Annual review of anthropology


Due to the broad range of feminist critiques, in this essay, I will focus on the extent to which feminist critiques have challenged traditional ethnographic research and writing.

The essay will be divided into three main sections with further subdivisions for each section.

The first section will focus on feminist methodology, ethnics and epistemology.

In this first section I will first look at the feminist critiques of methodology and whether a distinct feminist method has been developed.

I will then consider the ethical implications that are a result of a feminist approach and the need to bond with the research subject to get access to intimate knowledge. This style of research will be seen as an aim to equal the power relationship.

Finally I will discuss the epistemology and the feminist critique of the positivistic form of knowledge claims. The feminist argument is that nothing can be seen as objective and value-free and leads them to suggest a context depended way to claim knowledge.

In the second section I will discuss the ideas of Donna Haraway's 'Situated Knowledges'.

I will discuss the feminist attempt to find a way between universalism and relativism. Secondly I will look at how this attempt leads to the suggestion of a new feminist doctrine of objectivity.

Thirdly, I will talk about embodied vision as another view of the situated knowledge which challenged ethnographic research.

In the last section I will first talk about reflexivity as a tactic for making situated knowledge possible. I will then continue with textual reflexivity as the 'new' feminist style of writing. This can be seen as a result of the recognition of situated partial knowledge. In this part I will focus on the 'confessional' way of writing and how that has challenged the traditional ways of writing fieldwork.

Feminist Methodologies, Ethics and Epistemology

In this section I will examine some of the feminist approaches to fieldwork and research. This requires an examination of epistemological and methodological ideas in feminism. I will also look at the ethical considerations.

A Feminist Method

It has been debated whether feminism has its own method or whether feminism should be seen as an approach to scientific studies and fieldwork. Sandra Harding defines the research methods as a technique for collecting evidence; "methodology is a theory or analysis of how research should proceed; and epistemology is a theory of knowledge" (Harding 1987 in Moss 2002:2).

Most feminists would be of the same opinion that feminism is an approach to research rather than an actual method. The feminist method should then be seen as a steer to how research should be done and what can be estimated as valid and legitimate knowledge. Harding (1987) mentions the need to stop the search for 'a' feminist method; because of the different feminist perspectives and as more attention should be paid to the questions of knowledge and ways to approach the acquisition and legitimating of knowledge (Moss 1993:48). Methods favoured by feminist scholars are those picked from common fieldwork techniques within social science that especially emphasise qualitative methods. From the 1960 the diverse social scientific theoretical schools of: Hermeneutics, phenomenology, ethnographic methods and feminism all formed a basis of qualitative or 'soft' methods to research. What was general for all of these methods was their critique of the positivistic nature of quantitative methods (Forskingsrdet for Samfund og Erhverv 2007:3). Reinharz says that within feminism qualitative methods were used because of the mistrust of earlier non-feminist researchers, and their research made using quantitative methods. Further, she says: "a symbiosis has occurred between 'feminist' and 'qualitative' in the minds of many people. Qualitative methods are thought to be the methods that protest against the status quo, just as feminism does more generally" (Reinharz, 1993:69). John Eyles (1993) argues that "there are few, if any, differences with respect to method, in that both feminists and interpretive scientists search for sensitive techniques for gathering evidence "(Eyles 1993:52). This could point toward no distinct contribution of feminism to fieldwork methods. But Eyles does emphasize that "feminism has taken a lead role in sensitizing us all to our responsibilities in our use of method and in exposing research procedure and knowledge acquisition for our critical gaze"(Eyles 1993: 52). This then means that we can see feminism as a critical approach, especially when it comes to the acquisition, production and validity of knowledge.

The feminist critique of earlier work, especially the quantitative work by non-feminist researchers, shows that the prevailing method among feminists was qualitative but the fact that pure observation and positivism where largely rejected does not entail that quantitative methods where not used at all. Such methods have been used by feminists since the 19th century and are still used. Quantitative methods are not mentioned so often when discussing feminist methodology and have become what Reinharz (1993:70) calls a 'neglected voice in feminist research'. Feminist critiques have not directly challenged the ethnographic field as they did not contribute a new distinct method. Feminism should be viewed as an approach that has, in contrast with traditional ethnography, questioned the acquisition of knowledge and called for exposure of procedures (Foley 2002).

Ethical Dilemmas - Positioning and Power

Feminists like all ethnographers must deal with the dynamics of fieldwork but feminists challenged the traditional ways of making ethnographies by bonding with the subject. The feminist aim was to transform what previously was a seen as competitive relation between subject and researcher into one of solidarity, mutuality and reciprocated understanding. This is because women understand friendship in these terms and therefore the research relationship should be like that as well (Reinharz 1993:73).Furthermore, Reinharz argues that the "goal of feminist scholarship is to reinterpret or redefine phenomena that previously were defined exclusively from a masculinist perspective, the only way to have access to a new definition is to understand women by way of rapport" (Reinharz 1993:73). Obtaining this kind of 'rapport' gives the researcher access to intimate knowledge about the subject that can benefit the researcher. Stacy (1988:21) argues that the irony that feminist ethnographic methods have is that an involvement with the subject in research can cause a greater risk of exploitation, betrayal, and abandonment by the researcher than does much positivist research. Wheatley questions this and argues that dilemmas always will be present when research involves theoretically and contextually specific decisions (Wheatley 1994:404).

One of the key principles in feminist ethnography is rapport. Reinharz observes that the 'demand for rapport' can be intimidating for new feminist. Rapport can also be limiting for the researcher as focusing on relationships may take attention away from other important aspects (Reinharz 1993). She acknowledges that rapport should be a special outcome of research. Shostaks (1981) work with Nisa in Africa is an example of rapport as a fortunate outcome.

The problem of power is emphasized as the basis for ethical matters: "Feminist dilemmas in fieldwork revolve around power, often displaying contradictory, difficult, and irreconcilable positions for the researcher. Indeed, the power dimension is threaded throughout the fieldwork and post-fieldwork process (...)" (Wolf 1996: 1). This got feminists to search for research methods that are "sensitive to the power relations in fieldwork" and to recognize that "the researcher's positionality and biography directly affect fieldwork" (England 1994:80).

Both 'power' and 'positionality' are main concepts in feminist approaches to fieldwork and this has directly contributed to making these considerations important for research in general. The questions of power and positionality affect all aspects of the research process but they are especially relevant when we talking about ethnographic fieldwork and where the researcher interacts openly with research participants in 'periodic, short and intense' relationships (Nast 1994: 54). The feminist notion of power and position in the field and during research has then challenged and altered the traditional ways of doing ethnography.

A Feminist Epistemology

A feminist approach to epistemology challenges the notions of valid and objective forms of knowledge held by traditional epistemology (Moss 1993:49). Traditional epistemology leaves out women's experience and perspectives in the studies - that is to say, traditional epistemological views are male dominated and are termed 'masculinist science' or 'masculine epistemologies', originating from a positivistic epistemology (e.g. Harding 1987,Haraway 1988, Moss 1993).

The traditional epistemologies and the western thought in general, were influenced by the philosophy of Decartes' (1596-1650), where he treats mind and body as fundamental and mutually categories and separates subject and object (Bondi 2002:6). The claims of valid and legitimate knowledge in the traditional epistemology come from the criterion of objectivity. There is a cleavage between subject and object and the researcher is forced to take a distanced, impersonal and neutral position. The researcher is now in control of the research subject and process. Being personal is to danger objectivity and the researcher must take the role as "mysterious, impartial outsider, an observer freed of personality and bias" (England 1994:81).

Feminist critiques have discarded the idea that science is objective and value- free. What mainly inspired the feminist was the postmodernist project underpinned by Michel Foucault and the idea of deconstruction which offer an understanding of knowledge as ideology and socially constructed[1] and therefore depend on context. This then means that knowledge could never be taken out of context, and made into universal knowledge. Reality cannot be understood as something 'out there' that can be viewed objectively by a researcher.

"The idea that there exists a world somehow separate from the subject, that is, an abstracted, objective world, is exposed as an assumption on which a perspectiveless knowledge is built. We can investigate the world only from a perspective of the contingencies of our self, which includes our physical, social and historical experiences. To explore the world, both figuratively and literally, involves the active participation of the subject as observer" (Domosh 1991: 482).

From this view it is possible to say that the subject always is personified and the subjectivity always is splintered and many fold (Bondi 2002:6). From this we see that knowledge is to be understood as a result of a social process. This way to see knowledge, as fundamentally social, is common within feminist epistemology (Tanesini 1999:15). The research process is then an ongoing, inter-subjective and discursive process (Gilbert 1994: 90; England 1994: 81-82).

The challenging feminist critiques of the 'objectivity 'of traditional epistemology have declared that 'objectivity' is not achievable or even sought-after. Instead, feminists stress the essential epistemological question is 'Whose knowledge are we talking about?'(Tanesini 1999:16). It is Donna Haraway (1988) who has made a significant contribution to placing this question on the agenda.

Situated knowledges

Beyond Universalism and Relativism

Haraways critiques of science and her contribution to feminist epistemologies has in terms of her focus on situatedness, embodiment and knowledge claims had great influence on the field of ethnography. One of the most important articles has been 'Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective' (1988).

The article by Haraway sums up the discussions about the critique of universalist knowledge claims on one hand and the dangers of the relativism inherent in postmodernism on the other. Many feminist scholars have seen themselves ensnared between the universalist claims of objectivity and the postmodern deconstruction of all knowledge claims. Haraway is not pleased with this either/or way of thinking about objectivity of scientific knowledge claims and she adds an important input to the discussion by attempting to go beyond this dichotomy - to which I shall return to later.

In Haraways feminist critique are the positivistic knowledge claims described as 'the gaze from nowhere' or 'the god trick' - this is what Haraway calls the masculine science. It is the gaze from "the unmarked positions of Man and White (...) in scientific, technological, late-industrial, militarised, racist and male-dominant societies" (Haraway 1988: 581). It is one of the Western cultural narratives about objectivity, splitting mind and body, subject and object, creating distanced and irresponsible knowledge claims that cannot be accounted for (Haraway 1988: 583).

A critique of this view from nowhere comes from the social constructivist view of postmodernism. Haraway describes the social constructivist view as tempting because "no insider's perspective is privileged, because all drawings of inside-outside boundaries in knowledge are theorized as power moves, not moves toward truth" (Haraway 1988: 576). This then is a sceptic view of all knowledge claims, especially of those of scientists. Haraway is not satisfied with the social constructionist program and gives her critique of it in her ironic writing, which also marks the starting point for her argument of a need for a new doctrine on objectivity.

"I, and others, started out wanting a strong tool for deconstructing the truth claims of hostile science by showing the radical historical specificity, and so contestability, of every layer of the onion of scientific and technological constructions, and we end up with a kind of epistemological electroshock therapy, which far from ushering us into the high stakes tables of the game of contesting public truths, lays us out on the table with self-induced multiple personality disorder" (Haraway 1988: 578).

This sums up quite visibly the uncertain ground where many feminists and other scholars have found themselves after their ride with radical version of social constructivism. Feminists have recently been far more critical of postmodernism's inherent relativism (McDowell 1992). Feminists' 'dance with postmodernism' (McNeil 1993) was encouraged by the hunt for tools to deconstruct the 'doctrines of objectivity' of 'hostile' science that is; the science founded on 'the gaze from nowhere'. Feminists found themselves at risk of dissolving every knowledge claim, including their own, and so risked making the category of 'women' non-existent.

A Feminist Doctrine of Objectivity

It is this critique of social constructivism that makes Haraway call for a new doctrine of objectivity. "Feminists have to insist on a better account of the world; it is not enough to show radical historical contingency and modes of construction for everything" (Haraway 1988:579).

Even though postmodernism and its relativism has been seen as a way to deal with universalism, the similarities between them are also pointed out by Haraway: while universalism claims objectivity from a distanced nowhere; "relativism is a way of being nowhere while claiming to be everywhere equally. The 'equality' of positioning is a denial of responsibility and critical inquiry. Relativism is the perfect mirror twin of totalization in the ideologies of objectivity; both deny the stakes in location, embodiment, and partial perspective; both make it impossible to see well. Relativism and totalization are both 'god tricks' promising vision from everywhere and nowhere equally and fully, common myths in rhetorics surrounding Science" (Haraway 1988: 584).

Haraway states she does not write for epistemologies or 'theory' only, but for better accounts of the world which will strengthen the feminist political struggle against domination.

Such accounts serve to steer feminists towards a feminist doctrine of objectivity and the question of:

"how to have simultaneously an account of radical historical contingency for all knowledge claims and knowing subjects, a critical practice for recognizing our own 'semiotic technologies' for making meanings, and a no-nonsense commitment to faithful accounts of a 'real' world, one that can be partially shared and that is friendly to earth wide projects of finite freedom, adequate material abundance, modest meaning in suffering, and limited happiness" (Haraway 1988: 579). Haraway perceives a conflict between the separate aims but argues that both are required for a satisfactory account of objectivity. Haraway wants knowledge claims that recognize the power involved, but which is not reduced to power only.

Embodied Vision

To take it one step further than only power, Haraway connects power to 'vision' and says "Vision is always a question of the power to see" (Haraway 1988: 585), and thereby persist on the personified character of all visions. This embodiment of visions makes the notion of knowledge as situated possible. "Feminist objectivity means quite simply situated knowledges" (Haraway 1988: 581). The aim is an 'embodied' objectivity which has room for both the critical feminist project of identifying inbuilt power moves and being able to give 'authentic accounts' of a real world. Insisting on the embodiment of vision and objectivity connects a feminist to a certain position of the subject and to a particular place in time and space. Vision and objectivity must be embodied "in order to name where we are and are not, in dimensions of mental and physical space". "(...) objectivity turns out to be about particular and specific embodiment". "(...) only partial perspective promises objective vision" (Haraway 1988: 583). In short, we can see that her doctrine of objectivity spells out that: "Objectivity is not about disengagement but about mutual and usually unequal structuring, about taking risks in a world where 'we' are permanently mortal, that is, not in 'final' control" (Haraway 1988: 596).

This view of situated knowledge has challenged the traditional ways of thinking about fieldwork. The feminist aim to change the positivist view by discovering situated knowledge has benefitted other areas of ethnography for example in critical ethnography. Foley (2002) who belongs to the school of critical ethnography says that their kind of empirical research often is founded on "an intersubjective reality which is both 'inherited' and continually constructed and reconstructed" (Foley 2002:472). He sees how feminism is incorporated into ethnography and recognizes that "to make ethnography at least quasi-objective, one has to become much more reflexive about all ethnographic practices - from field relations and interpretive practices to producing texts" (Foley 2002:473)


Reflexivity - as a Strategy for Situating Knowledge

Reflexivity is essential for feminist researchers as well as other scholars, as a way to make power relations visible. Reflexivity in the fieldwork is seen as a tactic to make knowledge situated (Rose 1997:305) and in this way it is trying to follow Haraways doctrine of objectivity. McDowell (1992:409) says that "we must recognize and take account of our own position, as well as that of our research participants, and write this into our research practice". Moss (1993:48) agrees by stressing "(...) a feminist researcher must acknowledge her own impact on the research process and take time to reflect on that impact". Reflexivity is according to England (1994:82) seen as "(...) the self-critical sympathetic introspection and the self-conscious analytical scrutiny of the self as researcher (...); it induces self-discovery and can lead to insights and new hypotheses about the research questions". And reflexivity must "require careful consideration of the consequences of the interactions with those being investigated" (England 1994).

Textual Reflexivity

The feminists have introduced a writing style that is different to the traditional ethnographer. They write about their relationship with the informants, the contextual situatedness of the researcher and also relevant ethical and political issues and history. As a result, this new style includes dialog, reflexivity, many differing perspectives as well as different writing styles (Klumbyte 2004).

Barbara Babcock argues that reflexivity is about language and thought. She says that by looking at one's own experience it becomes possible to view oneself as the 'other' (Babcock 1980). By this she means that by looking at the self constantly one will become reflexive about the situated, socially constructed self and thereby the other. She warns this approach can turn out to be an epistemological paradox. "Turning in on oneself in a critical manner tends to produce awareness that there are no absolute distinctions between what is 'real' and what is 'fiction', between the 'self' and the 'other'". (Babcock 1980 in Foley 2002:473). On this view there still is a belief that the quasi-objective knowledge claim can be archived through a self critical understanding of interpretation limits.

George Marcus (1998) calls this 'confessional' reflexivity. It has been argued that this form of reflexivity started before postmodernism with the diary of Malinowski (1967). Tedlock (1991) argues that during the 1970's and 1980's confessional reflexive ethnographies were not recognized and to do this kind of confessional account without having published traditional, scientific realist ethnography first was not acceptable. In the process of fieldwork it was then normal to keep two separate sets of books.

Marginalised feminists (e.g. Abu- Lughod 1991, Behar 1993), started to integrate such reflections into their formal ethnographies. This subjective mix-genre was labelled 'autoethnography' - a mix between ethnography and autobiography (Reed-Danahay 1997). In this category there is a large continuum of different writings which at one end contains heartbreaking personal stories of loved ones dying (Ellis 1995) and at the other less intimate community studies. But besides their differences they are subjective (Foley 2002). This kind of feminist writing aims to weaken the authorial ways of speaking in a rational and objective voice. This then means that "the author is a living, contradictory, vulnerable, evolving multiple self, who speaks in a partial, subjective, culture-bound voice" (Foley 2002:473). Ruth Behar (1996) is a very intense 'confessional' writer and explains her practice more than most. She says "Anthropology that does not break your heart is not worth doing" (Behar 1996:177). Behar uses autobiographical memories, feelings and intuition to split with objectivity which is in strong contrast to traditional writing. According to Behar it is not possible to separate theoretical language from the everyday language - which then leads to a commonsense understanding of life as well as the theoretical constructs of the discipline (Foley 2002: 474).

Much feminist work has expressed the concern of 'giving voice' to the research subjects (Visweswaran 1997:614). Nancy Scheper-Hughes (1992:28) says that in spite of "the dissonant voices in the background protesting just this choice of words" that "there is still a role for the ethnographer-writer in giving voice, as best she can, to those who have been silenced". Karen McCarthy Brown (1991:14) agrees by saying "the people who are being studied should be allowed to speak for themselves whenever possible". This view sides modern-day feminist with the earlier autoethografies from the 1930's and 1940's where the writer tried to make the narrator invisible or absent in the texts. There have been concerns with the question of fiction in recent writings (Visweswaran 1997:614). Laila Abu-Lughods writing is about telling stories; she is eager to detach herself from fiction and claims that all the stories she writes about are 'true' and not 'made up' (Visweswaran 1997).

Feminist ethnographies have been taking many forms but what is common to all of them is that they take a reflexive stand point. This way of writing is not only seen in feminist work, but also in many ethnographies written by men (e.g. Crapanzano1980, Foley 1995). This is in contrast to traditional ethnographic writers who are quick to dismiss autoethnography as 'a self-indulgent, narcissistic 'diary disease'' (Geertz 1988).

Feminist reflexivity in fieldwork has then successfully challenged the traditional style of ethnographic writing so that almost all ethnographies are reflexive to a greater or lesser extent.


Feminism is an approach rather than a distinct method but it is clear that feminism has had a leading role in drawing more attention to the methods in use and the way in which fieldwork is conducted. Feminism as an approach includes close interaction and bonding with the research subject, but the question of whether the demands of rapport will restrictively influence the conduct of fieldwork and whether it is more damaging and exploitative than traditional methods is still widely debated. Feminism has played a large role too in drawing attention to the ethics that one encounters especially when it comes to the power and positioning relations that exists between the researcher and the research subjects. Feminist epistemology challenges the valid and objective forms of knowledge that traditional epistemology holds. This is done by discarding the idea of objectivity. They argue that nothing can be objectively observed and introduce the idea of knowledge as a social process and that this kind of knowledge cannot be removed from its context. This clearly challenges traditions of objectivity in ethnography. The first challenge is to examine the methods and procedures used in the fieldwork, not just 'do' fieldwork. Second is to focus on the interaction on a personal level with the research subjects. Lastly the rejection of the idea of objectivity and claiming that knowledge is only situated.

From the work of Donna Haraway, it became clear that to be able to claim knowledge a position somewhere between universalism and relativism had to be found. It was her critique of social constructivism and the dissolving of all knowledge claims that led her to suggest a feminist doctrine. The feminist doctrine calls for better accounts of the world by identifying power relations and also through the personified character of visions. It is the idea of embodied vision that makes situated knowledge possible. The idea of embodied vision lead to understand that feminist objectivity is situated knowledge. This has largely challenged the traditional ethnography by stating that truth is not only from 'the eyes that see' and this has also spread to other disciplines. It has been widely accepted that to be at least quasi-objective one must be reflexive.

Textual reflexivity is a way to inform about procedures, methods, personal engagement and many other things, and that allow the reader to be critical. This is a way to follow the feminist doctrine and to 'situate' oneself and the information obtained. This way of doing fieldwork is now prevailing and many have chosen the confessional style when engaged in ethnographic writing. This can range from very emotional to the less intimate accounts. I agree with Geertz to some extend in that it can be self-indulgent and uninteresting to read about the researcher, but when the researcher chooses to write about herself because it is relevant to the fieldwork it can be informative.

It is my conclusion that feminist critiques have challenged ethnographic traditions to a great extent and as a result have influenced the practice of ethnography for all.


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