27 May 2019

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Feminist theories in sociology reflect the rich diversity of general theoretical
orientations in our discipline; there is no one form of feminist theory. The development
of these theories over the last 25 years has only recently begun to
influence the mainstream theory canon, which has much to learn from their insights.
This chapter demonstrates why feminist versions of the following theory
types should be more fully integrated into mainstream sociological theory:
neo-Marxist, macro-structural, exchange, rational choice, network, status expectations,
symbolic interactionist, ethnomethodological, neo-Freudian, and social
role. Feminist standpoint theory, an epistemological critique of mainstream sociology,
is discussed at the beginning, and the chapter concludes with a brief
account of the newly developing effort to theorize the intersection of race, class,
and gender.
The term “feminist theory” is used to refer to a myriad of kinds of works, produced
by movement activists and scholars in a variety of disciplines; these are
not mutually exclusive and include: (a) normative discussions of how societies
and relationships ought to be structured, their current inequities, and strategies to
achieve equity; (b) critiques of androcentric classical theories, concepts, epistemologies,
and assumptions; (c) epistemological discussions of what constitute
appropriate forms, subject matters, and techniques of theorizing from a feminist
perspective; and (d ) explanatory theories of the relationship between gender and

various social, cultural, economic, psychological, and political structures and
processes. Much of this work is explicitly interdisciplinary in inspiration and
intended audience. To complicate matters further, there is no consensus on the
exact meaning of the word “feminist,” which makes it difficult to distinguish
with precision between theoretical material that pertains to gender (e.g. Parsons
1949, 1955, which no one would label feminist) and gender-related theory that
is specifically “feminist.” Finally, there is little consensus among feminist sociologists
about the basic theoretical questions that require an answer, resulting
in the proliferation of theories at a low level of abstraction that explain specific
phenomena (e.g. pay inequity), in addition to more abstract, general works.
To remain within the limits of one chapter, I confine this review in several
ways, beginning by excluding feminist theory that has not been produced or used
extensively by sociologists. While feminist theory is often defined as “womencentered”
(e.g. Lengermann & Niebrugge 1996:436; Smith 1979, 1987; Alway
1995), I use a definition that focuses more broadly on gender, yet maintains the
normative emphasis implied by all definitions of the term feminist, which thus
enables one to distinguish feminist from other gender-relevant theory.

Some feminists focus on those contemporary theories and texts that ignore
the contributions of feminist theories and the topic of gender and conclude that
feminist contributions remain largely ghettoized within our discipline (e.g.Ward
& Grant 1991, Alway 1995). My view is that, while progress has been made
in integrating feminist concerns and insights into the discipline’s theoretical
discourse, much work remains to be done. This chapter demonstrates the
abundance and variety of feminist theoretical insights that can and already have
to some extent contributed to a more robust theoretical understanding of social
life, one which reflects the centrality of gender in virtually all sociocultural
contexts. It also demonstrates that feminist theories emanate from, critique, and
revise the rich array of theoretical traditions that define our discipline. Space
limitations preclude much discussion of precisely how feminist theories can be
better integrated with mainstream ones. Rather, I focus attention primarily on
reviewing the central insights of feminist theories in order to better inform those
sociologists who may be unfamiliar with much of this body of work about the
rich array of theoretical ideas that are at their disposal.

Much of the literature that is labeled “feminist theory” consists of epistemology
and epistemological critiques of “malestream” sociology. Its foundations reflect
several nonfeminist traditions, especially Marx’s and Mannheim’s discussions
of ideology, Foucault’s work on knowledge and power, and phenomenological
and ethnomethodological approaches, the exact mix of influences varying by
author. While this work makes important contributions to these traditions, for
two reasons I believe that it is a misnomer to call thiswork feminist epistemology
(or theory). First, the issues raised are not in any fundamental way different
from those raised by many scholars who haveworked in these traditions but have
not been interested specifically in women or committed to feminism. Feminists
extend their insights in important ways, but this does not constitute a uniquely feminist approach to sociology. Second, many women in sociology, whose
scholarship they and others consider as well within the feminist tradition, do
not agree with this perspective.
Feminist scholars in a number of disciplines critique what they define as
mainstream, “masculinist,” “objectivist,” and “positivist” social science, and
develop a “feminist” alternative called standpoint theory. In sociology, the
two most widely cited are Dorothy Smith (especially 1987, 1990, also 1979,
1989) and Patricia Hill Collins (especially 1990, also 1986, 1989), whose basic
ideas constitute the focus of this section (see also Harding 1986, 1991). Where
Smith focuses on developing a “woman’s standpoint,” Collins’ work is directed
at an Afrocentric feminist standpoint epistemology. The Issue of Essentialism
Feminist standpoint theory, which is highly attuned to reification committed by
mainstream sociologists, cannot avoid reifying the genders. While Smith and
Collins explicitly recognize considerable variation among women (and presumably
men) in their experiences and consciousness, their own logics, and
many times wording, make it clear that they assume that there are overarching,
gender-specific standpoints; they could not otherwise talk about a “masculine”
form of discourse. In addition, Collins explicitly cites such feminist theorists
as Gilligan (1982) and Chodorow (1978, also 1974), who argue that the
genders are fundamentally different in their moral reasoning and capacities
for/commitments to interpersonal relationships.
Positing dichotomous gender differences that are treated as transcultural and
transhistorical is termed “essentialism,” a view that has substantial currency
among feminists in a variety of disciplines but is hotly contested in our own
(e.g. Lorber et al 1981, Coser 1989, Epstein 1988). The empirical evidence for
it is flawed, often based on small, nonrandom, American samples, and typically
finds only modest differences, along with extensive overlap, between the sexes.
Essentialist thinking converts differences of degree into differences of kind. The
presumed but often unstated origin of essential differences includes psychodynamics
rooted in the parental division of labor (Chodorow 1978) and biological
sex (Rossi 1977, 1984). It has become common for feminist scholars to recognize
within-gender categorical differences (e.g. race, class), but this awareness
of difference has often failed to preclude essentialist thinking about basic personality
and value orientations (e.g. the assumption that, regardless of other
differences, women are nurturant and oriented toward personal relationships,
while men are individuating and oriented toward abstract moral principles).
Given that the evidence suggests modest between-sex and considerable withinsex
differences on virtually all individual-level traits, a dichotomous gender
variable is theoretically useless when speaking of individual-level phenomena.
Explanations that begin by categorically attributing different characteristics
to women and men—cognitive, emotional, relational, and/or behavioral—not
only exaggerate differences in the distribution of such traits by gender, they also
implicitly treat these variables as dichotomous rather than continuous.

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Casey Durgan
Casey DurganLv2
29 May 2019

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