"Feminist theory - of all kinds - is to be based on, or anyway touch base with, the variety of real life stories women provide about themselves" (Lugones and Spelman, 1990, p. 21).
If feminists have not been able to agree upon the structure of feminist research, it may be due to the lack of agreement over what constitutes feminism as theory and practice. As I utilize the term, feminism is about challenging gender inequalities in the social world. While I fundamentally recognize differences in social location, such as orientation, age and race, as structuring the way women experience their lives as women, I believe that at a basic level feminism recognizes the organizing of the social world by gender. This is not to suggest that feminism is a singular unifying theory but that the overarching element to different feminist theorizing is the attention to gender. As Patricia Maguire sums up more concretely: "Feminism is: (a) a belief that women universally face some form of oppression or exploitation; (b) a commitment to uncover and understand what causes and sustains oppression, in all its forms and (c) a commitment to work individually and collectively in everyday life to end all forms of oppression" (Maguire, 1987, p. 79).
Similarly, much debate has occurred historically over the definitions and constructions of research terminology. While methods, methodology and epistemology are all connected and interrelated as research concepts, they are separate and distinct terms that refer to different aspects of research as process. Methods are the tools and techniques used to gather evidence, information and data. Methods are the research practices chosen by the researcher, be it qualitative or quantitative methods. Methodology addresses theoretical questions about the study of research and how research is done. As Sandra Harding suggests in the introduction to Feminism and Methodology: "A methodology is a theory and analysis of how research does and should proceed" (Harding, 1987, p. 3). Epistemology concerns theories about knowledge construction by questioning whose knowledge is validated and what constitutes knowledge. It is the philosophy of knowing, the construction and authentication of certain forms of knowledge.
Qualitative and Quantitative Research: Differences and Similarities
"Qualitative research thus refers to the meanings, concepts, definitions, characteristics, metaphors, symbols and descriptions of things. In contrast, quantitative research refers to counts and measures of things" (Berg, 1995, p. 3).
Typically, qualitative and quantitative research methodologies are constructed as distinct research processes. At a basic level, qualitative research commonly refers to the collection and the analysis of material that seeks to uncover meaning and understanding of experience. By contrast, quantitative research is about the collection and analysis of numerical data - the social facts. Certain methods and research techniques are associated with these difference research processes. Qualitative research strategies traditionally include ethnographies, fieldwork, participant observation, content analysis, interviews and oral histories (Berg, 1995, p. 3). Quantitative methods typically include questionnaires, surveys, studying rates, variables and relationships between social factors. The construction of these methods as relating to either qualitative or quantitative research are grounded in methodological choices. One chooses research methods on the basis of what one is seeking to uncover, be data and information in the form of numbers or meanings.
The difference between the two research processes is structured in terms of methodology and epistemology. From a methodological standpoint, what is being suggested is that qualitative and quantitative research is conducted for different reasons. How the data is acquired and the process of attaining data for each is seen as radically different. The fundamental difference is organized around the material being assessed, between research based on data that can be counted and data that is experiential (Jayaratne, 1983, p. 144). These differences are also talked about in terms of epistemology. Qualitative research is thought to value subjective, personal meaning and definition, commonalities and giving voices to the oppressed. In contrast, quantitative research is constructed in terms of testing theories and make predictions in an objective, value free way where the researcher is detached from both the participants and the research process.
But qualitative and quantitative social science research both seek to uncover the richest possible data from a setting or situation. The overall goal of social science research is to capture and accurately convey "reality", be it the reality of an event or experience or the truth of a population. Both research processes start from the interests of the researchers - they determine what to study as a topic and field of analysis. Qualitative researchers may be more open in bringing this to light by trying to acknowledge their own social location and starting point. However, quantitative research also starts with a researcher asking a question based on her/his own interest in a particular field. The language of quantitative research simply does not permit the question to be asked about ‘why this research’, because of the built-in and unquestioned emphasis on objectivity and neutrality.
In social science research, the researcher has confidence that the material is unbiased in accurately representing social reality. In quantitative research, this is assessed in terms of objectivity, maintaining a space between the researched and the researched so that the researcher is not influenced by the research process. In qualitative research, neutrality is possible by removing the distance between the researcher and the participant to ensure biases the researcher brings into the research are acknowledged and that the participant can confirm the validity of the depiction of their experience and social reality. As an illustration, with participatory research, the goal is the inclusion of the participant’s perspective and voice in all aspects of the research process. "Participatory research proposes returning to ordinary people the power to participate in knowledge creation, the power that results from such creation, and the power to utilize knowledge" (Maguire, 1987, p. 39). The assumption behind this agenda is that the material revealed will be more accurate and objective in representing the reality of the social experience and situation. By including the participants in the process, it is felt that the data will be unbiased and more truthful in representing the event in agreement with the participant. In both instances, the overall objective for social science research is for the data to be accurate and representative of the situation.
At the heart of it, both qualitative and quantitative research share a common methodological and epistemological agenda: control. In quantitative research, the element of control is suggested by the belief that there are variables that must be controlled. This is grounded in the epistemological base of objectivity and neutrality. Without control of the research, bias will appear and distort the results. In qualitative research, the researcher is seeking, through methodology, to capture the best representation of social reality. The goal of this research is to have the meaning and experience of the event conveyed in the most realist manner. The inclusion and recognition of the influence held by the researcher facilitates a greater control over the degree of accuracy of the data in representing the participant’s reality. Historical arguments have constructed social science research into different camps, qualitative and quantitative, a distinction that has come into question.
Feminist Criticisms of the Qualitative/Quantitative Debate
"Attending to the basic significance of gender involves accounting for the everyday experiences of women which have been neglected in traditional sociology" (Cook and Fonow, 1986, p. 22).
As many contemporary feminist researchers suggest, there is no actual difference between qualitative and quantitative research since both are inherently biased in their definitions and depictions of social reality. Patricia Maguire points to the fact that the arguments made by researchers for the importance and validity of alternative (qualitative) research compared to traditional (quantitative) research still are ignorant in attending to gender. "Feminism allowed me to see the male bias common to both dominant and alternative paradigms" (Maguire, 1987, p. 76). In the dominant/alternative research model debate, only men were thought to have argued for the creation of an alternative perspective. As she points out, that belief is, in itself, biased and androcentric. Feminism brings another dimension to this debate, where feminist research versus patriarchal research crosses paths with qualitative versus quantitative research strategies.
Shulamit Reinharz attempts to summarize the claims of social science research as being common to both qualitative and quantitative research. She differentiates between conventional or mainstream sociology and alternative/feminist sociology. With the former, she sees the objectives of research as being oriented around beliefs in impersonalness, objectivity, generalizability, control of events, replicability and predefinitions of the situation (Reinharz, 1983, p. 168). While the traditional debate on qualitative and quantitative tends to suggest these claims as being quantitative, as she argues, these same elements exist and are part of qualitative research as well. Traditional social science research can not be broken down into qualitative and quantitative processes, since as a disciple, social science research is still fundamentally flawed. Qualitative research is as much grounded in assumptions about objectivity as quantitative research has grounding in subjective biases. The true epistemological difference in research methods lies between traditional social science research and feminist research.
Feminists have argued that qualitative and quantitative research models are biased because they present distorted knowledge about the world. The knowledge that has been reflected has been with a specific orientation in mind: that of men, and more specifically, white, middle class, heterosexual men. "Institutions, paradigms, and other elements of knowledge validation procedure controlled by elite white men constitute the Eurocentric masculinist validation process. The purpose of this process is to represent white male standpoint" (Hill Collins, 1990, p. 203). What is being defined as human knowledge is, in fact, specifically male knowledge and the focus of feminist epistemology has been on the location of men as "the source of knowledge" (Hawkesworth, 1989, p. 539). This bias is never addressed as an issue or problem in traditional social science research.
As feminism challenges traditional social science research, it supports its arguments by recognizing that patriarchal values and beliefs in our social world shape both the construction and definition of how research is done and how knowledge is determined. Male bias in the world determines how and why research is done and shapes the interpretation of data. Fundamentally, traditional social science research with its claims to objectivity (in both qualitative and quantitative methods) is flawed because it does not recognize how its own biases impact on the research process from the choice of a topic to the final presentation of data.
Defining Feminist Research
"Empirical feminist research is guided by feminist theory" (Reinharz, 1992, p. 249)
Doing research is a process that involves an on-going series of decisions and choices. Overall, feminist research is uniquely feminist because it is feminist beliefs and concerns that act as the guiding framework to the research process. Methodologically, feminist research differs from traditional research for three reasons. It actively seeks to remove the power imbalance between research and subject; it is be politically motivated and has a major role in changing social inequality; and it begins with the standpoints and experiences of women. Sandra Harding makes similar claims to the defining features of feminist research when she argues that studying women from their perspective, recognizing the researcher as part of the research subject and acknowledging that the beliefs of the researcher shape the research is what makes feminist research feminist. As she states, "They can be thought of as methodological features because they show us how to apply the general structure of scientific theory to research on women and gender" (Harding, 1987, p. 9). This section will discuss in-depth the features that shape and define what is meant by feminist research.
First, the unequal power relationship between the researcher and the subject is restructured to validate the perspective of the participant. The premise is to remove the hierarchical relationship between researcher and participant. Changing research terminology from one of hierarchy to one of equality is the first step. Many authors talk about the use of "participant" as a preferred term to the use instead of "subject" or ‘researched". However, addressing the imbalance in power relations between researched and researched is more than simply changing the language of research. Changing the power relationship would entail involving the participants at all levels of the research process.
Recognizing the participants as the experts and authorities on their own experiences is taken as the starting point to research. Participants are part of the social world and as critical thinkers are also conscious and aware of the patterns of social relationships that can impact upon their own lived realities. As Diana Ralph indicates, it is important that feminist researchers recognize and identify the women engaged as participants are "often actively working to change the conditions of their oppression" (Ralph, 1988, p. 139). One of the concerns of feminist research is to ensure the accuracy of the research in depicting women’s lives and experiences. It is important for the researcher to take the finalized information back to the participants for verification, since they are the experts and owners of their own personal experiences. While the standard within traditional social science research is to see the research as "owned" by the researcher, feminist research that seeks to restructure inequality also seeks to remove the notion of ownership of knowledge (Wolf, 1996, p. 3). Maintaining the originality and authenticity of how the participants give meaning to their experiences is also part of what constitutes changing the power imbalance in feminist research. "A feminist method gave me the flexibility to be able to relate to women in subjective ways on their terms rather than in objective ways on the researchers’ terms" (Edwards, 1990, p. 489).
Recognizing the researcher as part of the research process also constitutes changing the power relation between the researcher and the participant. The social location of the researcher (e.g. age, race, orientation, class) plays a role in shaping the research process. It is important for the researcher to identify their own location in order to address biases that may result from their own location in the social world. "Our own frameworks of understanding need to be critically examined as we look for the tensions and contradictions they might entail" (Lather, 1988, p. 576). The researcher is as much an active agent in the world as the participant and acknowledging individual agency is important to restructuring the power relationship. The choices being made by the researcher are shaped and motivated by social location, from the choice of a research topic to decisions on how to present the material.
Women as researchers bring their own experiences and history into the role of researcher and the research process. The feminist researcher may be both insider and/or outsider to the environment and topic they are exploring. As insider, they have a stronger understanding of the dynamics and play of social relationships that inform the situation under investigation. The issue of inequality may be overcome through the affiliation of the researcher with the context, where participants may feel more comfortable in sharing information with someone who is within the situation (Matsumoto, 1996, p. 165). By contrast, the feminist researcher who lives outside the situation being examined may also be able to change the imbalance of the power relations with the participants. Having to explain personal experiences and feelings with an outsider allows women the space to critically assess their own lived realities. It reinforces their location as author and expert to the situation. It also potentially gives women the opportunity to safely criticize their community, organization or situation without fear of discovery. Striving for balance and equality between researcher and participant entails negotiating the often blurry insider/outsider relationship between the two parties.
The location of the researcher also plays a significant role in the research process through the dynamics of the interactions between researcher and participant. As women, both researcher and participant share a common location in the social world on the basis of their gender and can communicate on the basis of this similarity. However, the location of the researcher as different can also have consequences on the research process. Bringing feminist concerns into research entails recognizing the differences between women. Gender similarities may not transcend all social locations. For some participants, factors other than gender may play a more prominent role in their experiences. Issues surrounding the race, class or orientation of the interviewer to the participant are important to address in feminist research. As Rosalind Edwards notes, race can be a barrier for women seeking to do research "outside" of their own race, where finding participants willing to take part in the research can be difficult (Edwards, 1990, p. 483). Questions about the motivations for the researcher to study women of other races, cultures, ages, abilities and classes need to be addressed as part of the research process.
Addressing inequality in the research relationship is more than simply acknowledging different social locations. It is also taking an active role in negotiating across these differences with the participants. Difference in social location is not an insurmountable barrier to the research process, but difference must be recognized and addressed as part of the process. How this negotiation can occur is not defined by feminist research and no perfect solutions are given. Instead, feminist research involves context driven choices, the recognition that the choices of the feminist researcher are guided by feminist principles and how these principles are negotiated are unique to each research project.
On a final note, changing the problematic power relationship s in research means addressing inequalities within the research team. The research process is informed by the relations of power among the team players, where traditionally women have been exploited as research labourers without being credited for their work involvement. As feminist researchers, it is important for women to question the nature and structure of their own research team, and look at the differences in power relations within the group.
Second, research for the sake of research is insufficient. As Maria Mies states, "the change of the status quo becomes the starting point for a scientific quest" (Mies, 1983, p. 135) . Research must serve the interests of women instead of being a tool to support the dominant masculine world view. Feminist research must not be abstract and removed from the subject of investigation but instead must have a commitment to working towards societal change. In the form of recommendations for policy or with the researcher being part of a collective involved in political activity, the research can not simply seek to present data and information. "Feminist research is, thus, not research about women but research for women to be used in transforming their sexist society" (Cook and Fonow, 1986, p. 13). How this is played out in the research process is again the result of choices being made by the researcher. Having the research question come from a women’s collective or organization is one such way into staying grounded within the women’s movement. The commitment to feminism as the underlying motivation to feminist research means that research and action can not be separated.
In part, a commitment to societal change involves a commitment to the participants of the research. Feminist research can be thought about in terms of consciousness raising for the participants. Being involved as active members of the research process give women the space to question and critically assess their experiences. It also permits the recognition of the connections and links between events in their lives as well as the connections to the social world (Kasper, 1994, p. 273). Identifying the connections between individual experience and social relations can facilitate personal analysis and transformation. Empowerment arises with education and knowledge about issues, and the affirmation that one’s individual experiences are part of a larger social structure. By choosing to conduct informal interviews with young women during dinner, Michelle Fine and Pat Macpherson illustrate how these women create meaning and engage in a process of self analysis as they articulate their own experiences with feminism. "Our talks became an opportunity to "try on" ways of being women, struggling through power, gender, culture, and class" (Fine and Macpherson, 1992, p. 201).
Finally, it is not sufficient to simply add women to the research equation. Feminist research is not simply having women engaged as researchers. Nor is it about studying gender as a category or including women as a variable in research. Feminist research is about taking women’s location and standpoint in the world as the basis for research, where "research will proceed from a perspective that values women’s experiences, ideas and needs rather than assuming we should be more like men" (Weston, 1988, p. 148). The multiple and often contradictory perspectives of women act as the orientation and starting point for grounding the research process. This means women’s experiences and standpoint must be grounded in the larger social and political context of culture.
Knowledge of women’s lives have been absent or constructed from the perspective of men. What is valued as areas to study, where knowledge arrives from, are areas that are of interest to men. Specifically, public places or man’s social worlds are what is investigated in both qualitative and quantitative social science research. Women’s experiences in public places are made invisible or are spoken about from the view of men - what they think are the important questions to ask about the public world. "The overt ideological goal of feminist research in the human sciences is to correct both the invisibility and distortion of female experience" (Lather, 1988, p. 571). Feminist research takes women’s situations, concerns, experiences and perspectives as the basis for research. It embodies women’s experiences in the social world from their own interpretation and using their language.
Issues that are important to women become the starting point for doing research. Research has meaning in the world, and feminist research must attend to the meaning women give to their experiences, what they identify as being topics that concern them. Women’s societal identification with the private sphere has meant that issues of importance to women’s lives in the private realm (marital rape, the experience of being a mother, violence, incest) have been ignored or not defined as issues of importance to research. What is viewed as important questions to ask and what social phenomenon get defined as problem areas for exploration have been defined by male researchers. Women’s lives, experiences, ideas and needs have been absent from social science research because we live in a world which values male knowledge and perspective and defines it as being objective truth. "A male view of the social world has become the view" (Maguire, 1987, p. 82). The questions women have about the world and areas they experience as problematic are issues that must be addressed by feminist research. Feminist researchers must attend to language when trying to accurately represent women’s perspectives and realities. Taking women’s standpoint as the grounding for research means attending to how women construct and articulate their experiences in their own words: "the essential meaning of women’s meanings can be grasped only by listening to the women themselves" (Kasper, 1994, p. 266). This is problematic for feminist researchers. The writing of social reality is grounded in a language that reflects male power, male perspective and male control of the definitions of the world. Language does not equally value women and men and "language, to some extent, shapes or constructs our notions of reality rather than labelling that reality in any transparent and straightforward way" (Ehrlich, 1995, p. 45). As Marjorie DeVault suggests, women use a language not their own to articulate their reality. She uses the term "translate" to illustrate the process women experience when trying to use language to convey their perspectives (DeVault, 1990, p. 96). Listening to how women use language to translate and convey their experiences as women is importance to feminist research. Since women are the experts and authorities to the situation, the way they create and give meaning to their experience becomes of central. Language shapes the words, concepts and stereotypes of society, and in turn also shapes actions, behaviours and expectations.
In addition, the sexism in everyday language is also contained in the research process. As feminist researchers, it is important to recognize how language is used to construct and recreate the dynamics of a research situation. Taking the perspective of women as the starting point for feminist research means using the language and meanings given by the participant within the research. It is not sufficient for the researcher to reinterpret and depict the research subject by using language from outside the context. Listening to women and the meaning they give to their experiences and using their meanings within the research is central to feminist research. Listening includes hearing how women reflect upon their experiences, the feelings and meanings that are conveyed through their use of language (Anderson et al, 1987, p. 111).
Attending to the use of language within the research process also recognizes the way language determines and influences the research process. Language informs the sociological categories that constitute social science research. Our categories and codes determining what is valued as research have been shaped by male prerogative. Feminist research that acts from the standpoint of women opens up the possibilities of new topics for research that go beyond standard social science labels and categories. Language also enters the research process where it frames the questions being used as the starting point. Feminist researchers must attend to how research questions are being organized and the implications suggested by the choice of words (Anderson et al., 1987, p. 114).
I have used three principle categories to outline the defining features of feminist theory. Different authors construct these issues in feminist research in different ways. Judith Cook and Mary Margaret Fonow identify 5 basic epistemological principles in feminist methodology (Cook and Fonow, 1986, p. 5). These include the taking of women and gender as the focus of analysis; the importance of consciousness raising (feminist researcher inhabits a double world of women/researcher and brings feminist knowledge into process); the rejection of subject and object (between researcher and participant - means valuing the knowledge held by the participant as being expert knowledge; how research valued as objective is still biased); a concern with ethics (ie use of language, use of research results); and an intention to empower women and change power relations and inequality (new knowledge is generated when one challenges the inequalities in society - validates a new perspective and definition of events). As is apparent, these five principles have been addressed in different ways within the body of this essay. Feminist may not agree how to shape or define feminist research, but there is a high degree of concurrence over the epistemological grounding to the research process.
Some Limits with Feminist Research
"I think it is important to recognize, acknowledge, and accept the imperfections and the incompleteness of feminist research goals" (Wolf, 1996, p. 36).
In re-framing the qualitative/quantitative debate to examine the debate between traditional social science and feminist research, I have intentionally chosen to focus on the common features of feminist research. This is not to suggest that feminist research is the ultimate way out of the qualitative/quantitative debate. Within feminist writings on research is much discussion and division over the value of quantitative research for feminist theorizing.
One problem I initially confronted with early feminist writings on social science research was that some authors suggested that quantitative research was inappropriate for feminist research. The central claim was that the attention to numbers and so called "hard" data was essentially masculine. These arguments suggest that qualitative research, with its focus on meaning, definitions and experiences, was somehow more feminine and better for feminist research due to its emotional underpinning. Yet, this simply reinforces traditional gender stereotypes.
In some cases, the distrust of quantitative research has been the result of the use of statistics and numbers to devalue or trivialize the reality of women’s experiences in the world. For example, the documented number of incest, child and spousal abuse cases has been statistically small and critics have used these statistics to argue that these were, therefore, not significant social issues. Statistics do not acknowledge the patriarchal and sexist climate of social values that do not permit women and children to reveal these abuses. The problem is not with the quantitative research process, but with the sexist value and belief system that determines what is researched and how it is questioned. Sexist and elitist values that support the status quo are not inherent to quantitative research but are reflective of the larger social milieu. Feminist researchers have been using quantitative research to provide statistical data that is generalizable about the experiences of women. This is viewed as being particularly useful in showing the patterns and influences of multiple factors in shaping attitudes in society (O’Neill, p. 343, 1995). It would also be beneficial to "counter the pervasive and influential quantitative sexist research which has and continues to be generated in the social sciences" (Jayaratne, 1983, pp. 158-159).
The valuing of experiential research over numerical based data by some feminists is also problematic, as it simply seemed to take sides within the qualitative/quantitative debate yet again. The problem is not with qualitative and quantitative research itself, but the valuing of one form of research over another and how patriarchal values have informed both research processes. Ultimately, there are a wide range of methods available to feminist researchers. Instead of focusing on which type of research is better, it makes more sense to allow the context and purpose of the research to guide the choice of research tools and techniques. There is no one method or strategy for feminist research. In fact, buying into the qualitative/quantitative division ignores one of the highlights of feminist research, namely, its ability to combine research methods to attain the widest and most accurate representation of reality. By attending to the context of the situation as central, feminist researchers can chose methods that will best represent women’s situations and experiences (Greaves et al., 1995, p. 334). The situation should guide the methodological choices, instead of having a trust in the method as appropriate for every context and situation.
Recognising the impact of decisions and choices as part of the feminist research process is highly significant when trying to define the nature of feminist research. Marianne Weston sees all research as existing on a fluid scale between traditional research and ideal feminist research. She argues that one can evaluate to what degree a research project is feminist by looking at the choices being made by the researcher. In her eyes, the ideal feminist research process would have the subjects as authorities and owners of the research, involved in determining the choice of methods and the conducting, interpreting and writing of the data with the participation of the researcher (Weston, 1988, pp. 146-148). Outlining the principles for feminist research as part of a continuum recognizes that the researcher has an active role in informing the nature, structure and shape of the research process. But for Weston, most research that studies women is not feminist. While I agree that many research projects do not utilize feminism as the grounding principle, this argument ignores the reality of feminist research as a negotiated process. While feminist researchers can aim and strive for the ideal feminist research process, there often exists a large gap between the reality and ideal goals of doing feminist research. This is an uncomfortable zone of discussion for many feminist authors. While the desire may be to promote equality in the research process through the validation of the women’s experiences and enact social change and transformation, many barriers confront feminist researchers from achieving these aims. The process of doing research involves a long series of choices and decisions. While feminist beliefs and concerns will help guide and direct the decision making process, outside forces also play a key role in the research process. Diana Ralph constructed a power pyramid that illustrates how power informs the decision making process, where the feminist researcher is on the bottom of the structure and has more difficulty in controlling the choices being made (Ralph, 1988, p. 140). The culture or society in which one conducts research, the external funding agencies, the organizations or individuals who have an investment in the outcome of the research process, publishers, and even the research team all significantly impact on the decisions being made pertaining to the research process.
While the expressed goals of feminist research are to empower women, take women’s standpoint as the perspective and restructure power imbalances in the research relationship, attaining these goals can be frustrated by these external forces. Defining participants as the owners of knowledge may be blocked or resisted by gatekeepers, such as journal or conference regulations, who demand common standards surrounding authorship. Bringing the research back to the participants in order to have the material critiqued and validated can increase costs for the project or may not be seen as necessary or worthwhile to the research funding agency (Wolf, 1996, p. 33). Recognizing the degree of control and power the researcher has over the research process is an issue for feminist researchers to address.
As Joyce Pettigrew acknowledges, in fieldwork observation, the societal expectations based on gender play a significant role in the research process. As a feminist researcher, her needs as a researcher to have free access to participants came into conflict with the cultural expectations for women to be supervised or remain in the home (Pettigrew, 1981, p. 68). Gunseli Berik similarly addresses how one negotiates choices as a feminist researcher. In her project, she intentionally chose to accept a subordinate social role as a woman that contradicted her feminist beliefs. She also chose to gather data that would reflect women’s experiences in rural Turkey instead of promoting and producing social change (Berik, 1996, p. 57). Her justifications for such decisions illustrate how practical issues, such as living within a culture and the demands of research on an individual researcher, influence the outcome of a feminist project. As these two illustrations suggest, feminist researchers are consciously and intentionally negotiating the structure and form of feminist research while within the process.
Real life circumstances impact on the degree to which the research is feminist and suggest that striving to achieve all ideal goals of feminist research is more problematic than is discussed. Negotiating the chasm that exists between the reality and the ideals of feminist research can be of personal concern to women as researchers. While choices and decisions are made throughout all social science research projects, feminist researchers are negotiating choices that are tied into their own personal belief systems as feminists (Wolf, 1996, p. 2). Having to conform to societal expectations based on gender that are contradictory to one’s own identity can be difficult for feminist researchers. Using one’s identity as a woman as a way of accessing information may be a strategy available to the feminist researcher, but a strategy that may undermine or come into conflict with one’s feminist beliefs.
"The challenge is to continue to search for new and better topics, methodologies and strategies which will liberate women and, perhaps more than that, to challenge us to be feminists first in our research efforts" (Weston, 1988, p. 149).
So what then, constitutes feminist research? Feminist research is, by definition, research that utilizes feminist concerns and beliefs to ground the research process. Feminism takes women as its starting point, seeking to explore and uncover patriarchal social dynamics and relationships from the perspective of women. Feminism is also a commitment to social change, arising from the actions of women to refuse the patriarchal social structure as it stands in favour of a more egalitarian society. Feminism also addresses the power imbalances between women and men and between women as active agents in the world. Feminist research seeks to include feminism within the process, to focus on the meaning women give to their world while recognizing that research as a process is contained within the same patriarchal relations. Feminist research is research that uses feminist principles throughout all stages of research, from choice of topic to presentation of data. These feminist principles also inform and act as the framework guiding the decisions being made by the researcher.
This is not to suggest that feminist researchers believe that feminist research is one unified research methodology. There are many varying and diverse interpretations of what feminist research is and should be. The only agreement seems to be to have no agreement - to revel in the diversity and recognize that these differences facilitate and permit different knowledges to be put forth. To seek one feminist research method is invalid, and simply reinforces patriarchal beliefs in totalizing theory, that there exists one truth, one knowledge in the world to be objectively discovered. Feminist research is about multiple, subjective and partial truths. Black feminist writers such as bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins have strongly argued against the biases that exist in white academic feminist writing, such as class exclusion, heterosexism, racism and ethnocentrism. Feminist research can not claim to speak for all women, but can provide new knowledge grounded in the realities of women’s experiences and actively enact structural changes in the social world.Feminist Research Bibliography