Where Standpoint Stands Now: An Introduction and Commentary

Article excerpt

Nancy Hartsock's article, "The feminist standpoint: Towards a specifically feminist historical materialism," in Discovering Reality (1983), is often described as the locus classicus of feminist standpoint theory. Although there were other scholars also working on standpoint theory (Jaggar, 1983; Smith, 1974, 1987; Rose, 1983), Hartsock's work is thought of in this way because it is the origin of the term "feminist standpoint theory." From the moment Hartsock defined it, feminist standpoint theory has been at the center of highly theoretical discussions, some bordering on contentious. There are, for example, nuanced theoretical discussions/ articles about the empiricism--the view that knowledge depends on experience--and epistemology of feminist standpoint theory (Bar On, 1993; Campbell, 1994; Harding, 1991; Hartsock, 1983, 1990a, 1990b; Janack, 1997; Longine, 1993), about its postmodernism or lack thereof (Harding, 1991, 1997; Hartsock, 1997a; Hekman, 1997a; O'Brien Hallstein, 1999), the relationship between identity and politics in feminist standpoint theory (O'Leary, 1997) and about its relationship to materialism (Hirschmann, 1997).

Kenny (1997) notes that these nuanced debates are difficult to understand fully, even for the theoretically well educated. Moreover, Kenny explains that her experience teaching it has been complicated because "many students lacked a basic vocabulary and facility with philosophical concepts. They were interested in feminism but knew little about materialism, liberalism, psychoanalysis, postmodernism, or, most importantly, epistemology" (p. 1). This difficulty is complicated by the recent response of several key feminist standpoint theorists to criticism of their work. In response to Hekman's (1997a) recent critique and reconceptualization of key components of feminist standpoint theory, many of the founding theorists (Hartsock, 1997a; Harding, 1997; Collins, 1997; Smith, 1997) claim that much of their work has been misunderstood by Hekman and other feminist scholars. This response prompted Kenny to note, rightfully, that the "confusion and disagreement about interpretation and meaning is not confined to novices" (p. 1).

Thus, it should come as no surprise that feminist standpoint theory has not been used in a great deal of research. Why, then, do a significant number of communication scholars across areas (Allen, 1998; Bullis, 1993; Buzzanell, 1994; Makau, 1997; O'Brien Hallstein, 1999; Pointer and Young, 1997; Stewart, 1997; Wood, 1992, 1997), and as Hirschmann (1997) notes, scholars across disciplines--philosophy, social work, sociology, psychology, history, geography, and the biological and physical sciences--continue to suggest that we ought to use feminist standpoint theory in research? Moreover, Why would Women's Studies in Communication devote this special issue to feminist standpoint theory? The primary answer is that feminist standpoint theory--with all its theoretical complexity and potential for obscurity--is grappling with the controversies that will define the heart and soul of feminist scholarship in the next century.

Because they are attempting to use feminist standpoint theory in research, the authors in this special issue are implicitly participating in this history making. Understanding how they are doing so requires some historical background and a discussion of the basic tenets of feminist standpoint theory. This understanding also requires that I situate feminist standpoint theory in both its historical and feminist contexts and that I sketch the core tenets of current versions of feminist standpoint theory. Finally, I comment on the six key insights that emerge from this group's performance of feminist standpoint research.

Feminist Standpoint Theory: (1) History and Context

As feminists debate issues of epistemology, identity, politics, and postmodernism in feminist standpoint theory, these debates go well beyond the immediate concerns of feminist standpoint theory and, ultimately, are addressing a much broader concern in feminism: whether or not women can and should be viewed as a group, as sharing a common experience of oppression. …