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Introduction to Feminist Research

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 research process.

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 Saskatchewan.

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

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