All research begins with a problem or a question. Deciding on what
method to use to find the solution or answer, and then gathering,
organizing, and analysing data, are the next steps, followed by
writing and publishing the research report.
What makes research feminist? A classic answer is that it is research
done by, for, and about women. Another is that "feminist researchers
produce feminist research" (Robbins, 1996, p. 170). There is no
single definition of "feminist research" (or "feminism," for that
matter), but many authors point to certain key elements as defining
features. These features help distinguish feminist research from
either traditional social sciences research, research that studies
women, or research that attends to gender but without an agenda for
change. What makes feminist research uniquely feminist are the kinds of
questions, methodologies, knowledge, and purpose brought to the
In their recent book on feminist methodologies, Michèle Ollivier and Manon Tremblay (2000)
identify three defining principles of feminist research. First, feminist research is
characterized by its double dimension. As opposed to traditional research, its objectives
include both the construction of new knowledge and the production of social change.
Historically, feminist research has been informed by women's struggles against the multiple
forms of their oppression. Second, feminist research is grounded in feminist values and
beliefs. It seeks to include feminism within the process, to focus on the meanings women
give to their world, while recognizing that research must often be conducted within
institutions that are still patriarchal. Feminist principles inform all stages of the
research, from choice of topic to presentation of data, acting as the framework guiding
the decisions being made by the people involved in the research. Third, feminist research
is characterized by its diversity. It is interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary, it
uses different methodologies, and it is constantly being redefined by the concerns
of women coming from very different perspectives. Feminist research thus requires that
such issues as antiracism and diversity, democratic decision making, and the empowerment
of women--including traditionally marginalised women--are addressed.
Feminists may not agree how precisely to shape or define feminist
research, but there is a high degree of concurrence over the
epistemological grounding of the research process. Judith Cook and
Mary Margaret Fonow (1986) identify five basic epistemological principles in
feminist methodology. These include the
taking of women and gender as the focus of analysis; the importance
of consciousness raising; the rejection of subject and object (this
means valuing the knowledge held by the participant as being expert
knowledge and acknowledging how research valued as "objective" always reflects a specific social and historical standpoint; a concern with ethics (throughout the research process and in the use of research results); and an intention to empower women and change power
relations and inequality.
Methodologically, feminist research differs from traditional
research. It actively seeks to remove the power imbalance between
research and subject; it is politically motivated in that it seeks to
change social inequality; and it begins with the standpoints and
experiences of women. A wide range of methods, both qualitative and
quantitative, are available to feminist researchers. Instead of
focussing on which type of research is better, it makes more sense to
allow the context and purpose of the research to guide the choice of
research tools and techniques. There is no one method or strategy for
feminist research. The particular situation or context should guide
the methodological choices, instead of having a trust in the method
as appropriate for every context and situation (Greaves et al.,
1995, p. 334).
While feminist researchers can strive for the ideal feminist research
process, there often exists a large gap between the reality and ideal
goals of doing feminist research. While the desire may be to promote equality in the research
process through the validation of women's experiences and to enact social
change and transformation, many barriers confront feminist researchers from
achieving these aims. Doing research involves a long series of choices and decisions. While
feminist beliefs and concerns will help guide and direct the decision
making process, outside forces also play a key role. Diana Ralph
constructed a power pyramid that illustrates how power informs the
decision making process; where the feminist researcher is on the
bottom of the structure, she has more difficulty in controlling the
choices being made (Ralph, 1988, p. 140). The culture or society in
which one conducts research, the external funding agencies, the
organizations or individuals who have an investment in the outcome of
the research process, publishers, and even the research team all
significantly impact on the decisions being made. Marianne Weston
sees all research as existing on a fluid scale between traditional
research and ideal feminist research. She argues that one can
evaluate to what degree a research project is feminist by looking at
the choices being made by the researcher.
Feminist research cannot claim to speak for all women, but can
provide new knowledge grounded in the realities of women's
experiences and actively enact structural changes in the social world.
Written by Jennifer Brayton, Michèle Ollivier, and Wendy Robbins.
Cook, J. and Fonow, M. M. (1986). "Knowledge and Women's Interests: Issues
of Epistemology and Methodology" in Feminist Sociological
Research". Sociological Inquiry, 56 (4): 2-29.
Greaves, L., Wylie, A., and the Staff of the Battered Women's Advocacy
Centre: C. Champagne, L. Karch, R. Lapp, J. Lee & B. Osthoff
(1995). "Women and Violence: Feminist Practice and Quantitative
Method". In Changing Methods: Feminists Transforming Practice, edited by
Sandra Burt and Lorraine Code, 301-326. Ontario: Broadview Press.
Ollivier, Michèle and Manon Tremblay (2000). Questionnements féministes et
méthodologie de la recherche. Montréal et Paris: L'Harmattan.
Ralph, D. (1988). "Researching from the Bottom: Lesson of Participatory
Research for Feminists". In From the Margins to the Centre: Selected
Essays in Women's Studies Research, edited by Dawn Currie,
134-141. Saskatchewan: The Women's Studies Research Unit, University of
Robbins, Wendy. "Dollars and Sense, or, Reflections and Projections
of a Feminist Researcher," in Memories and Visions: Celebrating 20
Years of Feminist Research with CRIAW/ICREF, 1976-1996. Ed. Linda
Clippingdale. Ottawa: CRIAW/ICREF, 1996.170-77.
Weston, M. (1988). "Can Academic Research Be Truly Feminist?". In From the
Margins to the Centre: Selected Essays in Women's Studies Research,
edited by Dawn Currie, 142-150. Saskatchewan: The Women's Studies
Research Unit, University of Saskatchewan.
Extended Bibliography for Feminist Research