A Matter of Interpretation: On the Place of "Lived Experience" in Ecofeminist Research
MacGregor, Sherilyn, Women & Environments International Magazine
A METHODOLOGICAL ISSUE THAT IS of great significance to ecofeminist researchers, especially researchers who study grassroots activism, is the interpretation and presentation of women's "lived experience." Some ecofeminists view women's everyday experiences as a fundamental source of knowledge about human-nature relationships and as inspiration for their eco-activism. Greta Gaard, for example, includes "the path of lived experiences" as part of the geography of ecofeminism. Even though they are different for every woman, she writes, lived experiences "are just as strong as the streams of feminist theory that have shaped the intellectual and philosophical aspects of ecofeminism." 1 Other ecofeminists make much of the role of mothering experiences and women's (and their children's) experiences of environmentally related health problems in women gaining a sense of environmental concern. A central goal of ecofeminist scholarship has been to foreground women's experiences with/in "nature" as an alternative to established (read: theoretical, masculine, Western) ways of knowing.
Certainly, ecofeminist scholarship in which particular experiences of grassroots activists are highlighted provides an important corrective to the absence of women in masculinist ecopolitics. Feminists have for many decades argued that theories that ignore or discount women and the ways in which their experiences are different from men's are inadequate. But what does it mean to give "lived experience" such a privileged place in ecofeminist thought and is it wise, on the whole, to do so?
In thinking about this question, I take instruction from Jean Grimshaw's analysis of the relationships between experience, reality and theory in which she raises questions about how feminists have typically viewed women's experience. Grimshaw is critical of those feminists who assume, rather naively in her view, that "female experience simply needs `naming,' and that it is always `valid' -- a final court of appeal -- and that experience should be contrasted not just with particular theories but with the notion of theory in general." 2 Lorraine Code is also wary of the tendency of some feminists to take women's experiences as uncontestable truth. In fact she warns of "the risk [of] replacing the old tyranny of an expertise deaf to experience with a new tyranny of experience hermetically sealed against criticism and interpretation." 3 She argues for a more tentative and provisional approach to things like "reality" and "experience," one that does justice to the "variegated nature of female experience" and the many ways it intersects with male experience. At the same time such an approach must contribute to the development of theories (not just "realities") that allow us to analyze and conceptualize oppression, exploitation, and domination on a grand scale.
There are problems associated with taking women's lived experience to be an unmediated path to the truth: we may fail to see that these experiences are filtered through and situated in specific contexts, ideas, and interpretations, as are the theorists'. Furthermore, studying women's lived experiences alone will not necessarily lead us to superior analyses. Women's experiences in one small corner of the world will not help us to address all of the interrelated factors that contribute to the complex problems of gender inequality or environmental degradation. It is questionable whether lived experience will provide sufficient insight into geo-political, economic, and cultural problems like war or global ecological developments like climate change. …