Standpoint theory

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Standpoint theory is a postmodern theory for analyzing inter-subjective discourses. This body of work concerns the ways that authority is rooted in individuals' knowledge (their perspectives), and the power that such authority exerts.

Standpoint theory's most important concept is that an individual's own perspectives are shaped by his or her social and political experiences. Standpoints are multifaceted rather than essentializing: while Hispanic women may generally share some perspectives, particularly with regard to ethnicity or sex, they are not defined solely by their participation in these categories. The amalgamation of a person's many experienced dimensions form a standpoint—a point of view—through which that individual sees and understands the world.

Standpoint theorists emphasize the utility of a naturalistic, or everyday experiential, concept of knowing (i.e., epistemology). One's standpoint (whether reflexively considered or not) shapes which concepts are intelligible, which claims are heard and understood by whom, which features of the world are perceptually salient, which reasons are understood to be relevant and forceful, and which conclusions credible.[1]

Standpoint theory supports what feminist theorist Sandra Harding calls strong objectivity, or the notion that the perspectives of marginalized and/or oppressed individuals can help to create more objective accounts of the world. Through the outsider-within phenomenon, these individuals are placed in a unique position to point to patterns of behavior that those immersed in the dominant group culture are unable to recognize.[2] Standpoint theory gives voice to the marginalized groups by allowing them to challenge the status quo as the outsider within. The status quo representing the dominant white male position of privilege.[3]

The predominant culture in which all groups exist is not experienced in the same way by all persons or groups. The views of those who belong to groups with more social power are validated more than those in marginalized groups. Those in marginalized groups must learn to be bicultural, or to "pass" in the dominant culture to survive, even though that perspective is not their own.[4]


The original inspirations for standpoint theory can be seen in the works of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, a German idealist philosopher, who studied the different standpoints between slaves and masters in 1807.[5] He claimed that the master-slave relationship is about people's belonging positions, and the groups affect how people receive knowledge and power.[6] Karl Marx also discussed how the position of a worker shapes his or her knowledge.[citation needed] From these two scholars' studies, Nancy Hartsock examined standpoint theory by using relations between men and women. She published "The Feminist Standpoint: Developing Ground for a Specifically Feminist Historical Materialism" in 1983. Hartsock used Hegel's ideas of masters and slaves and Marx's ideas of class and capitalism as an inspiration to look into matters of sex and gender.

Contemporary standpoint theory often focuses on the social positions such as gender, race, class, culture, and economic status.[7] Standpoint theory seeks to develop a particular feminist epistemology, that values the experiences of women and minorities as a source for knowledge.[8].

Prominent standpoint theorists include Dorothy Smith, Nancy Hartsock, Donna Haraway, Sandra Harding, Alison Wylie, Lynette Hunter and Patricia Hill Collins.

Key concepts[edit]

Generally, standpoint theory gives insight into specific circumstances only available to the members of a certain collective standpoint. According to Michael Ryan, "the idea of a collective standpoint does not imply an essential overarching characteristic but rather a sense of belonging to a group bounded by a shared experience."[9]. Kristina Rolin states that "the assumption of essentialism is that all women share the same socially grounded perspective in virtue of being women, the assumption of automatic epistemic privilege is that epistemic advantage accrues to the subordinate automatically, just in virtue of their occupying a particular social position."[10]

According to this approach:

  • A standpoint is a place from which human beings view the world.
  • A standpoint influences how the people adopting it socially construct the world.
  • A standpoint is a mental position from which things are viewed.
  • A standpoint is a position from which objects or principles are viewed and according to which they are compared and judged.
  • The inequalities of different social groups create differences in their standpoints.
  • All standpoints are partial; so (for example) Standpoint feminism coexists with other standpoints.


Since standpoint theory focuses on marginalized populations, it is often applied within fields that focus on these populations. Standpoint has been referenced as a concept that should be acknowledged and understood in the Social Work field, especially when approaching and assisting clients.[11] Many marginalized populations rely on the welfare system to survive. Unfortunately, those who structure the welfare system typically have never needed to utilize its services before. Standpoint theory has been presented as a method to improving the welfare system by recognizing suggestions made by those within the welfare system.[12] In Africa, standpoint theory has catalyzed a social movement where women are introduced to the radio in order to promote awareness of their experiences and hardships and to help these women heal and find closure.[13] Another example dealing with Africa is slavery and how slavery differed greatly depending on if one was the slave or the master. If there were any power relationships there could never be a single perspective. No viewpoint could ever be complete, and there is no limit to anyone's perspective.

Asante and Davis’s (1989) study of interracial encounters in the workplace found that because of different cultural perspectives, approaching organizational interactions with others with different beliefs, assumptions, and meanings often leads to miscommunication. Brenda Allen stated in her research that, "Organizational members' experiences, attitudes, and behaviors in the workplace are often influenced by race-ethnicity"[14]

Paul Adler and John Jermier suggest that management scholars should be aware of their standpoints. They write that those studying management should "consciously choose [their] standpoints and take responsibility for the impact (or lack of impact) of [their] scholarship on the world"[15].

Jermier argued that all parts of a research study- identifying the problem, theorizing research questions, gathering and analyzing data, drawing conclusions, and the knowledge produced are there to some extent because of the researcher’s standpoint. This caused him to question what standpoint to adopt in the management of scientists. To avoid falling into limitations of the status quo and certain standpoints, he said that "the view from below has greater potential to generate more complete and more objective knowledge claims." He continues to say that, “if our desire is to heal the world, we will learn more about how the root mechanisms of the world work and about how things can be changed by adopting the standpoints of those people and other parts of nature that most deeply suffer its wounds.”[16]

Feminist standpoint theory[edit]

Feminist standpoint theorists make three principal claims: (1) Knowledge is socially situated. (2) Marginalized groups are socially situated in ways that make it more possible for them to be aware of things and ask questions than it is for the non-marginalized. (3) Research, particularly that focused on power relations, should begin with the lives of the marginalized.[17]

Feminist standpoint theorists such as Dorothy Smith, Patricia Hill Collins, Nancy Hartsock, and Sandra Harding claimed that certain socio-political positions occupied by women (and by extension other groups who lack social and economic privilege) can become sites of epistemic privilege and thus productive starting points for enquiry into questions about not only those who are socially and politically marginalized, but also those who, by dint of social and political privilege, occupy the positions of oppressors. This claim was specifically generated by Sandra Harding and as such, "Starting off research from women's lives will generate less partial and distorted accounts not only of women's lives but also of men's lives and of the whole social order."[18] This practice is also quite evident when women enter into professions that are considered to be male oriented. Londa Schiebinger states, "While women now study at prestigious universities at about the same rate as men, they are rarely invited to join the faculty at top universities...The sociologist Harriet Zuckerman has observed that 'the more prestigious the institution, the longer women wait to be promoted.' Men, generally speaking, face no such trade-off."[19]

Standpoint feminists have been concerned with these dualisms for two related reasons. First, dualisms usually imply a hierarchical relationship between the terms, elevating one and devaluing the other.[20] He also said that when we suggest that decisions should be made rationally, not emotionally, for example, we are showing that reason holds a higher value in our culture than does emotion. Also, related to this issue is the concern that these dualisms often become gendered in our culture. In this process, men are associated with one extreme and women with the other. In the case of reason and emotion, women are identified with emotion. Because our culture values emotion less than reason, women suffer from this association. Feminist critics are usually concerned with the fact that dualisms force false dichotomies (partition of a whole) onto women and men, failing to see that life is less either/or than both/and, as relational dialectics theory holds.


Critics argue that standpoint theory, despite challenging essentialism, relies itself on essentialism, as it focuses on the dualism of subjectivity and objectivity.[20] In regards to feminist standpoint theory: though it does dispel many false generalizations of women, it is argued that focus on social groups and social classes of women is still inherently essentialist. Generalizations across the entire female gender can be broken into smaller more specific groups pertaining to women's different social classes and cultures, but are still generalized as distinct groups, and thus marginalization still occurs. West and Turner stated that an author by the name of Catherine O'Leary (1997) argued that although standpoint theory has been helpful in reclaiming women's experiences as suitable research topics, it contains a problematic emphasis on the universality of this experience, at the expense of differences among women's experiences.

Another main criticism of Harding and Wood's standpoint theory is the credibility of strong objectivity vs. subjectivity. Standpoint theorists argue that standpoints are relative and cannot be evaluated by any absolute criteria, but make the assumption that the oppressed are less biased or more impartial than the privileged.[18] This leaves open the possibility of an overbalance of power, in which the oppressed group intentionally or unintentionally becomes the oppressor. Intentional overbalance of power, or revenge, can manifest as justification for extremism and militarism, which can sometimes be seen in more extreme forms of feminism.

While the beginnings of standpoint theory are based on the critical paradigm from a Marxist view of social class oppression, a feminist philosophy developed in the 1970s and 1980s and the main focus has been on the feministic side. Other groups, as of now, need to be included into the theory and a new emphasis needs to be made toward other marginalized or muted groups. These groups envelop minorities, culturally different and the disabled or those that have a disability. When Harding and Wood conceived Standpoint theory they did not understand, when they defined it as a feministic view, that there are different cultures existing in the same social group. Many researchers are unsure of the idea of it having essentialism, as essentialism refers to the practice of generalizing all groups as though they were, in essence, the same.” Early standpoint theorists sought to understand the way in which the gendered identity of knowers affected their epistemic resources and capacities” (Wylie, p. 48). These other muted or marginalized groups have a more realistic approach to standpoint theory as they have different experiences than those that are in power and even within those muted groups differences defined by different cultures of people can have an altered standpoint. This view gives a basis that in part Standpoint Theory has a central principle of the inversion thesis and Joshua St. Pierre defined this as "the inversion thesis gives epistemic authority to those marginalized by systems of oppression insofar as these people are often better knowers than those who benefit from oppression. Put simply: social dispossession produces epistemic privilege."

Part of standpoint theory’s return to favor comes from a re-articulation of its methodology, aims, and limitations that directly answer the criticisms mentioned above.

Wylie has perhaps provided the most succinct articulation of second-wave standpoint theory. For her, a standpoint does not mark out a clearly defined territory such as “women” within which members have automatic privilege but is a rather a posture of epistemic engagement. Responding to the claim that the situated knowledge thesis reifies essentialism, Wylie thus argues that it is "an open (empirical) question whether such structures obtain in a given context, what form they take, and how they are internalized or embodied by individuals" (Wylie, p. 62). Identities are complex and cannot be reduced to simple binaries. Likewise, she argues that the criticism of automatic privilege is falters insofar as a standpoint is never given, but is achieved. (St. Pierre)[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Sprague, Joey. "The standpoint of art/criticism". 
  2. ^ Allen, Brenda J. (1996). "Feminist Standpoint Theory: a Black Woman's Review of Organizational Socialization". Communication Studies. 47 (4): 257–271. doi:10.1080/10510979609368482. 
  3. ^ Buzzanell, Patrice M. (2003). "A Feminist Standpoint Analysis of Maternity and Maternity Leave for Women with Disabilities". Women and Language. 26 (2): 53–65. 
  4. ^ DeFrancisco, Victoria P. Communicating Gender Diversity: A Critical Approach. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, INC., 2007.
  5. ^ Wood, J.T. (2008). Critical feminist theories. In L.A. Baxter & D.O. Braithwaite (Eds.), Engaging theories in interpersonal communication: Multiple perspectives (pp. 323-334). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  6. ^ Griffin, Em (2009). A First Look at COMMUNICATION THEORY: Standpoint Theory. McGraw-Hill Higher Education. pp. 441–453. 
  7. ^ Wallance, R. A., and A. Wolf (1995). Contemporary Sociological Theory: Continuing the classical tradition. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  8. ^ McCann and Kim, Feminist Theory Reader: Local and global perspectives, 2003.
  9. ^ Encyclopedia of Social Theory, 789.
  10. ^ Rolin, Kristina. "Standpoint Theory As A Methodology For The Study Of Power Relations". Hypatia. 
  11. ^ Swigonski, M. E. (1993). "Feminist Standpoint Theory and the Questions of Social Work Research". Affilia, 8(2), 171–183.
  12. ^ Edmonds-Cady, C (2009). "Getting to the grassroots: Feminist standpoints within the welfare movement". Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare. 36 (2): 11–33. 
  13. ^ Gatua, M. W.; Patton, T. O.; Brown, M. R. (2010). "Giving voice to invisible women: "FIRE" as model of a successful women's community radio in Africa". Howard Journal of Communications. 21 (2): 164–181. doi:10.1080/10646171003727441. 
  14. ^ Allen, B. J. (1995). "'Diversity' and organizational communication". Journal of Applied Communication Research, 23, 145.
  15. ^ Adler, Paul, and John Jermier. 2005. "Developing a field with more soul: Standpoint theory and public policy research for management scholars". The Academy of Management Journal 48 (6): 942.
  16. ^ Jermier, J.M. 1998. "Critical perspectives on organizational control". Administrative Science Quarterly, 43: 235–256.
  17. ^ Bowell, T. "Feminist Standpoint Theory". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 
  18. ^ a b Griffin, E. M. (2009). A first look at communication theory (7th edn). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
  19. ^ Schiebinger, Londa (1999). Has feminism changed science?. United States of America: Harvard University Press. pp. 33–53. 
  20. ^ a b West, R., and H. L. Turner (2004). Communication Theory. Analysis and Application.
  21. ^ Wylie, Alison. 2012. "Feminist Philosophy of Science: Standpoint Matters." Presidential Address delivered to the Pacific Division APA, in Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, 86.2: 47–76.


  • Ryan, Michael. "Standpoint Theory." Encyclopedia of Social Theory. Ed. George Ritzer. Vol. 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2005. 789. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 12 November 2012.
  • Rouse, Joseph (November 2009). "Standpoint Theories Reconsidered". Hypatia. 24 (4): 200–209. doi:10.1111/j.1527-2001.2009.01068.x. 
  • Harnois, Catherine E. (March 2010). "Race, Gender, and the Black Women's Standpoint". Sociological Forum. 25 (1): 68–85. doi:10.1111/j.1573-7861.2009.01157.x. 
  • Rolin, Kristina (November 2009). "Standpoint Theory as a Methodology for the Study of Power Relations". Hypatia. 24 (4): 218–226. doi:10.1111/j.1527-2001.2009.01070.x.