The Logic of Feminist Standpoint Theory for Social Work Research

By Swigonski, Mary E. | Social Work, July 1994 | Go to article overview

The Logic of Feminist Standpoint Theory for Social Work Research


Swigonski, Mary E., Social Work


The dialectic of relevance and rigor symbolizes the tension between social work practitioners and researchers. Social work practitioners want professional research to be relevant, to contribute to the understanding of human behavior in the social environment, and to improve practice effectiveness. Social work researchers want professional research to be rigorous and to meet the highest standards of science. And, of course, some social workers want both. Yet definitions of "good science" seem to preclude that possibility.

During the first half of this century, social work embraced psychoanalysis and the scientific method of the natural sciences in an effort to achieve professional status and credibility. Social work research methods were adopted from the social and natural sciences. For many social workers, the predominant paradigm in the definition of knowledge building and research is descended from the logical positivism of the beginning of the 20th century (Wood, 1990). The positivist philosophy and its approach to scientific activity rest on several key philosophical assumptions. Three in particular are problematic for social work: (1) the claim of value-free scientific activity, (2) the requirement of subject-object separation, and (3) definitions of scientific objectivity. It is time that social work enact a commitment to the development of an epistemology and research consonant with its unique professional character.

This article presents feminist standpoint theory as an alternative epistemology for social work practice and research. Feminist standpoint theory provides a vehicle to move social work research and practice toward a synthesis of relevance and rigor. This theory provides an alternative approach to knowledge justification and "good science" and leads to a resolution of the seeming contradiction between the need for relevance and the commitment to rigor in professional practice and research. The following discussion builds on the work of social scientists Mary McCanney Gergen (1988), Kenneth J. Gergen (1988), Sandra Harding (1987, 1991), and Joyce McCarl Nielsen (1990).

Beliefs and Conflicts

Value-Free Scientific Activity

Logical positivism asserts the possibility of value-free theory and science based on the use of the senses and reason. Knowledge for knowledge's sake is believed to be both desirable and possible. But in the 1960s, critics of science discovered that those in charge of the neutral sciences were overwhelmingly white, male, and privileged occupants of positions in advanced industrialized society (Rose, 1983). The sciences are inextricably part of the social order that supports them. Hubbard (1988) called our attention to the political, value-laden nature of scientific activity in her assertion that "the pretense that science is apolitical and value neutral is profoundly political because it obscures the political role that science and technology play in underwriting the existing distribution of power in society. . . . Science and technology always operate in somebody's interest". In societies where power is organized hierarchically (by class, culture, or gender), there is no possibility of an impartial, disinterested, value-neutral perspective.

Social work's commitment to value-directed actions stands in contrast to positivist commitments to value-free endeavors. A profession that prides itself on a humanitarian value base cannot rely on a research grounded in the assertion that its methods can and should strip values from its work and findings. From its inception, social work research has been an applied research. The profession's commitment to practical ends requires that social work researchers possess an acute awareness of the value-laden potentials of the process and products of our science. Social work practitioners more readily become involved with research activities that honor the profession's commitment to client empowerment and social transformation. …

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