Doing Fieldwork on Women in Theocratic Islamic States: A Critique of the Politics of Empiricism

Article excerpt

This paper examines the way some feminist advocates of cultural relativism adopt positivism and empiricism in order to discredit the radical critique of Islamization of gender relations in Iran. It argues that relativists use the positivist/empiricist cult of experience and objectivity in order to undermine the critique of policies and practices that oppress the women of Iran. The choice of a method of inquiry is not based on methodological considerations only. The researcher's political preferences, implicit or explicit, plays a significant role in the entire research process, especially in the study of sensitive issues. Although one may identify a methodological tradition with a certain brand of politics, the paper argues that methodological paradigms enter into changing relationships with structures of power.


Today, an amazing array of methodological choices is available to the researcher in social sciences and the humanities. In the field of education, for instance, the Educational Research, Methodology, and Measurement: An International Handbook (Keeves, 1997) presents some 30 "methods of educational inquiry" and 66 "research methodologies." I argue, in this paper, that the choice of a method of inquiry is not based on methodological considerations alone. A host of factors, ranging from the researcher's ideological and political commitments to the interests of editors and publishers, constrains the freedom to choose in the marketplace of methodologies. This paper examines the politicized nature of the research agenda of feminists who study women and gender policies in the Islamic theocracy of Iran.

The Context

The ties that bind knowledge to power are complex, strong, and known since ancient times. Power relations decide, to a large extent, what kind of knowledge will be produced, legitimized, transmitted, and utilized. Equally tied to structures of power are research methods, i.e., rules, codes, criteria, procedures, and techniques for producing knowledge.

Methodology, to distinguish it from method itself, evaluates research methods. In the late twentieth century, methodology turned into a major site of struggle, especially in the social sciences and the humanities. Approaches to methodology range from sceptical postmodernist rejection of all methods of research to positivist insistence that (social science) research should strictly adhere to the methods of natural sciences. The former position advocates relativism, i.e., it argues that all knowledge claims are equally valid; it rejects privileging some knowledge claims on the basis of "objectivity" or scientific merit. The latter position, positivism, rejects the validity of research that is not based on "rigorous" methods of science, observation, and experimentation (Rosenau, 1992, pp. 109-37).

There is, between the two extremes of postmodern "relativism" and positivist "objectivity" (or "scientism"), a host of methodological "paradigms" ranging from post-positivism to hermeneutics, which converge with or diverge from the two polarized positions. While methodological debates are rooted in the old discourses of philosophy, especially epistemology (theory of knowledge), they are, at the same time, political statements that intervene in today's unequal distribution of power in society. In other words, the creation of knowledge is a methodological as well as a political undertaking. Marxism, for instance, claims that all knowledge is shaped by class interests, while feminism argues that gender underlies the creation of all forms of knowledge. It is already known that race, nationality, ethnicity and culture, among others, also shape the production, distribution and utilization of knowledge.

Stating the Problem

Advances in methodological studies have revealed close ties that bind epistemology to politics, and knowledge to power. However, we need to know much more about the complexity of these relationships. One relevant question is the extent to which a methodological tradition is embedded in a certain trend of politics. …


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