The (Dis)Entanglement of Method, Methodology and Epistemology

by | 23 Jan 2023

Sandra Harding (1987) did not believe feminists should focus too much of their discussion on methodology, but instead focus on the ‘good’ research that was being done. Harding’s position does not stem from any coyness towards the methodological ‘achievements’ made by feminist scholarship.  Au contraire feminism, as she evidenced, rocked the world of methodology in every which way we think of the term. And this is where we should begin. What do we mean by methodology? 

Harding asks us to disentangle methods from methodology and from epistemology. Methods being the techniques for gathering evidence, methodology the background assumptions that guide and structure the research, and epistemology the ways we justify knowledge. These crude distinctions should not be understood to deny that the three concepts can easily blur into each other. This blurring can be illustrated when we consider them in the context of feminist scholarship. 

In relation to method, feminism suggests a bias towards qualitative approaches. But perhaps the most important challenge it has made to methods is the focus on the relationship between the researcher and the research project. Can only women study women’s experiences? Can only feminists conduct a feminist study? And, as Catherine MacKinnon (1989) suggested, is consciousness raising the only true feminist method? 

In relation to methodology, Harding suggests that feminist methodology is driven by three features: First is the study of women’s experiences (women’s subjectivities are central to the research enquiry and are not just objects of the research); second is contributing to the liberation and equality of women (an overtly political agenda), and third correcting the male biases in research which have hitherto been accepted as universal, rational, and objective.

This methodology has a direct impact on feminist epistemology. Feminism has told us that knowledge is and should include women’s experiences, that women can be knowers, that knowledge can be political, and finally that objectivity is and should be understood as situated (Donna Harraway, 1989). In all these ways feminism seriously challenged the status quo and asserted that ‘science is used in the service of sexist, racist, homophobic, and classist social projects.’ (Harding  1986, p.21) 

Asking questions of women’s experience, centering the relationship of the researcher with the subject of research, pursuing a political goal of liberation, connecting objectivity with identity, making experience relevant to knowledge: all of these aims and outcomes of research are clearly evident in method, methodology and epistemology. Thus, the blurring and entanglement is somewhat justified, even if not particularly helpful.

More blurring occurs when we consider method, methodology and epistemology in the context of conducting theoretical work. What do these terms mean when we are doing theory rather than just applying it (Margaret Davies, 2020)? Does methodology then become the same thing as theory? Well maybe yes. Davies defines theory as ‘a general or underlying explanation of a set of facts and experiences’. Culler defines theory as discourses that offer new and persuasive characterisation of problems. And in relation to critical theory, Bronner says it is guided by a desire for liberation. These definitions of theory overlap with Harding’s definition of methodology as the background assumptions that guide and structure research. But when it comes to answering what methods and methodology one is activating when ‘doing’ theory, Davies tells us the researcher is reflective of the researcher’s ethical and political positioning, and of the historical and cultural tradition they occupy. This view, she says ‘negates the concept of method as a determinate schema or program of enquiry and replaces it with a view of methods as something which unfolds in different directions.’ 

To go back to where we started. In sympathy with Harding I agree we shouldn’t fetishise methodology, but I do think it matters to determine the very question she was concerned with – what is good research? But we can’t answer this question if are not first clear about what it means in the context of the disciplines and the traditions we are working in. In keeping with the privileging of scientific and empirical research in universities, critical theoretical scholars often find themselves unwillingly entangled in discourses that make their own methods illegible and therefore to describe their method in ways that don’t make very much sense. 

*Renata Grossi is an interdisciplinary scholar in the Faculty of Law at University of Technology Sydney. She is interested in the relationship between law and emotion.

References:

Stephen Eric Bronner, Critical Theory: a very short introduction, Oxford UP 2011. 

Jonathon Culler, Literary Theory: a very short introduction, Oxford UP 1997. 

M Davies, ‘Doing Critical-Social-legal theory’ in Creutzfeldt et al Routledge Handbook of Social-Legal Theory and Methods, Routledge, 2020. 

Sandra Harding, ‘The Method Question’ (1987) Hypatia (3)3 

Sandra Harding, The Science Question in Feminism, Ithaca Cornell UP, 1986.

Donna Harraway, ‘Situated Knowledges: the science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective’, (1988) Feminist Studies, 14(3) 575. 

Catherine MacKinnon, Towards a Feminist Theory of the State, Harvard UP, 1989. 

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