Feminist Psychology

In document Ibañez y Iñiguez - Critical social psychology (Page 191-200)

Sue Wilkinson

Feminist psychology is explicitly informed by the political objectives of the feminist movement: centrally, to end the oppression of women. Feminist psychology is a key ally of critical social psychology, in that it - like critical social psychology more generally - is deeply critical of mainstream psychology and of the damages wrought in its name. One might expect critical social psychology, likewise, to be an ally of feminism. H owever, this chapter points to some important divergences between critical social psychology and feminist psychology, which make the relationship between them less comfortable than it might at first appear.

Critical social psychology emerged out of the 'crisis' in social psychology (cf. Parker, 1 989) and from the resultant attempts of those who defined themselves as critical of the mainstream to 'deconstruct' (e.g. Parker &

Shotter, 1 990) and to 'reconstruct' (e.g. Armistead, 1 974; Morawski, 1 994) its practices and institutions in a more humanistic, liberatory or radical way. Critical social psychology is an umbrella term constituted by such diverse, but related, areas as: discourse analysis and discursive psychology (e.g. Burman & Parker, 1 993; Edwards & Potter, 1 992; Parker, 1 992; Potter

& Wetherell, 1 987; Wilkinson & Kitzinger, 1 995); the study of rhetoric and ideology (e.g. Billig, 1 987, 1 99 1 ); deconstruction (e.g. Parker & Shotter, 1 990); social constructionism (e.g. Gergen, 1 985, 1 993; Kitzinger, 1 987);

post-structuralism and postmodemism (e.g. Gergen, 1 992; Hollway, 1 989;

Walkerdine, 1 996); and the analysis of textuality, polyvocal (e.g. Curt, 1 994) or otherwise (e.g. Shotter & Gergen, 1 989). Many of these areas are represented by the work of contributors to this book, and by those whose work they cite, or include in their own edited collections. Critical social psychology, then, is characterized by a range of epistemological, theoretical and methodological positions at variance with the mainstream of the discipline, which relies on conventional realist models and positivist­

empiricist methodologies.

As is apparent, then, critical social psychology encompasses feminist psychology, including (as cited above) the work of Burman, Hollway, Kitzinger, Walkerdine, Wetherell and Wilkinson. Moreover, critical social psychologists often cite the work of feminist psychologists. Many routinely

Prioritizing the Political 1 79

include chapters by feminists in their anthologies (e.g. Parker & Shotter, 1 990; Shotter & Gergen, 1 989). It is common for critical social psychologists routinely to cite feminist work as contributing to their own perspectives (e.g. Curt, 1 994; Gergen, 1 985, 1 992; Parker, 1 992; Sampson, 1 989, 1 993). In other words, critical social psychologists typically represent feminist psychology as a subset of their own broader project.

Some feminist psychologists welcome this inclusivity as providing them with an intellectual 'home', and it is common for feminist psychologists also to identify themselves as critical social psychologists, using terms such as 'social constructionist' ( Kitzinger, 1 987), 'discursive' ( Kitzinger & Thomas, 1 995), a 'poststructuralist discourse analysis' (Hepworth & Griffin, 1 995) or a 'commitment to poststructuralist deconstruction' (Heenan, 1 996, p. 2 1 ) to describe their approaches. H owever, my central argument in this chapter is that in the process of subsuming feminist psychology under the banner of critical social psychology in this way, feminist psychology is fundamentally m isrepresented. To characterize feminist psychology as no more than a type of critical social psychology is to obliterate feminist psychology's passionate driving force: its central - and overt -- political goals.

I develop my argument in four sections. In the first, I outline feminist psychology and some of the features it shares with critical social psychology.

In the second, I highlight the many varieties of feminist psychology which clearly do not fall within the remit of critical social psychology as it is usually defined. Then, in the third section, I consider some of the criticisms feminist psychologists have levelled at some of the key tenets of critical social psychology. Finally, in the last section, 1 argue that the political force of feminist psychology is rarely recognized or acknowledged by critical social psychologists.

What is Feminist Psychology - and Why Might It Be Considered 'Critical'?

Feminist psychology is - and always has been - critical of mainstream psychology, and the harms it has inflicted on women. Back at the turn of the century, feminist psychologist H elen Thompson Wooley ( 1 9 1 0) commented searingly on the contemporary research purportedly demon­

strating women's mental inferiorities: 'There is perhaps no field aspiring to be scientific where flagrant personal bias, logic martyred in the cause of supporting a prej udice, unfounded assertions, and even sentimental rot and drivel, have run riot to such an extent as here' ( p. 340). M ore than half a century later, as second-wave feminism gathered momentum, feminist activist and psychologist Naomi Weisstein ( 1 968/1 993a) asserted that '[p]sychology has nothing to say about what women are really like, what they need and what they want . . . because psychology does not know' (p. 1 97). Feminists have been amongst the most insistent and vociferous voices critical of psychology.

1 80 Critical Social Psychology

What distinguishes feminist psychology from other kinds of critical social psychology, however, is that feminist psychology is explicitly informed by the political goals of the feminist movement. Within the plurality of definitions and viewpoints embraced by feminism, two themes are common (Unger & Crawford, 1 992, pp. 8-9). First, feminism places a high value on women, considering us as worthy of study in our own right, not just in comparison with men. Second, feminism recognizes the need for social change on behalf of women - feminist psychology is avowedly political.

The terms 'feminist psychology' and 'psychology of women' are some­

times used interchangeably, particularly in mainstream North American psychology (e.g. Worrell, 1 990). H owever, critical social psychologists do not generally align themselves with 'psychology of women' - although it is true that much of the research conducted under the label of 'psychology of women' is explicitly or implicitly feminist in intent. Across at least five English-speaking countries (the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand), the national organizations for academic and professional psychologists - for example, the British Psychological Society ( BPS), the American Psychological Association (APA) - have strenuously opposed the formation of internal groupings (Sections, Divisions, Interest Groups) clearly identified as feminist (Wilkinson, 1 990a, 1 990b). Consequently, psychologists with explicitly feminist commitments have found themselves instrumental in forming groupings within their national professional bodies which avoid the term 'feminist'. Instead the label 'Psychology of Women' (or even 'Psychology of Gender') has become the (sometimes euphemistic) title of the field. The cost of entry into mainstream institutions has been loss of the label 'feminist'.

This has arisen because of mainstream psychology's opposition to any kind of overt politics. Mainstream psychology has polarized 'science' ( pure, objective scholarship) against 'politics' (ideologically biased advocacy), and has actively resisted feminist psychology with its clear political basis ( Unger, 1 982; Wilkinson, 1 989). Critical psychologies do not develop in a vacuum, simply on the basis of the theories, methods and politics of their advocates. The mainstream defines the context within which sub-fields are allowed (or refused) entry and uses its institutional power to shape and control the field as a whole. I ncorporation into national psychological organizations necessarily involves feminists in attending to the business of these organizations, rather than in setting our own agenda as feminists (Wilkinson, 1 99 1 a, 1 997).

There is a great deal of relatively mainstream work conducted under the title 'psychology of women'. A recent survey of the members of the BPS ' Psychology of Women' Section reported concerns about the ' stigma of feminism' (Walker, 1 994, p. 8), and in its ten-year history the Section has held at least two formal discussions on 'Should Psychology of Women be Political?' - implying that the answer 'no' might be a reasonable and plausible outcome. Similarly critical social psychologists are unlikely to find in Psychology of Women Quarterly, the official journal of the APA Division

Prioriti:::ing the Political 1 8 1 for the 'Psychology of Women', the kind of radical political analysis or sweeping critique of mainstream psychology with which they might align themselves.

By contrast, the key driving force of feminist psychology is political . Those of us who call ourselves 'feminist psychologists' often set out explicitly to differentiate ourselves from the (relatively) acceptable face of 'psychology of women' . We use the term 'feminist' to highlight the political and critical aspects of our work. Feminist psychology challenges the discipline of psychology for its inadequate and damaging theories about women, and for its failure to see power relations as central to social life.

The international j ournal Feminism & Psychology was founded in 1 99 1 , and, unlike Psychology of Women Quarterly, is deliberately not affiliated with any national psychological association. As its inaugural editorial m akes clear: 'Our title is a statement of intent: the journal is about the conj unction between feminism (not women, or gender, or sex roles) and psychology; and feminism comes first in our order of priority' (Wilkinson, 1 99 1 b, pp. 9- 1 0).

'As feminists within psychology,' says the Editorial Group in the launch issue of the journal Feminism & Psychology, 'we share major dissatisfac­

tions with our discipline's failure to engage with the lives of the majority of women, and the distortion and damage often produced when it does engage' (Wilkinson, 1 99 1 b, p. 5). The purpose of feminist research within psychology 'cannot rest with the transformation of the discipline', they continue - rather, 'we must constantly evaluate its effectiveness in dis­

mantling social inequalities and transforming women's lives' (Wilkinson, 1 99 1 b, p. 9). With feminism (rather than psychology) as the primary referent, feminist psychologists can 'give priority to setting our own agendas and developing our own work, with the primary objective of social change, rather than being primarily accountable to psychology' (Wilkinson, 1 99 1 b, p. 1 6). When feminist psychologists address feminist questions in feminist terms, we can begin to expose psychology's role in women's oppression; to challenge its - sometimes attractive - ideologies; and to undermine its structures.

So, feminist psychology and critical social psychology are united in that they both offer critiques of the mainstream of the discipline. However, unlike critical social psychology more generally, the motivating force behind the feminist critique of psychology is unashamedly political: feminist psychology aims to end the social and political oppression of women. In the remainder of this chapter, I explore three key consequences for critical social psychology of feminist psychology's fundamental political engage­


First, I consider the way in which their overriding political objectives may lead feminist psychologists to develop analyses and to use strategies not in favour among critical social psychologists more generally. Because feminist psychology is principally political in intent, it may sometimes not be 'critical' in the sense in which critical psychologists typically use that

1 82 Critical Social Psychulogy

term. Most feminist psychologists today do nut favour the constructionist, discursive or postmodern approaches in vogue among most critical social psychologists. Indeed, many feminist psychologists continue to use the tools of positivist empiricism, and argue for these passionately ( Unger, 1 996).

Rather then embracing, or eschewing, critical perspectives per se, feminist psychologists adopt particular epistemological, theoretical or methodolo­

gical frameworks in order most effectively to advance feminist political objectives.

Second, many feminist psychologists question the value for the feminist political project of constructionist, discursive or postmodern approaches -and, indeed, may actively oppose their use. They challenge, for example, the relativism of such approaches, their self-referentiality, their intellectual gloss over power relations, and their refusal to recognize the material effects of oppression (cf. Wilkinson & Kitzinger, 1 995).

Third, many of those feminist psychologists who are cited by critical social psychologists as contributing to their own constructionist, discursive or postmodern approaches are crucially distinguished by specifically feminist political engagements. This feminist commitment is often ignored or written out of the accounts of feminist psychologists' work produced by critical social psychologists. Although sometimes seen (and sometimes choosing to be seen) as critical social psychologists, feminist psychologists use the tools of contemporary critical social psychology specifically in pursuit of feminist goals. By the same token, their commitment to and engagement with feminist politics may lead them, on occasion, to repudiate the theoretical and methodological tools of contemporary critical social psychology as inappropriate to, or inadequate for, feminist political ends.

The key point here is that the decision to align oneself (or not) with critical social psychology, and the decision to use (or not to use) its tools, is made primarily for - feminist - political reasons.

Feminist Psychology Which is 1I0t Critical Social Psychology

Many feminist psychologists acknowledge a debt to the constructionist, discursive or postmodern approaches which constitute critical social psy­

chology andlor use these approaches in their work (e.g. Hare-M ustin

& Marecek, 1 990; Hollway, 1 995; Kitzinger, 1 987; Morawski, 1 994;

Walkerdine, 1 996; Wetherell. 1 995). However, there are also many contem­

porary strands of feminist psychology which are apparently antithetical to such critical frameworks. Most feminist research in psychology continues to be governed by representational realism, and to use positivist empiricist frameworks and methods of inquiry. Examples include essentialist concepts of women's 'different voice' and 'relational knowledge' (e.g. Brown &

Gilligan, 1 993; Taylor, Gilligan & Sullivan, 1 996); the continuing refine­

ment of standpoint epistemologies (e.g. Henwood & Pidgeon, 1 995; Smith, 1 99 1 ) and, especially, the emphasis on empirical methods, such as

Prioriti:ing the Politim/ 1 83 laboratory experiments, questionnaires, tests and scales, the use of which is vigorously defended by many feminists (e.g. Shaw-Barnes & Eagly, 1 996;

Shields & Crowley, 1 996; Unger, 1 992, 1 996; Weisstein, 1 9681 1 993a).

It is the political engagement of feminism which accounts for this epistemological, theoretical and methodological divergence between many critical social psychologists and feminist psychologists. In the fight against oppression, feminist psychologists need to fight on all fronts, using any and every tactic which will advance our cause. There are good reasons to include traditional empiricist approaches: when arguing that women are oppressed within the home, it is useful to have available statistics about the relative number of hours of housework done by men and women (cf.

Croghan, 1 99 1 ); when arguing that women are oppressed by male violence, it is useful to have documented the frequency and types of 'dating violence' (cf. Mahlstedt & Keeny, 1 993). As feminist psychologist Alice Eagly ( 1 996) argues, 'evidence of women's oppression (e.g. statistics showing victimiza­

tion and discrimination) can be deployed to attract attention to women's plight and to galvanize people into action to raise women's status' ( p. 1 59).

In researching sexual harassment, many feminists welcome as politically advantageous the kinds of clear definitions offered by positivist researchers, because such definitions enable accurate answers to questions such as 'How many women have experienced harassment?' and provide the courts and policy-makers with clear and concise information (Kitzinger & Thomas, 1 995). Feminist experimental work on the menstrual cycle goes back to Leta Hollingworth at the turn of the century (see Shields, 1 982), attempting to counter arguments that education for young women would damage their reproductive systems ( Ehrenreich & English, 1 979). It is continued today by feminist psychologists such as Barbara Sommer, a self-confessed 'quanto­

maniac' (Sommer, in Kitzinger. 1 989, p. 1 97), who aims to replace stereo­

type with scientific fact in her studies of the effects of the menstrual cycle on complex cognition (e.g. Sommer, 1 983).

Working within a positivist-empiricist framework, feminists have also been able to mount a successful institutional challenge to the diagnostic categories of the US mental health system. Reviewing the evidence for the category 'Self-Defeating Personality Disorder' (or 'masochistic personal­

ity'), which is disproportionately applied to women, feminist psychologists Paula Caplan and Maureen Gans show that the existence of the category is not supported by empirical data, that research in the field is seriously flawed methodologically, and that the category has poor diagnostic power.

They conclude that the idea that 'suffering people - and especially women - consciously or unconsciously bring their suffering on themselves' is the result not of objective scientific investigation but of the ideological bias of white male psychiatrists (Caplan & Gans, 1 99 1 , p. 263) . More generally, feminists working within the field of sex differences have exposed its traditional empirical studies as riddled with technical flaws, such as experi­

mental biases, inadequate sampling techniques, lack of control groups, insufficiently sensitive measurement techniques, unreplicated findings and

1 84 Critical Social Psychology

unspecified effect sizes (e.g. Eagly, 1 994; Hyde, 1 994; Tavris, 1 992, 1 993).

In sum, they argue, weak data are used to support sexist practices. N aomi Weisstein ( l 96SI1 993a), castigating sex differences research as 'Theory Without Evidence', indicts the practice of sexist researchers: '[They] simply refuse to look at the evidence against their theory and practice. And they support their theory and practice with stuff so transparently biased as to have no standing as empirical evidence' ( p. 1 97).

The critique of patriarchal 'science' on its own terms (i.e. as methodo­

logically inadequate or ideologically biased), and the implication that feminist analyses can lead to better science, is an important strategy for feminist psychologists in our fight against oppression. Acknowledging recent challenges to empiricism, not least from 'postmodernist theory', fem inist psychologist R hoda Unger ( 1 996) asserts: 'I believe, however, that feminist psychologists should not willingly discard one of the most powerful tools at our disposal' (p. 1 66). M any feminist psychologists see the con­

tinuing use of traditional psychological frameworks as key to the feminist struggle, and so their work cannot be regarded as part of the project of critical social psychology.

Feminist Psychology's Criticisms of Critical Social Psychology

A second sense in which feminist psychology is at variance with critical social psychology is that many feminist psychologists criticize or refuse -constructionist, discursive or postmodern frameworks. The typical approaches of critical social psychology are seen as problematic (at best), or destructive (at worst), for the feminist political project. As Margaret Wetherell ( 1 995) notes: ' I t has frequently been suggested that discourse analysis is antithetical to and even explodes the possibility of political action' (p. 1 4 1 ). Similarly, Erica Burman ( 1 990) is 'wary' of and 'even hostile' toward 'deconstruction and associated post-structuralist ideas' (p.

20S), because 'the main danger deconstruction holds for feminists is that of depoliticization' (p. 2 1 3) . She identifies the approach's ' inability to ally itself with any explicit political position' and 'deliberate distancing and

"deconstruction" of any progressive political program', pointing out that '[f]or deconstruction to join forces with feminism and socialism would be to prioritize particular textual readings in a way that is utterly antithetical to its intent' ( pp. 2 10 -2 1 1 ). Elsewhere, Burman (with Parker) has identified ' four political problems' with discourse analysis: relativism , l iberal pluralism, individualized notions of resistance, and reflexivity (Burman &

Parker, 1 993, pp. 1 66- 1 68).

For feminists attempting to bring about social change, the relativism and reflexivity of constructionist, discursive and postmodern approaches poses some serious problems. If there is nothing outside the text, then there is no means to assert the existence of even the starkest material realities: war, genocide, slavery, poverty, physical and sexual abuse. Feminist psychologist Carol Gilligan says of postmodernism:

Prioritizing the Political 1 85 I think it's a kind of nihilism . . . . To me it's very important to say the Holocaust happened, and the M iddle Passage -you know, the slave trade - happened; and an incestuous act happened. And it wasn't j ust someone's interpretation. I mean, I think it's extremely dangerous when women are talking about what happened -'He hit me'; ' H e beat me up'; -'He raped me'. It's very dangerous to say, 'Oh well, there's no external reality, there's only stories, nothing really happens' . . . . That's not to say that there aren't different interpretations, but it can get to a point where nothing's real, nothing happened, nothing matters, and nobody knows

-and J think that's a dangerous thing for feminists to be saying. (Gilligan, in Kitzinger, 1 994, p. 4 1 2)

The exercise of textual relativity (favoured by many critical social psychologists) ignores the exercise of power and the material realities of women's lives: 'Relativistic assumptions of a free play of meaning that denies power relations are of little use for those struggling to free them­

selves from normalizing bounds and categories' (Lather, 1 992, p. 99).

M any feminists - and other critics of critical social psychology's main approaches - also doubt that social change can be effected merely through textual change: 'we very much doubt that . . . racism can be reduced substantially by challenging discourse. The social conditions which give rise

M any feminists - and other critics of critical social psychology's main approaches - also doubt that social change can be effected merely through textual change: 'we very much doubt that . . . racism can be reduced substantially by challenging discourse. The social conditions which give rise

In document Ibañez y Iñiguez - Critical social psychology (Page 191-200)