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Forthcoming in Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Gender & Sexuality Studies,

edited by Nancy Naples.


Iris van der Tuin, Utrecht University
Word Count: 2641

Feminist epistemology refers to the feminist engagement with questions of truth,

objectivity, method, and the knowing subject. Under its scope fall the theoretical
foundations of womens and gender studies, and sexuality and queer studies. There is
overlap with African-American, Black, and postcolonial studies. The key question of
feminist epistemology as a field of inquiry involves the epistemic status of the
knowledge produced by privileged and marginalized subjects. Where to draw the line
between knowledge and prejudice? In sum, feminist epistemology pertains to the
intersection of knowledge and social power.
Although feminist epistemology made its entry on the academic stage when
Lorraine Code, in 1981, asked whether the sex of the knower was epistemologically
significant, and developed with the publication of Sandra Harding, and Merrill B.
Hintikkas edited volume Discovering Reality: Feminist Perspectives on
Epistemology, Metaphysics, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science in 1983, an
appropriate starting point for a discussion of feminist epistemology is Sandra
Hardings seminal book The Science Question in Feminism from 1986. This book
introduced the three-fold progressive classification of feminist epistemology, a

classification consisting of the strands of feminist empiricism, feminist standpoint

theory, and feminist postmodernism. Feminist empiricism is presented as
feminisms pro-science branch, holding on to existing scientific norms and methods,
and applying them more rigorously to resolve problems of gender bias in scientific
research. As such, feminist empiricism problematizes bad science and advocates for
a strong method only approach, whereas feminist standpoint theory is seen as the
revolutionary branch of feminist epistemology. Feminist standpoint theory
problematizes science-as-usual, and invents a science by and for women. Harding
characterizes feminist postmodernism according to how it bases feminist knowledge
claims within a framework of fractured identities. Postmodern feminist
epistemologies are said to work differently than feminist standpoint theory because
feminists are discouraged from agreeing on one true story and are encouraged to
embrace peoples socially complex identities and the permanent partiality of
knowledge claims. Although Harding recognized serious conflicts between the
different approaches, all three feminist epistemologies converge in the rejection of
epistemological individualism, according to which a person operating independently
of others does the knowing. Feminist epistemologists of all kinds stress the communal
nature of knowledge production. Since feminist postmodernists turn their back on a
universal feminist take on science, the epistemology risks being taken too far as its
hypothesis invites for endless debates amongst feminists about the preferred who,
what, where, and how of feminist scholarship. It is sometimes said that these
academic debates have lost touch with the lived experiences of women, and become
too invested in the purely conceptual realm of to use a Wittgensteinian notion
language games.

Hardings The Science Question in Feminism set the template for feminist
epistemology and the book became standard in the field. The classification has been
reworked since. These revisions include discussions of the separate branches, of the
interconnections between branches, and of the schema as a whole. Donna Haraway
and Mary E. Hawkesworth discuss the impasse in Hardings schema. Haraway (1988)
claims that feminist epistemology is caught in a trap because of its inability to
formulate an-other objectivity, an objectivity truly moving away from universalism
(Hardings strands of feminist empiricism and feminist standpoint theory) and
relativism (the strand of feminist postmodernism). Universalism and relativism are
epistemological tendencies that import problems into gender studies. The two
characteristics do not benefit feminisms (academic) politics. Haraway argues that
[f]eminist objectivity means quite simply situated knowledges (Haraway 1988, 581)
and only partial perspective promises objective vision (Haraway 1988, 583). While
Haraway continues the line of feminist standpoint theory by aiming to horizontalize
the relation between the knower and the known, which would imply a relation of
equality according to which both knower and known have the power of definition in
the process of feminist knowledge production, Hawkesworth (1989) argues that
feminist epistemology can only move forward when attending to the known instead of
the knower. Feminist claims to truth based on allusions to woman knowers will fail
because rationality, the senses, the body, and intuition are highly contested concepts
or zones. Hawkesworth claims that immediate or unmediated rational, sensory,
embodied, or intuitive methods do not exist (for feminists or others). Feminists should
stop trying to formulate one model for unbiased knowledge production.
Hawkesworths partiality is located in concrete situations of knowing; a feminist
knower is confronted with a very particular task and feminist epistemology must be

able to accommodate all these diverse tasks. Hawkesworth argues that feminist
epistemology necessitates a connection between evidence and belief, and a strong
commitment to criticism. But crucial, for her, is choosing the analysis of the concrete
situation as a point of entry.
More recent discussions move beyond Hardings schema, although many
contemporary texts about feminist epistemology continue to evoke the text in one way
or another (e.g. Tanesini 1999). Code (1998) implicitly follows up on Hawkesworth,
subscribing to the defeat of ensuring one feminist epistemology and arguing that
doing feminist epistemology from within manifold situations involves a new way of
naturalizing feminist epistemology. Here, naturalization signifies descending into
concrete situations of knowing, whereby these situations must be understood as
broadly as possible (from the laboratory to the literary text). The point is that
marginalized people everywhere and continuously struggle for the legitimacy of their
hands-on knowledges. How do people live their professional and private lives? How
can they attempt to know well in concrete situations? This naturalization should be
read as a move beyond feminist postmodernism having gradually delinked its
epistemological reflection from concrete situations of lived experience, and beyond its
adherents implied focus on text and textuality. Elizabeth Potter (2007) makes a
similar move, arguing that a version of feminist empiricism makes its comeback now
that relativism has been called into question. This more recent incarnation of feminist
empiricism deals explicitly with the concrete interaction of fact and value in
contextual explorations of sites of knowledge production. Codes examples are
feminist scholars such as Alison Wylie, Helen Longino, Lynn Hankinson Nelson, and
Elizabeth Anderson. Miranda Frickers 2007 Epistemic Injustice: Power and the
Ethics of Knowing must be added to this list. This influential book revives the field of

the epistemology of testimony, very much in the same vein as Codes specific project
of a naturalized feminist epistemology.
A significant contemporary trend of feminist epistemology is feminist new
materialism. Feminist new materialisms contribute to the project of (re-)naturalizing
feminist epistemology, although their impetus differs from Code, Potter, and Fricker.
The trend wishes to undo feminisms reduction of biology to biological determinism
and avoid the associated issue of the nature-culture split (Frost 2011, Van der Tuin
2011). Feminist theorists such as Donna Haraway and Karen Barad make the point
that the body is not only formed by discourse, as argued by feminists ranging from
Simone de Beauvoir to Judith Butler, but participates actively in processes of
signification. The body or biology is not mute, but an active agent instead. This work
follows up on (feminist) science studies analyses of the agency of instruments in
laboratories and finds vital resources in French philosophies working from
posthuman perspectives. The new materialist hypothesis is that the world is an
agential reality, so human agency and intentionality need to get a more modest place
in theories of knowledge. Resulting positive, not positivist, analyses record emerging
subjectivities, materialities, and environments as co-responsive, which is to say that
all agencies (human and non-human) must not, or not only, correspond, but that
they emerge together. A correspondence theory of truth assumes a gap between word
and world, and implies that both operate independently of each other. Co-respondence
theories draw attention to the fact that such individualism (or atomism) does not
exist for knower, known, and knowledge claim alike. Recording of obstructive human,
or non-human, interventions are not avoided, that is, feminist new materialism does
not imply an apolitical stance or a move away from work on the intersection of
knowledge and (social) power. The distinctive features of feminist new materialism

are its commitment to beginning in the midst of a material reality open to difference
and its attractiveness to a younger generation of feminist epistemologists.
Harding presented her classificatory schema of 1986 as a synthesis of feminist
discussions about knowledge production. These discussions were based on
theorizations of feminist practices (the consciousness raising groups of the second
feminist wave translated into feminist standpoint epistemology, for example) and in
feminist discussions of malestream thought. (With this neologism coined in 1980,
Mary OBrien asked attention for the male-dominated nature of mainstream
thought.) Hence, feminist epistemology does not have a clear-cut point of origin. The
first category designates the epistemic twist in the extra-academic feminist movement
as the source of feminist epistemology, whereas the latter argues that feminist
epistemology originated in the university through an engagement by feminist
academics with philosophers and historians of science such as Willard Van Orman
Quine, Thomas S. Kuhn, Richard Rorty, and Michel Foucault. Each of these thinkers
enabled feminist academics to affirm the sexed nature of knowing and to give voice to
a female, feminine, or decisively feminist way of knowing (Alcoff and Potter eds.
1993, Lennon and Whitford eds. 1994). After the discovery that reason was decisively
male following Genevieve Lloyds 1984 The Man of Reason: Male and Female
in Western Philosophy, feminists were to theorize anew the standards for objectivity
and truth. The idea of a neutral, rationalist objectivity could no longer be upheld
because every knower now had a recognizable body and location. Kuhn provided
feminists with the communal knowing subject, unintentionally assisting in the
feminist struggle to put an end to epistemological individualism. But Kuhn himself
was unaware of the paradigmatically political (sexed or gendered) nature of scholarly
thought. Foucaults dyads of power/knowledge and body/knowledge helped

feminists define the intersection of practices of exercising power and the production
of knowledge as the smallest unit for epistemological reflection. The historical turns
performed by Kuhn and Foucault endorsed the study of concrete sites of knowledge
production such as Evelyn Fox Kellers famous 1983 study of the professional life of
Barbara McClintock. The pragmatic and practical turns of Rorty and Bruno Latour
assisted in transposing the historical studies to the present time.
Epistemology is a prescriptive field of philosophical inquiry, which is to say
that most epistemological positions translate into some specific methodological rules
and requirements. This is no different for feminist epistemology, although feminisms
sensitivity to hierarchical plotting allows the relation between feminist epistemology
and concrete cases of feminist research to transcend a one-way track model. Strong
research practices may feed back into feminist epistemology and impact theoretical
reflection. Feminist empiricism advises gender studies researchers to adhere to
recognized investigative practices. Feminist standpoint theorists suggest jettisoning
standardized models and embracing semi-structured and open-ended interviewing,
extensive fieldwork research, and (auto-)ethnography. This epistemology wants
nothing but a most equal relation between researcher and researched. In the
humanities, this type of prescribing rules for research has led to research into
devalued literary and media genres, such as romantic fiction or photos that capture
private moments, and to embracing empirical methods such as reader-response theory.
Feminist postmodernism is interested in doing situated research after (stereotypical or
subversive) representations and its methodological innovations are mainly connected
with the local, in-vivo generation of concepts instead of their distant application.
Feminist postmodernism celebrates the contingency of knowledge claims, sometimes
leading to (unwanted) relativism in an attempt to eschew universal truth.

Next to establishing the necessity of doing self-reflexive research, one of the

most important methodological innovations of feminism has been the distinction
between studying up and studying down. The traditional way of doing research
(on women and members of other marginalized groups) follows the procedure of
studying down. Some subjects are more prone to find themselves researched than be
themselves researchers (on the basis of sexism, elitism, classism, heterosexism, and
racism/ethnocentrism). Following this pattern implies that asymmetrical power
relations are reconfirmed easily in research. Subjects without a marked social
position define themselves as the knowers, while marked subjects such as women,
black people, and postcolonial subjects are the ones who are studied in an objectifying
manner. Gender studies scholars are not exonerated from this practice. White, upper
class, heterosexual women may fall into the trap of studying down. The alternative,
studying up, is the standpoint theoretical model of researching from the lives of
marginalized subjects. Talking from the point of view of the underprivileged, one is
less susceptible to reconfirming hierarchies. An important point is that the situated
analyses of naturalized feminist epistemology and feminist new materialisms
confirmation of one agential system are open to taking into consideration that
power asymmetries may not be as rigid and fixed as the members of the first
generation of feminist epistemologists have thought. Black women or disabled men,
for instance, may in particular situations be on the winning side. Structurally, they are
the ones that come off worst in the persistent power imbalance along the axes of
sex/gender, race/ethnicity, sexuality, class, and so on. But group dynamics and
intersectional cancelling-outs may lead to differing results. In other words, fixing
subjects along axes of power may make the researcher blind to unexpected leaps into
a post-patriarchal future.

Younger gender studies scholars working in the tradition of feminist new

materialisms are interested in conceptualizing research situations as an event.
Building on the work of Gilles Deleuze and attempting to bring discussions about
surprising reversals of power difference, in contexts of structural inequalities, to full
fruition, these scholars want to confront chaotic events consisting of active agents of
multiple kinds rather than assume orderly states of affairs. The assumption is that the
encountered assemblages, of which researchers are part (Barad 2007), generate
their own signification. Here we see that signification happens in the course of events;
the utterances, assembling signs and bodies, do not presuppose an outsiders
perspective, but run with what is always already at work in events. In addition, the
work makes clear how these systems of signification are not static or solipsistic as
they can form assemblages with other assemblages and transform along the way. This
is also what happens when the person commonly tagged epistemologist starts with
her work.

SEE ALSO: Feminist standpoint theory; Objectivity; Science; Scientific experiments;

Women in science


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