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July 13, 2005

Why have feminists found Bourdieu’s concepts of cultural capital and habitus useful?

The place of gender within Bourdieu’s theoretical framework remains understated, yet despite Bourdieu’s relative neglect of gender in much of his work, feminist writers have taken up his theories and adapted them for their own purposes. Moi’s definition of ‘appropriation’ as ‘a critical assessment of a given theory formation with a view to taking it over and using it for feminist purposes’ (Moi 1990: 265) seems an apt description of the work undertaken by feminists who integrate Bourdieu’s concepts of cultural capital and habitus to underpin their own theories and advise empirical research, not merely accepting all aspects of Bourdieu’s theory blindly, but critically examining his concepts and questioning if they can be directly utilised for an exploration of gender issues.

I will critically examine the relevance of habitus and cultural capital for feminism, firstly looking at the ways in which these key concepts have been adopted within a theoretical analysis of gender. I will also consider the ways in which feminist researchers have used Bourdieuian concepts to direct and inform empirical research, and the way in which his emphasis on reflexivity may be relevant for feminist epistemology in constructing a ‘feminist habitus’ (McCall 1992: 852) to direct research.

Bourdieu (1986a) proposes an understanding of society based on the movement of ‘capital’ through social spaces as it is accumulated or lost by individuals (Skeggs 1996: 8). The most obvious example of this is the Marxist concept of economic capital, a highly rationalised form of capital reified as material exchanges and financial assets. Bourdieu moves beyond this model, however, by proposing other metaphorical forms of capital (Bourdieu 1986a: 243). ‘Cultural capital’, for example, exists in three different states: in an embodied state in the form of durable dispositions in the mind and body; in an objectified state existing in the form of cultural goods such as books or paintings; in an institutionalised state such as academic credentials (Bourdieu 1986a: 243). ‘Social capital’ refers to ‘the connections and networks an agent may call upon in their effort to achieve a specified goal’ (Crossley 2001: 97), while ‘symbolic capital’ signifies ‘the form the different types of capital take once they are perceived and recognised as legitimate’ (Skeggs 1997: 8).

Bourdieu develops these other capitals analogously with the structure of the economic variety, demonstrating how capitals may be accumulated, lost, invested, distributed and traded within a particular social field, defined as ‘a competitive system of social relations which functions according to its own specific logic or rules’ (Moi 1990: 269). The value of different capitals is tied to the context in which it is found; for example something that is greatly valued in an academic field may not be so highly revered in the world of theatre, or art, and may not afford the corresponding power and privilege.

Most crucially, perhaps, Bourdieu’s concept of capital offers one way in which the feminist gaze may be refocused on the material, everyday aspects of our lives, such as the ways in which we dress, walk, or decorate our houses (Moi 1990: 253). This return to materiality forms a refreshing contrast to recent feminist theorising which has tended to focus on symbolisation, representation, discourse and text, at the expense of disregarding material issues that impact upon our daily lives (Maynard 1995). It is important to remember that:

Not everything is sign or text, as any rape survivor, homeless person or starving child will testify. Such people experience ‘real’ phenomena with ‘real’ effects, many of which are done to them by individual or institutional ‘others’ and are outside of their control (Maynard 1995: 272–3).

By restoring materiality to feminism, it is possible to understand how inequalities are produced and thus to reclaim social class within feminist theory. In recent years class has been ousted from a whole range of academic disciplines, and depicted as unfashionable and irrelevant (Reay 1997, Skeggs 1997), a ‘cultural dinosaur’ (Skeggs 1997: 7) in the context of what has been deemed a ‘classless society’ by scores of sociologists. In a system supposedly characterised by social mobility, meritocracy, even classlessness, social class has been marginalised as an outmoded structural concept, an irrelevant remnant of modernism which denies the possibility of traversing differences unimpeded by structure or inequality (Skeggs 1997). Yet Reay and Skeggs deplore the disappearance of class from feminist theory, claiming that disguising the privilege afforded to the middle classes draws attention away from exploitation, reinforcing old hierarchies by silently perpetuating them:

Making class invisible represents a historical stage in which the identity of the middle classes is assured. Its recent invisibility suggests that these differences [in power] are now institutionalized, legitimated and well established (Skeggs 1997: 7).

Feminism cannot simply forsake notions of class without ‘fail[ing] to engage adequately with the intricate web of inequalities that constitutes society in the 1990s and into the millennium’ (Reay 1997: 226). We therefore need a new feminist way of writing and understanding class that is more suited to exposing the covert structures and processes that characterise today’s class system, in order to unpick and expose ‘the unacknowledged normality of the middle class’ (Savage 2003: 536–7).

Bourdieu’s identification of multiple forms of capital may provide a more satisfactory model to explain the complexities of the present class system, offering ‘a powerfully elaborate conceptual framework for understanding the role of gender in the social relations of modern capitalist society’ (McCall 1992: 837), one which incorporates the multiplicity of power relations associated with the word ‘class’. Unlike traditional class paradigms, which are founded on linear representations of class mostly defined using quantitative signifiers such as occupation, salary or housing, Bourdieu’s model incorporates metaphors of cultural capital dependent on a variety of both quantitative and qualitative variables such as lifestyle choices, art preferences, clothes, education and tastes (Reay 1998: 24). In this way Bourdieu eliminates the idea that class is founded upon one variable and broadens the scope of traditional class schemas.

Bourdieu perceives class as constructed within a spatial model of society comprising many intersecting dimensions such as class, gender, sexuality, age and race, and accordingly proposes a more complex multidimensional distribution of power that breaks down the stratified vertical continuum of traditional class theories. Within this model, one’s position in a social space is mapped out and defined using multiple variables, not capitals in themselves, but rather ‘provid[ing] the relations in which capitals come to be organised and valued’ in terms of who is able to attain access to resources and achieve legitimation through social positioning (Skeggs 1996: 9). Far from being a homogeneous, singular identity, the category ‘woman’ is lived and intimately experienced ‘as a form of subjectivity inhabited through other categories’, categories which overlap to constitute a ‘nexus of power relations’ (ibid: 166). Adopting Bourdieu’s model of cultural capital thus opens up the possibility of a space for women within class analysis (Reay 1998: 25), by theorising social class as an integral component of gendered identity.

Like most feminists, Bourdieu’s position is determinedly anti-essentialist, understanding essentialism to be a major contributory factor to the persistence and reproduction of gender power inequalities by rendering them seemingly natural. Bourdieu contends that hierarchies of status and power within a social system appear to be a natural result of, and are therefore justified by, arbitrary differences that do not in themselves intrinsically signify privilege or disadvantage, so that ‘every established order tends to produce (to very different degrees and with very different means) the naturalisation of its own arbitrariness’ (Bourdieu 1977: 164). Bourdieu undermines the essentialist argument by revealing its ludicrous, circular nature:

Our perceptions of the biology of reproduction are the effects of the thoroughly arbitrary social construction of gender divisions which they are supposed to legitimate and explain (Bourdieu 2001 paraphrased in Moi 1990: 282)

However, he does not underestimate the danger or pervasiveness of such a position, emphasising that it is those in a position of domination that control the process of naturalisation, ‘apply[ing] categories constructed from the point of view of the dominant to the relations of domination’ (Bourdieu 2001: 35). Sexism, for example, is an essentialism adopted within patriarchy to legitimise gender domination, ‘politically nefarious insofar as it is invoked to predict and thus to control the behaviour of every member of a given social group’ (Moi 1990: 281). Bourdieu reacts against this inflexible, essentialist construction of the category of ‘woman’, and consequently opens up the possibility of social change and transformation by representing gender relations as socially constructed, an analysis concurrent with that of numerous socialist and materialist feminists (Moi 1990: 281). Yet if gender is socially constructed, it remains to be seen what form this social construction takes and what its organising principle is, not to mention the specific consequences that such a claim may have (Moi 1990: 268) for understanding how ‘the established order, with its relations of domination, its rights and prerogatives, privileges and injustices, ultimately perpetuates itself so easily’ (Bourdieu 2001: 1).

Bourdieu depicts a struggle for power taking place within a field, where each social agent seeks to accrue symbolic capital, instrumental for achieving dominance of the field (Moi 1990: 270). Those in a position of dominance control legitimacy, which is ‘the power to be heard, believed and obeyed, along with the ability to silence others or allow them to speak’ (Bourdieu 1991). Through acquisition of cultural capital, dominant agents maintain the ability to reproduce their dominance. The dominant group defends the integrity of what Bourdieu labels ‘doxa’, unquestioned beliefs that are embodied in actions and feeling but seldom formulated in words, accepted as beyond the possibility of contestation and resistant to modification (Crossley 2001: 99), as in the case of social-gender relations within a patriarchal system:

While the invocation of biology allows the social construction of sexual difference to appear motivated or ‘natural’, its real function is to mask the true, socially produced power relations between the sexes, to present social gender divisions as doxic, that is to say, as that which cannot be questioned (Moi 1990: 282)

The social field operates as a form of ‘censorship’ (Moi 1990: 270), but the structure of domination is also perpetuated through a process Bourdieu terms ‘symbolic violence’, a violence that is ‘censored, euphemized, that is, misrecognizable, recognized violence’ (Bourdieu 1990: 126). Symbolic violence is ‘recognized’ because everyone within a particular social field tacitly understands the rules and ‘stakes’ of the ‘game’, and the illusion is maintained that these are worth fighting for (Moi 1990: 270). Yet paradoxically symbolic violence is also ‘misrecognizable’ because dominated agents partake in a ‘form of forgetting’ whereby they fail to recognise their own domination and understand their situation to be ‘the natural order of things’ (Bourdieu 1979: 198), unwittingly accepting the illusion that there are in fact no ‘stakes’ and no ‘game’. In other words symbolic violence is ‘the violence exercised upon a social agent with his or her complicity’ (Bourdieu & Wacquant 1992: 167).

The notion that dominated groups in fact collude with their own oppression is, of course, problematic for feminism, which appeals to women to be the agents of their own emancipation. However, Bourdieu’s concept of habitus plays a key role in explaining how this might occur. It is habitus that mediates between the binaries of structure and agency, the structures of society that bind us and our own experience and actions within the confines of these structures, acting both as a structured structure and a structuring structure (Bourdieu 1979: 191). Habitus is acquired unconsciously through lived experience of a position within the social world, taking on the properties of the ‘conditions of existence’ in which it is formed and formed in a ‘durable’ way so that:

the body is literally moulded into certain forms, so that the habitus is reflected in the whole way that one carries oneself in the world, the way that one walks, speaks, acts, eats (Thompson 1984: 102)

This residual ‘sediment’ of past experience also actively functions within the agent’s present, moulding perceptions, thoughts and actions, and shaping social practice in a regular and highly pervasive way. Individuals are predisposed to act in particular ways as a result of the habitus acquired through past experience, and this acts as an ‘internalized set of tacit rules governing strategies and practices in the field’ (Moi 1990: 271).

Although it may thus be the case that ‘les dominés contribuent toujours à leur propre domination’ (the dominated always contributeto their own domination), the choices and actions available to dominated groups (in the form of habitus) are in turn shaped by the limiting framework of power structures in which they are formed, so that ‘les dispositions qui les inclinent à cette complicité sont aussi un effet incorporé de la domination’ (the dispositions that predispose them to comply are also an embodied effect of domination) (Wacquant 1992: 28). Habitus mirrors the inequalities and injustices present in the social world in which it is shaped, but acting as an unconscious influence embedded deep within the social agent, it succeeds in achieving compliance with social norms with little need for heavy-handed tactics.

Habitus functions as a hinge between past and present, agency and structure, not only unconsciously influencing an agent's likelihood of success through interaction in the field, but simultaneously ensuring the field’s survival by conforming to its hidden, unspoken criteria (Crossley 2001: 94). Deeply embodied, it is the organising principle that explains the ways in which gender and class inequalities are constructed and established within society at every level, showing the interconnectedness of an agent’s ‘everyday negotiations of the mundane’ (Skeggs 1997: 167) and large-scale power relations within a social system.

Bourdieu’s originality lies in the importance that he accords to this minutiae of daily life, showing that gender and class inequalities can be analysed and understood by considering the ‘silent curriculum’ of the everyday (Moi 1990: 271). Bourdieu’s flagrant disregard for conventional boundaries dictating what is valuable for cultural research means that anything and everything is potentially worthy of analysis:

Bourdieu makes sociological theory out of everything. Refusing to accept the distinction between ‘high’ or ‘significant’ and ‘low’ or ‘insignificant’ matters, Bourdieu will analyse various ways of chewing one’s food, different forms of dressing, musical tastes ranging from a predilection for ‘Home on the Range’ to a liking for John Cage, home decoration, the kind of friends one has and the films one likes to see, and the way a student may feel when talking to her professor (Moi 1990: 268)

Whereas patriarchy dismisses these ‘most mundane details of everyday life’ as banal, insignificant ‘women’s gossip’, they in fact offer a specific form of social analysis leading to an understanding of the ‘micro-politics of power’ which allows complex and specific linkages to be made across age-old dualisms such as individual and social, and private and public spheres (Skeggs 1997: 167). It is through interpretation of seemingly banal actions and positioning in the everyday that it is possible to discern the overarching framework of structural organisation including the systematic inequalities it incorporates on a larger scale.

In developing the concept of habitus Bourdieu allows feminists to ‘reconceptualise gender as a social category in a way that undercuts the traditional essentialist / non-essentialist divide’ (Moi 1990: 267). As we have seen, Bourdieu certainly eschews an essentialist position, refusing to accept a biologically determinist account of sexual differences as ‘essences’ and insisting upon real, lived experience where social construction of sexual identity has real implications that cannot merely be ‘deconstructed away’ in metaphysical terms (Moi 1990: 287).

We cannot always reduce practical knowledge to theoretical knowledge (Reay 1998: 31), but at the same time we do need ‘concepts that can encapsulate experiences otherwise unnamed’ (Skeggs 1997: 166). Bourdieu’s concepts of cultural capital and habitus provide this connection between theory and practice, and his focus on lived practice means they are easily applied to the feminist research process and epistemologies (McCall 1992, Lovell 2000).

Like ‘academic feminism’, Bourdieu’s ‘sociology of sociology’ (Bourdieu & Wacquant 1992) is intent on revealing the gender, class and racial bias (symbolic violence) perceived as inherent within the academic intellectual field, whilst simultaneously positioning itself as a serious player within that very field (Lovell 2000: 26). Bourdieu’s emphasis on reflexivity in the research process mirrors that of feminist epistemology, reacting against the positivist research tradition instituted within the social sciences that fails to recognise ‘the fact that it is the product of a theoretical gaze, a “contemplative eye” (Bourdieu & Wacquant 1992: 34). Bourdieu argues that his task entails:

not simply telling the truth of this world, as can be uncovered by objectivist methods of observation, but also showing that this world is the site of an ongoing struggle to tell the truth of this world (Bourdieu & Wacquant 1992: 35)

McCall takes the concerns shared by Bourdieu and feminism further by suggesting that it might even be possible to organise key ideas from feminist politics, methodologies and epistemologies into a ‘feminist habitus’ (McCall 1992: 852), by which she implies a ‘certain type of disposition’ that guides feminist research, a ‘character of feminist research’ acquired through a process of training and development that seeks ‘a new form of critical social science’ whose practice is not based upon symbolic violence and exclusionary practices. Yet Lovell echoes the concerns of feminist sceptics outside the academy, in questioning if it is indeed possible in reality to establish such a strategy or if, in doing so, we in fact ‘establish our own forms of symbolic violence, to reproduce class and ‘race’ hierarchies’ (Lovell 2000: 26).

Bourdieu’s concepts of cultural capital and habitus have indeed been used within the academy as an analytical framework to direct and inform feminist empirical research. Reay (1998), for example, utilises cultural capital and habitus as ‘conceptual tools’ to direct empirical research into working and middle class mothers’ involvement in their children’s primary schooling, suggesting that cultural capital plays a key role in understanding the ways in which access to resources affects the support women are able to provide for their children’s schooling, whilst habitus is used ‘as a way of looking at what women are doing; a way that conceptualises the present in terms of the influences of the past’ (Reay 1998: 32).

Emphasising the role of ‘habitus as history’, Reay shows that the women’s experiences of education in the past have a profound effect upon maternal actions in the present, the influence of habitus shaping, restricting or enhancing the women’s trajectory through social space from past to present (Reay 1998: 47). Reay found that there was indeed strong continuity between past and present in the accounts of both working and middle class women, and that personal history and experiences, whether positive or negative, ‘impact on their involvement in their children’s schooling in a powerful process which infuses all aspects of their mothering work’ (Reay 1998: 55), from choice of school to communication with the teacher.

For example, many middle class mothers believed that it was important to teach one’s child outside the school environment. Their current belief system displayed continuity with past experiences, resulting in a process Reay terms ‘replication of the habitus’ (ibid: 56). Although this link between past and present was sometimes undermined by changing social values (for example demands of the labour market resulting in reduced time available for teaching in the home), the fact they were able to access superior forms of capital often meant that they were able to override such constraints by employing specialists such as a personal tutor to take on this responsibility within the home.

Some of the working class women were also involved in this ‘replication of habitus’, which often manifested itself in a more negative way, such as fear of the school environment, feeling silenced within an educational context, or failing to comprehend the educational system just as they had in their own schooldays. However, some of them also attempted a ‘transformation of the habitus’ (Bourdieu 1993 quoted in Reay 1998: 56) by trying to do things differently from their own parents. For example, mothers who had described their own school experiences as a ‘horror movie’ tended to give priority to their own children’s happiness, whilst many mothers who had experienced a lack of parental involvement in their own education attempted to adopt an active role in their children’s education (Reay 1998: 57).

Working class mothers were seen to experience ‘powerful barriers’ that restricted their involvement, and so attempts to overcome the habitus and generate profits of cultural capital in a situation of little prior investment involved a greater degree of exertion than that required of their middle class counterparts (Reay 1998: 58). In this way the micro details of mothering practices mirror the large-scale macro relations between education and inequality, showing how positioning within structures of inequality circumscribes movement through social space at a multitude of levels.

Likewise, for Skeggs (1997), adopting the cultural capital model as a theoretical framework shows how social structure impedes the ability to trade and capitalise upon already meagre forms of capital, but at the same time does not deny the way in which power and agency may play a role in attempts to escape restricted social roles. Although the working class women of her study were born into structures of inequality with access to limited amounts of capital, they nevertheless attempted to ‘put a floor’ under their economic and cultural circumstances by using and trading the scanty amounts of capital to which they had access to stop things getting worse (Skeggs 1997: 161).

Although the women had little educational capital to trade, they did possess what Skeggs identifies as ‘feminine cultural capital’ in the form of existing ‘caring’ dispositions accrued through lived experience. Caring offered these women ‘the means to value, trade and invest in themselves, an opportunity to ‘make something of themselves’ (Skeggs 1996: 57). Feminine cultural capital was only convertible on a ‘diminishing labour market’ or as unpaid labour through caring within the family, and even conversion on the marriage market did not help these women to gain access to wider institutional power, since ‘the ability to capitalize on femininity is restricted. It provides only restricted access to potential forms of power’ (ibid: 10).

The women in the study revealed an awareness of the body as a ‘carrier of class signals’ in their discourses of improving their class position and attempting to ‘pass’ as middle class (Skeggs 1997: 83), showing that their very bodies provide important clues about social position, the ‘indisputable imprint of an individual’s social class’ as it develops over time (Shilling 1992: 127 – 129). Bodies and their dispositions form the ‘physical sites where the relations of class, gender, race, sexuality and age come together and are em-bodied and practised’ (Skeggs 1997: 82).

Skeggs suggests that class inequalities and privilege are embodied in the everyday, permeating every aspect of the women’s lived experiences from the clothes they wear to the way they decorate their houses, and combined with limited forms of capital, contribute to the structuring of inequality which results in limited movement through social space (Skeggs 1997: 7). Although the women tried to escape class identifications through discourses of improving or passing, this attempt ultimately failed because they lacked the power to convert cultural capital into symbolic capital (ibid: 87). Thus while the women retained an illusion of coherence and agency, ultimately social positioning delimited their ability to convert or trade different forms of capital effectively, as negative representations of the working class condemned the meagre cultural capital they accumulated as illegitimate or worthless (ibid: 11).

Although useful for feminism both theoretically, analytically and empirically, Bourdieu’s concepts of cultural capital and habitus have also been criticised, not least for the suggestion that dominated groups exhibit implicit complicity in their own domination. As I have suggested, the collusion is unconscious, a result of habitus shaped by the structures of a patriarchal society, apparent at every level of social interaction, and difficult if not impossible to transform or eradicate through willpower alone. This leads us to the second problematic aspect of Bourdieu’s theory, closely linked with the first, which is that it offers an over-determined view of subjectivity with limited potential for social change (McCall 1992, Lovell 2000).

Although Skeggs, for example, makes extensive use of the Bourdieuian framework of capital, suggesting this concept ‘shifts power and agency back into the hands of those who have restricted access to it’ (Skeggs 1997: 166), she never mentions habitus by name, possibly understanding it to be ‘an over-restrictive concept’ (Lovell 2000: 23). Bourdieu’s concept of habitus is criticised for denying the possibility of innovation or agency, linking subjectivity too tightly with the social conditions in which it is forged:

Bourdieu reads at times like a structuralist with an ‘oversocialized’ concept of the individual. A mere bearer of social positions, one who comes to love and want his/her fate: amor fati (Lovell 2000: 15).

Bourdieu vehemently denies this reading of his theory, arguing that far from reducing social agents to ‘cultural dopes’ or limiting their tactical capabilities (Bourdieu & Wacquant 1992: 132), the habitus schema in fact acts ‘like an underlying grammar, which allows for a multitude of innovative forms of expression, facilitating action as much as shaping it’ (Crossley 2001: 94). Yet Bourdieu’s account of the way in which symbolic violence pervades our daily existence and understanding of the world means it is difficult to understand how habitus leaves room for conceptualising, let alone implementing, a politics of transformation (Chambers 2004).

Feminists therefore need to find a way to critique the apparent determinism inherent in Bourdieu’s theory, not denying the possibility of the usefulness of his concepts, but seeking a way to appropriate them in order to achieve a transformatory politics in the form of emancipation. One solution to this seemingly no-win situation is to combine a Bourdieuian approach with other feminist theories.

In a recent draft paper Chambers, for example, suggests the possibility of a fruitful marriage between the theories of MacKinnon (1989) and Bourdieu. Mackinnon’s notion of consciousness-raising complements the notion of habitus, providing ‘the means by which women come to understand both their oppression and the possible remedies for it’ as a crucial first step towards prompting wider institutional change with women as agents of that change (Chambers 2004: 30).

Lovell (2000) also suggests a successful combinatory approach could be achieved by uniting Bourdieu’s concept of habitus with Butler’s account of performativity. Lovell suggests that Skeggs’ analysis of the women in her study interprets Bourdieu in this way (Lovell 2000: 23–25), that rather than viewing the women as passively accepting a predetermined fate, she understands them to take an active role by ‘construct[ing] their subjectivities through class-informed performances’ (Skeggs 1997: 74) in their attempt to dissociate from their class position. As well as helping us to move beyond the ‘sense of political paralysis’ Bourdieu’s theory may induce (Lovell 2000: 17), a Bourdieuian approach may also have positive implications for moderating Butler’s understanding of gender as a performance, providing ‘a powerful conceptual antidote to post-modern voluntaristic politics, insofar as it permits us to focus on the social conditions of existence of resistance’ (Lovell 2000: 18).

Although we may question the limitations of Bourdieu’s concepts, they are still potentially valuable to feminism, not least because habitus and cultural capital offer a way of refocusing the feminist gaze on material inequalities, integrating aspects of everyday lived experience to explain the ways in which disadvantage and privilege are structured within a larger social system. Rather than understanding class inequalities and privilege ‘in the male, Marxist mode’, Bourdieu’s model suggests that these are embodied in the everyday ‘as intricate daily practices which, interwined with race and gender, are inscribed on women’s bodies and played out in their social interactions’ (Reay 1997: 231), changing the conception of social identity so that it incorporates various dimensions, raced, classed and gendered, embodied and enacted in the seeming banality of everyday lived practice.

Bourdieu’s concepts recall the structures that pervade and influence daily existence, providing the means by which unquestioned concepts and habits may be restored to the conscious mind so they can be queried and, it is to be hoped, negated:

We need concepts that do have explanatory value for those to whom they are meant to apply so that experiences cannot be dismissed as illegitimate just because they are not known by those who have the power to effect judgements on others (Skeggs 1997: 166).

Although it could be argued that this account leaves little room for individual agency, this does not necessarily imply that women should embrace their fate willingly. Rather than ‘amor fati’, recognising the pervasive nature of the structures that capture women at least enables them to attempt resistance, despite the fact that instigating and achieving change may be difficult. One of the crucial advantages of habitus may well be that it does not ‘underestimate the difficulties of breaking loose of patriarchal shackles’ (Moi 1990: 285), but this does not in itself deny the possibility of change altogether, and adopting Bourdieu’s concepts in conjunction with feminists who theorise change may well provide a powerful challenge to the injustices and inequalities inherent in the world today.


May 11, 2005

feminist ethnographies

More notes for the blog, since I panic and freeze when confronted by a blank page in Microsoft Word, and this at least makes me feel like I'm being semi-productive. I think I will just hand in some webpage addresses next week instead of an essay – either that or find a PA who can make sense of my disparate ramblings and quotations and write them up in something ressembling a meaningful and coherent essay form…

Notes on two articles
Stacey, Judith. 1988. Can there be a feminist ethnography? Women's Studies International Forum, Vol. 11, No. 1, pp. 21–27.

and Skeggs, Beverley. 1994. Situating the Production of Feminist Ethnography. In Maynard, Mary and Purvis, June (eds), 1994. Researching Women's Lives from a Feminist Perspective. Taylor & Francis: London.

Stacey
Stacey begins by making the point that many feminist scholars have found ethnograpy to be especially apt for feminist research because it approaches knowledge as experiential and contextual, rejects positivism's false dualisms, and establishes an egalitarian relationship between knower-known

Aims of feminist research:

Most [feminist scholars] view feminist research as primarily research on, by and especially for women and draw sharp distinctions between the goals and methods of mainsteam and feminist scholarship. [They] evnice widespread disenchantment with the dualisms, abstractions, and detachment of positivism, rejecting the separations between subject and object, thought and feeling, knower and known, and political and personal as well as their reflections in the arbitrary boundaries of traditional academic disciplines. Instead most feminist scholars advoce an integrative, trans-disciplinary approach to knowledge which grounds theory contextually in the concrete realm of women's everyday lives. (Stacey 1988: 21)

Ethnography as specifically feminist:

Like a good deal of feminism, ethnography emphasizes the experiential. Its approach to knowledge is contextual and interpersonal, attentive like most women, therefore, to the concrete realm of everyday reality and human agency… this method draws on those resources of empathy, connection, and concern that many feminists consider to be women's special strengths and which they argue should be germinal in feminist research. (ibid: 22)

However, Stacey argues that ethnographic methods ironcially subject research subjects to greater risk of exploitation, betrayal and abandonment by the researcher than positivist research.

The lives, loves, and tragedies that fieldwork informants share with a researcher are ultimately data, grist for the ethnographic mill… (ibid: 23)
…an ethnography is a written document structured primarily by a researcher's purposes, offering a researcher's interpretations, registered in a researcher's voice (ibid).
The greater the intimacy, the apparent mutuality of the researcher / researched relationship, the greater is the danger (ibid: 24)

Postmodern ethnography

Stacey highlights a need for fertile dialogue between feminist scholarship and poststructural ethnography (one which has since been realised?)

[Critical ethnographers] attempt to bring to their research an awareness that ethnographic writing is not cultural reportage but cultural construction, and always a construction of self as well as of the other (ibid).

May 08, 2005

Doing ethnography – quotes

Definitions:

‘[Ethnography is] a particular method or set of methods which in its most characteristic form… involves the ethnographer participating overtly or covertly in people’s daily lives for an extended period of time, watching what happens, listening to what is said, asking questions – in fact, collecting whatever data are available to throw light on the issues that are the focus of research’ (Hammersley and Atkinson, 1995: 1 cited in Walsh 2000: 226).

‘Ethnography is not a particular method of data collection but a style of research that is distinguished by its objectives, which are to understand the social meanings and activities of people in a given ‘field’ or setting, and an approach, which involves close association with, and often participation in, this setting’ (Brewer 2000: 59).

Participant observation:
This ‘involves data gathering by means of participation in the daily life of informants in their natural setting: watching, observing and talking to them in order to discover their interpretations, social meanings and activities’ (Brewer 2000: 59)

Researchers who become participant observers must attempt to ‘maintain the balance between ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ status; to identify with the people under study and get close to them, but maintaining a professional distance which permits adequate observation and data collection. It is a fine balance…’ (ibid: 59-60)

‘A proper balance in the participant observer’s dual role as part insider and part outsider gives them the opportunity to be inside and outside the setting, to be simultaneously member and non-member, and to participate while also reflecting critically on what is observed and gathered while doing so’ (ibid: 60).

Brewer differentiates beteen ‘participant observation’ (acquisition of a new role) and ‘observant participation’ (utilisation of an existing role to observe aspects of a familiar or unfamiliar setting’). It is this latter form of observation that Skeggs undertakes in her research.

‘With observant participation there are no problems of resocialization, acceptance or misunderstanding, since it is a familiar role and often in a familiar setting, but the observer must have a suitable role in which to observe where probing questions can be asked without appearing unusual or untypical. The role must be permanent enough to allow intensive observation of a period of time and be sufficiently broad and encompassing to permit access to a cross-section of events, activites and people in the field…’ (ibid: 61-2)
Although the researcher is able to get overt ‘insider’ status, observant participation nevertheless ‘reduces the capactiy of the researcher to achieve distance from the friendships, group ties and years of association built around the role that is being used for observation purposes’ (ibid: 62).

This method requires simultaneous ‘involvement and detachment’.

Selectivity: a problem of personal perspective, partiality, influenced by various conditions:

‘Postmodern ethnographers recognize that the participant observer’s view is a view, and a view is sometimes better than no view, and there are occasions when there is no alternative to a period of participant observation, but it should never stand alone as a research method for these sorts of reasons’ (ibid: 62-3).

Interviews
‘Since interviewers are human beings acting in a face-to-face encounter that forms a piece of social interaction, they [postmodern ethnographers] query the role played by the interviewer, whom they see as ‘creating’ or ‘producing’ the data… Interview data are thus ‘situated’ and context bound to the interviewer (much like the participant observer). They are also bound to the situation in which they were collected’ (ibid: 67).

Feminist interviews redraw the power relationship between respondent and researcher to better access the subject’s voice. Conventional interviewing is critiqued as masculine; instead, ‘stress is laid on capturing women’s narratives, stories and biographical experiences by means of natural conversations in a personalized manner where interviewer and subject are partners’ (ibid: 68)

Feminist interviews involve: ‘openness, emotional engagement and the development of potentially long-term relationships based on trust and emotional reciprocity’ (ibid: 69). c.f. Ann Oakley – this contrasts markedly with the positivistic ethic of detachment / role distance and attempts to redress the patriarchal power struggle through the empowerment of subjects.

Furthermore, the purpose of a feminist interview is to offer benefits to participants such as empowerment, ‘enabling them to deal better with the problems they experience as women’ (ibid: 69).

Focus on particular topics e.g. women’s lives / experiences, which are ‘revealed and disclosed in their own words and in their own way in an interview situation in which they are empowered and not made to feel subordinate’ (ibid: 69).

Ethics
‘Ethnographers are perhaps unique among social researchers in sharing the lives of the people they study. This means that they cannot… work as if in a vacuum – they pry into people’s innermost secrets, witness their failures and participate in their lives- which means they must operate a code of ethics that respects their informants’ (ibid: 89).

Even though overt research remains the best choice, entailing a great amount of openness, it can also be ‘invasive’ and ‘intrude on privacy’, involving ‘varying degrees of truth’ (ibid: 99).

Identity
‘The myth that ethnographers are people without personal identity, historical location and personality, and would all produce the same findings in the same setting, is the mistake of naive realism’ (ibid: 99).

‘Complete participation in the situation is impossible; such immersion would risk going native, and so a degree of marginality in the situation is needed to do research… a poise between a strangeness that avoids over-rapport and a familiarity that grasps the perspective of people in the situation’ (Walsh: 233, emphasis in original).

‘This position creates considerable strain on the researcher as it engenders insecurity, produced by living in two worlds simultaneously, that of participation and that of research’ (ibid).

Messiness
Rather than viewing research as a series of hermetic stages, modern methodology conceives research as process: ‘It does not follow a neat pattern but is a messy interaction between the research problem, the design of the research and data collection and analysis’ (Brewer: 102-3).

Validation / verification
1. Member validation – ‘consists of the ethnographer showing findings to the people studied and seeking verification in which the actors recognize a correspondence between the findings and what they, the actors, say and do. Thus verification is largely reduced to a matter of authenticity’ (ibid: 236). Problems = actors not being privileged observers of own actions, lack of conscious awareness about their actions, desire to rationalise beliefs/behaviours, or no interest in the ethnographic account

2. Triangulation
Often entails the employment of multiple methods, ‘triangulation’ as Denzin (1970) first termed a combination of methods of data collection e.g. participant observation, in-depth interviewing, personal documents, discourse analysis. Although traditionally associated with humanist, positivist and post postmodern notions of ethnography as a means of improving the ‘fit’ between analysis and the ‘reality’ it aimed to represent, even within postmodern ethnography it has relevance as an alternative to validation:

‘Practitioners recognize that all methods impose perspectives on reality by the type of data that they collect, and each tends to reveal something sightly different about the same symbolic ‘reality’ (Brewer: 76) – even if researchers can hardly claim that a final ‘truth’ has been unveiled and represented.

Conclusion
Ethnography presents problems – both analytical and ethical e.g. dependent on building up rapport / trust with people in feild, whilst using this to generate / collect data from them. Even in overt research this is problematic because researcher must withhold disclosure about activities to maintain sociability and gain access. Ethical issues also affect research publication – e.g. political implications damaging the people whose lives have been investigated.

‘Yet ethnography, through participant observation of the social and cultural worlds, opens out the possibility of an understanding of reality which no other method can realize’ (Walsh: 237).

Bibliography:

Brewer, John. 2000. Ethnography. In Bryman, Alan (ed.). 2000. Understanding Social Research. (Place: publisher?)

Skeggs, B. 1994. ‘Situating the production of feminist ethnography’ in M. Maynard and J. Purvis (eds), Researching Women’s Lives from a Feminist Perspective. London: Taylor and Francis.

Walsh, David. 2000. Doing ethnography. In Seale, Clive (ed.). 2004. Researching Society and Culture (2nd ed). London: Sage.


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)

Involved:

  • 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).

May 06, 2005

Thoughts on an essay

I've become increasingly disillusioned with, not to mention irritated by, the monograph I was planning to analyse for Feminist Epistemologies. I know that I should probably be in the process of considering methodological and epistemological issues related to researching masculinities, if nothing else for the purposes of my dissertation, but with precisely 12 days to go (including a week's extension), 0 words written, 2 days part-time work to do next week and panic setting in, I'm reverting to an analysis of Beverley Skeggs' methodology chapter for my epistos essay for the simple reasons that I understand it, am familiar with it, and am interested in her research (well as interested as I am in anything these days…)

Most of the general brainstorming of ideas / review of module relating to the three strands of the essay (epistemologies, power/ethics and design) still applies in any case, so that wasn't a waste of time. I reread the Skeggs methodology chapter last night and I could already see how I could draw out ideas and relate them to each stage of the essay. Unfortunately I don't have access to the full book (that's in Warwick, I'm at home right now), but hopefully I can 'fill in the gaps' once I get back to Warwick next week, though I suppose I could drive to Leeds and use the university library there if I get desperate. In any case, I remember the book quite well from my Bourdieu essay – though I have to be careful that there isn't too much overlap there (don't see why there would be though – the focus of the two essays is entirely different).

So anyway… before I start to plan / write I need to get some detailed notes together on the chapter, not in a particularly critical or analytical sense, but just so my sieve-like brain doesn't forget what it's read (oh so easily done). So here goes…


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