Research dismisses the validity of gender studies

June 30th, 2009 by Pelle Billing

A couple of months ago, a Swedish researcher called Helen Lindberg presented her doctoral thesis called Only Women Bleed?: A Critical Reassessment of Comprehensive Feminist Social Theory.

In her thesis she has evaluated four different feminist theories, with regard to internal coherence, and their usefulness as theories in a research context:

Is there a viable specifically feminist social theory that can serve as heuristic devise in our social research? This thesis is a critical reassessment of the ontological and normative assumptions of four social theories with specific and clear claims of being feminist. These are Catharine M MackInnon’s Radical Feminism, Anna G Jonasdottir’s Theory of Love Power, Luce Irigaray’s Feminism of Sexual Difference and Judith Butler’s Queer Feminism.

The English abstract only summarizes her findings on the internal coherence of these feminist theories in very general terms:

The feminist social theories are examined and critically discussed according to their internal coherence and their external relevance; which includes the normative political implications that can be inferred.

However, in the more extensive Swedish abstract, she clearly states that all of these four feminist theories show a lack of internal coherency, meaning that they are filled with contradictions that cannot be reconciled.

Similarly, when she talks about the usefulness of feminist theory within the context of research (such as the entire field of gender studies), she is very conservative in the English abstract:

The thesis claims that implicit in every comprehensive feminist approach, there is also a specific view of science. Then follows a meta-inquiry of comprehensive feminisms as social science and as social theories, including a discussion of the effects of comprehensive ideology on social science research in general, and of the relationship between ideology, theory and a scientific approach in particular. The thesis concludes that it is highly problematic to do science feministly, but that we do need the critical questions feminists raise in order to reevaluate concepts, theories and research priorities. It is argued that feminist social theories are perhaps most helpful as ideological guidance for political action.

Still, if you read the parts I made bold, you realize that her criticism of feminist theory is pretty severe. I will also translate part of the Swedish text, so that you can grasp the full extent of her criticism:

The thesis demonstrates that these four feminist theories about society each turn out to be unsatisfactory as tools in social science research since they rest on strong ideological premises and demonstrate a lack of internal consistency. Even though the theories appear to be different, they display two common theoretical weaknesses where one follows logically from the other. First of all, they all use structuralistic and therefore deterministic assumptions about the relationship between the individual and society which leaves little room for individual agency and thinking, which in turn leaves little room for developing and changing society. The theories therefore display a theoretical and empirical ignorance of the multidimensionality of society, and variance at the individual level. Furthermore, the thesis discusses the political goals and action plans that can be derived from their ideological and theoretical content, and finds that where they aren’t Utopia-like, they are unilaterally reduced to a monolithic identity or are normatively underdeveloped and unclear. Finally the relationship between science, politics and ideology is problematized in a general way, and feminism as science, politics and ideology in a specific way. To be able to conduct social science research about gender relations-the author claims-it isn’t useful to use the examined feminist theories, since they are too ideological and theoretically underdeveloped. They should instead be judged and valued the same way other normative and ideological theories are, such as Marxism, especially when it comes to their critical role in defining problems and acting as guides in political practice.

The short version of what she’s saying is that using feminist theory as the basis for conducting research, is about as useful as using Marxist theory to conduct research. This confirms what I’ve long been suspecting: gender studies are not a scientific discipline, they are a method for applying a certain ideology onto whatever data you collect during your “research”.

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5 Responses to “Research dismisses the validity of gender studies”

  1. Miriam Says:

    Are you saying that studying the differences in social roles and behaviour between women and men is not important? Then what is it you are attempting with this blog?
    As far as I know, gender studies and feminist schools of thought are not the same… Gender studies is about looking at the socially constructed roles appointed to men and women, and also to different forms of sexuality, in a specific time and space. Although feminist schools of thought, including the rather obscure ones reviewed by the PhD you quote, often focus on these roles, they are not by any means the only theories used.
    Actually, gender studies have been on the forefront of claiming what you believe in: that men and women are both oppressed by their gender roles and that men’s voices are important if anything is to change. This is what prompted the shift from Women’s studies to Gender studies. I agree that not all scholars have made that shift simultaneously, but it seems to me you want to throw out the good with the bad here…

  2. Pelle Billing Says:

    The reviewed feminist schools of thought are not obscure… Radical feminism talks about the structural oppression of women, and queer feminism talks about gender as a social construct. These ideas are at the core of feminist gender studies.

    “As far as I know, gender studies and feminist schools of thought are not the same… ”

    They are not exactly the same, but feminist theory is the major foundation that gender studies rest on. Other tools have been added, but nothing has been taken away from the feminist foundation.

    “Actually, gender studies have been on the forefront of claiming what you believe in: that men and women are both oppressed by their gender roles and that men’s voices are important if anything is to change.”

    The so called masculinist studies that are done in the field of gender studies, are done from the perspective of men being oppressive. So it’s all done within the context of feminist thinking.

    If gender studies actually did what you say, then I would be applauding them, not criticizing them.

    Thank you for your comment.

  3. Deva Ariza Says:

    What research methodology did she use? “Critical reassessment” is not a research methodology, but it does imply that the material was approached “critically” (looking for — and expecting to find — problems within the material being studied). As a researcher, last time I checked the scientific method, one was to approach research in as unbiased a way as possible. Obviously the researcher is not claiming to do hypothesis testing, so demanding that such rigor be followed is a bit unrealistic. I just find it very interesting that a researcher would conduct research without any methodology, and with such a clearly stated bias. I suppose that is what a good scholar does though, lay their cards face up?

    I disagree, however, that one can reasonably expect feminisms to be internally coherent when the system that they critique is not, itself, coherent. For example: Men are rational; women are emotional, BUT men are more violent (because of testosterone, tradition, etc. ad nauseum) and more often angry than women, therefore anger must not be an emotion because men are rational, etc…

    Very few philosophical frameworks have ever achieved the internal coherence required by mathematics. Your own philosophy is far from coherent: Why men rule, patriarchy does not/did not exist, etc. Not all research requires a mathematically derived theory to be considered “valid” — (i.e. to fit the observed reality well). In fact, there are many mathematically derived theories which are invalid in fields claiming to be science. I’m thinking of neo-liberal theory in economics as one example. In any case, one study, by one doctoral candidate, with a clearly stated bias and no research methodology does not “truth” make.

  4. TJordan Says:

    I am interested in reading this thesis but can’t find in leads on getting a copy of it in America. Anyone have a suggestion?

  5. Pelle Billing Says:

    Tjordan,

    Try emailing cristina.helge@oru.se. Tell her that you would like to order the thesis and have it sent to you. I’m sure that she can make it work, by allowing you to wire the money or somehow pay by credit card.

    Let me know how it works out.


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