Feminist sociological theory is said to be a sub-area of conflict theory and not a theory in its own right; would this be an accurate statement?*
Conflicted over Conflict Theory
Dear Conflicted over Conflict Theory,
Most sociologists will agree that feminist sociological theory is a theory in its own right, but this agreement largely depends on how one is defining ‘theory’ in relation to a host of other relevant terms, such as a school of thought, paradigm and/or critical perspective. An adequate answer to your question requires delving into these definitional debates where sociologists, and scholars in general, attempt to create conceptually distinct categories demarcating, for example, what counts as theory versus critical point of view (but not necessarily a full-fledged theory per se).
The answer to your question is in three parts: What is theory? What is the type of relationship between conflict theory and sociology? And, what is feminist sociological theory and where is it situated in relation to conflict theory?
There is a point of view that we can negotiate or redraw categorical boundaries based on new empirical evidence, normative concerns and/or analytical usefulness. The terms we use in our debates such as ‘theory,’ ‘paradigm,’ or ‘critical perspective’ are not exclusive categories. For example, there are theoretical traditions, theories and critical perspectives that fit neither of these categories perfectly but, rather, seem to share characteristics from more than one concept. This latter observation is likely at the heart of your question. This essay is a brief sketch of this contested terrain in response to the question.
Theory & Conflict Theory
In general, a theory of anythingeverything is a testable explanation of how the world operates. In a very basic sense, you use theory everyday as you navigate the nuances of social interaction in our natural world.
We rely on social theory to help us understand “… the social organization of society, the behavior of people and groups, (social theory) explains why structures take the forms they do at various historical times as well as in local situations, and how and what kinds of changes occur” (Collins 1990: 70).
Sociology textbooks tend to divvy up approaches to sociological analysis along the lines of structural functionalism, conflict theory and symbolic interactionism, and the term ‘conflict theory’ houses a variety of approaches that share a set of general propositions in analyzing the social world. These shared philosophical and theoretical orientations towards the social world is what we might call a ‘paradigm’or school of thought. Specifically, paradigms are “a set of assumptions, theories and perspectives that make up a way of understanding the social world” (Ferris & Stein 2016:18). Conflict theory, can be understood as “a general approach to the entire field of sociology that focuses research on stratification and hierarchic organization as key to explaining all sociological phenomena…” (Collins 1990:72).
Feminist Theory & Feminist Sociological Theory
So, where does feminist sociological theory fit into all this? We have to unpack the term ‘feminist-sociological-theory.’ Are we talking about feminist theory in sociology or feminist correctives to classic and contemporary sociological theory? Would one be more appropriately considered ‘theory’ as opposed to the other? And, if so, can we locate a distinct line that separates these categories?
The term ‘feminist theory’ is a broad term used to refer to a variety of writing and thinking across the disciplines that, while united in their opposition to women’s oppression, differ not only in their views of how to combat that oppression, but even in their conception of what constitutes oppression in contemporary society and who belongs (or doesn’t belong) under the category of ‘women’ (McClure 1992). For example, is it liberating to shield oneself from objectifying gazes through certain forms of dress, or use one’s body and sexuality unabashedly as a source of empowerment in a society that historically oppressed and controlled the feminine form?
Does this category of ‘women’ extend only to those assigned as females at birth? Or, does it extend to those who identify as women later in life? Does one need the formative experiences of growing up ‘female’ to understand what it means to be a “woman” within an oppressive patriarchal system? These debates, as well as approaches to women’s liberation, have produced many orientations and sub-categories of feminist thought (socialist feminists, radical feminists, black feminists, Marxist feminists, Third world feminists, liberal feminists among others).
If we accept opposition to women’s oppression as a unifying theme and foundational to all feminist theories, sociological and otherwise, we might conclude that feminist sociological theory does in fact belong under the genre of conflict theory since stratification and hierarchical organization seems inherent to its very raison d’être. But, this is beside the point. This classification still fails to settle what exactly is being signaled when sociologists add the qualifier ‘feminist’ to sociological theory?
Feminist Sociological Theory Or Not?
Feminist scholars within and outside of the discipline have critiqued classic and contemporary sociological theory for its gender-blind spots, androcentric biases and oppressive prescriptions. As a result, feminists have prescribed a host of corrective actions for these theoretical deficits. Depending on the critique leveraged, several approaches have been developed by feminists to right the wrongs of sociology’s misogynist past.
On the one hand, many feminist scholars in sociology see the project of feminist sociological theory as “… a systematic and critical reevaluation of sociology’s core assumptions in light of the discoveries being made within another community of discourse—the community of those creating Feminist theory” (Lengermann 1990). For example, many classic sociological theories rest on implicit assumptions of human nature to provide an interpretation of observations of the social world and make predictions or prescriptions based on those assumptions.
If individuals are understood as selfish, autonomous actors looking to maximize individual gain while minimizing costs as opposed to highly empathetic and interdependent social creatures, these assumptions are going to produce very different theories (or models) of the social world (England 1989).
At the same time, feminist thought is far from homogenous and involves several approaches to sociological theory that might be perceived as falling short of theory-creation. For example, many feminist empiricists do not take issue with social theory’s base assumptions and methodological practices but, rather, see women’s exclusion from empirical observation as bad practice in research.
Finally, feminist sociological theory ranges from the old ‘add-women-and-stir’ approach where little changes except women’s numerical inclusion as an essential part of society and social phenomena to questioning and radically transforming social theory’s base assumptions and methodological practices.
Both approaches to sociological theory would likely be considered ‘feminist sociological theory,’ but they differ in the degree of autonomy in relation to traditional sociological theory (consider the gaze of feminist empiricists versus standpoint feminists versus postmodernist feminists.)
*Question was edited for clarity.
Collins, R., 1990. Conflict theory and the advance of macro-historical sociology. Frontiers of social theory: The new syntheses, pp.68-87.
England, P., 1989. A feminist critique of rational-choice theories: Implications for sociology. The American Sociologist, 20(1), pp.14-28.
Ferris, K. and Stein, J., 2016. The real world: An introduction to sociology. WW Norton & Company.
Lengermann, P.M. and Niebrugge-Brantley, J., 1990. Feminist sociological theory: The near-future prospects. Frontiers of social theory: The new syntheses, pp.316-344.
McClure, K., 2013. The issue of foundations: Scientized politics, politicized science, and feminist critical practice. In Feminists theorize the political (pp. 359-386). Routledge.
Anderson, Elizabeth, “Feminist Epistemology and Philosophy of Science”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2019/entries/feminism-epistemology/>.
Kuhn, T.S., 2012. The structure of scientific revolutions. University of Chicago press.
do Mar Pereira, M., 2017. Power, Knowledge and Feminist Scholarship (Open Access): An Ethnography of Academia. Routledge. (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-epistemology/).
Amber C. Kalb