Wednesday, April 8, 2009
Dorothy Smith's Standpoint Theory is one of those amazing theories that has made (and continues to make) so many academic disciplines take another look at their treatment of their own subject matter. It is one of those theories that, over 30 years since it was imagined, still blows my mind by how ground-breaking it was (and continues to be).
Simply put, Dorothy E. Smith, a social anthropologist from England, now living in Canada, began evaluating women's place in society. She realized that all of the discipline of sociology had been influenced by white, male, middle-class sociologists whose theories described the world from their point of view. Many of them were blatantly sexist, like Talcott Parsons, who explained in his grand theory (a grand theory is one that attempts to explain everything in one fell swoop. These attempts were later replaced by Robert Merton's middle-range theory, which instead tried to formulate several smaller theories to explain observations, hopefully empirically-testable hypotheses) that there are roles that must be fulfilled within society. Parsons was a structural-functionalist--he attempted to explain the workings of society as being very functional, like the workings of a clock. Interestingly, he and his fellow theorists came long after the Age of Reason. Anyway, so in the view of structural-functionalists, society is highly functional and well-orchestrated.
Parsons believed in society needing both expressive and instructional roles. In the nuclear family, he explained, the expressive role is always fulfilled by the woman. A mother must be nurturing and loving, whereas the father is instructional--disciplining and teaching. Parsons also suggested that a woman's role in the family was not exactly enviable, but someone had to fulfill it, so the job fell to females.
That may be an extreme example of anti-female theory in sociology, but beyond that, it is clear to see that there are few recognized female sociologists, especially before the feminist movement. Max Weber, a conflict-theorist who is well-regarded as one of the Holy Trinity (the three most acknowledged sociologists--Weber, Karl Marx, and Emile Durkheim), wrote several important books, including Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which explains capitalism through its proposed roots in Protestantism. It is also believed that his wife contributed to at least half of the book, yet nowhere is she acknowledged.
Even if male sociologists were not explicitly sexist, racist, or classist in their works, the fact still remains that the story of society that they are telling is noticeably biased. That is where Dorothy Smith's Standpoint Theory comes in. Smith noticed during her work in the 70's that the experience of women has been largely ignored throughout the course of history. In every academic discipline, from history to anthropology to sociology to biology to medicine (and beyond), women's voices are silent.
History books gloss over important events like the Seneca Falls Convention or Alessandra Giliani's use of coloured fluids to trace the circulatory system or even the Rape of Nanking. Much early anthropology is not as descriptive as it should be because researchers ignored how women interacted in the life of their town. Even the English language's use of "mankind" to encompass "all" people, when womankind would be much more apt (as it already contains "man" in it and is therefore not as exclusionary)...it all fell under the scrutiny of Dorothy Smith.
And wow, was it ever important to the development of so many fields. What is very beneficial, beyond the scope of women's issues, is that Smith also provided insight into the fact that many disciplines are very narrow when it comes to race and class, too. With her theory, Smith made the research of minority scholars so much more valuable. After all, how can we really open ourselves up to the full scope of anything without the important contributions of people who don't fit the male, white, middle-class model?
Every time that I think about Dorothy Smith's Standpoint Theory, I am just blown away by how much of the world I have never seen before. It is truly eye-opening.
So, for broadening my horizons, thank you Dorothy Smith.