3.2 Feminism

Traditional Marxist analyses of the State as an instrument of class power, as the coercive core and last point of resistance to attempts to create different forms of social relationship which break from the logic of exploitation and commodification, have often also drawn attention to another more diffuse structure of power, that resting on gender (Engels, 1884). Feminism, particularly socialist feminism, has extended the analysis of power to account for the interconnection between the State, the rights to private property that it sustains, and the family as a nucleus of subordination and control. More so than much traditional Marxism though, feminism has underlined the multiplicity of theoretical accounts of patriarchy, male power, and also the contradiction between different theoretical accounts as a source of strength. It has been argued that feminist politics must in some sense be 'prefigurative', that is, it should anticipate in the forms it takes now the types of relationship it would prefer for the future (Rowbotham et al., 1979). While Marxism also attempted to work in that direction, looking to alternative forms of organization as the places of resistance to the old, feminism has also been prefigurative in theory. That is, it plays out now in its multiple and contradictory acts of resistance the very pluralism it aims for as an alternative the idea that there is one 'truth'. Talking of feminism in the singular often obscures this diversity, and overlooks the role of lesbian and black critiques in the field of feminisms (see: Burman, 1990; Burman, 1998). To speak of feminisms in the plural and different constructionist approaches to sexuality also opens up productive connections with queer theory (Gordo-López and Cleminson, 1998).

Feminism also matches the Marxist view of subjectivity as an ensemble of social relations with an insistence that 'the personal is political', that is, that each most private activity is woven into shared collective relations of power that structure gender. In research, then, the supposedly neutral and objective activity of finding out 'facts' is itself saturated with subjective investments, and the fantasy that a correct view of the world can be obtained through the exercise of independent inquiry is an expression of masculine concerns with separation, order and control. Feminism in sociology (e.g., Stanley and Wise, 1983) and then in psychology (e.g., Wilkinson, 1988) has brought this issue to the fore in considerations of women's experience and through reflexive analysis in qualitative research, and feminist discourse analysis has tempered objectivist Marxism with a reminder that the most objective account is always from a particular position (Hollway, 1989).

It should be said that this matter is by no means settled, and one can find in feminist discussions of method appeals to empiricism which aims to reduce our understanding to brute 'facts' about women's oppression, postmodernist notions which revel in the play of different contradictory methods and accounts, and standpoint research which insists that the historically constituted position of women gives them identifiable interests and shared basis for the identification and pursuance of particular emancipatory research goals (Harding, 1991). There are, however, good reasons to be critical this position insofar as it collapses standpoint into personal intuition, and then it might be better to be ‘against standpoint’. Both empiricism and postmodernism, in different ways, eschew theory, and we do not believe that there are psychological facts 'out there', or 'in there' that can be collected without it. Postmodernists all too often also slide into a liberal individualist variety of postfeminism which denies that there are any enduring characteristics of women's condition that could be the basis for shared resistance. One of the things that postmodern theory does offer, though, is a sense of risk in the subversion of gender categories. This manifests itself both in queer theory and in cyborg debates, something some of us will play with in cyberpsychology (e.g., Gordo-López and Parker, 1999).

There is sometimes alarm at 'essentialism' in feminist approaches, with essentialism being the idea that some core of the real stands free of cultural and historical conditions and that it can be discovered or experienced directly given the right method, circumstances or aptitude. However, although essentialist rhetoric is often a powerful resource for women, feminism has been one of the most powerful analytic resources for displaying the way culture constructs categories and subject positions that we then assume to be pre-given, universal and unchanging. It has also, through debate over the political functions of essentialism, shown how the array of constructed categories in a culture expresses key contradictions and provides sites of resistance (Burman et al., 1996a). It is one of the conditions of women's experience, for example, that power is observed both from the inside, because of their compulsory participation in shared gendered discursive practices, and the outside, because of their exclusion from the centres of power. This is not to say that this position of the 'outsider within' (Harding, 1991) is essential and fixed any more than we would say that 'centres of power' have an independent observable identity. Rather, the fault lines of gender in culture open up the operation of power. When we are able to see gendered power running through the social fabric, this leads us into an unravelling of other powers in texts.

When we say in Discourse Unit publicity that we 'include inquiries influenced by feminism', we are actually understating what impact feminist research has had on our understanding of knowledge as situated, as always constructed from particular social locations. Sometimes this means that the research is effectively 'feminist standpoint' research and so there is a specific focus on the reproduction and transformation of gender relations, and sometimes the value base of feminism is assumed while other standpoints are adopted, of class or race, for example. Action research in the Unit has brought theoretical work on ‘race’ and class to bear on gender so that these intersecting axes of oppression can each be re-conceptualised without reducing one to the other (e.g., Batsleer et al., 2002; Chantler et al., 2001). Feminism highlights the place of contradictions between different 'progressive' positions in discourse as mapping a space for resistance and critical consciousness, and our understanding of discourse analysis is of an approach which is critical of whatever is said in a text but also attentive to points of conflict which reflect an awareness of power within the text itself.

Re-writing a text in qualitative or discourse-analytic research is still implicated in a practice of representation, and it leads us to privilege our accounts that are developed in the institution of psychology over others who speak outside the discipline. Feminism's emphasis on politics as personal, then, also makes the issue of power in interpretation in the research process central. There is an apparent paradox here, of course, which is that men are conducting some of research influenced by this tradition. The paradox is only apparent in the sense that systems of gender do not map directly onto sex differences, which is to say that men and women can both disrupt gender boundaries. However, we need to be clear about the distinction between an essentialist view of what is feminist about research, the argument that only women do it, and what is politically progressive about it, that it is actually women who do it. The contradiction between the two arguments is manifest in the relations of power which are reinforced when men claim to speak for women, and that power is subverted when women turn their gaze onto men. As a general rule we prefer, then, in our research to turn our gaze back on those who enjoy power. To comprehend the play of deliberate, unintentional, accidental and structured plays of power in this paradox, though, it is useful to turn to a third theoretical resource.

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