May 07, 2005

Notes on Skeggs chapter

Follow-up to Thoughts on an essay from L'Etrangère

Q. How has the author addressed questions of epistemology, power/ethics and research design in the research process?

Beverley Skeggs - Formations of Class and Gender Becoming Respectable (Sage: 1997)
Notes on Chapter 2. Respectable Knowledge: Experience and Interpretation (pp. 17–40)

Methodology / Design
feminist ethnography in the form of a longitudinal study (over 11 years) – 'ethnography by default':

It is a feminist account of doing feminist research which engages with debates in feminist methodology and epistemology (Skeggs 1995: 17)


  • intensive participant observation
  • using information relating to national/local economy, housing, poverty, education stats to 'map' details of 'the general economic and cultural framework in which the women were located, producing a geography of their positionings and possibilities' (ibid: 21)
  • life history – tracing the trajectories of women through the education system – and use of biography to construct a case-file for each of them
  • formal / informal interviews and meetings with family members, friends, partners, college teachers (btw what IS Skeggs 1994b – find out)

Methodology = historical materialism

Participants: initially women Skeggs was teaching on a Community Care course in an FE college… expanded to 83 women on 3 different caring courses

Research question 1: 'Why do women, who are clearly not just passive victims of some ideological conspiracy, consent to a system of class and gender oppression which appears to offer few rewards and little benefit?'
As the research progressed it entered into different theoretical debates, posed various questions and met with problems which were products of the time, problems that were 'historically contingent and located' (ibid: 22).

For Skeggs, issues centred on 'power relations and how to avoid constructing the research as object or other' (ibid: 23). The ethnography was politically-motivated 'to provide a space for the articulations and experiences of the marginalized' (ibid: 23). Marcus (1986) offers a critique of this notion of 'ethnographer as midwife' – delivering and articulating that which is expressed as vernacular in working-class lives – yet Skeggs argues that 'this provision of representational space' for those marginalised, pathologised and othered is important (Skeggs 1995: 23).

The theoretical framework was determined by its explanatory power but was continually modified through a dialectical relationship with participants:

I was mostly attracted to Marxist feminism for its explanatory power and its vocabulary of anger and injustice: it addressed concerns in my life and the women's and as the research progressed I found other theories such as post-structuralism, Bourdieu and Black feminism enabled sense to be made of the micropolitics of power I was experiencing and documenting' (ibid: 23).
knowledge becomes more than just a matter of power, normalization and legitimation because only some theories work (ibid: 24).
Theories are not relative: some have practical adequacy in relation to their subjects / objects of study (ibid: 24).

Representation and interpretation
Skeggs recognises the partiality of her account of feminist ethnography and the processes it involves, arguing that knowledge is not formed in a void but rather is dependent upon one's positioning within structures of class and privilege, and points to the dangers of disregarding researcher location (and correspondingly his/her access to different forms of capital) in the research process:

To ignore questions of methodology is to assume that knowledge comes from nowhere allowing knowledge makers to abdicate responsibility for their productions and representations. To side-step methodology means that the mechanisms we utilize in producing knowledge are hidden, relations of privilege are masked and knowers are not seen to be located (ibid: 17).

Skeggs argues that feminist researchers are often guilty of ignoring the process through which 'experience' is interpreted and represented, in their bid to prioritise experience:

Representations are interpretations. Experience is at once always already an interpretation and is in need of interpretation (ibid: 28).

Yet Skeggs shows awareness of her own role within the research process in terms of selection and interpretation: 'it was me who made decisions about what I thought was worth knowing about' (ibid: 28, my italics). She acknowledges the unavoidable loss of information – of expressions, nuances, feelings and embodiment in the research – things she claims to be 'unrepresentable' when transcribing experience into written utterances.

This partiality of representation has both epistemological and ethical implications. In considering what it means to validate someone else's experiences, Skeggs adopts a poststructuralist approach which deems that knowledge is always mediated through the discourses available to us to interpret and understand our experiences. This means that the interpretations of the participants are sometimes at odds with Skeggs' own analysis, a result of differing contextual positions in relation to discourses of knowing and experiences of speaking (ibid: 29). This is a question of ethics and epistemic responsibility since as writer, Skeggs has the ultimate power of production, simultaneously seeking to produce interpretations that are 'vigilant, responsible and critical', consulting the women rather than claiming to be 'the absolute knower of others' (ibid: 30). In this way she creates a space both for her own voice as researcher and the voices of her participants, striving for an open dialogic relationship, but nevertheless retains ultimate responsibility for interpretation:

Rather than change my analysis to fit the analysis of the women of the research, which has been suggested by some feminist researchers, I want to make a claim for using the interpretations produced through dialogue, but over which I have ultimate responsibility and which are generated in relation to the research questions I investigated. I discussed my ideas and interpretations with them and they would challenge, contradict, confirm, etc. This would enable me to reassess my speculations and frameworks, sometimes leading to modification, abandonment, but also to reassertion (ibid: 30).

For example, although the women reject a class-based analysis of their positioning, Skeggs maintains this as an explanatory framework for her findings. Even though she sometimes refuses the interpretations offered to her by her participants (rather constructing new theories to explain their responses e.g. chapter 5), simultaneously she strives to be both accountable and responsible. She cites Code (1987, 1988) who argues that 'responsible knowers look for the fullest possible explanations to understand the situation at hand; they recognize their implicatedness in the production of knowledge and claim responsibility for it (rather than claiming it magically produced' (ibid: 30). She therefore produces her own interpretations, but does so in a highly self-reflexive way through which she is acutely aware of the various types of interpretations with which she is engaged – revealing rather than concealing their places, values, functions, appropriateness and purposes (ibid: 31).

At times, however, she acknowledges a 'lapse in reflexivity' in which she maps her own frameworks on to the experiences of the women without listening to their explanations, a failing she attributes to a desire to impose order on an otherwise messy research process. She points out that traditional approaches to handling large amounts of research information – transcripts, notes and tapes – impose 'a greater homogeneity than I was experiencing' in its search for thematic coherence (ibid: 32). Instead she emphasises contradictions and differences in her findings, not only noting the disparity between words and deeds, but also by stressing the way in which contradictions may be held together on an everyday, lived basis.

Searching for coherence is an impossibility, an ideal and a fantasy (ibid: 32).

Self-reflexivity / positioning of researcher
Recognising that knowledge products are deeply embedded within disciplinary practices linked closely to other theoretical and political debates, Skeggs attempts to unpack the processes involved in reaching methodological decisions. This involves a great deal of self-reflexivity (c.f. Bourdieu?) in analysing what it means to be a feminist researcher and examining how her own positioning impacts upon the research she undertakes. She does not accept a straightforward relationship between ontology and epistemology, however, but rather claims that although we are positioned within a particular location, this does not determine our thoughts in an uncomplicated linear cause-effect way.

I continually recognize how my locatedness informed methodological decisions and ultimately the final product (ibid: 17).
Researchers are located and positioned in many different ways: history, nation, gender, sexuality, class, race, age, and so on. We are located in the economic, social and cultural relations which we study. These positions inform our access to institutional organizations such as education and employment. They also inform access to discourses and positions of conceivability, what we can envisage and what we perceive to be possible (ibid: 18).
In drawing attention to classifications and positionings I am not arguing for a direct correspondence between being and knowing, rather, that to ignore the location within structures of privilege and power relations as a condition of knowledge production, which includes the designation of objects and the conversion of cultural into symbolic capital of certain groups, means that what we receive as knowledge is always partial and always in the interests of particular groups (ibid: 20).
Epistemic responsibility involves recognizing our desires, power and implicatedness in the different practices we occupy (ibid: 38).

Skeggs appears acutely aware of her own positioning in relation to the women throughout the study – 'a process of connection and disconnection: of partial, full and non-connections' (ibid: 34) – a positioning that changed and was constantly changing. Because of her similarity in class background, she claims to feel 'less like a class tourist who voyeuristically explores the differences of the other' (ibid: 35). Skeggs had to deal with feelings of guilt, fraudulence and a sense that she did not belong as a result of her newly acquired privileges, writing of 'a sense of physical and metaphorical escape' each time she left an interview in the later research stages. In this way she is never able to achieve Kuhn's (1982) 'passionate detachment', though through time is able to establish more distance.

I experienced my position as privileged researcher, itself a visible acknowledgement of class transition, as deeply disturbing, generating an uncertainty…[missing words on my copy]... which in turn influenced the research production by injecting tension, a result of my projected anxiety, into our relationships (ibid: 35–6).

Nevertheless, this dual positioning offers dual benefits for the purposes of the research, as Skeggs is able to break down the traditional distinction between knower-known and the process of class normalisation. She depicts herself as Deleuze's (1986) 'nomadic subject', both engaging with the women from a position of shared identity but simultaneously subjecting herself to potential changes from that encounter.

Power and privilege - legitimating knowledge
Skeggs outlines the way in which knowledge has traditionally placed a role in the (re)production of power and legitimacy. She criticises the conventional positivistic notion that epistemology is free of values, location and context, an abstract form of theorising detached from those who produce knowledge output (who therefore view themselves as exempt from responsibility). She also discusses the normalising processes through which subjects become knowers, objectifying 'others' (objects to be 'known') through their deviation from the 'norm' (NB Skeggs does not explicitly refer to Foucault here, but his ideas re: normalisation and objectification appear to be relevant):

Certain knowledges are normalized, authorized and legitimated; only certain groups are seen to be respectable, to be worthy objects or subjects of knowledge (ibid: 18)

This of course raises ethical issues for Skeggs in her own research, who claims to be have been made 'continually aware of the ease with which those researched can be constructed as objects of knowledge without agency and volition' (ibid: 19). Paradoxically, her initial interest in the group of white, working-class women arose from her own class background and feeling herself to be 'a misrepresented object of sociological and feminist knowledge' (p. 19), but at the same time she acknowledges 'the pressures, seductions and ease by which rational knowledge can be applied' and the need to continually resist this temptation.

Skeggs also warns against interpreting the working-class women's practices from a position of privilege, arguing that even feminist theory is not exempt from 'the tacit and normalizing effect in knowledge [that] operates by taking one group's experiences and assuming these to be paradigmatic of all' (p.19). In other words, feminist methodologists tend to occupy a position of privilege – to be white, western and middle-class – and it is these positions that specify the agenda for what is to be 'known' in the name of feminist theory:

We always need to know in whose interests [knowledge] has been produced and whose interests are represented by it (ibid: 20).

Skeggs criticises her own research for the absence of a developed critique on race, a result of her normalisation in the production of knowledge during the early stages of the research (ibid: 36). Although race informs her theoretical analysis to a certain extent, the language of black feminist writers providing the inspiration and legitimation for her sense of class-based alienation and sense of outrage, she stresses that it is not studied in itself as a production category. She asks the question:

If, as researchers, we are in a position to contribute to knowledge normalization does this mean we also have the power to legitimate? (ibid: 37)

In other words, how do feminist researchers validate the experiences of women? And in turn, which institutional positions and relations of power limit or enable us to do so? Skeggs argues that firstly feminism itself is not sufficiently established amongst the legitimators of knowledge to be an authorising discourse. Secondly, even if she does have the power to legitimate the experiences of the women, does this have a transformative impact in any concrete or materialist sense?

What role experience?
Skeggs argues that many concepts in feminist theory develop from 'partial experiential descriptions' e.g. motherhood. Again, however, these experiences evolve within power relations in the interests of specific groups and are invested in by other groups, which in turn gives experiential value to specific representations that cannot be applied to all women as a homogenous group (c.f. chapter 6 for a illustration of this point). The representational challenges through which knowledge becomes situated therefore develop from:

…interrogating the production of categories, their applicability, the experiences of them and from assessing their explanatory adequacy for different groups of women in different relations of power at historically specific times and places (ibid: 21)

While feminism, in its earliest forms, attempted to 'reclaim, validate and provide space for women's experiences', in doing so it prompted a battle over whose experiences count as knowledge (Skeggs 1995: 24). De Lauretis (1988) argues that experience is the foundation of feminism, in that feminism developed as women began talking to each other about their experiences, feminist theory providing a means of understanding and interpreting these articulations, which in turn prompted the formulation of a 'new way of seeing' that could be used to 'reinterpret prior experiences' (ibid: 25). Thus the development of feminist theory was informted through a dialectical process, an attempt to challenge descriptions / classifications / universalist assumptions made from the descriptors of male experience and 'objective' knowledge. This gave rise to a specific institutional space in the academy which contained its own legitimation and enabled a whole body of feminist theorising that was not dependent on approval from male stream knowledge sources.

Feminist standpoint epistemology – this hinges on the claim that 'all knowledge springs from experience and that women's experience carries with it special knowledge and that this knowledge is necessary to challenge oppression' (ibid: 25) c.f. Hartsock, Rose, Harding, Jagger. In other words, the experience of oppression is said to give rise to particular knowledges, and for theorists adopting a strong standpoint position (e.g. Harding 1991), these knowledges are seen as epistemologically privileged.

Women's subordinate status means that, unlike men, women do not have a clear interest in mystifying reality and so are likely to develop a clearer and more trustworthy understanding of the world. A representation of reality from the standpoint of women is more objective and unbiased than the prevailing representations that reflect the standpoint of men (Jagger, 1983: 384)

However, Skeggs points out that the use and concept of experience has been problematic to feminist theorising, as it contains different meanings and takes a variety of forms, being put to different uses. Furthermore, she argues, not all experiences are relative in terms of explanatory power. She does not reject experience outright, but rather argues that experience may be formative but it does not play a role in constituting 'true' or 'rational' knowledge, adopting the premise that 'it is not individuals who have experience but subjects who are constituted through experience', and that rather than writing off experience as inconsequential it is necessary to see it 'as central to the construction of subjectivity and theory' (ibid: 27):

So I want to hold on to experience as a way of understanding how women occupy the category 'women', a category which is classed and raced and produced through power relations and through struggle across different sites in space and time. I do not, however, want to argue for experience as a foundation for knowledge, a way of revealing or locating true and authentic 'woman'. Nor do I want to suggest that we have to have experiences before we can take up a standpoint. Experience informs our take-up and production of positions but it does not fix us either in time or place' (Skeggs 1995: 27).

i.e. experience —> productive of subjectivity —> we are known / knowers
rather than experience —> knowledge (since mapping is dependent on context)

Stress is thus laid on the access to instances of take-up, movement, recognition and occupation of the positions available and it is assumed that these are neither fixed nor fixing… knowledge is situated, is produced from social subjects with varying amounts of cultural capital, located in a nexus of power relations (ibid: 28).
Experience as a concept cannot be abandoned but must be analysed in its specificity. Experience is central to the production of subjectivity, to the production of raced, classed, sexed and gendered 'woman'. It is also the means by which links can be generated between the epistemological and the ontological (ibid: 38).

Research - what value?

Skeggs realises that the extent to which her research can 'make a difference' may be limited, stressing that for most of the women, the impact of her research was negligible to their lives. But through providing a 'safe space' to discuss issues of concern, and by offering 'feminist understandings and interpretations for the things that were troubling, intriguing or exasperating', she argues that she is able to offer explanations of the way in which individuals are bound to structures beyond their control (c.f. Bourdieu), thus reducing feelings of personal inadequacy:

The ability to put this [self-blame about unemployment and educational disillusionment] into a wider perspective blocked their tendency to victim-blame and take on responsibility for social structural problems (ibid: 37).

In political terms, she hopes that her research impacts upon social policy or popular culture 'in a way that blocks the continual representation of working-class women as a disturbing site of social order' (ibid: 37).

feminist theorists have a limited, but necessary, role to play in the legitimation of rhetorical spaces produced by those who do not have access to circuits of knowledge distribution (ibid: 39).

She stresses that although she does not have the power to convert their capital in order for social or economic change to occur, she does have a voice capable of challenging hegemonic representations and epistemic privilege, and access to speak directly to those in a position of power:

What I can do is challenge those who have the power to legitimate partial accounts as if representative of the whole of knowledge and to challenge the classificatory systems which position 'others' as fixed (ibid: 37).

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