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On the Distinctiveness of Feminist Methodology

One of the challenging tasks before feminist academicians in India is to build a strong rese­arch tradition grounded in a robust feminist methodology. The discourse on research methodology in the social sciences generally revolves around quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods, and these variants of methodologies are quite popular among research scholars in universities in India. The feminist research methodology with its distinct ontolo­gical, epistemological, and theoretical underpinnings stands as an alternative research methodology for research scholars in general and feminist rese­arch scholars in particular. However, there is not much clarity on what constitutes the essence of a feminist methodo­logy. Quite often, research scholars (espe­cially those doing doctoral rese­arch) subsume feminist methodology under the qualitative methodology. It is true that most of the epistemological premises of qualitative research such as reality being subjective, participants as knowers, and minimised distance between the resear­cher and the researched are quite similar to the philosophy of feminist methodology.

However, the kind of questions that the feminist researchers ask, differ significantly from those social scientists who follow a qualitative research paradigm. It is important to note that all rese­arch on women is not feminist rese­arch, since “research about women” (in its social science version) is quite different from “research for women” (the feminist version of research). The research methods, which are basically tools and techniques of data collection, happen to be quite common across different methodologies—quantitative, qualitative, mixed, and feminist. But feminist methodology or, for that matter, any variant of methodology cannot be reduced just to its ­research methods, techniques, and tools. There is a need for efforts to establish feminist methodology as an indepen­dent and distinct research methodology. It is in this context that Maithreyi Krishnaraj’s article “The Feminist Methodology” (EPW, 25 December 2021) acq­uires significance as it tries to address certain fundamental issues about research methodology in general and feminist methodology in particular.

Methodological Challenges

Feminist methodology has to deal with certain challenges—foremost of these challenges is the one posed about its inc­lusivity. Can feminist research speak for all women? How are differences of caste, class, race, and ethnicity dealt with in the feminist methodology? Krishnaraj contemplates a way forward for feminist methodology through a critical engagement with standpoint theory and suggests how a feminist researcher’s interpretations of women’s experiences could be grounded in the totality of the social system. Another challenge that is being posed in feminist methodology is from the scholars of “other” social sciences who undermine the rigour of feminist methodology by saying that it is full of anecdotes and storytelling. For feminist researchers, tools and techniques of data collection, which are generally known as research methods, become less important as compared to an epistemological and a theoretical position. Scholars from the social sciences who are mostly rooted in positivist philosophy look at feminist research as devoid of methodological rigour as it emphasises theories more than tools and techniques. For most of the scholars of social sciences, the rese­arch methods, tools, techniques, and standardised scales become quite sacrosanct. Positivist social scientists’ fascination with the so-called value neutrality and their aversion to the ideas of transformation and change make them see feminism as a mere political ideology and not as an approach to interrogate social reality.

Krishnaraj rebuts some of the propositions of “dominant methodologies” of the social sciences by invoking the primacy of theory in the entire process of rese­arch—from raising research questions to the framework of data analysis. There is nothing such as “objectivity” in rese­arch as research itself is heavily influenced by different theoretical positions. The assumptions of theoretical framework guide the researchers in terms of what kind of topics they select for their research, where they have to look for the data and how to analyse the same, and ultimately in identifying relevant the­mes or facts. Krishnaraj cautions feminist researchers about the possibility of subsuming research methods under rese­arch methodology by pinpointing that those methods are just tools and techniques for data collection that are common to most of the social sciences. But the distinctiveness of feminist rese­arch can be established by embarking upon a feminist methodology that is much more than tools and techniques. The feminist methodology has its own philosophical and theoretical propositions and epistemological assumptions that govern fundamental questions about feminist research—how feminist rese­arch needs to be conducted, that is, what are its strategies and goals, and how does it use its research findings?

A Distinctive Methodology

What constitutes the distinctiveness of feminist methodology? While delibera­ting on the nature of this distinctiveness, there is often a tendency to place an undue emphasis on certain research methods that appear to be more appropriate for the collection of data in feminist research. There have been arguments and viewpoints that look at new methods of data collection as having an empowering effect on rese­arch participants (women) and hence it is grounded in a feminist epistemology. Fonow and Cook (2005) argue that an important feature of feminist research is its emphasis on the empowerment of women and transformation of a patriarchal ­social order through research and rese­arch results. Empowerment and transformation happen to be the guiding spirit of feminist research; hence, rese­arch methods that give agency to women are better suited to the epistemological position of feminist methodology. Similarly, Montell (1999) praises “focus group interviews” for their more egalitarian and less exploitative nature compared with other research methods. Focus gro­ups act as tools for raising consciousness and are empowering for not only the rese­arch subjects (participants) but also for the researcher of the study. There are also studies that have reported the therapeutic value of feminist research methods. Lee et al (1999) in their study of healthcare delivery among poor women found that feminist interviewing and storytelling methods have an immense therapeutic value to the study participants. The focus group interviews used as a tool for data collection for the study in turn helped the research participants to form their own support groups. Thus, feminist research methods tend to possess a higher level of catalytic validity where the research process, techniques, and tools of research are appropriated by the research participants to empower themselves. They argue that it is these methods of data collection that give a distinctive identity to feminist research and advocate that there is a wider scope to build a range of methods that are specific to feminist research. In fact, Fonow and Cook (2005) provide quite an exha­ustive list of as many as 37 research methods—participatory action, auto­ethno­graphy, con­versational analysis, focus groups, oral history, personal nar­rative, thick description, historiography, etc that are either grounded in feminist epistemology or quite relevant for feminist research.

However, borrowing research methods that are antithetical to the positivist epistemology will not serve the purpose of feminist research. As Sandra Harding (1986) rightly points out, challenging methods of science is one thing and challenging the intellectual and social orders at their foundations is another thing. The emph­asis on the new and alternative research methods that suit the process of data coll­ection in feminist research in no way makes it stand as distinct vis-à-vis the research based on conventional methodologies. Harding (1986: 10) further says that “an end to androcentrism will require far-reaching transformations in the cultural meanings and practices of that [scientific] inquiry.” Dep­arting from traditional positivist methods of data gathering and analysis is a good thing, but it is not going to ­resolve the fundamental issues that feminist rese­archers are dealing with. As Harding (1987: 3–4) cautions “one needs to recognise the limitations of the most obvious ways one could try to rectify the androcentrism of traditional analysis.”

Thus, relying on certain methods as the markers of distinctiveness of feminist research turns out as not only cosmetic but also illusive. Krishnaraj has rightly placed due importance on methodology vis-à-vis methods. The emphasis on methodology makes sense when research methods have wrongfully ass­umed undue importance. As Harding (1987) rightly puts it, the deliberation about a distinctive feminist method is quite important. But the problem arises when the method is used to denote all the three aspects of research—(i) techniques and tools of data collection, (ii) the methodology that guides the research process and strategies, and (iii) the epistemology that provides philosophical bases to feminist theories of knowledge. The important task before feminist rese­archers then is to sort out these components of research and explain how the development of all these streams would strengthen a feminist methodology.

Harding (1987) brings forth two erroneous practices among social scientists. First, when social scientists deliberate about methodological issues, they usually talk in terms of the techniques and tools of data collection and tend to subsume the “methods of research” under the rubric of methodology. Second, even when the social scientists think about “methods of science,” they tend to focus on methods of inquiry instead of philosophical and theoretical issues. It is true that there are important connections between epis­temologies, methodologies, and rese­arch methods and that each has an implication for the other. However, research methods are not sacrosanct to feminist research and hence the distinctiveness of feminist methodology cannot be arri­ved at by understanding the basis of rese­arch methods. One needs to dissect the fundamental philosophical and theoretical propositions to understand the distinctiveness of feminist methodology. Relying on new tools and techniques of data collection and analysis, adding women’s issues to the mainstream social inquiry without addressing the fundamental epistemological and theoretical positions underlying the practice of science would be meaningless.


Harding (1987) arrives at three important properties of the feminist methodology that make it quite distinct from the rest of the methodologies. First, the very fundamental epistemological question of what constitutes valid evidence material in research is deconstructed by feminist researchers. Androcentric research would always emphasise on men’s experiences and logic as the foundation for scientific inquiry. Feminist research negates such an epistemology and calls for women’s experience and perspective as the foundation of scientific inquiry. Feminist research also departs from the notion of objecti­vity that traditional methodologies so proudly proclaim and uphold. Feminist epistemology asserts that it is not possible to disassociate the research problem from the persons studied and examine them in isolation from each other. The distinctive feature of feminist research is that it relies on women’s perspective and experiences to generate its problematics and also that it uses women’s experiences as a ­valid indicator against which hypoth­eses can be tested.

Second, while dealing the question “for what?” feminist research reiterates that the goal of scientific inquiry is to provide explanations for issues that concern women. The distinctiveness of feminist research is that it takes a shift from “research about women” to “research for women.” Third, the position of feminist research on the important epistemological and ethical issue of the location of the researcher in the entire process of research makes it stand apart from the traditional methodologies. Feminist research requires that the inquirer/researcher be placed in the same critical plane as that of the overt subject matter.

In other words, the class-, race-, culture-, and gender-based assumptions, beliefs, and behaviours of the researchers themselves must be placed within the frame of the picture that they attempt to paint. Bringing this subjective aspect within the ambit of a scientific inquiry in fact enhances its objectivity. Thus, reflexivity emerges as a distinct feature of feminist research.


Fonow, Mary Margaret and Judith A Cook (2005): “Feminist Methodology: New Applications in the Academy and Public Policy,” Signs, Vol 30, No 4, pp 2211–36.

Harding, Sandra (1986): The Science Question in Feminism, New York: Cornell University Press.

— (1987): “Introduction: Is There a Feminist Method?” Feminism and Methodology, Sandra Harding (ed), Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Lee, Renée Gravois, Julie L Ozanne, and Ronald Paul Hill (1999): “Improving Service Encounters through Resource Sensitivity: The Case of Health Care Delivery in an Appalachian Community,” Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, Vol 18, No 2, pp 230–48.

Montell, Frances (1999): “Focus Group Interviews: A New Feminist Method,” NWSA Journal, Vol 11, No 1, pp 44–71.


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Updated On : 19th Jun, 2022
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