Feminist philosopher Sandra Harding lays out themes and concepts that characterize feminist standpoint theory in the introduction of a 2004 volume she edited titled The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader.
According to Harding, feminist standpoint theory emerged between the 1970s and 1980s and originated from perspectives informed by Marxist thought and late-twentieth-century social justice projects. Feminist standpoint theory challenges several assumptions about knowledge. First, it defies the belief that politics inherently harm knowledge production. Second, feminist standpoint theory suggests mainstream sciences, methods, and epistemologies, do not offer neutral, objective knowledge, because the creation of all knowledge depends on historical context and social positionality. Finally, it develops knowledge that inspires an oppositional consciousness in oppressed people.
The Knowledge of the Oppressed
Standpoint theorists assert that oppressed people generate knowledge that offers insights that differ from mainstream perspectives. However, historically, institutionalized scientific knowledge did not get produced by women. The men who did produce knowledge about women and other oppressed people did so within a historical context that also bolstered their elite social position as scientists. As a result, the objectivity these thinkers claim to possess in reality fails to shape culture and politics in a neutral way. Harding argues this paradox results from the failure of mainstream thinkers to accept that their conceptual frameworks promote politically motivated cultural and institutional interests or concerns based on their social positionality.
In contrast, standpoint theorists assert that oppressed people not only make knowledge claims about themselves but also about their oppressors. Feminist standpoint theorists cultivate research questions that examine dominant institutions and how their customs or practices shape the concepts produced within them. These projects do not draw on dominant conceptual frameworks but instead start from the lives, experiences, activities, and labor of women or feminist perspectives. They then use critical theory to unpack the ideologies that design and justify heterosexism and how it intersects with other forms of oppression.
The Importance of Political Struggle for Standpoint Theory
Harding asserts that the politics that informs these feminist research projects support empirically accurate approaches that broaden knowledge about humanity. Since different groups have different experiences, they produce distinctive insights about social relations. The essay describes this process in these terms:
> Thus, standpoint theories map how a social and political disadvantage can be turned into an epistemological, scientific, and political advantage. With this second claim, a standpoint can not be thought of as an ascribed position with its different perspective that oppressed groups can claim automatically. Rather, a standpoint is an achievement, something for which oppressed groups must struggle, somethmg that requires both science and politics, as Nancy Hartsock put the point. \ - Harding (2004:7-8)
Standpoint theorists, therefore, draw on the political struggle to produce insights to gain access and empower a group consciousness among women that they can then transform into an oppositional consciousness. As an example, Harding cites Patricia Hill Collin’s work on the outsider within to highlight the knowledge Black women developed through their roles as enslaved women and domestic workers laboring for white people.
In the remainder of the essay, Harding responds to criticisms of standpoint theory and proposes ways forward in resolving disciplinary debates about its relevance. If you’re interested in learning about feminist standpoint theory, check out The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader and read Harding’s essay in full!