Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2003


Gayle Letherby (2003) Reflections on where we are and where we want to be: response to 'Looking Back and Looking Forward: Some Recent Feminist Sociology Reviewed'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 8, no. 4, <>

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Received: 17/11/2003      Accepted: 17/11/2003      Published: 28/11/2003

Initial Responses

As Wise and Stanley obviously know, I have been greatly influenced by their work - both together and separately. Having written an essay entitled 'Is sociology a political endeavour?' as a first year student in the late 1980s I was surprised and gratified when, browsing the library shelves in my second year, I discovered through finding the 1983 edition of Breaking Out: Feminist Consciousness and Feminist Research that the debate around this issue had not ended in the mid 1970s. Thus, I must admit that my first response to having my book Feminist Research in Theory and Practice included in Wise and Stanley's (2003) review article 'Looking Back and Looking Forward: Some Recent Feminist Sociology Reviewed' is to feel more than a little 'chuffed'.

My second response was to realise that their interest in my work gives me the opportunity to (as was suggested at a recent board meeting of a journal for which I am a Book Review editor) 'review' my own book. Last, but not least, I welcome the opportunity to engage in the debate concerned with the future relationship between sociology and feminism.

* Feminist Research in Theory and Practice

In writing Feminist Research in Theory and Practice my aim was to take an historical approach to the development of feminist epistemological debates. I was commissioned to write what Wise and Stanley call an 'opinionated' book which would provide students, researchers and teachers with an overview of previous feminist work in relation to method, methodology and epistemology and outline my own position in relation to historical and contemporary debates. My response to Wise and Stanley's review of my work focuses on two main issues: first, reflections on my/their discussion of the 'male/or not academy' and second the relationship between knowing and doing.

After commending my 'confident' start, Wise and Stanley argue that the early chapters of my book are written as 'an overly-defensive and reactive discussion of feminist research and methodology' which 'characterises the discipline [of sociology] in the UK now as too male, too powerful and too unchanging' (1.33). Alternatively, they argue that there has been a 'progressive 'feminization' of sociology at all levels in the UK' (1.33). I agree with them that feminism has had a hugely significant effect on the academy:
. . . there are more women students, researchers, teachers and managers in further higher education than ever before and as Evans (1995) argues, education is no longer about DWMs (dead white males). In many subjects and on many levels there has been a concentrated challenge to the orthodoxies of the past. The curriculum has broadened and is less rigid in its subject demarcation and the critique of knowledge production is part of (some) academic study. Feminists and others working outside of western assumptions have been influential in these changes. As Evans (1997: 122) notes: 'feminists can claim to have developed one of the now great critical traditions within the Western academy, that of suggesting that the universalistic assumptions of knowledge in our society are false, and partial, because they are drawn from the experience of only one sex'. (Letherby 2003: 38)

However, there is still much evidence of cases of sexism in the academy - within sociology and elsewhere - with regard to relationships between staff and between staff and students, hierarchies of knowledge, and approaches to teaching and learning (e.g. Morley and Walsh 1995, 1996; Malina and Maslin Prothero 1998; Howie and Trauchert 2002; Morley 2003). As Wise and Stanley themselves note later on in their review 'To a very marked extent, it [social theory] is peopled by men, of a particular age and location, and by and large from particular types of institutions' (2.2). In addition, as Wise and Stanley also note (see 2.7), the origins of ideas are sometimes lost, and the influence of feminist teaching, debate and publication in relation to some issues of central sociological concern are, on occasion, given less credence than they should be. I wanted my book to reflect these complexities within the contemporary academy. Furthermore, although grounded in my own work as a sociologist, in Feminist Research in Theory and Practice I was concerned with academia in general, and I included examples of traditional and feminist work in other social science and non-social science disciplines, within some of which at least feminism does not have such a central position as within sociology.

Despite my views here, I remain distressed that Wise and Stanley view my approach as defensive, resulting, they suggest, in the implication that women and feminism are subordinate to men and male ideas. Perhaps I should not have started the book with a critique of the male academy if this had the unfortunate consequence of encouraging the reader to view the rest of my argument as merely as response to the mainstream, rather than (as intended) a celebratory critique of how far we have come. Yet, given the historical primacy of men and male ideas in the academy, isn't it inevitable that feminist epistemological debate is in some ways a response to so-called traditional 'authorised' views? Also, although academic feminism developed alongside, and in relation to, the grass-roots feminism of the 1970s and 1980s, surely it is important to ask whether would there have been a need for feminism - grass roots or academic - if man as norm and woman as 'other' had not been the dominant epistemological foundation throughout recorded history? To some extent, therefore, a 'defensive' position is inevitable.

My main aim in writing Feminist Research in Theory and Practice was to highlight the intimate relationship between knowing and doing within research. To this end I considered the relationship between the process and the product of research in relation to several examples of my own work and those of other feminist researchers. Although, Wise and Stanley acknowledge my ''practical' approach to matters of methodology and epistemology' (1.32) later in their review they write:
We are struck by the gap between the highly developed theoretical and epistemological rhetoric about research on the one hand, and on the other hand the largely in passing and rather superficial accounts of the nitty-gritty practicalities of research on the ground, noticeable in the discussions reviewed here (2.10).

It is significant that their substantive review of my book finished at page 97 when the two chapters between pages 99 - 144 were devoted to the detail of the 'doing' of research. In these chapters, amongst other things, I considered study group formation and access to respondents; entering and leaving the field; power and emotion in the field and in analysis; researcher/respondent roles and relationships (including researching strangers and researching people we know, sexual attraction within research, interviewer as expert/interviewee as expert), auto/biography in research; men and feminist research and gender in relation to other aspects of difference and diversity within research.

* Looking Forward to Where We Want to Be

With reference to the future of the relationship between sociology and feminism I again focus on two (related) issues: this time the production and presentation of feminist theory and the issue of theorised subjectivity.

In the second part of their review Wise and Stanley write:
. . .looking at the combined products of academic feminism in its multidisciplinary aspect, we 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? (2.3)

I agree. I also agree that 'theorising is not the prerogative of the few who constitute the social theory network' (2.3). For me, finding sociology was a joy in that it legitimated my exploration of issues and experiences that I felt passionate about. I'm not saying that I didn't reflect and theorise on my life before, I did, but once I began to understand the significance of a 'sociological imagination' I appreciated that I now had opportunities that many people do not have. I am not arguing for academic superiority here but an acknowledgment of the privileges attached to academia, not least in the development or possibility of a more fully articulated theorising (see Letherby 2002 for more discussion). Throughout my sociological career - from third year undergraduate through to today - I have argued in my work (in research, writing and teaching) for the fundamental auto/biographical 'nature' of sociology. The point I am trying to make here (and made in Feminist Research in Theory and Practice) is that I acknowledge the inevitable political connotations of theorising and I believe that one way to challenge traditional approaches is to make the political aspects of researching, writing and theorising explicit and accessible. In Breaking Out Again (1993) Stanley and Wise argue that in order to be taken seriously by the mainstream/malestream it is necessary to participate in the 'language-games' of the academy (p231). My own experience highlights the 'dangers' in not playing the game, as my own work has been described -verbally and in print - as un-theoretical, even self-indulgent. Yet, I remain committed to an explicitly political and accessible approach as a way of 'doing theory' differently, not merely for other 'theorists' but for a more general readership.[1].

With some caveats I find Stanley and Wise's (1993) arguments for a feminist fractured foundationalist epistemology - a position that does not dispute the existence of truth and a material reality but acknowledges that judgements about them are always relative to the context in which such knowledge is produced - convincing (see Letherby 2003: 77-79). Indeed, I see my work on 'theorized subjectivity' as being influenced by, and a continuation of, feminist fractured foundationalist epistemology. In Feminist Research in Theory and Practice I noted that given the association of objectivity with masculinity and 'masculine knowledge', many feminists reject the pursuit of objectivity and instead argue that 'bias' is inevitable and '. . .it is better to understand the complexities within research rather than to pretend that they can be controlled, and biased sources can themselves result in useful data' (Letherby 2003: 71). However, as I go on to argue, 'Ironically, this acknowledgement of subjectivity by feminists and the associated 'super-sensitivity' to the relevance of the personhood of the researcher could feasibly lead to the conclusion that our work is more objective, in that our work, if not value-free, is value-explicit' (p71). This is what I refer to as 'theorized subjectivity', which I do not believe is predicated upon an objectivity/subjectivity binary opposition. Rather it relies on a recognition that, while there is a 'reality' 'out there', the political complexities of subjectivities, and their inevitable involvement in the research/theorising processes, make a definitive/final statement at best wishful thinking, in practice impossible. In other words, we need to accept that objectivity in social research is never possible, but what is possible, desirable and necessary is the theorisation of the subjective (including the researcher's motivation and practice and the respondent's expectations and behaviour). This approach, I believe, highlights the dynamic relationship between the process and the product of research and the links between feminist research in theory and practice.


1In addition, I accept as Wise and Stanley note, that there are 'good intellectual and political reasons for' (footnote 5) insisting on the use of first as well as family names in reference lists and bibliographies.


HOWIE, Gillian and Tauchert, Ashley (eds) (2002) Gender, Teaching and Research in Higher Education: challenges for the 21st Century Aldershot: Ashgate.

LETHERBY, Gayle (2002) 'Claims and Disclaimers: Knowledge, Reflexivity and Representation in Feminist Research' Sociological Research Online 6(4) rby.html

LETHERBY, Gayle (2003) Feminist Research in Theory and Practice Buckingham: Open University.

MALINA, Danusia and Maslin-Prothero, Sian (eds) (1998) Surviving the Academy: Feminist Perspectives London: Falmer.

MORLEY, Louise (2003) Quality and Power in Higher Education Buckingham: Open University.

MORLEY, Louise and Walsh, Val (eds) (1995) Feminist Academics: Creative Agents for Change London: Taylor and Francis.

MORLEY, Louise and Walsh, Val (eds) (1996) Breaking Boundaries: Women in Higher Education London: Taylor and Francis.

STANLEY, Liz and Wise, Sue (1983) Breaking Out: Feminist Consciousness and Feminist Research London: Routledge.

STANLEY, Liz and Wise, Sue (1993) Breaking Out Again: Feminist Ontology and Epistemology London: Routledge.

WISE, Sue and Stanley, Liz (2003) 'Review Article: 'Looking Back and Looking Forward: Some Recent Feminist Sociology Reviewed' Sociological Research Online 8(3)

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2003