Social Justice Usage
Source: Harding, Sandra. The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies. New York: Routledge, 2004, pp. 7–8.[M]ore than this social situatedness is at issue for standpoint theorists. Each oppressed group can learn to identify its distinctive opportunities to turn an oppressive feature of the group’s conditions into a source of critical insight about how the dominant society thinks and is structured. Thus, standpoint theories map how a social and political disadvantage can be turned into an epistemological, scientific, and political advantage.
Source: Medina, José. The Epistemology of Resistance: Gender and Racial Oppression, Epistemic Injustice, and the Social Imagination. Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 197.
This idea fits in well with the most celebrated thesis of standpoint theory, namely, that there is a cognitive asymmetry between the standpoint of the oppressed and the standpoint of the privileged that gives and advantage to the former over the latter. As Harding (1983, 1991), among others, has argued, the perspectives from the lives of the less powerful can offer a more objective view of the social world, a view based on their experiences of being underprivileged that captures real disparities, instead of a view that ignores (or even erases) experiences of oppression and is more likely to be oblivious or blind to disparities and insensitive to injustice.
New Discourses Commentary
Standpoint epistemology (or standpoint theory) arose within feminist epistemology in the 1970s and 1980s, reaching something of a zenith in its application under the noted feminist theorist Sandra Harding in the late 1980s. (Harding is perhaps most famous for her developments of standpoint theory and her related notion of “strong objectivity,” unless it is for calling Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica a “rape manual.”) In short, standpoint theory posits that one’s social position relative to systemic power confers additional insight or access to knowledge(s) that allows the oppressed to understand both oppression and the society or systems it operates within better than the privileged are able to (see also, white ignorance, white innocence, lived experience, and ways of knowing).
Though Harding credits the idea to Marxian thought—not without reason—this concept ultimately seems to arise from Georg W. F. Hegel’s “master-slave dialectic,” which is where Marx likely got similar ideas. The rough concept here is that the “slave” (oppressed, marginalized, or subordinated) class possesses a kind of double understanding of society because the “master” class experiences life as a master in a masters’ world while the “slave” class experiences it as a slave in a masters’ world, thus deriving direct insight about both social positions (see also, double consciousness, kaleidoscopic consciousness, multiple consciousnesses, and master’s tools). Harding, ultimately, believed that one’s standpoint within oppression—i.e., by introducing a known bias to counteract allegedly hidden or invisible biases (see also, implicit bias)—confers better access to objectivity than is possible from a standpoint within dominance.
Under intersectionality, as articulated by the black feminist Patricia Hill Collins (see below), standpoint theory was challenged and ultimately adapted to a new context. Intersectionality, being fully reliant upon postmodern thought (see also, Foucauldian and Matrix of Domination), does not accept that objectivity is possible whatsoever and thus lies at natural odds with feminist standpoint epistemology. This prevents any naive extensions from critical race Theory, black liberationism, and/or black feminism of a standpoint epistemology with regard to other facets of identity (this has been written about extensively by the Theorist José Medina).
Consequently, Collins (and later Medina and many others) adapted standpoint epistemology in a way more consistent with postmodern and intersectional thought, moving away from Harding’s “strong objectivity,” which should give something like the truth about oppression and (eventually) toward Medina’s “kaleidoscopic consciousness,” which offers multiple truths about different forms of oppression. This would represent the same kind of shift that took feminist consciousness raising and made it more about gaining awareness of multiple consciousnesses.
In this new “kaleidoscopic” understanding, one can engage their positionality to identify which “truths” or “knowledges” they can access and be taken as an authority upon. Possessing a racially minoritized identity provides insight into black truths, Asian truths, or Latinx truths, for example, and other identities provide access to additional truths. Where one is privileged, the expectation is roughly that one is to “shut up and listen,” and where one is Theoretically oppressed, one’s views can be considered authoritative, so long as they’re “authentic,” which roughly means in alignment with how Theory describes the experience of oppression for that identity group.
As Harding noted (below), it is not sufficient for one to merely possess the identity group membership to gain the special insight on offer by standpoint epistemology. One must also be politically engaged, which means having adopted the right critical methods and a critical consciousness (or, wokeness). In other words, insight into societal truths is available, by virtue of standpoint theory, to members of minoritized groups who are also critical theorists, but essentially nobody else. Everyone else is trapped in the “masters’ world” and somehow subscribing to the “masters’ view” (see also, internalized dominance; internalized oppression, internalized racism, internalized sexism, internalized misogyny, internalized ableism, internalized transphobia, and false consciousness).
That said, there are also believed (usually within Social Justice perspectives) to be specialized knowledges based in the lived experience of belonging to some identity group (see also, racial knowledge, racial humility, and cultural humility). These aren’t necessarily strictly understood under the umbrella of standpoint epistemology, and unless the invoke positionality or power dynamics as the reason for the specialized insight, they represent a different form of identity-based “knowledges.” This kind of claim to knowledge (especially “cultural knowledge”) is not necessarily something to be skeptical of, as everyday experiences of certain phenomena may tend to be different for people with different physiological features, living in different environments, or belonging to different cultures.
In practice, though it is possible, it is very difficult for this other kind of identity-knowledge claim to refrain from drawing upon standpoint epistemology when utilized by any member of a minoritized group, especially in service of Critical Social Justice, because the lived experience of being such a person will almost definitely bring up what it’s like to be such a person in a society that is allegedly rife with such power dynamics. This is because of the critical orientation of Critical Social Justice, which is by definition interested in these power dynamics and essentially nothing else. Therefore, in practice, these legitimate forms of identity-based knowledge claims often act as a means to slide standpoint epistemology beneath the door, particularly when used in service to a critical perspective.
Of note on this, one will notice that identity-based knowledge based in “whiteness” is a very thoroughly Theorized concept—always problematically. Under the view of Critical Social Justice, there is very much something understood to be white knowledge (or Western, or Eurocentric). It is, in fact, described as an “epistemology of ignorance,” wherein white people, as a result of their privilege, are invested in not-knowing so actively, willfully, perniciously, and (semi)-intentionally as for it to constitute its own kind of false knowledge (see also, white ignorance). Moreover, whiteness itself would constitute, or at least possess, its own kind of knowledge system (see also, episteme) that characterizes “white knowledge” (see also, white mathematics, white science, and white empiricism), which is often held up as a reason why racial minorities and people outside of the West shouldn’t adopt science, reason, civility, or other vestiges of “Western culture,” which are deemed inherently white supremacist and colonialist (among other sins). It’s difficult to discern how this blatant confusion about practical realities is meant to help anyone.
In summary, standpoint epistemology (and related identity-based epistemologies) are a complicated and widely discredited way to create and justify a kind of gnosticism around critical conceptions of identity and the relevant power dynamics in society. In practice, this typically means it is yet another justification within Theory for only people who agree with Theory to be considered knowledgeable authorities, which is then used to silence opposition and install “professionals” in positions of authority and power based on group identity alone—or, almost alone, as such people tend to have to present a critical consciousness, i.e., be woke Critical Social Justice activists, as well (see also, diversity and inclusion).
Active ignorance; Authentic; Bias; Black feminism; Black liberationism; Colonialism; Colorblind; Consciousness raising; Critical; Critical consciousness; Critical race Theory; Critical theory; Cultural humility; Diversity; Dominance; Episteme; Eurocentrism; False consciousness; Feminism; Foucauldian; Identity; Implicit bias; Inclusion; Internalized ableism; Internalized dominance; Internalized misogyny; Internalized oppression; Internalized racism; Internalized sexism; Internalized transphobia; Intersectionality; Kaleidoscopic consciousness; Knowledge(s); Latinx; Lived experience; Master’s tools; Marxian; Marxism; Matrix of Domination; Minoritize; Multiple consciousness; Oppression; Pernicious ignorance; Position; Postmodern; Privilege; Problematic; Race; Racial humility; Racial knowledge; Racism-blind; Science; Shut up and listen; Situatedness; Social Justice; Subordination; Systemic power; Theory; Truth; Ways of knowing; West, the; Western; White; White ignorance; White supremacy; Whiteness; Willful ignorance; Woke/Wokeness
Source: Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, second edition. New York: Routledge, 2000 , p. 270.
Rather than emphasizing how a Black women’s standpoint and its accompanying epistemology differ from those of White women, Black men, and other collectivities, Black women’s experiences serve as one specific social location for examining points of connection among multiple epistemologies. Viewing Black feminist epistemology in this way challenges additive analyses of oppression claiming that Black women have a more accurate view of oppression than do other groups. Such approaches suggest that oppression can be quantified and compared and that adding layers of oppression produces a potentially clearer standpoint (Spelman 1988). One implication of some uses of standpoint theory is that the more subordinated the group, the purer the vision available to them. This is an outcome of the origins of standpoint approaches in Marxist social theory, itself reflecting the binary thinking of its Western origins. Ironically, by quantifying and ranking human oppressions, standpoint theorists invoke criteria for methodological adequacy that resemble those of positivism. Although it is tempting to claim that Black women are more oppressed than everyone else and therefore have the best standpoint from which to understand the mechanisms, processes, and effects of oppression, this is not the case.
Instead, those ideas that are validated as true by African-American women, African-American men, Latina lesbians, Asian-American women, Puerto Rican men, and other groups with distinctive standpoints, with each group using the epistemological approaches growing from its unique standpoint, become the most “objective” truths. Each group speaks from its own standpoint and shares its own partial, situated knowledge. But because each group perceives its own truth as partial, its knowledge is unfinished. Each group becomes better able to consider other groups’ standpoints without relinquishing the uniqueness of its own standpoint or suppressing other groups’ partial perspectives. “What is always needed in the appreciation of art, or life,” maintains Alice Walker, “is the larger perspective. Connections made, or at least attempted, where none existed before, the straining to encompass in one’s glance at the varied world the common thread, the unifying theme through immense diversity” (1983, 5). Partiality, and not universality, is the condition of being heard; individuals and groups forwarding knowledge claims without owning their position are deemed less credible than those who do.
Source: Sensoy, Ozlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, first edition. Teacher’s College Press: New York, 2012, p. 48.
Dominant groups have the most narrow or limited view of a society because they do not have to understand the experiences of the minoritized group in order to survive; because they control the institutions, they have the means to legitimize their view (“I worked hard for what I have, why can’t they?”). Minoritized groups often have the widest view of society, in that they must understand both their own and the dominant group’s perspective—develop a double-consciousness—to succeed. But because they are in the margins, the view of minoritized groups is seen as the least legitimate in society, dismissed via phrases such as “they just have a chip on their shoulder, … complain too much, or … want special rights.”
Source: Collins, Patricia Hill. “Intersectionality and Epistemic Injustice,” in The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice. Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition, 2017, p. 119.
Identity politics and standpoint epistemology constitute two important forms of authorization for people of color, women, poor people and new immigrant populations that constitute sources of epistemic authority (Collins 1998, 201–228). Identity politics claims the authority of one’s own experiences and social location as a source of epistemic agency. Standpoint epistemology asserts the right to be an equal epistemic agent in interpreting one’s own realities within interpretive communities. Standpoint theories claim, in different ways, that it is important to account for the social positioning of social agents. Within standpoint epistemology, the process of approximating the truth is part of a dialogical relationship among subjects who are different situated (Stoetzler and Yuval-Davis 2002, 315). Misinterpreting the robust understanding of identity politics expressed by the Combahee River Collective, Kimberlé Crenshaw and others by recasting these ideas as essentialized and self-serving not only misreads the intent of social movement actors, it undercuts an important source of epistemic agency for oppressed groups.[Collins, Patricia Hill. 1998. Fighting Words: Black Women and the Search for Justice. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.] [Stoetzler, Marcel and Nira Yuval-Davis. 2002. “Standpoint theory, situated knowledge and the situated imagination,” Feminist Theory 3: 315–333.]
Source: Harding, Sandra. The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies. New York: Routledge, 2004, pp. 1–3.
Standpoint theory emerged in the 1970s and 1980s as a feminist critical theory about relations between the production of knowledge and practices of power. It was intended to explain the surprising successes of emerging feminist research in a wide range of projects—“surprising” because feminism is a political movement and, according to the conventional view (one that is currently under siege from various quarters, however), politics can only obstruct and damage the production of scientific knowledge. Standpoint theory challenged this assumption. Consequently, it was proposed not just as an explanatory theory, but also prescriptively, as a method or theory of method (a methodology) to guide future feminist research.
Moreover, it expanded conventional horizons of the fields or disciplines mentioned to include normative social theory. Distinctive conceptions of human nature and the ideal society lay behind feminist research. Thus, standpoint theory was both explanatory and normative. Also controversial was the further claim that in this respect standpoint theory was no different from the standard philosophies of science, epistemologies, and methodologies, which persistently obscured their normative features behind a veil of claimed neutrality. Last but not least, standpoint theory was presented as a way of empowering oppressed groups, of valuing their experiences, and of pointing toward a way to develop an “oppositional consciousness,” as Patricia Hill Collins (1989) and Chela Sandoval (chapter 14, this volume) put the point. Thus, it was presented by different authors (and sometimes within a single essay) as a philosophy of both natural and social sciences, an epistemology, a methodology (a prescriptive “method of research,” as several of its theorists phrased it), and a political strategy. Yet these are fields and projects that conventionally are supposed to be kept separate.
So here are already a number of sources of its controversiality. It set out to explain how certain kinds of politics do not block the growth of knowledge but, rather, can stimulate and guide it. It presented itself as a philosophy of science, an epistemology, and a methodology or method of research, appearing to conflate or even confuse fields standardly kept distinct. It framed these disciplinary projects within a feminist social theory and a political strategy, though standardly it is presumed that these fields can and should be kept immune from social and political elements. It claimed mainstream, purportedly only descriptive and explanatory, theories about science and even within science were also—perhaps always—normative, and that this was so even when they achieved maximally accurate description and explanation.
Additionally, implicitly it insisted that feminist concerns could not be restricted to what are usually regarded as only social and political issues, but instead must be focused on every aspect of natural and social orders, including the very standards for what counts as knowledge, objectivity, rationality, and good scientific method. Thus, feminist issues could not be pigeon-holed and ignored as only women’s issues, but instead had to be seen as valuably informing theoretical, methodological, and political thought in general.
Two further aspects of feminist standpoint theory’s origins deserve mention here, for each has occasioned significant controversy. Standpoint theory had an earlier history in Marxian thought, upon which most of the early feminist theorists explicitly drew. For those disaffected by Marxian thought and practice, this legacy was bad enough. Some criticize standpoint theory for this legacy and even try to sanitize it by reframing it in empiricist or radical poststructuralist terms. Others, whether from ignorance of or hostility to Marxian insights, ignore this framework, often thereby attributing features to standpoint theory that its framers neither intended nor desired. Yet, as Fredric Jameson argues, it is only the feministdieorists who have succeeded in overcoming fatal flaws in the earlier standpoint projects and thus have been able to give this important aspect of the Marxian legacy a viable future. Moreover, feminist theorists do so just as the last of the governments inspired by the Marxian legacy decline and disappear, and the promise of Marxian thought otherwise seems primarily an archaic relic of a bygone and failed Utopian moment. Of course some Marxists disagree with the uses to which feminists have put standpoint theory. For others, however, that it should be feminists who succeed at such a project has been disquieting. Thus feminist standpoint theory revives, improves, and disseminates an important Marxian project and does so at an otherwise inauspicious moment for such an achievement.
Source: Harding, Sandra. The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies. New York: Routledge, 2004, pp. 7–8.
Let us begin with the claim that knowledge is always socially situated. Thus, to the extent that an oppressed group’s situation is different from that of the dominant group, its dominated situation enables the production of distinctive kinds of knowledge. (And let us not forget that dominant groups have always insisted on maintaining different material conditions for themselves and those whose labor makes possible their dominance, and they have insisted that those they dominate do not and could not achieve their own exalted level of consciousness.) After all, knowledge is supposed to be based on experiences, and so different experiences should enable different perceptions of ourselves and our environments.
However, more than this social situatedness is at issue for standpoint theorists. Each oppressed group can learn to identify its distinctive opportunities to turn an oppressive feature of the group’s conditions into a source of critical insight about how the dominant society thinks and is structured. 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, something that requires both science and politics, as Nancy Hartsock put the point. Here the term becomes a technical one in the sense that it is no longer simply another word for viewpoint or perspective, but rather makes visible a different, somewhat hidden phenomenon that we must work to grasp. For an achieved standpoint, science and politics turn out to be internally linked, contrary to the standard Liberal, empiricist, Enlightenment view. Empowerment requires a distinctive kind of knowledge (knowledge for one’s projects), and that kind of knowledge can emerge only through political processes.
Revision date: 3/9/20