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    An Exploration of the Three Areas of Sociological Theory: Feminist Theory, Standpoint Theory, and Critical Race Theory

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    Scholarship in classical sociological theory has been largely dominated by “dead, white men.” Though the contributions to the field of sociology from scholars like Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim have been great and many, sociological thought was created with a lack of representation from women and people of color. The inclusion of these missing perspectives would enable the addition of valuable information for obtaining a more complete understanding of society and its structure. As sociologists, these viewpoints must be explored in order to increase sociological knowledge.

    Within this paper, I will explore three areas of sociological theory: feminist theory, standpoint theory, and critical race theory. Each ideology seeks to challenge the power associated with socially awarded privilege that certain groups in society enjoy – specifically, male privilege and white privilege. I aim to provide an overview of each theory to explore the ways that they can assist sociologists in analyzing social systems.

    Feminist Theory

    As with many sociological sects, it is difficult to provide a comprehensive definition of feminism due to wide variation within the field. To offer a simple explanation, “feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression” (hooks 2000). Though feminism encompasses numerous topics, this definition incorporates a basis of issues for resulting work within the discipline.

    Historically, feminism originated as an activist movement to eliminate women’s oppression; American feminism can be generally categorized by three distinct “waves.” The first wave of feminism emerged in response to legal inequalities in the 19th century and is most notably marked by the Women’s Suffrage Movement in America. Second wave feminism is considered to be the period surrounding the Women’s Liberation Movement of the late 1960’s, extending through the 1980’s. 

    During the second wave, feminist activists focused on reproductive rights, workplace inequality, sexuality, and family structure, among other inequalities. The 1990’s brought third wave feminism, which continues through the present day. It is characterized by a global perspective and by the acknowledgement of women’s “differences” in feminist thought (Krolokke and Sorensen 2005).

    As an extension of this social movement, feminist theory emerged in academia, encompassing a diverse array of interdisciplinary scholarship. Though feminist theory could certainly be analyzed through many lenses – economic, philosophic, or literary, for example – this paper will focus on feminist theory from a sociological perspective.

    Feminist theory involves an abundance of diverse modes of thinking. Its different subsets include ecofeminism, liberal, radical, radical-libertarian, radical-cultural, Marxist, socialist, first-wave, second-wave, third-wave, psychoanalytic, care-focused, multicultural, global, postcolonial, and postmodernist feminism (Tong 2009). Unsurprisingly, some discrepancies exist among theorists in these groups about the best approaches to eliminating oppression. In an attempt to provide an informative overview of this complex subject, I will focus on two major groups: liberal and radical.

    Feminism has several overarching themes that are critical to feminist theory as a whole. To illustrate these themes, Dr. Jackie Krasas of Lehigh University raised several questions for consideration in order to understand the different types of feminist thought (for a full list, please see Appendix). Among them include: “What forces create gender difference?”; “Is the eradication of gender difference either desirable or possible?”; “Are men and women substantively different or the same?”; “What explains women’s cross-cultural, transhistorical devaluation of the feminine?” (Krasas 2011). The proposed answers to these questions will be addressed in the examination of liberal and radical feminism that follows.

    Liberal Feminism

    The ultimate goal of liberal feminism is to reshape society into one where “freedom flourishes,” particularly freedom for women (Wendell 1987). Though liberal feminist theorists differ in their specific assertions, they generally agree in conceptualizing a fair society as one that allows individuals to be autonomous and to seek self-fulfillment. As an oppressed group, women are restricted by legal, institutional, and societal constraints. Liberal feminists see these limitations as unfair, as they believe that women should have as much opportunity as men for success and self-fulfillment within society. Gender inequality should be eliminated by removing legal constraints and ensuring that individuals are not institutionally disadvantaged.

    British author Mary Wollstonecraft opened the liberal feminist movement with her publication A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). This piece was inspired by the lives of married, bourgeoisie women, who lacked productive work as a result of the growth of industrial capitalism. When productive labor left the home, women lost their agency over productive labor. As a result of this shift, bourgeoisie women – whose husbands’ professions did not require their wives to supplement their income by working outside the home – lacked purpose and, Wollstonecraft argued, sacrificed their humanity as a result of their gender and class status. 

    She identified three problem areas for bourgeoisie women: health as a result of social norms that prohibited outdoor exercise, liberty from their lack of decision-making power, and virtue from their lack of development of reason (Tong 2009). Wollstonecraft argued that women could overcome these deficits if they established rational thought – a traditionally masculine trait – as a result of education. Reason would lead bourgeoisie women out of this oppression and allow them to achieve self-fulfillment.

    The 19th century suffrage movement in the United States expanded upon liberal feminist theory. This movement had close ties with the abolitionist movement, although the groups struggled for cooperation among each other. In response to the silencing of female suffragists by male abolitionists at the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention, suffragists asserted their own needs in the document Declaration of Sentiments to outline the injustices that women face as a result of men’s electoral power. Specifically, these suffragists argued that women and men are equal and that it is unjust to force women to submit to laws that serve as a source of women’s oppression, whereby “the formulation of [these laws, women] had no voice” (Stanton 1848). As a resolution, Declaration of Sentiments demanded immediate access to voting rights for women as a means to overcome this oppression.

    Liberal feminism continued into the second wave with the 1960’s women’s rights movement. Betty Friedan was an involved activist at this time, as a feminist author and the founder of the National Organization for Women. In The Feminine Mystique, she wrote of American women chasing the pipe dream of achieving ideal femininity: “all they had to do was devote their lives from earliest girlhood to finding a husband and bearing children” (Friedan 1963). This quest for the feminine resulted in what she called “the problem with no name,” where women blamed themselves for failing to feel fulfilled from a superficial life.

     After all, if other women could be satisfied with life centered on their husbands and children, then a woman might conclude that there is something wrong with her for failing to feel satisfied with such a lifestyle. Friedan argued that the consequences of American women’s other- focused lives were too important to ignore. To overcome “the problem,” she urged for women not to be defined by their relationships to men, but also to be defined, as are men, in terms of qualities about the self.

    Liberal feminism is generally critiqued in three ways. It has been characterized by its value of male-centric qualities and supporting the notion that women must embrace these traits in order to overcome oppression (Jaggar 1983). Additionally, traditional liberal feminism has been criticized for its focus on the liberation of some women: those who were white, middle- class, and heterosexual. Liberal feminism has also been criticized for its specificity; it fails to see systemic oppression because it is too focused on individual injustices.

    Radical Feminism

    For radical feminists, the simplistic nature of liberal feminism’s goals is insufficient for eliminating women’s oppression. Radical feminists consider men’s exploitation of women as the source of gender inequality (Giddens et. al 2011). Families, where women produce free labor, and the public spaces, where men dominate the positions of power, are regarded as mediums of oppression. Instead of the liberal approach of encouraging women to work within a male-dominated system, they argue that this social system (called “patriarchy”) must be completely dismantled and that society must be restructured in order to eliminate women’s oppression (Tong 2009).

    Radical feminists take issue with the social construction of gender and sexuality, yet have varying beliefs on the ways to overcome these limitations. Noting a divide on topics of androgyny, sexual pleasure, and reproduction, feminist scholar Rosemarie Tong labeled two general groups of radical feminism: “radical-libertarian” feminists and “radical-cultural” feminists.

    For radical-libertarians, androgyny is considered the solution to restrictive gender roles, where normally men and women are confined to performing exclusively masculine or feminine traits. Androgyny would remove such limitations and enable a spectrum of both masculine and feminine qualities for individuals of any gender. To deny individuals the possibility of experiencing a full gender spectrum is to deny them a complete self-experience (Tong 2009).

    Radical-cultural feminists do not share the views of radical-libertarians, who support androgyny as a way to women’s oppression. Instead, radical-cultural feminist theorists proposed various alternatives to the previous constructions of gender. One assertion claims that femininity itself is not the problem, but that the issue lies in society’s value of the masculine over the feminine. To overcome this, society must be adjusted in order to value femininity as much as masculinity. Other theorists do believe that femininity is the problem, as it is a male-constructed model to further patriarchal privilege. As a solution, women must redefine femininity and the qualities that constitute womanhood.

    Additionally, radical feminists differ in their views of sexuality. Radical-libertarian feminists believe that women should not be limited in their sexual experiences by a society that restricts sexual expression. Women should be free to have sexual experiences with themselves, other women, or men, as they so desire. Radical-libertarians support fluidity in sexual and gender expression as a method of eliminating oppression. In opposition to this view, radical-cultural feminists tend to reject heterosexuality, which is associated with female subordination and by men’s violence against women. Instead, they tend to encourage intimacy as a priority of sexuality, which can pave the way for an emphasis on pleasure over performance (Tong 2009).

    In general, radical feminism receives criticism for several of its stances. This theory generally rests on the basis that patriarchy is universal a transhistorical and cross-cultural source of women’s oppression. This concept, however, leaves no room for variations in the social construction of gender that have existed in certain cultures and time periods. Further, radical feminism overlooks the importance of race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status that can complicate the construct of women’s oppression. If patriarchy truly transcended time and culture, then this would mean that the origin of gender inequality could be reduced to biological differences between men and women (Giddens et. al 2011).

    Standpoint Theory

    The concept of standpoint theory has served as a methodology for feminist research. It originated in the 1970’s as part of critical theory, concerning power and knowledge, with its roots in the works of Hegel and Marx. Hegel’s analysis of the relationship between slaves and masters claimed that the slave’s perspective allowed for a better understanding of their interactions (Harding 1993).

     Similarly, Marx argued that the position of the proletariat allowed for an insight into the social structure that could not be examined from the perspective of the bourgeoisie. These specific claims influenced standpoint theory, which poses that from the vantage point (or the “standpoint”) of the oppressed, a true insight into the social structure can be uncovered.

    Early feminist standpoint theorists adapted this logic to serve a feminist agenda. Philosopher Nancy Hartsock drew on Marx’s work when she compared the lives of the proletariat to the lives of women, stating that the latter reveal a “particular and privileged vantage point on male supremacy” which can develop a critique of patriarchal social structure (1983).

    Hartsock explains the importance of a standpoint, as there are “some perspectives in society from which, however well-intentioned one may be, the real relations of humans with each other and with the natural world are not visible.” Hartsock elaborates this point into five distinct claims: Material life both shapes and limits an understanding of interactions within society. (2) If material life structures two groups in dichotomous opposition, each group’s vision will be the inversion of the other.

    In a society where one group is dominant, that group’s vision will be “partial and perverse.” Because the vision of the ruling class is responsible for shaping material relation in which all groups participate, it cannot be discounted. The imbalance of power among groups distorts the understanding of the social world, because the ruling group structures the dominant vision. This view cannot be abandoned because all groups in society are subject to it.

    The vision of the oppressed group is not immediately accessible. Rather, it requires science “to see beneath the surface of social relations” and knowledge “which can only grow from struggle to change those relations.” Philosopher Sandra Harding elaborated on Hartsock’s fourth claim, saying that a feminist standpoint cannot be acquired by merely declaring it, but that there must be struggle to acquire it (Harding 1993). It is a quality of mind that must be achieved through the struggle to understand the social order.

    “As an engaged vision, the understanding of the oppressed, the adoption of a standpoint exposes the real relations among human beings as inhuman, points beyond the present, and carries a historically liberatory role” (Hartsock 1983). If scholars utilize a feminist standpoint, Hartsock argues that they will have the potential to understand the elaborate workings of patriarchy and the ways that “both theory and practice can be redirected” in order to challenge the dominant discourse.

    Feminist standpoint theory has been a controversial method among feminist theorists. From some scholars, its essentialism is cause for critique. The notion of a standpoint assumes commonality between individuals in the oppressed group, so it does not account for differences across the individual experience. This point negates the proposal that one specific standpoint can be claimed for a whole group.

    Standpoint theory has also garnered criticism for its utilization of relativism, since standpoint theory supports the claim that knowledge is situated and that certain standpoints are better than others for acquiring knowledge (Harding 2004). However, Harding argues that because standpoint theory “supports the claim that some social situations are scientifically better than others as places from which to start off knowledge projects,” the critique is of no merit; standpoint theory’s rejection of universalism does not bind it to relativism.

    Critical Race Theory

    Critical race theory emerged from legal studies to examine the way the law is impacted by race. Critical race theory, developed from its founders’ standpoint as students of color in law schools, serves to “[challenge] ways in which race and racial power are constructed and represented in American legal culture and, more generally, in American society as a whole” (Crenshaw et. al 1995).

    In its essence, critical race theory views racism as a significant level of stratification in the United States, where white privilege persists and where people of color are oppressed (Farley 2004). While racism’s previous role in society occurred through slavery, segregation, exclusion, and assertions of white supremacy, it mainly takes the form of institutionalized racism today (Taylor 1998). It prevalence in society has made it resilient; when it declines in one place, it erupts in another (Farley 2004).

    Critical race theory argues that racism is so deeply ingrained in the fabric of social structure that it is largely invisible to the general population. These theorists oppose two general ideas – meritocracy and color-blindness – that work against the goal of racial equality (Taylor 1998). The “myth of meritocracy” allows white individuals to have false faith in their neutrality by justifying its oppression of minority groups. The idea of color-blindness, which ignores racial differences, denies the historic patterns where people of color have been the oppressed group and where white people have been the privileged group. These ideologies reinforce white privilege and obstruct racial minorities’ abilities to point out racism against them.

    Borrowing from the methods of standpoint theory, critical race theory embraces the experiences of racial minorities in order to obtain knowledge about social structures. Legal scholar Derrick Bell noted a major characteristic of critical race theory in its “frequent use of the first person, storytelling, narrative, allegory, interdisciplinary treatment of law, and the unapologetic use of creativity” (1995). This methodology has disconcerted sociologists who support a more scientific approach.  They assert that storytelling violates legitimacy of scholarship in two ways: “first, it substitutes passion for reason and emotion for logic; and second, in its celebration of partiality and ‘voice,’ it substitutes perspective for truth” (Hayman 1998). However, the collection of individual information gives a voice to people of color who have been suppressed by the overall narrative of the majority (Aguirre 2000).

    Sociological analysis of institutionalize racism in society and the narratives of marginalized groups enable sociologists to obtain a more complete understanding of social truths. Critical race theory calls for a comprehensive understanding of racism in society in order to overcome racial barriers (Crenshaw 1988).

    This overview of feminist theory, standpoint theory, and critical race theory has illustrated the importance of the minority role in overcoming oppression. Feminist theory examines facets of patriarchal society as the source of women’s oppression, though varying ideologies differ in their proposed solutions. Liberal feminists tend to encourage women to “work within” a patriarchal system. Radical feminists disagree, stating that women cannot “make it” nor can truly thrive within a patriarchal society. Instead, they argue that patriarchy must be over thrown in order to achieve women’s liberation.

    Standpoint theory claimed that the vision of the privileged group formed society’s normal view. Thus, the viewpoint of society is biased, but since all members of society are forced into this social system, this vision cannot be denounced as false. Instead, sociologists are encouraged to examine the standpoint of the minority group as a method for obtaining knowledge of the social structure. Critical race theory shared a portion of standpoint theory’s methodology, as a means to overcome institutional racism. These theorists supported the acquisition of stories, narratives, and other works from people of color in order to access their standpoints and further the knowledge of social truths.

    As forthcoming sociologists, we can utilize the feminist theory, standpoint theory, and critical race theory to shape our understanding of social structures and to analyze the ways that social privilege affects and oppresses minority groups. These supplementary perspectives can provide initial supplementary perspectives to a developing foundation of sociological theory.

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    An Exploration of the Three Areas of Sociological Theory: Feminist Theory, Standpoint Theory, and Critical Race Theory. (2023, Mar 10). Retrieved from https://artscolumbia.org/an-exploration-of-the-three-areas-of-sociological-theory-feminist-theory-standpoint-theory-and-critical-race-theory-2/

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