Imagine you are riding a train in a rural stretch of countryside and look out the window. You see a Native American family: a woman, man, and their children standing by the river watching you pass them in the train. But how do you know that they are a family? Perhaps they are strangers who happened upon each other. How do you know they were looking at the train? They are too far away to really tell. If we simply consider our perspective to be a sole reality or objective reality, we will not only lose information from other perspectives, but lose information on the perspectives themselves. We lose the perspective the “family” themselves have to offer on the situation. We also lose the information of our position relative to the family, with us in the train and them by the river. To not consider their perspective nor acknowledge our perspective when drawing our conclusions is to eliminate and neglect their understanding of the situation, as well as the context of the situation, necessarily restricting our understanding of the situation and losing valuable insights as a result.
Fifty years ago, a sociologist named Dorothy E. Smith took such a train ride, which began to sow the creative seeds of a new field. But she would need one more inspiration before those seeds would ultimately sprout into the field of feminist standpoint theory, and that inspiration would come through her personal experience in academia.
Smith was born into a rural middle-class family in England. Her middle-class status and excellence in academics afforded her the privilege of completing her undergraduate studies at the London School of Economics, where she studied sociology and anthropology, and began her illustrious academic career. She would go on to complete her doctoral studies at the University of California, Berkeley by completing a PhD in sociology before continuing her career as a professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC), where her experiences provided the inspiration for her theory that would ultimately become a new branch of sociological investigation: feminist standpoint theory.
Smith’s time at UBC coincided with the Canadian Women’s Movement from the late 1960s through the 1970s. However, it was not the broader Women’s Movement that inspired her work on feminist standpoint theory, but rather a personal experience with one of her colleagues. Sociology was still a field dominated by male academics during Smith’s time at UBC. As a result, “mainstream” sociological research was conducted from the male perspective, which forced female academics such as Smith to think, write, and exist as a male while they were within the academic sphere. Such an uprooting and devaluation of one’s identity was extremely painful for many female academics, as it effectively required them to detach from their personal experience and perspective while in the professional sphere. Smith describes the pain that this oppression of female identity had on one of her friends and colleagues: “she would look in the mirror and she couldn’t see herself. . . she had lost her sense of who she was”.
Smith’s experience of the marginalization of the female identity with academia, combined with her understanding of perspective, inspired in her the realization that all sociological investigation is conducted from the perspective of the sociologist: “sociology’s conceptual procedures, methods, and relevances, organize its subject matter from a determinate place in society. This critical disclosure is the basis of an alternative way of thinking sociology”.
Sociology is organized from a perspective. Because it is necessarily organized from a
perspective, that perspective should be considered as a foundation of sociology. Smith formalized the idea of differing sociological perspectives or lenses in a concept called standpoint, which encapsulates the experiences of an individual and acknowledges their effect on the framing and conclusion of a sociological investigation. She contrasts her synthesis of feminist standpoint theory with sociology at the
time, emphasizing the idea that traditional sociological research does not consider differential perspectives mediated by differential experience: “traditional sociological research uncovers only the object of research as it stands by itself. Such a sociology hides the way those objects are constituted, constructed, and in actual concrete social relations in which the sociologist participates”.
In the train metaphor, you represent a sociological group observing another, represented by the family. Your position in the train and the family’s position by the river are the sociological perspectives of two different groups, mediated by their unique experiences. Assuming that your perspective is correct and objective, and the family you perceive is indeed a family, is equivalent to a sociologist viewing investigation from their standpoint as objective and allowing their experience of the world to subsume the standpoints of all other parties; such a sociological investigation would lose all information about the investigator’s standpoint relative to the subject of study. Instead, by acknowledging one’s standpoint, the investigator avoids completely imposing their experience as an objective reality over other standpoints and can analyze how standpoints interact or behave relative to each other, weighing the experience and perspectives of each and allowing for a more complete investigation of the world. Though it is impossible to completely detach one’s experience to some extent in their interpretation of a phenomena, inclusion of the standpoint of all involved parties will allow later consumers of the analysis to form their own analysis on how perspective has influenced any conclusions reached. Smith’s ideas of standpoint are an acknowledgement that there are different perspectives, none of which is a true objective reality, and that considering perspectives of observation is an important component of studying sociological phenomena.
However, Smith argued that the lack of a truly objective standpoint doesn’t imply that standpoints are all equally informative in all situations. Such a stance is explored by Smith in her synthesis of feminist standpoint theory, grounded in the observation that “traditionally and as a matter of occupational practices
in our society, the governing conceptual mode is appropriated by men”. Smith did not claim that the female standpoint is universally greater than that of the male standpoint, as she desired the acknowledgement of perspective and different standpoints during sociological research. However, she did recognize one set of sociological investigations where the utility of the female standpoint greatly exceeds that of the male: in the illumination and identification of the systems of oppression that work against women. Smith specifically drew attention to the idea of experience: “By taking a standpoint in our original and immediate knowledge of the world, sociologists can make their discipline’s socially organized properties first observable then problematic”. Because marginalization of women is specifically experienced by women and not by men, women are better equipped to identify the presence, effects, and magnitude of impact that structures of oppression have on their lives and society: “the only way of knowing a socially constructed world is from within”.
In a continuation of our train ride, suppose that you are observing the world from the train. You see that outside it is sunny, bright, and the view of the rural countryside is beautiful. But you are watching from the perspective of an air-conditioned train, so all you see is good weather, but from the perspective of the family, the outside may be exceptionally hot or humid and full of mosquitos, and you have no way of knowing. From an outside perspective, it can be nearly impossible to identify difficulties experienced by a group, but if an individual possesses the standpoint of that group, they can identify how they are marginalized because it is made obvious through their experience where certain systems of oppressions inhibit their ability, well-being, and humanity.
Despite all the insight that feminist standpoint theory has delivered, it is not without its criticisms. Contemporary standpoint theorists push back against the idea of a universal female experience, claiming
that “different cultural contexts and political agendas may cast a very different light on both the ‘idols’ and the ‘enemies’ of knowledge as they have been characteristically typed in western feminist epistemology”. This highlights an interesting parallel in the strengths and weaknesses of feminist standpoint theory: differences between female and male experience allow for the female standpoint to identify things that the male standpoint can’t, but differences in other factors such as race and class can further segment female experience into finer and finer subsets of experience.
An example of finer bifurcation of experience is the difference in treatment of female African American sociologists and female European American sociologists at the start of the 20th century. Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr were female European American sociologists who founded Hull-House, a social aid settlement house that established them as the “leaders of a national social movement”. Hull-House’s prestige was such that even the academic powerhouse the University of Chicago “was strongly motivated to establish a tie with Hull House”. Clearly, the work of Addams and Starr received respect and recognition, as they were considered the undisputed leaders of their field and motivated the primarily male-run University of Chicago to desire a collaboration. However, the same could not be said to the same extent for their African American counterparts. At the Atlanta University conference, the men and women were separated at the conference, resulting in the minimization and trivialization of the work of female African American sociologists: “separating the women from the men at the second conference led to separating women’s concerns from the main conference and did not always give the women’s interests the same amount of critical attention”. While the male-run University of Chicago recognized the merit of work done by Addams and Starr, the male-run Atlanta University Conference did not recognize female African American sociologists’ contributions to the same extent and marginalized them in a segregated conference. In this example, though they are all female, there is a clear difference in experience between European American and African American female sociologists, bifurcated by race. In such a scenario, it can be argued that feminist standpoint theory loses validity, as two groups have very different experiences despite them both being female.
This criticism leads to an extension of the notion of standpoint beyond that of simply male and female, allowing it to consider other separations in experience mediated by race, class or gender. This extension is a powerful tool, as it generalizes a core idea in feminist standpoint theory: marginalized standpoints with experiences of oppression are best equipped to identify systems of oppression that act on them. Standpoint theory informs a philosophy of improvement for society: a philosophy that encourages people to listen to marginalized individuals to gain knowledge about systems of oppression that are not immediately apparent to those who do not possess personal experiences of the marginalization. It promotes a philosophy that grants credibility to the oppressed and gives them a voice so that we may begin to improve our society.
The lasting impact of feminist standpoint theory, and its generation to standpoint in general, has made Smith one of the most influential sociologists. She is recognized for her contributions to sociology with many awards, including the American Sociological Association’s Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award, the Jessie Bernard Award for Feminist Sociology, the Outstanding Contribution Award from the Canadian Sociological Association and Canadian Anthropological Association, as well as the John Porter Award, cementing her legacy as one of the most groundbreaking sociological theorists in history. However, it’s worth noting that Smith did not develop her ideas of feminist standpoint theory in a vacuum, as her works often interacted with ideas from fellow researcher Sandra Harding, who worked before and during the same time to develop similar ideas of standpoint.
Standpoint theory maintains its relevance today as a lens through which we may first observe then begin to resolve modern examples of marginalization and inequality. For example, as more women in recent years have spoken out against underrepresentation in fields such as engineering, law, and finance, they’ve drawn attention to this problem and led to the creation of initiatives in both education and industry to help resolve this injustice. As more women speak out against unfair wage practices and the so-called “glass ceiling”, compensation practices across all industries are forced to become more transparent and equitable, marking the start of improvement in this area. Injustice remains across the world, and standpoint theory remains a powerful philosophy to encourage us to hear the voices of oppressed peoples, so that we may destroy the systems of oppression and institutions of inequality that remain in our society as we strive to continue progressing towards greater equality.
About the Author:
Patrick is a third year undergraduate studying quantitative biology at the University of Chicago. In this free time Patrick enjoys playing tennis, poker, and reading.
Featured Image: Dorothy E. Smith. Source: University of Toronto 2019
Carroll, William K. 2010. “‘You Are Here’: an interview with Dorothy E. Smith.” Socialist Studies/Études Socialistes 6(2):9-37
Lemert, C. C. (2010). Social theory: The multicultural and classic readings (4th ed.). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Smith, Dorothy. 1974. “Women’s Perspective as a Radical Critique of Sociology.” Sociological Inquiry. 44(1): 7-13.
Harding, S. G. (1987). Feminism and Methodology : Social Science Issues. Indiana University Press.
Jaggar, Alison M. & Bordo, Susan (eds.) (1989). Gender/Body/Knowledge: Feminist Reconstructions of Being and Knowing. Rutgers University Press.
Deegan, M. J. (2005). Jane Addams and the men of the Chicago School, 1892-1918. Transaction Publishers.
Wilson, F. R. (2006). The segregated scholars: Black social scientists and the creation of Black Labor Studies, 1890-1950. University of Virginia Press.
 Carroll, 18
 Lemert, 21
 Harding, 84
 Smith, 5
 Lemert, 24
 Lemert, 21
 Jaggar & Bordo, 258
 Deegan, 40
 Deegan, 37-38
 Wilson, 96