women or of the resistance to it... A feminism which posits an unanchored 'power' as the precipitating force behind all changes in gender relations will be no more explanatorily satisfactory than a realism which is insensitive to the constitutive role of discourse. (Soper, 1993: p.48)


AMOS, V. and PARMAR, P. (1984) 'Challenging Imperial Feminism', Feminist Review, vol. 17, pp. 3 - 19.

ANTHIAS, F. and YUVAL-DAVIS, N. (1993) Racialized Boundaries. London and New York: Routledge.

BARRETT, M. and PHILLIPS, A. (1992) Destabilising Theory: Contemporary Feminist Debates. Stanford Ca: Stanford University Press.

CARBY, H. (1982) 'White Women Listen:Black Feminism and the Boundaries of Sisterhood' The Empire Strikes Back, London: Hutchinson.

CEALEY HARRISON, W and HOOD-WILLIAMS, J (1998) 'More Varieties than Heinz: Social Categories and Sociality in Humphries, Hammersley and Beyond', Sociological Research Online, vol. 3, no. 1, <http://www.socre>.

CHRISTIAN, B. (1988) 'The Race for Theory', Feminist Studies, vol. 14, pp. 67 - 79.

COLLINS, P. H. (1991) Black Feminist Thought. New York, London: Routledge.

DALLA COSTA, M. and DALLA COSTA, G. (editors) (1993) Paying the Price. London and New Jersey: Zed Books.

DAVIS, A. (1981) Women, Race and Class. London: The Women's Press.

DOYAL, L. (1995) What Makes Women Sick: Gender and the Political Economy of Health. London: Macmillan Press.

GLENDINNING, C. and MILLAR, J. (editors) (1987) Women and Poverty in Britain. Brighton: Wheatsheaf Books.

GRAHAM, H. (1993) Hardship and Health in Women's Lives. New York, London: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

HAMMERSLEY, M. (1997) 'A Reply to Beth Humphries', Sociological Research Online, vol. 2, no. 4, <http://www.socre>.

HOOKS b. (1984) Feminist Theory: from Margin to Center. Boston: South End Press.

HUMPHRIES, B. (1997) 'From Critical Thought to Emancipatory Action: Contradictory Research Goals?', Sociological Research Online, vol. 2, no. 1, <http://www.socre>.

LORDE, A. (1984) Sister Outsider. New York: Crossing Press.

MAMA, A. (1989) The Hidden Struggle. London: The London Race and Housing Research Unit and Runnymede trust.

MIES, M., BENNHOLDT-THOMSEN, V. and von WERLHOF, C. (1988) Women, the Last Colony. London and New Jersey: Zed Books.

MOHANTY, C. T. (1991) 'Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses' in C. T. Mohanty, A. Russo and L. Torres (editors) Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. Bloomington and Indiana: Indiana University Press.

NORGAARD, R. B. (1994) Development Betrayed. London and New York: Routledge.

RILEY, D. (1988) Am I That Name? Feminism and the Category of Women in History. Basingstoke and London: Macmillan.

SMITH, J. (1990) 'Deconstructing Equality-Versus- Difference' in M. Hirsch and E. Fox Keller (editors) Conflicts in Feminism. New York and London: Routledge.

SOPER, K. (1993) 'Productive Contradictions' in C. Ramazanoglu (editor) Up Against Foucault. London and New York: Routledge.

STANLEY, L. and WISE, S. (1990), 'Method, Methodology and Epistemology in Feminist Research Processes' in L. Stanley (editor) Feminist Praxis. London and New York: Routledge.

SPARR, P. (editor) (1994) Mortgaging Women's Lives. London and New Jersey: Zed Books.

TOWNSEND, P. (1993) The International Analysis of Poverty. New York and London: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

UNITED NATIONS (1991) The World's Women (1970 - 1990): Trends and Statistics, Social Statistics and Indicators, Series K, No. 8. New York: UN.

WALBY, S. (1990) Theorizing Patriarchy. Oxford UK and Cambridge USA: Blackwell.

WALBY, S. (1997) Gender Transformations. London and New York: Routledge.

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998