PQfEW: Feminist epistemology and standpoint

I’m quite late for Feminist Friday – my family was in town over the weekend.  I also only managed to cobble together two quotes and some general discussion… but that’s probably good, since the ideas are quite abstract. 

Epistemology, you probably already know, is the study of knowledge and how knowledge is, well, known. Feminist epistemology seeks to affirm women as people who can know and create knowledge – still a relevant point to make, since people still get up in front of the APA and make up theories about why women have no substantial contribution to science and culture.  (For a good rundown and smackdown on this speech, try here.)

“Vision can be good for avoiding binary oppositions. I would like to insist on the embodied nature of all vision and so reclaim the sensory system that has been used to signify a leap out of the marked body and into a conquering gaze from nowhere. . . Vision in this technological feast [as it currently is] becomes unregulated gluttony; all seems not just mythically about the god trick of seeing everything from nowhere, but to have put the myth into ordinary practice. And like the god trick, the eye fucks the world to make techno-monsters.”
Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.”
I love this article. Haraway is no Adrienne Rich, but she does have a way with words and makes a kind of poetry out of a serious critique of scientific methodology. Her overall argument in this piece is that it’s all very well and good for women to become social and natural scientists and participate in making knowledge, but it’s also important to understand how the current understanding of “making knowledge” is necessarily limited. If science seeks total, objective, and abstract knowledge, then it is ignoring its own blind spots, irrelevancies, and biases. But if one can situate one’s knowledge as originating from a particular standpoint (I’m white, female, overeducated, middle-class, etc.) then one can acknowledge one’s partial knowledge of what there is to know… and my partial knowledge is relevant and interesting but only part of a bigger picture.

 

This particular pair of quotes appear in her discussion of the obsession with vision in science. Vision is useful, she says, if we understand it as seeing from a body in a particular place. The text I omitted was a description of how science and medicine enhanced the “primate” eye, make it see further and more and differently – which is not a problem for Haraway, except when it seduces our primate brains into thinking we can see everything. This imagined omnivision is a “god trick,” a phrase she invokes frequently to characterize various scientific aspirations that ignore their human limitations.  The eye seduced into believing in its own omniscience becomes an invasive, destructive eye:  it actively and hungrily devours what it can see (c.f. “male gaze“).  The solution, then, might mean acknowledging that no single eye (naked or not) can claim true objectivity – objectivity can only be approached by conversations among multiple subjective standpoints.

“Feminist inquiry joins other ‘underclass’ approaches in insisting on the importance of ‘studying up,’ instead of ‘studying down.’ While employers have often commissioned studies of how to make workers happy with less power and pay, workers have rarely been in a position to undertake or commission studies of anything at all, let alone how to make employers happy with less power and profit. Similarly, psychiatrists have endlessly studied what they regard as women’s peculiar mental and behavioral characteristics, but women have only recently begun to study the bizarre mental and behavioural characteristics of psychiatrists.”
Sandra Harding, “Is there a Feminist Method?”

As the title of this piece suggests, Harding is attempting to answer the demand for feminism to account for itself in terms of method and methodology – there was plenty of feminist theory floating about, but how you could possibly take that seriously if it didn’t have a system? Harding, along with previously quoted women, notes that there are and should be many feminisms. There are, however, ways to characterize and systematize a feminist approach. It largely has to do with recognizing your standpoint and how it affects your worldview; it is, kind of consequentially, also about critiquing systems of power and distribution. This quote points out the recentness of this institution analysis, and makes some very striking material examples – how many centuries did philosophers and doctors explain away the weirdness of women on behalf of the women? It also points out the possible good intentions of the clueless… employers want their employees happy, obviously, because they have an investment in the labor. Likewise, people of either sex might participate in sexism and misogyny without realizing it because they don’t, of course, hate women… or at least they think they don’t… but they are nonetheless invested in systems that disadvantage or dehumanize women.

 Feel free to demand explanations or ask for more detail!

7 Comments

Filed under Gender, Ideas, PQfEW, Vision

7 responses to “PQfEW: Feminist epistemology and standpoint

  1. Brian

    I kind of want to cross-post this response here and here , partly cause they’re related, partly cause the quotes are all great and all kind of tied together, but also perhaps not least of all because I’m still trying to figure out or remember if I know/should know what PQfEW stands for or where it’s from? People Questing for Equality (for) Women? Presumably that’d have two small f’s, and I don’t beleive that’d quite make sense, but left playing Acrophobia I have trouble doing a lot better…..

    Finally though I guess I’m starting the post here because some kind of need to respond to the linked APA speech above has been itching at my brain off and on for the last two days, since I read it, or part of it, and the response by Echidne of the Snakes…

    I’m bothered by a lot of things here, and it’s hard to know where to start, particularly since you only mention it as a passing reference above, but it, and Echidne’s response, are things I want to talk a bit more about, in no particular order except as to try and keep somewhat coherent for those, including me, who didn’t read all of Baumeister’s speech/article, and for making sure my criticisms and issues are in proper perspective….

    So, as a preface, let’s stipulate that Baumeister is a misogynistic chauvinist bastard who masquerades under false pretenses of “gender neutrality” and that there are tons of problems with his speech, his grasp of history, and probably with his tenure as a professor of social psych. or whatever he is, and with the APA inviting him to speak and so forth…

    I still don’t like or find much value in Echidne’s rundown and/or smackdown of his speech, mostly because, like him, she ignores everything/anything in the subject under review that doesn’t fit neatly into her argument and criticism. Maybe that’s why you call it a smackdown as much as a rundown, and to be fair, there’s plenty there to be smacked down as I stipulated, but no matter how much of an ass someone is, it’s generally worth examining their arguments, facts and theories for merit as well as oversight and error, particularly for those of us who are small ‘l’ liberals… The real reason and power and importance behind ideas of freedom of speech and “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, is that unpopularity, vulgarity, boorishness, ugliness, etc, are not good indicators of the underlying value of contained ideas, and we’re well advised to listen with an open mind to most anything, in the pursuit of advancing knowledge, philosophy and science (and myriad other areas as well, I suppose).

    I know well of your distaste for biological reductivism, so it’s no suprise you find most or all of Baumeister’s speech unappealing, unenlightening and uninteresting, and of course in most respects I agree with you here and elsewhere, but at least one interesting facet and fact of his argument caught my mind and my attention in a way that wouldn’t let go easily: “[T]he pattern with mental retardation is the same as with genius, namely that as you go from… [median] to extreme, the preponderance of males gets bigger.”

    Though in and of itself it may not meaningfully lend any credence to Baumeister’s argument as it stands, and I’m not sure how to verify the accuracy or the underlying objectivity of the research or statistics in question, it does bear discussion and investigation as to what it’s significance is or may be to the kind of topic he raises regarding men and women and their relative propensity for “extremism.”

    Though I reject all of the inherent misogyny and sexism in his speech, this one fact (if “true”) sends my mind spinning and wondering about the possibilities and implications for our biological and sociological understanding of men and women’s neurological and psychological underpinnings, respectively.

    One reason I am less opposed to explanations that contain some element of “biological reductivism” is that I’m as or more interested in science as I am in political and/or gender philosophy… Actually, I think true “biological reductivism” is probably as dismissable and uesless as you do, but only insofar as such physical/biological explanations are used to short circuit, replace or avoid thinking about the social and psychological subtleties they’re associated with; when presented and discussed in proper context as complimentary and/or supplementary mechanisms to more refined and accurate understanding, I think we can both agree they’re valuable. Moreover, insofar as they spring from the “hard sciences” rather than the soft sciences or purely philosophical and political discourse, they’re subject, if not to “provability”, at least to falsifiability and accumulation and preponderance of evidence in support of and in refutation of their accuracy. The absence of such features results in dogma, or in teleological “theories” such as Freudianism or Marxism (Karl Popper territory here, sorry), which annoy me in perhaps the same way biological reductivism annoys you :-)

    One last point, after all that rambling, and one that may be more controversial, and which I could be unaware of some specific facts of the story and am hence particularly open to discussion and argument on, is that I also agree with Baumeister about, is how sad and wrong the public outcry and anger against Larry Summers was for attempting to discuss, not whether or not prejudice and bias against women in science existed, but simply whether “the prejudice alone could explain the shortage of women at the top.” It’s a valid question; it doesn’t mean the answer is “No”, or that there aren’t any top female scientists or that the top female scientists aren’t as good as their male counterparts….. it’s just a question, and the fact that a university president was crucified for daring to ask it, given the university’s historical emphasis on and importance of the freedom for professors to write and think and speak freely on any topic they think is worth pursuing, and at one of the nation’s preeminent universities, the inability to ask such a valid question without risking one’s career is appalling, and it’s exactly that kind of knee-jerk slap-down response that bothers me in all areas, including Echidne’s response to Baumeister, even if he was far more deserving of such derision than Summers, it’s an equally bad reaction in many respects… Maybe I should go and cross-post this there as well……

  2. Brian

    Weird, that comment’s not showing up… was it just way too huge? Or some kind of word press publishing delay related to size?

    Well, here’s a random link on a more positive note, to a very good speech given by Joss Whedon (with an into you could skip over or watch by Meryl Streep), that I found while trying to figure out what the heck PQfEW stood for….

  3. Brian

    Doh, ok, I didn’t find wherever it’s first spelled out explicitly, but when looking at one of the other quotes pages, the q’s finally alligned in my head and I realized you’d certainly somwhere spelled out the phrase “Powerful Quotes from Empowered Women”, because it popped into my brain finally this evening, in its entirety…

  4. Oh jeez Brian… GIANT POST-LENGTH COMMENT! : ) Not that I mind, but it gets hard to pick out the main points and transition between them in a readable way.

    Also, I’m not going to go back and re-read either Baumeister’s speech or Echidne’s response because I straight up don’t have time. I’m mostly engaging these points theoretically – because I think you’re skimming over point of Echidne’s complaint, which is basically: “Same tired old shit, why is this still happening in the 21st century?” And in missing that point, the conversation becomes derailed from its original intent. This post is about feminist epistemology, a theory that is invested in legitimizing women as people who can know and make knowledge and that the current systems of knowledge frequently disadvantage people who aren’t white upperclassed men (that’s a whole other post, though, so moving along). Baumeister’s speech was regressive: “Actually, women aren’t as good as knowing as men are!” By whose standards? Well… men’s standards. Argued further below.

    I’m still trying to figure out or remember if I know/should know what PQfEW stands for or where it’s from?
    It’s my own personal acronym for my personal Feminist Friday practice: Powerful Quotes from Empowered Women.
    I started doing that to organize my thoughts for my weekly response papers, but actually dozens of people pass through every day looking for variations of “powerful women quotes,” so that’s interesting.
    And oh… you figured that out by now, but I already typed that so I’m leaving it. : )

    I still don’t like or find much value in Echidne’s rundown and/or smackdown of his speech, mostly because, like him, she ignores everything/anything in the subject under review that doesn’t fit neatly into her argument and criticism. . . . but no matter how much of an ass someone is, it’s generally worth examining their arguments, facts and theories for merit as well as oversight and error, particularly for those of us who are small ‘l’ liberals…
    Well, maybe. This is kind of like your Ten Things criticism: “It would be more palatable [for me] if you did it this other way…” But that’s not the point here, really. Echidne is not on Baumeister’s board of peer reviewers – and even if she was, knowing how academia usually works, the points she focuses on would make a valid criticism. Echidne is also not trying to teach a class. She’s blogging on her personal blog. Blogging, for a lot of people (me, at least) is a way to find solidarity. Not perfect unanimity, mind you, that’s be boring, but there is merit in being able to hold up an example and say “Same tired old shit” and have a number of people know exactly what you mean.
    Whether or not Baumeister makes relevent points (which I shall come to momentarily), he makes a lot of completely irrelevant ones. You could even play Hate Bingo with his speech! Hate Bingo is a blog game that’s customizable to your specific rant (woman-hate bingo, fat-hate bingo, black-hate bingo, rape apologist bingo is the first one I found) but the idea is that instead of having numbers, you can fill boxes with the Same Old Things that people always say when making spurious arguments.
    So, you say and I believe that you don’t condone Baumeister’s sexism. But my question would be: if Baumeister frames his speech in Tired Old Shit, why should I take him seriously? Why should I give his ideas any legitimacy in my own space? What makes his argument worth examining?
    I can’t separate the “facts” he uses from the fact he uses them for an agenda that I think retards social progress. But sure, let’s look at his one interesting fact.

    “[T]he pattern with mental retardation is the same as with genius, namely that as you go from… [median] to extreme, the preponderance of males gets bigger.”
    Though in and of itself it may not meaningfully lend any credence to Baumeister’s argument as it stands, and I’m not sure how to verify the accuracy or the underlying objectivity of the research or statistics in question, it does bear discussion and investigation as to what it’s significance is or may be to the kind of topic he raises regarding men and women and their relative propensity for “extremism.”

    It IS an interesting observation. Perhaps it’s worth more research. But I’m not at all interested.
    Why? Well, you know my bias toward social constructivism, but hear me out. IQ is, what? A biological fact? Something you’re born with, like blue eyes? Of course not. Something you develop into a set range for as an adult, like weight? Maybe, that sounds compelling: perhaps people are born with a range of possible intelligence, and environment influences whether they approach the higher or lower end of their personal range. As an educator, that makes my teeth hurt, but I grant that it’s worth wondering whether certain groups of people are born with a higher intelligence range than others.
    But here’s the thing. You can be weighed by stepping onto a scale. Your IQ, however, is measured by a series of tests that were written, developed, and scored by people who already think their own IQ is pretty high. It is exactly the kind of pseudo-omniscient knowledge that Haraway criticizes in the article I quoted above. IQ purports to measure your intelligence objectively, when really it’s more like an “educated guess” about intelligence based on how we currently define intelligence, which is subject to change.
    Who, historically, has written IQ tests? Women? Don’t think so. I mean, I’d be surprised and disappointed if there were no women currently on IQ-test committees, and I certainly know that IQ tests have changed over time. But the new IQ tests and the female test designers are heirs of older notions of intelligence and older tests that were developed by… well… white upperclassed men. Hm.
    Also, consider the brief discussion of female genius on another post… when women do have exemplary intelligence or skill, what usually happens? How are they usually cast culturally? You get idiots savants, you get tragic women who suffer for their greatness, you get otherwise average women who coasted to glory on the arm of a better man. You can name exceptions, like Marilyn Vos Savant, but she’s still an exception… my point is, for whatever reason, IQ and concepts of genius tend to both devalue female intelligence makes extreme points of male intelligence.
    You might ask, “How exactly does that benefit men?” Well, it doesn’t… or it only benefits the ones who get to sit at the top of the imaginary bell curve. That’s kind of true of all ideological systems, though. That’s why I find it so strange when people get married to old crusty patriarchal concepts like the ones Baumeister is trying to revalue in this speech. (Menz are rational and risk-takers! Srsly guys! No contradiction there at all!) The “patriarchs” who benefit from them are few.

    I think true “biological reductivism” is probably as dismissable and uesless as you do, but only insofar as such physical/biological explanations are used to short circuit, replace or avoid thinking about the social and psychological subtleties they’re associated with.

    Yes yes yes. But that’s exactly what I see happening in Baumeister’s speech. And really, I know I am sometimes extreme in this, but I think that most biological discussions short-circuit critical thinking about serious issues. I mean, let’s pretend that men really are wired to be more fluent in sciences than communication. So what? Do we get to treat men and women unequally now? Does that make it okay to spend less time teaching science to little girls (which happens fairly often, according to some studies) or to encourage little boys to act on their feelings instead of talking about them? I’m inclined to say no.
    Maybe biology v. socialization is a chicken-and-egg argument – even if we can prove that x social group has z quality, how could we ever say whether they are wired that way or if their wires adopted that organization due to training? We can’t know, at least not with the science we have, so I’m always going to value the investigation of socialization over biology because that’s something we can be accountable for.

    Moreover, insofar as they spring from the “hard sciences” rather than the soft sciences or purely philosophical and political discourse, they’re subject, if not to “provability”, at least to falsifiability and accumulation and preponderance of evidence in support of and in refutation of their accuracy. The absence of such features results in dogma, or in teleological “theories” such as Freudianism or Marxism (Karl Popper territory here, sorry), which annoy me in perhaps the same way biological reductivism annoys you

    I’d argue that Marxism is actually very grounded in material experience and I find it occasionally useful to describe cultural patterns – and actually, there’s a lot of Marxist influence in the epistemology theory I was reading. Basically: people who labor for the benefit of the upper class are going to have access to a different kind of knowledge than the upper class would. Thus, it makes no sense for the upper class to be the sole arbiters of knowledge. Likewise men and women… though I don’t think that the sexes are intrinsically different, the current culture guarantees that there will be places where one sex has access to experience and knowledge that the other does not have. It makes no sense for male knowledge to be default and female knowledge to be weird or special. (cf. that article TG read, which explored whether women could possibly be impartial judges.)
    Oh, “female knowledge” reminds me that I should probably explain that “feminist epistemology” doesn’t argue that female knowledge is better or more useful… the phrase just refers to a way of studying knowledge that allows more flexibility than the objectivist model. There are a few feminist epistemologists who argue that women can know more than men because they have to be fluent in the male system as well as their own, which is kind of interesting, but I’m happier with the “everybody has a limited standpoint” theory.

    how sad and wrong the public outcry and anger against Larry Summers was for attempting to discuss, not whether or not prejudice and bias against women in science existed, but simply whether “the prejudice alone could explain the shortage of women at the top.” It’s a valid question; it doesn’t mean the answer is “No”, or that there aren’t any top female scientists or that the top female scientists aren’t as good as their male counterparts….. it’s just a question, and the fact that a university president was crucified for daring to ask it, given the university’s historical emphasis on and importance of the freedom for professors to write and think and speak freely on any topic they think is worth pursuing, and at one of the nation’s preeminent universities, the inability to ask such a valid question without risking one’s career is appalling, and it’s exactly that kind of knee-jerk slap-down response that bothers me in all areas, including Echidne’s response to Baumeister, even if he was far more deserving of such derision than Summers, it’s an equally bad reaction in many respects… Maybe I should go and cross-post this there as well…

    I have to completely disagree.
    It may be worth asking whether men and women’s brains are made differently – although really, as written above, I’m much more interested in asking how we start teaching boys and girls at a young age which studies are appropriate for them. But Summers was, as you point out, a university president – a man who is charged with maintaining a safe and productive environment for intellectual development. Not only was his comment insulting to members of his faculty who were female and in the sciences – what, somehow they’re biologically less qualified to do the job than male counterparts, despite their apparent triumph over prejudice and whatever else Summers thinks holds women back? – but it just repeats Tired Old Shit (tm, it deserves a trademark by now). Tired. Conveniently ignoring the history of material and ideological constraints on women is nothing new. Wondering aloud if women are suited for hard sciences is nothing new. The female students in the student body, in science or “softer” departments, have certainly heard it before; why on earth would it be okay for them to hear it again from the man who is ostensibly in command of their educational futures? Center of intellectual freedom my foot… Temple pats itself on the back all the time for its diversity and progressiveness and I can still point to professors who “forget” the contributions I make in class or attribute them to male students. I imagine a tradition-bound Ivy League university has plenty problems of its own that way.
    Academia is not the place to reinforce cultural stereotypes. Even with so-called hard-evidence, like the IQ bit (which I’m still not buying), it’s not okay. Because the fact is that women make knowledge and acquire knowledge, they can work in hard sciences and they can even be genuises – what should be studied is why these accomplishments are less valued. That, I believe, is one of Echidne’s points: let’s count how many women qualified for a Nobel and how many have every actually gotten one. Hmmmm.

    Weird, that comment’s not showing up… was it just way too huge? Or some kind of word press publishing delay related to size?

    I don’t know but I found it in spam. Restored!
    I’ll watch the video when I’m not in a coffee shop. : )

  5. Brian

    As usual, a thorough and thoroughly well thought out rebuttal, most of which I either can’t or won’t argue with, though I still feel conflicted and bothered by a lot of parts of it… I knew the post was off topic of the actual post’s subject, i.e. epistemology, but I probably should have (and I think intended to but got sidetracked) tied it in a little more, since as you point out there’s a lot of relationship between the areas… and of course I don’t think women should be taught science or math less or less intensively than men as children… I guess I just implicitly feel that furthering such knowledge of specific divergences and convergences across mankind (oh, um… sorry? peoplekind? humans?) is somehow inherently good, but history says you’re probably right and some people would try to ab/use knowledge of such differences towards such ends… I maybe thought more along the lines of understanding learning differences and possibly therefore understanding options for diversifying the way science and math are taught to and understood by students, but that’s a minor point.

    I had intended to discuss (over in the Idiot Savants post) some things about the female genius topic, but I think I ran into a wall trying to flesh out what I wanted to say… I had a few unmentioned examples that seemed to provide contrast to the ones you and/or TG raised, but I don’t know that I really wanted to disagree with your point, just provide more context for discussing or thinking about it… In particular, I guess I was going to mention Ada Lovelace, and Marie Curie, Sophie Germain and… well, I had to look this one up cause my memory ran out there, but, En Hedu’Anna, the second earliest noted technical accomplishment…

    Maybe my thoughts will stir further and I’ll think of more to say later, but thanks for making time to respond to my points a little bit, and I’m glad you didn’t bother to use more time reading either post completely, I didn’t feel it was necessary so I don’t know why you should :-)

  6. Brian

    Oh, shoot, I hate to keep doing this double post thing, and this is totally a badly timed/placed afterthought at this point, but while discussing this point with a medical friend of mine, he told me something interesting that I meant to mention here, that in fact there’s a well known biological mechanism that essentially insures that volatility and variance will be genetically higher in men than in women, and is also the reason why (I knew the first part of this but not the second) more males are conceived than females, but more females are born (I knew that men were slightly more likely in some sense, and that there were more women in the world than men, but I thought that was more due to statistically longer life)…

    Anyway the mystery/explaning fact/mechanism is that because females have two X chromosomes and males have two distinct chromosomes, female embryo’s during development have a significantly higher tolerance/”checksum” factor for handling “data corruption” in the DNA and whatnot, because they can borrow broken pieces from the equivalent section on the second X chromosome, but males, though my friend wasn’t sure if the X and Y might not ever swap information in cases of damage, certainly there’s less swapping and less chance of a good fit between X and Y, so in any case, essentially have a much higher probability for mutations, if you can call them that, beneficial and (probably much more of the time) harmful both… This could at least explain the higher percentage of men than women who are born with mental retardation, and while it may also partly lead to some greater number of “genius spikes” in genius or IQ or what-have-you… Of course I recognize that none of those measures are really as objective or absolute as they attempt to be, but it is at least an interesting fact explaining perhaps one side of the phenomenon….

  7. Jakob

    I have written on a similar topic. You may find it interesting. http://jakobtomasovich.blogspot.com/2006/12/other-ways-of-knowing.html