Epistemological Debates, Feminist foices
Science, Social Values, and the Study of Women
Stephanie Riger University of Illinois at Chicago
Feminist criticisms of the neglect, distortion, and exclusion
of women in psychological research reflect three epistemological positions: feminist empiricism, feminist standpoint epistemologies, and postmodern feminism. On the
basis of these criticisms, some argue that there is a need
for a uniquely feminist method. This article critically examines these claims and calls for a new vision of the psychological study of women that construes gender as a
product of social interaction and links women’s agency
with the shaping power of the sociocultural, historical,
and political context.
Modern scientific methods, invented in the 16th century,
were not only a stunning technical innovation, but a
moral and political one as well, replacing the sacred authority of the Church with science as the ultimate arbiter
of truth (Grant, 1987). Unlike medieval inquiry, modern
science conceives itself as a search for knowledge free of
moral, political, and social values. The application of scientific methods to the study of human behavior distinguished American psychology from philosophy and enabled it to pursue the respect accorded the natural sciences
The use of “scientific methods” to study human
beings rested on three assumptions:
(1) Since the methodological procedures of natural science are
used as a model, human values enter into the study of social
phenomena and conduct only as objects; (2) the goal of social
scientific investigation is to construct laws or lawlike generalizations like those of physics; (3) social science has a technical
character, providing knowledge which is solely instrumental.
(Sewart, 1979, p. 311)
Critics recently have challenged each of these assumptions. Some charge that social science reflects not
only the values of individual scientists but also those of
the political and cultural milieux in which science is done,
and that there are no theory-neutral “facts” (e.g., Cook,
1985; Prilleltensky, 1989; Rabinow & Sullivan, 1979;
Sampson, 1985; Shields, 1975). Others claim that there
are no universal, ahistorical laws of human behavior, but
only descriptions of how people act in certain places at
certain times in history (e.g., K. J. Gergen, 1973; Manicas
& Secord, 1983; Sampson, 1978). Still others contend
that knowledge is not neutral; rather, it serves an ideological purpose, justifying power (e.g., Foucault, 1980,
1981). According to this view, versions of reality not only
reflect but also legitimate particular forms of social organization and power asymmetries. The belief that
knowledge is merely technical, having no ideological
function, is refuted by the ways in which science has
played handmaiden to social values, providing an aura
of scientific authority to prejudicial beliefs about social
groups and giving credibility to certain social policies
(Degler, 1991; Shields, 1975; Wittig, 1985).
Within the context of these general criticisms, feminists have argued in particular that social science neglects
and distorts the study of women in a systematic bias in
favor of men. Some contend that the very processes of
positivist science are inherently masculine, reflected even
in the sexual metaphors used by the founders of modern
science (Keller, 1985; Merchant, 1980). To Francis Bacon,
for example, nature was female, and the goal of science
was to “bind her to your service and make her your slave”
(quoted in Keller, 1985, p. 36). As Sandra Harding (1986)
Mind vs. nature and the body, reason vs. emotion and social
commitment, subject vs. object and objectivity vs. subjectivity,
the abstract and general vs. the concrete and particularin each
case we are told that the former must dominate the latter lest
human life be overwhelmed by irrational and alien forces, forces
symbolized in science as the feminine, (p. 125)
Critics see the insistence of modern science on control and distance of the knower from the known as a
reflection of the desire for domination characteristic of a
culture that subordinates women’s interests to those of
men (Hubbard, 1988; Reinharz, 1985). Some go so far
as to claim that because traditional scientific methods
inevitably distort women’s experience, a new method
based on feminist principles is needed (M. M. Gergen,
1988). Others disagree, claiming that the problem in science is not objectivity itself, but rather lack of objectivity
that enables male bias to contaminate the scientific proMichael S. Pallak served as action editor for this article.
The use of first names herein is intended to highlight the contributions of women to psychology. I am grateful to Dan A. Lewis for
comments and discussion on numerous iterations of this article; to Marilyn Yalom, Karen Offen, and other members of the Affiliated and Visiting
Scholars Seminar of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender
of Stanford University; to Sandra Bartky, Cynthia Fuchs Epstein, Christopher Keys, Jane Mansbridge, and Shula Reinharz for helpful comments;
and to Rondi Cartmill for outstanding research assistance. An extended
version of this article will appear in Psychology of Women: Biological,
Psychological and Social Perspectives (Riger, in preparation).
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to
Stephanie Riger, Women’s Studies Program (M/C 360), University of
Illinois at Chicago, Box 4348, Chicago, IL 60680.
730 June 1992 American Psychologist
Copyright 1992 by the American Psychological Association, Inc. 00O3-O66X/92/S2.0O
Vol. 47, No. 6, 730-740
cess (Epstein, 1988). The first part of this article summarizes feminist charges against standard versions of science; the second part explores three possibilities for a
distinctly “feminist” response to those charges: feminist
empiricism, feminist standpoint epistemologies, and feminist postmodernism. (By feminist, I refer to a system of
values that challenges male dominance and advocates social, political, and economic equity of women and men
Bias Within Psychology in the Study
Since Naomi Weisstein denounced much of psychology
as the “fantasy life of the male psychologist” in 1971,
numerous critics have identified the ways that gender bias
permeates social science (summarized in Epstein, 1988,
pp. 17-45; Frieze, Parsons, Johnson, Ruble, & Zellman,
1978, pp. 11-27; Hyde, 1991, pp. 7-15; Lips, 1988, pp.
64-75; Millman & Kanter, 1975; Wilkinson, 1986). For
many years, subjects of relevance to women, such as rape
or housework, have been considered either taboo topics
or too trivial to study, marginal to more central and prestigious issues, such as leadership, achievement, and power
(Epstein, 1988; McHugh, Koeske, & Frieze, 1986; Farberow, 1963; Smith, 1987). Women’s invisibility as subjects of research extends to their role as researchers as
well, with relatively few women in positions of power or
prestige in science (Rix, 1990). Even today, women make
up only 25% of the faculty in psychology departments
and only 15% of editors of psychological journals (Walker,
1991). When women are studied, their actions often are
interpreted as deficient compared with those of men. Even
theories reflect a male standard (Gilligan, 1982). The
classic example dates back to Freud’s (1925/1961) formulation in 1925 of the theory of penis envy.
Over the last two decades, critics have compiled a
long and continually growing list of threats to the validity
of research on women and sex differences (see Jacklin,
1981). For example, a great many studies have included
only male samples. Sometimes women are included only
as the stimulus, not the subject of studythey are seen
but not heardbut conclusions are generalized to everyone (Meyer, 1988). Sex-of-experimenter effects contaminate virtually every area of research (Lips, 1988), and
field studies yield different findings than laboratory research on the same phenomenon (Unger, 1981). Multiple
meanings of the term sex confound biological sex differences with factors that vary by sex (i.e., sex-related differences) and are more appropriately labeled gender
(McHugh et al., 1986; Unger 1979). Sex is treated as an
independent variable in studies of gender difference, even
though people cannot be randomly assigned to the “male”
or “female” group (Unger, 1979). The emphasis on a “difference” model obscures gender similarities (Unger, 1979);
this emphasis is built into the methods of science because
experiments are formally designed to reject the null hypothesis that there is no difference between the experimental group and the control group. When a difference
is found, it is usually small, but the small size is often
overshadowed by the fact that a difference exists at all
(Epstein, 1988). A focus on between-gender differences
and a lack of attention to within-gender differences reflects
a presupposition of gender polarity that frames this research (Fine & Gordon, 1989).
Findings of the magnitude of sex differences have
diminished over time, perhaps because of an increasing
willingness to publish results when such differences are
not significant (Hyde, 1990), or perhaps because of a reduction in operative sex role stereotypes. For example,
findings of differences in cognitive abilities appear to have
declined precipitously over the past two decades (Feingold,
1988), and researchers have found greater influenceability
among women in studies published prior to 1970 than
in those published later (Eagley, 1978). Carol Jacklin
(1981) pointed out that the more carefully a study is carried out, the less likely it is that gender differences will
be found: “With fewer variables confounded with sex, sex
will account for smaller percentages of variance. Thus,
paradoxically, the better the sex-related research, the less
useful sex is as an explanatory variable” (p. 271). The
decline in findings of difference suggest either that increasing care in designing studies has eliminated differences that were artifacts of bias, or that historical factors,
rather than ahistorical, universal laws, shape behavior,
whether of subjects or experimenters. In fact, so many
studies find no sex differences that this research might
more appropriately be called the study of sex similarities
Psychological research on women often contains another source of bias, the lack of attention to social context.
The purpose of the laboratory experiment is to isolate
the behavior under study from supposedly extraneous
contaminants so that it is affected only by the experimental conditions. The experimental paradigm assumes
that subjects leave their social status, history, beliefs, and
values behind as they enter the laboratory, or that random
assignment vitiates the effects of these factors. The result
is to abstract people’s action from social roles or institutions (Fine & Gordon, 1989;Parlee, 1979;Sherif, 1979).
Instead of being contaminants, however, these factors may
be critical determinants of behavior. By stripping behavior
of its social context, psychologists rule out the study of
sociocultural and historical factors, and implicitly attribute causes to factors inside the person. Moreover, an
absence of consideration of the social context of people’s
actions is not limited to laboratory research (Fine, 1984).
In an ironic reversal of the feminist dictum of the 1960s,
when social context is ignored, the political is misinterpreted as personal (Kitzinger, 1987).
Ignoring social context may produce a reliance on
presumed biological causes when other explanations of
sex differences are not obvious, even when the biological
mechanisms that might be involved are not apparent
(Lips, 1988). Social explanations become residual, although sociocultural determinants may be just as robust
and important as biological causes, if not more so (Connell, 1987). Although biological differences between the
sexes are obviously important, it is critical to distinguish
June 1992 American Psychologist 731
between biological difference and the social meaning attached to that difference (Rossi, 1979).
Alice Eagley (1987) raised a different objection to
experimentation. She disagreed that the psychological
experiment is context-stripped, and contended instead
that it constitutes a particular context. An experiment
typically consists of a brief encounter among strangers in
an unfamiliar setting, often under the eye of a psychologist. The question is whether this limited situation is a
valid one from which to make generalizations about behavior. To Eagley, the problem is that social roles (such
as mother, doctor, or corporation president) lose their salience in this setting, bringing to the foreground genderrelated expectations about behavior.
Cynthia Fuchs Epstein (1988) stated that “Much of
the bias in social science reporting of gender issues comes
from scientists’ inability to capture the social context or
their tendency to regard it as unnecessary to their inquiryin a sense, their disdain for it” (p. 44). In psychology, this disdain has at least two sources (Kahn &
Yoder, 1989; Prilleltensky, 1989). First, psychology focuses
on the person as he or she exists at the moment. Such a
focus leads the researcher away from the person’s history
or social circumstances. Second, the cultural context in
which psychology is practiced (at least in the United
States) is dominated by an individualistic philosophy
(Kitzinger, 1987; Sampson, 1985). The prevailing beliefs
assume that outcomes are due to choices made by free
and self-determining individuals; the implication is that
people get what they deserve (Kahn & Yoder, 1989). Not
only assumptions of individualism, but also those of male
dominance are often so taken for granted that we are not
aware of them. Recognition that supposedly scientific assertions are permeated with ideological beliefs produces,
in Shulamit Reinharz’s (1985) words, a condition of
“feminist distrust.” Perhaps one of the most difficult
challenges facing social scientists is to disengage themselves sufficiently from commonly shared beliefs so that
those beliefs do not predetermine research findings
(McHugh et al., 1986).
Feminist Responses to the Criticisms
Challenges to the neutrality of science have long been a
concern to those who study women, and have prompted
three different reactions among feminists (Harding, 1986).
Some remain loyal to scientific traditions, attempting to
rise above the cultural embeddedness of these traditions
by adhering more closely to the norms of science (e.g.,
Epstein, 1988; McHugh et al., 1986). Others seek to redress the male-centered bias in science by giving voice to
women’s experience and by viewing society from women’s
perspective (e.g., Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tarule,
1986; Gilligan, 1982; Smith, 1987). Still others abandon
traditional scientific methods entirely (e.g., Hare-Mustin,
1991). Philosopher of science Sandra Harding (1986) labeled these three approaches, respectively, feminist empiricism, feminist standpoint science, and postmodernism
(see also Morgan’s, 1983, distinction among positivist,
phenomenological, and critical/praxis-oriented research
paradigms). Next, I examine the manifestations of these
three positions in the study of the psychology of women.
The psychologists who identified the problem of experimenter effects did not reject experimentation. Instead,
they recommended strategies to minimize the impact of
the experimenter (Rosenthal, 1966). Likewise, feminist
empiricists advocate closer adherence to the tenets of science as the solution to the problem of bias. From this
perspective, bias is considered error in a basically sound
system, an outbreak of irrationality in a rational process.
Scrupulous attention to scientific methods will eliminate
error, or at least minimize its impact on research findings
(Harding, 1986). Once neutrality is restored, scientific
methods, grounded in rationality, will give access to the
Maureen McHugh et al. (1986) presented a set of
guidelines for eliminating bias. In addition to obvious
corrections of the problems described earlier, other steps
can be taken to ensure that the impact of the researcher’s
values is minimized, such as specifying the circumstances
in which gender differences are found (because contexts
tend to be deemed more appropriate for one sex than the
other) and assessing experimental tasks for their sex neutrality (because many tasks are perceived to be sex linked;
Deaux, 1984). The sex composition of the group of participants in research also may affect behavior because individuals act differently in the presence of females or
males (Maccoby, 1990). Finally, attention ought to be
paid to findings of sex similarities as well as sex differences, and the magnitude of such differences reported.
These suggestions are intended to produce genderfair research using traditional scientific methods. The assumption is that a truly neutral science will produce unbiased knowledge, which in turn will serve as a basis for
a more just social policy (Morawski, 1990). Yet the continuing identification of numerous instances of androcentric bias in research has lead some to conclude that
value-free research is impossible, even if it is done by
those of good faith (Hare-Mustin & Maracek, 1990).
Technical safeguards cannot completely rule out the influence of values; scientific rigor in testing hypotheses
cannot eliminate bias in theories or in the selection of
problems for inquiry (Harding, 1986, 1991). Hence critics
assert that traditional methods do not reveal reality, but
rather act as constraints that limit our understanding of
Feminist Standpoint Epistemologies
Feminist empiricism argues that the characteristics of the
knower are irrelevant to the discovery process if the norms
of science are followed. In contrast, feminist standpoint
epistemologies claim that we should center our science
on women because “what we know and how we know
depend on who we are, that is, on the knower’s historical
locus and his or her position in the social hierarchy”
(Maracek, 1989, p. 372). There are several justifications
732 June 1992 American Psychologist
for this viewpoint (see Harding, 1986). First, some argue
that women’s cognitive processes and modes of research
are different than men’s. It has been suggested that a supposedly feminine communal style of research that emphasizes cooperation of the researcher and subjects, an
appreciation of natural contexts, and the use of qualitative
data contrasts with a supposedly masculine agentic orientation that places primacy on distance of the researcher
from the subjects, manipulation of subjects and the environment, and the use of quantitative data (Carlson,
1972; cf. Peplau & Conrad, 1989). Evelyn Fox Keller
(1985) attempted to provide grounds for this position in
a psychoanalytic view of child development. She argued
that the male child’s need to differentiate himself from
his mother leads him to equate autonomy with distance
from others (see also Chodorow, 1978). The process of
developing a masculine sense of self thus establishes in
the male a style of thinking that both reflects and produces
the emphasis in science on distance, power, and control.
Keller identifies an alternative model of science based not
on controlling but rather on “conversing” with nature.
Keller’s (1985) argument that science need not be
based on domination is salutary, but her explanation is
problematic. She presumes, first, that male and female
infants have quite different experiences and, second, that
those early experiences shape the activities of adult scientists, but she does not substantiate these claims. The
supposedly masculine emphasis on separation and autonomy may be a manifestation of Western mainstream
culture rather than a universal distinction between women
and men. Black men and women who returned from
northern U.S. cities to live in the rural South manifest a
relational as opposed to autonomous self-image (Stack,
1986), and both Eastern and African world views see individuals as interdependent and connected, in contrast
to the Western emphasis on a bounded and independent
self (Markus & Oyserman, 1989). Identifying a masculine
cognitive style as the grounds for scientific methods seems
to doom most women and perhaps non-White men to
outsider status. Furthermore, an emphasis on cognitive
style ignores the role played by social structure, economics, and politics in determining topics and methods of
study (Harding, 1986). Experimental methods in psychology characterized by control and objectivity are accorded prestige partly because they emulate the highly
valued physical sciences (Sherif, 1979). Within social science, the prestige of a study mirrors the prestige of its
topic (Epstein, 1988). Sociocultural factors such as these
seem more likely as determinants of the shape of science
than individual psychology.
A more plausible basis for a feminist standpoint
epistemology is the argument that women’s life experiences are not fully captured in existing conceptual
schemes. Research often equates male with the general,
typical case, and considers female to be the particular
a subgroup demarcated by biology (Acker, 1978). Yet analytical categories appropriate for men may not fit
women’s experience. Dorothy Smith (1987) argued that
women are alienated from their own experience by having
to frame that experience in terms of men’s conceptual
schemes; in Smith’s terms they have a “bifurcated consciousness”daily life grounded in female experience but
only male conceptual categories with which to interpret
that experience. Starting our inquiries from a subordinate
group’s experience will uncover the limits of the dominant
group’s conceptual schemes where they do not fully fit
the subordinates (see also Miller, 1986). Accordingly, a
science based on women’s traditional place in society not
only would generate categories appropriate to women,
but also would be a means of discovering the underlying
organization of society as a whole (see also Code, 1981).
In contrast to traditional social science in which the
researcher is the expert on assessing reality, an interpretive-phenomenological approach permits women to give
their own conception of their experiences. Participants,
not researchers, are considered the experts at making
sense of their world (Cherryholmes, 1988). The shift in
authority is striking. Yet phenomenological approaches
are limited in at least two ways. First, they require that
the subjects studied be verbal and reflective (Reinharz,
1992); second, they run the risk of psychological reductionism (attributing causation simply to internal, psychological factors; Morawski, 1988).
Carol Gilligan’s (1982) theory of women’s moral development is the most influential psychological study in
this tradition. Her work asserting that women stress caring
in the face of moral dilemmas in contrast to men’s emphasis on justice has been criticized because other researchers have found no sex differences in moral reasoning
using standardized scales (e.g., Greeno & Maccoby, 1986;
Mednick, 1989). Gilligan (1986) retorted that women’s
responses on those scales are not relevant to her purposes:
The fact that educated women are capable of high levels of
justice reasoning has no bearing on the question of whether they
would spontaneously choose to frame moral problems in this
way. My interest in the way people define moral problems is
reflected in my research methods, which have centered on firstperson accounts of moral conflict, (p. 328)
Although standardized scales might tell us what women
have in common with men, they will not reveal the way
women would define their own experiences if given the
opportunity to do so. The absence (and impossibility) of
a comparison group of men in Gilligan’s definitive study
of 29 women considering abortions raises questions about
whether moral orientations are sex linked, however
(Crawford, 1989; Epstein, 1988, pp. 81-83).
The feminist standpoint epistemologies aim not
simply to substitute “woman centered” for “man centered” gender loyalties, but rather to provide a basis for
a more accurate understanding of the entire world. Howard Becker (1967) claimed that
In any system of ranked groups, participants take it as given
that members of the highest group have the right to define the
way things really are.. . . Credibility and the right to be heard
are differentially distributed through the ranks of the system.
June 1992 American Psychologist 733
Feminist standpoint epistemologies argue that traditional
methods of science give credibility only to the dominant
group’s views. Listening to subordinates reveals the multifocal nature of reality (Riger, 1990). The term subjugated
knowledges describes the perspectives of those sufficiently
low on the hierarchy that their interpretations do not reflect the predominant modes of thought (Foucault, 1980,
p. 81). Giving voice to women’s perspective means identifying the ways in which women create meaning and
experience life from their particular position in the social
Moreover, women (and minorities) sometimes
have a better vantage point to view society than do
majorities because minority status can render people
socially invisible, thus permitting them access to the
majority group that is not reciprocated (Merton, 1972).
Accordingly, incorporating subordinates’ experience
will not only “add” women and minorities to existing
understandings, it will add a more thorough understanding of the dominant group as well. For example,
Bell Hooks (1984) described African Americans living
in her small Kentucky hometown as having a double
vision. They looked from the outside in at the more
affluent White community across the railroad tracks,
but their perspective shifted to inside out when they
crossed those tracks to work for White employers.
Movement across the tracks was regulated, however:
Whites did not cross over to the Black community, and
laws ensured that Blacks returned to it.
The arguments for feminist standpoint epistemologies have stimulated rich and valuable portrayals of
women’s experience. Yet there are problems with a feminist standpoint as the basis for science. First, assuming
a commonality to all women’s experience glosses over
differences among women of various racial and ethnic
groups and social classes (Spelman, 1988). The life experience of a woman wealthy enough to hire childcare
and household help may have more in common with her
spouse than with a poor woman trying to raise her children on a welfare budget. Standpoint epistemology can
recognize multiple subjugated groups demarcated by
gender, race, social class, sexual orientation, and so on.
Yet carried to an extreme, this position seems to dissolve
science into autobiography. A critical challenge for feminist standpoint epistemology is to identify the commonalities of subjugated experience among different groups
of women without losing sight of their diversity. Moreover,
those who are subjugated may still adhere to a dominant
Furthermore, we each have multiple status identities
(Merton, 1972). The poet Audre Lorde (1984) described
herself as “a forty-nine-year-old Black lesbian feminist
socialist mother of two, including one boy, and a member
of an interracial couple” (p. 114). Each of these identities
becomes salient in a different situation; at times, they
conflict within the same situation. The hyphenated identities that we all experience in different waysBlack feminist, lesbian mother, Asian American, and so oncall
into question the unity of the category of woman, making
it difficult to generalize about “women’s experience”
Nonetheless, feminist standpoint epistemologies do
not claim that social status alone allows the viewer clarity.
Reasonable judgments about whether views are empirically supported are still possible. Rather than proclaiming
the one true story about the world, feminist standpoint
epistemologies seek partial and less distorted views. These
partial views, or situated knowledges, can be far less limited than the dominant view (Haraway, 1988).
A number of perspectives, including Marxism, psychoanalysis, and postmodernism, share a challenge to the
primacy of reason and the autonomy of the individual.
Here I focus on postmodernism and, in particular, poststructuralism, because of its influence on an emerging
stream of feminist psychology (e.g., Hare-Mustin & Maracek, 1990; Wilkinson, 1986). A traditional social scientist
entering the terrain of poststructuralism at times feels a
bit like Alice falling into a Wonderland of bewildering
language and customs that look superficially like her own
yet are not. Things that seem familiar and stablethe
meaning of words, for examplebecome problematic.
What once were nouns (e.g., privilege, valor, foreground)
now are verbs. Even the landscape looks different, as
words themselves are chopped up with parentheses and
hyphens to make visible their multiple meanings. What
is most unsettling, perhaps, is the fundamental poststructuralist assertion that science does not mirror reality, but
rather creates it (i.e., making science a process of invention
rather than discovery; Howard, 1991). Many scientists
would agree that an unmediated perception of reality is
impossible to obtain, and that research findings represent
(rather than mirror) reality. However, they would maintain that some representations are better than others. The
traditional scientific criteria of validity, generalizability,
and so forth determine how close research findings come
to actual truth. In contrast, poststructuralists reject traditional notions of truth and reality, and claim instead
that power enables some to define what is or is not considered knowledge. Expressing our understanding of experience must be done through language, but language is
not a neutral reflection of that experience because our
linguistic categories are not neutral:
If statements and not things are true or false, then truth is necessarily linguistic: if truth is linguistic, then it is relative to language use (words, concepts, statements, discourses) at a given
time and place; therefore, ideology, interests, and power arrangements at a given time and place are implicated in the production of what counts as “true.” (Cherryholmes, 1988, p. 439)
Or, as Humpty Dumpty said to Alice in Through
the Looking Glass:
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful
tone, “it means just what I choose it to meanneither more or
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words
mean so many different things.”
734 June 1992 American Psychologist
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be masterthat’s all.” (Carroll, 1872/1923, p. 246)
The central question in poststructuralism is not how
well our theories fit the facts, or how well the facts produced by research fit what is real. Rather, the question is
which values and social institutions are favored by each
of multiple versions of reality (i.e., discourses). Of critical
concern is whose interests are served by competing ways
of giving meaning to the world (Weedon, 1987). Feminists
of a postmodern bent claim that positivism’s neutral and
disinterested stance masks what is actually the male conception of reality; this conception reflects and maintains
male power interests (Gavey, 1989). As legal scholar
Catherine MacKinnon (1987) put it, “Objectivitythe
nonsituated, universal standpoint, whether claimed or
aspired tois a denial of the existence of potency of sex
inequality that tacitly participates in constructing reality
from the dominant point of view” (p. 136). In MacKinnon’s view, rather than being neutral, “the law sees
and treats women the way men see and treat women” (p.
140). The same criticism can be made about traditional
social science in its exclusion, distortion, and neglect of
The social constructionist stance, as poststructuralism is known within psychology (K. J. Gergen, 1985),
offers a particular challenge to the psychology of women.
In contrast to feminist empiricism, the central question
no longer asks whether sex or gender differences exist.
Knowing the truth about difference is impossible (HareMustin & Maracek, 1990). Varying criteria of differentness can produce divergent findings, for example, when
conclusions based on averages contradict those based on
the amount of overlap of scores of men and women (Luria,
1986). When an assumed difference is not scientifically
supported, the argument simply shifts to another variable
(Unger, 1979), and similar findings can be interpreted in
opposing ways. Given the impossibility of settling these
questions, poststructuralism shifts the emphasis to the
question of difference itself (Scott, 1988):
What do we make of gender differences? What do they mean?
-, Why are there so many? Why are there so few? Perhaps we
‘ should be asking: What is the point of differences? What lies
beyond difference? Difference aside, what else is gender? The
overarching question is choice of question. (Hare-Mustin &
Maracek, 1990, pp. 1-2)
One goal of a feminist constructionist science is
“disrupting and displacing dominant (oppressive) knowledges” in part by articulating the values supported by
alternate conceptions of reality (Gavey, 1989, p. 462). An
analysis of contrasting perspectives on sex differences
demonstrates the relationship among values, assumptive
frameworks, and social consequences. According to
Rachel Hare-Mustin and Jeanne Maracek (1988), the received views of men and women tend either to exaggerate
or to minimize the differences between them. On the one
hand, the tendency to emphasize differences fosters an
appreciation of supposedly feminine qualities, but it simultaneously justifies unequal treatment of women and
ignores variability within each sex group. The consequence of emphasizing difference, then, is to support the
status quo. On the other hand, the tendency to minimize
differences justifies women’s access to educational and
job opportunities, but it simultaneously overlooks the fact
that equal treatment is not always equitable, because of
differences in men’s and women’s position in a social
hierarchy. Gender-neutral grievance procedures in organizations, for example, do not apply equally to men
and women if men are consistently in positions of greater
power (Riger, 1991).
Researchers have widely different interpretations of
the implications of poststructural critiques for social science methods. Some use empirical techniques for poststructuralist ends. Social constructionists see traditional
research methods as a means of providing “objectifications” or illustrations, similar to vivid photographs, that
are useful in making an argument persuasive rather than
in validating truth claims (K. J. Gergen, 1985). Traditional methods can also help identify varying versions of
reality. For example, Celia Kitzinger (1986, 1987) used
Q-sort methodology to distinguish five separate accounts
of lesbians’ beliefs about the origin of their sexual orientation. Techniques of attitude measurement can also
be used to assess the extent to which people share certain
versions of reality. Rhoda Unger and her colleagues used
surveys to assess belief in an objectivist or subjectivist
epistemology, finding that adherence to a particular perspective varied with social status (Unger, Draper, & Pendergrass, 1986).
Others propose that we treat both psychological theories and people’s actions and beliefs as texts (i.e., discursive productions located in a specific historical and
cultural context and shaped by power), rather than as
accounts, distorted or otherwise, of experience (Cherryholmes, 1988; Gavey, 1989). Methods developed in other
disciplines, particularly literary criticism, can be used to
analyze these texts. For example, through careful reading
of an interview transcript with an eye to discerning “discursive patterns of meaning, contradictions, and inconsistencies,” Nicola Gavey (p. 467) identified cultural
themes of “permissive sexuality” and “male sexual needs”
in statements by a woman about her experiences of heterosexual coercion (see also Hare-Mustin, 1991; Walkerdine, 1986). A particular technique of discourse analysis, deconstruction, can be used to expose ideological
assumptions in written or spoken language, as Joanne
Martin (1990) did to identify forces that suppress women’s
achievement within organizations. Deconstruction highlights the revealing quality not just of what is said, but
rather of what is left out, contradictory, or inconsistent
in the text. Deconstruction offers a provocative technique
for analyzing hidden assumptions. Yet it is a potentially
endless process, capable of an infinite regress, inasmuch
as any deconstruction can itself be deconstructed (Martin,
The absence of any criteria for evaluation means
that the success of accounts of social construction “depend primarily on the analyst’s capacity to invite, compel,
June 1992 American Psychologist 735
stimulate, or delight the audience, and not on criteria of
veracity” (K. J. Gergen, 1985, p. 272). This raises the
possibility that what Grant (1987) said in another context
could apply here: “Such theories risk devolving into authoritarian non-theories more akin to religions” (p. 113.)
The relativism of poststructuralism can be countered,
however, by the identification of moral criteria for evaluation (K. J. Gergen, 1985; Unger, 1983). Theory and
research can be assessed in terms of their pragmatic utility
in achieving certain social and political goals, rather than
the allegedly neutral rules of science (Gavey, 1989). However, because feminists disagree about whether celebrating
women’s difference or emphasizing the similarity of the
sexes is most likely to change women’s basic condition
of subordination (Snitow, 1990), agreement about criteria
for evaluation seems unlikely.
What poses perhaps the greatest dilemma for feminists is the view of the subject advocated by poststructuralist theory. Poststructuralists consider the attribution
of agency and intentionality to the subject to be part of
a deluded liberal humanism, complicit with the status
quo. The multiple discourses of selfhood, intentionality,
and so forth that are present in our culture compete for
dominance; those that prevail constitute individual subjectivity. Social cognition on the part of the individual is
channeled into certain ways of thinking that dominate
society (although resistance is possible). Those discourses
antedate our consciousness and give meaning to our experience, which otherwise has no essential meaning
(Weedon, 1987). In contrast, feminist standpoint epistemologies consider individuals to be the active construers
of their reality, albeit within a particular social and historical context; women’s subjectivity is considered an important source of information about their experience.
Poststructuralism’s rejection of intentionality on the part
of the individual seems to deny the validity of women’s
voices, just at a time when women are beginning to be
heard (see also Hartsock, 1987).
Poststructuralism offers a provocative critique of social science and makes us critically aware of the relationship of knowledge and power. Yet the focus on “problematizing the text” of our disciplines, although admirably
self-reflexive, can lead to an inward emphasis that neglects
the study of women in society. In a parallel manner,
poststructuralism’s emphasis on language as determining
consciousness can lead to the disregard of other determinants, such as women’s position in a social hierarchy
(Segal, 1986). Furthermore, Rhoda Unger (1988) identified a dilemma for social scientists who reject traditional
The attempt to about human
behavior using the tools of empiricism is one of the few unique
contributions that psychology as a discipline can offer to the
rest of scholarship. If such tools may not be used by feminist
psychologists there is little likelihood that their insights will be
taken seriously by the rest of the discipline, (p. 137)
Feminist foremothers in psychology, such as Helen
Thompson (Woolley) and her colleagues, at the turn of
this century, used traditional scientific methods to contest
social myths about women (Reinharz, 1992; Rosenberg,
1982); they may still serve that purpose today. Poststructuralists would likely retort that the fact that Thompson’s
insights have had to be repeatedly rediscovered (or, rather,
reinvented) demonstrates that power, not truth, determines which version of reality will prevail.
Is There a Feminist Method?
On the basis of multiple critiques of the social sciences,
some propose an alternative research method based on
feminist values. The lack of consensus on what values
are feminist makes this a daunting project, yet many
would agree on the need for more interactive, contextualized methods in the service of emancipatory goals (cf.
Peplau & Conrad, 1989). A feminist method should produce a study not just of women, but also for women,
helping to change the world as well as to describe it (Acker,
Barry, & Esseveld, 1983; Wittig, 1985). Mary Gergen
(1988) advocated the following as central tenets of a feminist method (see also Wilkinson, 1986):
1. recognizing the interdependence of experimenter and
2. avoiding the decontextualizing of the subject or experimenter from their social and historical surroundings;
3. recognizing and revealing the nature of one’s values
within the research context;
4. accepting that facts do not exist independently of their
producers’ linguistic codes;
5. demystifying the role of the scientists and establishing
an egalitarian relationship between science makers and science
consumers, (p. 47)
Joan Acker et al. (1983) attempted to implement
some of these principles in a study of women who had
primarily been wives and mothers and were starting to
enter the labor market. Interviews became dialogues, a
mutual attempt to clarify and expand understandings.
Often friendships developed between researchers and the
women in the study. Acker and her colleagues discovered
that these methods are not without problems, however.
The researcher’s need to collect information can (perhaps
inadvertently) lead to the manipulation of friendship in
the service of the research. Methods that create trust between researchers and participants entail the risk of exploitation, betrayal, and abandonment by the researcher
(Stacey, 1988). Acker’s study took place over a number
of years, and participant’s interpretations of their lives
were constantly changing in hindsight, raising problems
of validity in the research. The desire to give participants
an opportunity to comment on researchers’ interpretations of the interviews became a source of tension when
disagreements arose. The solution to these dilemmas
reached by Acker and her colleaguesto report the
women’s lives in their own words as much as possible
was not satisfactory to the women in the study who
wanted more analysis of their experience. Finally, it was
difficult to determine if this research experience had an
emancipatory effect on participants. Intending to create
social change is no assurance of actually doing so.
736 June 1992 American Psychologist
The conflict between the researcher’s perspective and
that of the participants in this study raises a critical issue
for those who reject positivism’s belief in the scientist as
expert. Because a feminist method (at least according to
the principles listed) assumes that there is no neutral observer, whose interpretations should prevail when those
of the researcher and the people under study conflict?
Feminism places primacy on acknowledging and validating female experience (Wilkinson, 1986), yet postmodern perspectives challenge the authority of the individual (Gavey, 1989; Weedon, 1987). Consider, for example, Margaret Andersen’s (1981) study of 20 corporate
wives. She disbelieved their claims of contentment and
attributed their lack of feminism to false consciousness,
a Marxist term meaning that these women identified with
(male) ruling class interests against their own (female)
class interests. The women wrote a rebuttal rejecting Andersen’s interpretation. In response, Andersen revised her
position to accept the women’s statements of satisfaction
with their lives. Instead of treating them as deluded or
insincere, she looked for sources of their contentment in
their position in the social hierarchy. Lather (1986, 1988)
recommended this kind of dialogic process to avoid imposing on research participants interpretations that disempower them (see also Kidder, 1982). Without it, we
grant privilege to the authority of the researcher, even if
on postmodern rather than positivist grounds.
Although the strategies intended as a feminist method
overcome some of the objections to traditional social science, they raise as many problems as they solve (see
Reinharz, 1992). No method or epistemology seems devoid of limitations or perfectly true to feminist values,
which are themselves contested (e.g., Jaggar & Struhl,
1978). Feminism is most useful as a set of questions that
challenge the prevailing asymmetries of power and androcentric assumptions in science and society, rather than
as a basis for a unique method (Reinharz, 1992). Feminism thus identifies “patterns and interrelationships and
causes and effects and implications of questions that nonfeminists have not seen and still do not see” (Lorber, 1988,
The psychological study of women emerged from
the field of individual differences. Dominated by the
question of sex differences, this tradition assumes that an
inner core of traits or abilities distinguishes women from
men (Buss, 1976). Such a conceptualization no longer
seems useful. Few gender differences in personality or
abilities have been reliably demonstrated (Feingold, 1988;
Hyde, 1990), and factors other than individual dispositions influence our behavior (Maccoby, 1990). A more
appropriate strategy for the study of women would consider the ways in which gender is created and maintained
through interpersonal processes (Deaux & Major, 1987).
From this perspective, gender does not reside within
the person. Instead, it is constituted by the myriad ways
in which we “do” rather than “have” gender; that is, we
validate our membership in a particular gender category
through interactional processes (West & Zimmerman,
1987). Gender is something we enact, not an inner core
or constellation of traits that we express; it is a pattern
of social organization that structures the relations, especially the power relations, between women and men
(Connell, 1985, 1987; Crawford & Maracek, 1989): “In
doing gender, men are also doing dominance and women
are doing deference” (West & Zimmerman, 1987, p. 146).
Transsexuals know well that merely altering one’s sex
organs does not change one’s gender. Membership in the
category of “male” or “female” must be affirmed continuously through social behavior (see, e.g., Morris, 1974).
Each of the epistemological positions described can
contribute to this perspective, despite their contradictions.
An interactional conceptualization of gender recognizes
that the behavior and thoughts of men and women are
channeled into certain sociocultural forms, as poststructuralism claims. As Peter Manicas and Paul Secord (1983)
Social structures (e.g., language) are reproduced and transformed
by action, but they preexist for individuals. They enable persons
to become persons and to act (meaningfully and intentionally),
yet at the same time, they are “coercive,” limiting the ways we
can act. (p. 408)
The dominant ideology of a society is manifested in and
reproduced by the social relations of its members (Unger,
1989). Unlike poststructuralism, however, an interactional
view of gender also acknowledges individual agency in
the production and transformation of social forms. Such
a perspective would regard the person as an initiator of
action and construer of meaning within a context composed not only of varying modes of interpreting the world
but also of structural constraints and opportunities (see,
e.g., Buss, 1978; Riegel, 1979; Sampson, 1978; Unger,
1983), as standpoint epistemologies claim.
Diverse methods, evaluated by reasonable criteria,
are needed to capture the rich array of personal and
structural factors that shape women and girls, and in turn
are shaped by them. What is critical is that we are aware
of the epistemological commitmentsand value assumptionswe make when we adopt a particular research
strategy (Unger, 1983). Moreover, rather than abandoning
objectivity, systematic examination of assumptions and
values in the social order that shape scientific practices
can strengthen objectivity (Harding, 1991).
Epistemological debates in recent years have shattered the traditional picture of science as neutral, disinterested, and value free and have replaced it with a view
of knowledge as socially constructed. Feminists’ contributions to this debate highlight not only the androcentric
nature of social science, but also its collusion in the perpetuation of male dominance in society. To assume that
the multiple voices of women are not shaped by domination is to ignore social context and legitimate the status
quo. On the other hand, to assume that women have no
voice other than an echo of prevailing discourses is to
deny them agency and, simultaneously, to repudiate the
possibility of social change. The challenge to psychology
June 1992 American Psychologist 737
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