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Feminist Methodology in Technology Research: A Literature Review

Posted by Ambika Tandon at Dec 23, 2018 04:25 PM |
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This literature review has been authored by Ambika Tandon, with contributions from Mukta Joshi. Research assistance was provided by Kumarjeet Ray and Navya Sharma. The publication has been designed by Saumyaa Naidu.

Abstract

Feminist research methodology is a vast body of knowledge, spanning across multiple disciplines including sociology, media studies, and critical legal studies. This literature review aims to understand key aspects of feminist methodology across these disciplines, with a particular focus on research on technology and its interaction with society. Stemming from the argument that the ontological notion of objectivity effaces power relations in the process of knowledge production, feminist research is critical of the subjects, producers, and nature of knowledge. Section I of the literature review explores this argument along with a range of theoretical concepts, such as standpoint theory and historical materialism, as well as principles of feminist research derived from these, such as intersectionality and reflexivity.

Given its critique of the "god's eye view" (Madhok and Evans, 2014) of objectivist research, feminist scholars have largely developed qualitative methods that are more conducive to acknowledgement of power hierarchies. Additionally, some scholars have recognised the political value in quantification of inequalities such as the wage gap, and have developed intersectional quantitative methods that aim at narrowing down measurable inequalities. Both sets of methods are explored in Section II of the literature review, interspersed with examples from research focused on technology.

Introduction

According to authoritative accounts on the subject, while research focused on gender or women predates its arrival, the field of ‘feminist methodology’ explores questions of epistemology and ontology of research and knowledge. Initiated in scholarship arising out of the second wave of North American feminism, it theoretically anchors itself in the post-modernist and post-structuralist traditions. It additionally critiques positivism for being a project furthering patriarchal oppression. North American feminist scholars critique traditional methods within the social sciences from an epistemological perspective, for producing acontextual and ahistorical knowledge, replicating the tendency of positivist science to enumerate and measure subjective social phenomena. This, according to them, leads to the invisiblising of the web of power relations within which the ‘known’ and ‘knower’ in knowledge production are placed. This is then used to devise methods and underlying principles and ethics for conducting more egalitarian research, aimed at achieving goals of social justice.

The second wave feminist movement was itself critiqued by Black and other feminists from the global South for being exclusionary of non-white and heterosexual identities. Given its origins in the global North, scholars from the South have interrogated the meaning of feminism and feminist research in their context. Some African scholars even detail difficulty in disclosing a project as feminist publicly due to popular resistance to the term feminism, which stems from it being rejected by certain social groups as an alien social movement that’s antithetical to their “African cultural values." Their own critique of “White feminism” comes from its essentialization of womanhood and the resultant negation of the (neo)colonial and racialised histories of African women. This has led scholars from the global South to critically interrogate feminism and feminist methods. They acknowledge the multiplicity of feminisms, and initiate creative inquiries into different forms of feminist methodology. Feminist researchers that work in contexts of political violence, instability, repression, scarcity of resources, poor infrastructure, and/or lack of social security, have pointed out that traditional research methods assume conditions that are largely absent in their realities, leading them to experiment with feminist research.

Feminist research across these variety of contexts raises ontological and epistemological concerns about traditional research methods and underlying assumptions about what can be known, who can know, and the nature of knowledge itself. It argues that knowledge production has historically led to the creation of epistemic hierarchies, wherein certain actors are designated as ‘knowers’ and others as the ‘known’. Such hierarchies wreak epistemic violence upon marginalised subjects by denying them the agency to produce knowledge, and delegitimize forms of knowledge that aren’t normative. Acknowledging the role of power in knowledge production has the radical implication that the subjectivities of the researchers and the researched inherently find their way into research and more broadly, knowledge production. This challenges the objectivity and “god’s eye view” of traditional humanistic knowledge and its processes of production. Feminist research eschews scientifically orthodox notions of how “valid knowledge will look”, and creates novel resources for understanding epistemic marginalization of various kinds. It then provides a myriad of tools to disrupt structural hierarchies through and within knowledge production and dissemination.

Feminist research, given its evolution from living movements and theoretical debates, remains a contested domain. It has reformulated a range of qualitative and quantitative research methods, and also surfaced its own, such as experimental and action-based. What these have in common are theoretical dispositions to identify, critique, and ultimately dismantle power relations within and through research projects. It is thus “critical, political, and praxis oriented. Several disciplines with the social sciences, such as feminist technology studies, cyberfeminism, and cultural anthropology, have built feminist approaches to the study of technology and technologically mediated social relations. However, this continues to remain a minor strand of research on technology.

This literature review aims to address that gap through scoping of such methods and their application in technological research. Feminist methodology provides a critical lens that allows us to explore questions and areas in technology-based research that are inaccessible by traditional methods. This paper draws on examples from technology-focused research, covering key interdisciplinary feminist methods across fields such as gender studies, sociology, development, and ICT for development. In doing so, it actively constructs a history of feminist methodology through authoritative sources of knowledge.


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Author

Ambika Tandon

Ambika is a policy officer at the CIS. She undertakes gender-based research across some of our projects, including the future of work, privacy, and feminist research methodology. She is a graduate in MSc Media, Communications, and Development from the London School of Economics. She can be reached at [email protected] or @AmbikaTandon