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Standpoint theory is a postmodern method 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.
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. 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.
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.
Standpoint theory was more theory based in the beginning, but now communication scholars, especially Nancy Hartsock, are focusing on looking at communication behaviors. Standpoint theory began when Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, a German philosopher, studied the different standpoints between slaves and masters in 1807. He claimed that the master-slave relationship is about people's belonging positions, and the groups affect how people receive knowledge and power. Karl Marx also discussed how the position of a worker shapes his or her knowledge. From these two scholars' studies, Nancy Hartsock examined standpoint theory by using relations between men and women. From this view, Nancy Hartsock published "The Feminist Standpoint: Developing Ground for a Specifically Feminist Historical Materialism". The theory was similar to a combination of Marxist theory and feminism. Then, Hartsock put Hegel's ideas of masters and slaves and Marx's ideas of class and capitalism into issues of sex and gender. She refers to sex as a biological category and gender as a behavioral category. Therefore, Hartsock called this theory "Feminist Standpoint Theory" in 1983. The focus of this theory is women's social positions, such as race, class, culture, and economic status. "Developed primarily by social scientists, especially sociologists & political theorists; it extends some of the early insights about consciousness that emerged from Marxist/socialist feminist theories and the wider conversations about identity politics. Standpoint theory endeavors to develop a feminist epistemology, or theory of knowledge, that delineates a method for constructing effective knowledge from the insights of women's experience." The theory arose amongst feminist theorists, such as Dorothy Smith, Nancy Hartsock, Donna Haraway, Sandra Harding, Alison Wylie, Lynette Hunter and Patricia Hill Collins.
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.
A standpoint is the point where we view the world around us. The standpoint theory strives to understand the world from the standpoint of women and other marginalized groups in society. Generally, the 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." That viewpoint can also be said about women who identify as feminists and exhibit strong preferences for specific issues. Kristina Rolin states, "Whereas 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."
Although Standpoint theories realize that this theory has a limited source of proof, they emphasize that the main characteristics of standpoint theory is a feminist theory, as well as the nature of life, which are defined as:
- The main focus is sex or gender.
- The view of sex or gender relations is uncertain.
- The view of sex or gender relations is variable.
Also, standpoint theory makes assumptions about the nature of life:
- Class position gives a limited perspective on social relations.
- Ruling groups dominate subordinate groups and suppress the subordinate groups opinions.
- Ruling groups have more powerful standpoint than subordinate groups.
In addition to these assumptions, standpoint theory suggests knowledge which is created by knowers as a concept of the theory. Knowledge is a familiarity with someone or something, which can include facts, information, descriptions, or skills acquired through experience or education. Also this theory highlights that social locations affect men and women's reactions in their social life. It means that "the perspectives of women's lives are more important key points than women's experiences," although this feminist standpoint theory needs to be developed by hearing more from those women who have not been examined as a part of this method.
Being that standpoint theory focuses on marginalized populations, it would prove relevant within fields that focus on these populations as well. Standpoint has been referenced as a concept that should be acknowledged and understood in the Social Work field, especially when approaching and assisting clients. 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. 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. 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.
Local knowledge. Definition: "Knowledge situated in time, place, experience and relative power, as opposed to knowledge from nowhere that's supposedly value-free." This aspect of standpoint theory focuses on the idea that there is no possible way to have an unbiased perspective or viewpoint of the world. People live in a social hierarchy, and therefore, all have different ways of life and have viewpoints of the world according to one's place in the world. These viewpoints are based on experiences that one may have compared to someone else in a different part of the hierarchy.
Situated knowledge is the only kind of knowledge there is and it is and always will be partial. This type of knowledge however, is seen as being more complete in the minds of those who are subordinate in society compared to those who are of a higher status in society. The belief is that those who come from a lower status community have a more complete knowledge on account of the fact that they endure so many more struggles in their lifetimes. Adding to this knowledge, they also ponder more regularly about how those from higher status communities live on a day-to-day basis. On account of their experiences and their patterns of thought, those who come from lower status communities "experience" more and have a more complete and diverse knowledge of the world. This provides them with a better foundation for their worldviews and their standpoint.
Proletarian standpoint suggests that the impoverished and other members of lower levels of the societal hierarchy are the ideal knowers. This statement is only true if they understand the class system and the struggles that they endure on a daily basis. Feminists often substitute the term "women" for "proletariat" and they have a good foundational claim for their cause.
Strong objectivity. Definition: "The strategy of starting research from the lives of women and other marginalized groups, thus providing a less false view of reality. "This aspect of standpoint theory focuses on the fact that research from the lives of women and other marginalized groups is usually forgotten or intentionally ignored.
Strong objectivity introduces two new ideas to standpoint theory.
- 1. People who are in a marginalized group have more incentive to understand perspectives other than their own over those who belong to a more powerful group. Those who have power or are in a more powerful group have less reason to understand how those who are in a lesser position than them live or are treated.
- 2. People are in a marginalized group have little incentive to defend the current status quo of the age. They have no reason to keep the status quo as it is because they are at the bottom instead of the top reaping the benefits.
4 ways in which black women validate knowledge claims
- 1. Firsthand experience. If one has lived through an experience that they claim to be experts on, they are seen to be more credible than those who have not lived through that same experience.
- a. When a speaker relates what they are saying to an actual experience they have had in the past, it works to increase their credibility. It gives the audience a sense that they have an emotional tie to what they are saying and also shows that they understand from a personal perspective what they are talking about. The information they are sharing is no longer coming from an objective standpoint, but is rather coming from their own personal knowledge.
- 2. Use of dialogue. Black women appreciate and really take into account whether or not one is willing to participate in conversation about what other people are talking about. If one is not willing to have what they are speaking on tested, they are viewed as being less credible.
- a. When a speaker is willing to listen to and consider the input of the audience, they make themselves appear more approachable by their audience. This tends to lead to a better response from their audience whether they agree with what the speaker is saying or not. This shows the audience are willing to receive both praise and critique.
- 3. Ethic of caring. If a speaker is talking with emotion behind their words, they are seen as being someone who actually cares about what they are talking about, rather than simply fulfilling a task or obligation set before them.
- a. For example, speakers who are presenting at a local protest sound more convincing and are viewed as being more credible if they have some charisma. This is also true of candidates for President during campaigns and election time. If these speakers did not have emotion behind their speeches, they would not be nearly as successful in their endeavors because the audience would not acquire the feeling that they genuinely care about what they are speaking about.
- 4. Ethic of personal accountability. If one has their knowledge assessed and counted for, they are viewed as being more ethical in general.
- a. A speaker must be willing to have their peers and colleagues assess what they are presenting as truth. If a speaker is simply talking about a topic and presenting it as true to their audience while they are the only one who has read their material and agree with what they are saying, it would be unethical to present the information in a formal manner.
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.
The history of feminist standpoint begins in Hegel's account of the master/slave dialectic, and subsequently in Marx and, particularly, Lukacs' development of the idea of the standpoint of the proletariat. In 1807, German philosopher Georg Hegel analyzed the master-slave relationship to show that what people "know" about themselves, others, and society depends on which group they are in. Hegel stated that slaves who were oppressed can eventually reach a state of freedom of consciousness as a result of his or her realization of self-consciousness through struggles against the master, and via involvement through physical labor in projects that enable her/him to fashion the world to affect it in various ways. Hegel further went on to give an example saying that those in captivity have a decidedly different perspective on the meaning of chains, laws, childbirth, and punishment than do their captors who participate in the same "reality." He also added that since masters are backed by the established structure of their society, it is they who have the power to make their view of the world; they are the ones who write the story books. Differences between men and women can be very influential dealing with this theory. Its important to remember that culture is not experienced identically by all members because of inequality. Women are not a monolithic group, and they do not always share the same standpoint.
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." This practice is also quite evident when women enter into professions that are considered to be male oriented. Women in science are a perfect example as not only a select few are allowed, but those who get in find it difficult to climb the structural ladder. 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."
Standpoint eminists 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. 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.
- Postmodern critique – The basis of this critique is summed up by scholar, Seyla Benhabib. She sums it up by stating, "transcendental guarantees of truth are dead;... there is only the endless struggle of local narratives vying with one another for legitimization." What this says is that there cannot be one way that all people should act in certain circumstances, but rather studies and theories focused on the common good of the public majority. This critique also states that there is not any narrative in which we can base one universal version of truth in societies around the world. The moral ideals of the Enlightenment and Western liberal democracy are discredited by postmodernists.
- Communitarian critique – This critique focuses on how the theory looks at relationships and communication without knowing anything about the history of the people, relationships, or obligations within the communication premise. Real-life is messy and has several aspects behind every interaction. In order to avoid this generalization, Benhabib suggests that we should study ordinary people who live in communities instead of performing a study in an unfamiliar environment.
- Feminist critique – This critique's basis is that Habermas disregards gender distinctions while forming this theory. The theory ignores the history of women and how they have been confined in society both politically and socially and therefore is not an adequate observation of the differences that may be present between men and women.
There has been agreements between feminist standpoint theorist that a standpoint is not just a perspective that is occupied simply by the fact of being a woman. Whereas a perspective is occupied as a matter of the fact of one's socio-historical position and may well provide the starting point for the emergence of a standpoint, a standpoint is earned through the experience of collective political struggle, a struggle that requires both science and politics. He then went to say that while both the dominant and the dominated occupy perspectives, the dominated are much more successfully placed to achieve a standpoint. However, this is not saying that those who occupy perspectives that are not-marginalized cannot help in reaching a shared critical conscientious with relation to the effects of power structures and epistemic production. Only through such struggles can we begin to see beneath the appearances created by an unjust social order to the reality of how this social order is in fact constructed and maintained. This need for struggle emphasizes the fact that a feminist standpoint is not something that anyone can have simply by claiming it. It is an achievement. A standpoint differs in this respect from a perspective, which anyone can have simply by 'opening one's eyes.'
Strong objectivity and the relation to feminist standpoint
The notion of strong objectivity was first articulated by feminist philosopher Sandra Harding. Strong objectivity builds on the insights of feminist standpoint theory, which argues for the importance of starting from the experiences of those who have been traditionally left out of the production of knowledge. By starting inquiry from the lived experiences of women and others who have been traditionally outside of the institutions in which knowledge about social life is generated and classified, more objective and more relevant knowledge can be produced. Naples also stated that Harding argued that knowledge produced from the point of view of subordinated groups may offer stronger objectivity due to the increased motivation for them to understand the views or perspectives of those in positions of power. A scholar who approaches the research process from the point of view of strong objectivity is interested in producing knowledge for use as well as for revealing the relations of power that are hidden in traditional knowledge production processes. Strong objectivity acknowledges that the production of power is a political process and that greater attention paid to the context and social location of knowledge producers will contribute to a more ethical and transparent result.
Joseph Rouse says, "The first lesson suggested by standpoint theories has not been sufficiently emphasized in the literature. Standpoint theories remind us why a naturalistic conception of knowing is so important. Knowledge claims and their justification are part of the world we seek to understand. They arise in specific circumstances and have real consequences. They are not merely representations in an idealized logical space, but events within a causal nexus. It matters politically as well as epistemically which concepts are intelligible, which claims are heard and understood by whom, which features of the world are perceptually salient, and which reasons are understood to be relevant and forceful, as well as which conclusions credible."
Black feminist thought is a collection of ideas, writings, and art that articulates a standpoint of and for black women of the African Diaspora. Black feminist thought describes black women as a unique group that exists in a "place" in US social relations where intersectional processes of race, ethnicity, gender, class, and sexual orientation shape black women's individual and collective consciousness, self-definitions, and actions. As a standpoint theory, black feminist thought conceptualizes identities as organic, fluid, interdependent, multiple, and dynamic socially constructed "locations" within historical context. Black feminist thought is grounded in black women's historical experience with enslavement, anti-lynching movements, segregation, Civil Rights and Black Power movements, sexual politics, capitalism, and patriarchy. Distinctive tenets of contemporary black feminist thought include: (1) the belief that self-authorship and the legitimatization of partial, subjugated knowledge represents a unique and diverse standpoint of and by black women; (2) black women's experiences with multiple oppressions result in needs, expectations, ideologies, and problems that are different from those of black men and white women; and (3) black feminist consciousness is an ever-evolving concept. Black feminist thought demonstrates Black women's emerging power as agents of knowledge. By portraying African-American women as self-defined, self-reliant individuals confronting race, gender, and class oppression, Afrocentric feminist thought speaks to the importance that knowledge plays in empowering oppressed people.One distinguishing feature of Black feminist thought is its insistence that both the changed consciousness of individuals and the social transformation of political and economic institutions constitute essential ingredients for social change. New knowledge is important for both dimensions to change.
First introduced by Patricia Hill Collins, Black feminist standpoint is known to be a collective wisdom of those who have similar perspectives from subordinate groups of society. Collins offers two main interpretations of the consciousness of oppressed groups.
- The first claims that those who are being oppressed identify with the dominate groups and therefore have no effective self-governing interpretation of their own oppression.
- The second approach assumes that the subordinate are 'less human' than those above them making them less capable of understanding and speaking of their own experiences. While Black women may have common experiences, this does not suggest, however, all Black women have developed the same thought as one another.
Though similar in some ways, Black feminist standpoint has many differences compared to the original theories of Dorothy Smith and Nancy Hartsock about standpoint theory. Black feminist standpoint argues that the knowledge gained about an individual or other groups in society is gained from multiple factors related to their historical position in society. Black women offer an alternative position that reveals a representation of others from a different perspective. Feminist standpoint theory aims to acknowledge the diversity of women by welcoming the views of other oppressed groups of women.
Unlike those in the privileged social groups, Black women have access to knowledge about everyone from the most oppressed to the most privileged. This is due to the fact that certain realities of oppression are invisible to those who are in the dominant groups because they do not experience the same as the oppressed or are even aware of how their actions may affect the subordinate group all together. Black women, on the other hand, have a better perspective on different standpoints from direct experience and can offer their suggestions to help the more marginalized groups of our society. This standpoint that Black women have can also be seen as "bifurcated consciousness", which is the ability to see things both from the perspective of the dominant and from the perspective of the oppressed and, therefore, to comparatively evaluate both perspectives.
Not all women, however, have exactly the same experiences. Because of this, there is no singular standpoint of all women. This led to the development of Black feminist epistemology. Patricia Hill Collins first introduced the idea of Black feminist epistemology saying that it derives from the personal experience of Black women dealing with both racism and sexism. She uses this epistemology to empower Black women to hold their own control. She describes them as "outsiders within." By this she means that Black women have experienced enough from the inside to understand where they lie socially while also having enough distance from the dominant groups to offer critique.
Heidi Mirza also offers an analysis of black feminist standpoint saying that from their perspective, new dialogues are formed. She recognizes that Black women are sometimes known as the 'other' and offers her term saying they have a status as a 'third space' between the margins of race, gender, and class. She suggests that in this space, there is 'no official language and discourse. Because of this, Black women are put in the position of 'active agents' and are responsible to share their perspective and offer new insights.
It was not until the latter part of the 1990s that there was more of a focus on Black women. Numbers of both films and published works of Black women began to emerge. This marked an important transition from years past when the only works to be published or put on screen were those of more dominant groups. The only works of Black women that are recognized previous to this time are those from the early part of the nineteenth century. The works of Mary Prince (1831) and Mary Seacole (1837) are the more commonly known writings today. Aside from those few, the next notable published work was not until Sylvia Wynter (1962) and Maryse Conde (1988) leaving a gap of over 120 years of little to no work of Black women. This gap shows how powerless Black women were in a market position. Although we see more and more work of Black women in our society today, there still remains a lack of control and limited input over their works; it must be confined to certain areas in order for them to have any opportunity and publication.
"I argue that relations of power are not just like any other object of inquiry in the social sciences because they can suppress or distort relevant evidence. By relations of power I refer to a particular conception of power, namely, the ability of an individual or a group to constrain the choices available to another individual or group (Allen 1989, 33). Power in this sense of the term is a relation (see also Young 1990, 31). Even though relations of power do not always involve domination, they function as vehicles of domination when they constrain an individual's or a group's choices in a way that is harmful for the individual or the group. I argue that because relations of power can be used to dominate people, they are likely to mobilize a complex set of motivations that prompt potential informants to either conceal or distort relevant evidence." — Kristina Rolin
Critics argue that standpoint theory, despite challenging essentialism, relies itself on essentialism, as it focuses on the dualism of subjectivity and objectivity. 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. 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.
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