Recognizing ‘standpoint’ means understanding that our social positions give us each unique experiences and perspectives of the world. None of our views of reality are perfect and complete.
As such, knowledge can never be objective and whole.
In fact, there are many possible accounts of social reality, each told from a different standpoint, and all of them are more or less ‘true’.
Yet so much of what we are told about the world around us is from a single standpoint. Donna Haraway describes this standpoint of the master…
… the Man, the One God, whose Eye produces, appropriates, and orders all difference.
Throughout history, Marxist, feminist, and intersectional renderings of standpoint theory showed how those who are marginalized and oppressed offer valuable accounts of the world.
To meaningfully understand our social structures and ourselves, we need to take seriously the testimonies of people who’ve historically been subjugated within our cultures.
Only with their insight can we reimagine and rebuild a world that is truly equitable, hospitable, and just.
What is Standpoint Theory?
Standpoint theory is a way of understanding how our social positions shape the way we see the world around us.
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels suggested that our class standpoint — whether we are business owners or workers — shapes how we relate to the world. Under capitalism, we all experience a sense of alienation from our work and ourselves.
According to Marx and Engels however, property-owning employers could find some comfort within alienation. They can control alienation and feel confirmed by it. Workers, in contrast, are destroyed by alienation and experience within it an “inhuman existence” of wage slavery.
Our material realities, whether we’re business owners or workers, inform as well as restrict our understanding of social relations.
Within systems of social domination, where one group has power over another, the view from above of those below is likely to be highly distorted and harmful.
Standpoint theory in this way helps explain Orientalism, where European colonizers formed peculiar and perverse views of Arab-Islamic people as mysterious, intriguing, and exotic, while at the same time primitive, despotic, and savage.
Those in power don’t need to understand the people they’re subjugating. The less they know about them, the easier it is to dehumanize them and justify their colonization and genocide.
Feminist Standpoint Theory
Feminist standpoint theory extends Marx and Engel’s philosophy with an incisive critique of how class relations intersect with gender relations.
Philosopher Nancy Hartsock argued that our standpoints as women provide a privileged vantage point on male supremacy and the patriarchal form of capitalism in which our society is organized.
Over the years, feminist standpoint theory has helped us to identify how seemingly neutral concepts are infused with the assumptions of dominant groups.
Take work, for example. Our default notions of what counts as ‘work’ are the activities done for pay outside the home. Whether we imagine that work as being done in a factory or an office, the traditionally dominant view is that men have the skills and competencies to perform best. Working is considered virtuous, if not for the worker to fulfill a noble function as the breadwinner of his family.
This dominant concept of work overlooked the unpaid domestic labor that is traditionally done by women. Women’s work then becomes both invisible and devalued.
Sexual, disability, and class oppressions are all entangled in the concept of ‘work’.
The man’s righteous position as head of his household and the providing husband/father reinforces heteronormative ideals and structures.
The unemployed, those who don’t or can’t produce capital, including those who are physically or mentally disabled, are branded lazy burdens on society.
The celebration of workers and wage labor can reinforce class exploitation by placating workers through false praise. Exhaustion and overwork are also sometimes heroized in our hustle culture, again reinforcing capitalistic ways of life.
Feminist standpoint theory over the years has stressed that there’s no single ‘feminist view’. Feminisms, in the plural, comprise many different traditions such as radical feminism, lesbian feminism, socialist feminism, Black feminism, queer feminism, disabled feminism, etc.
All our movements represent the exhilarating diversity of who we are as women and the politics we want for navigating the world.
In this interview below, one of the founders of feminist standpoint theory, Sandra Harding, discusses her work, the history of feminist scholarship around standpoint, and how it has been absurdly controversial.
‘Outsiders Within’: The Knowledge of the Oppressed
Standpoint theory is often used (and sometimes confused) with intersectionality. Sandra Harding has vehemently stated, “standpoint work must always be ‘intersectional’”.
As the feminist intervention extended the Marxist focus on class standpoint, intersectionality has helped standpoint theory expand out into an even more holistic view of social life.
The Black feminists and women of color activists who developed intersectionality from the 1960s and 70s always bore a consciousness about their unique social locations.
Their pioneering writings highlighted the interrelationships between class, gender, race, sexuality, and dis/ability, and situated these dynamics within complex power structures.
These intersectional thinkers and activists helped us to understand the ways privileges and oppressions interact and multiply with one another.
The connection between standpoint theory and intersectionality is best exemplified in sociologist Patricia Hill Collins’ incredible work on ‘outsiders within’.
The name comes from Collin’s reflection of the intimate yet subordinate role Black women have played as domestic workers in white households. She proposed that this balance between being ‘insiders’ of white families yet ultimately remaining ‘outsiders’ — the outsider within — gives Black women a unique standpoint from which to understand the self, family, and society.
As ’outsiders within’, Black women are keenly aware of the interlocking systems of oppression in our world that often elude those dominant in these systems. Throughout history, Black women have always used their perceptive awareness to resist oppression by redefining themselves and their cultures.
Collins’ landmark theory challenged the marginalization of Black women’s voices in the social sciences by articulating the philosophical value for taking seriously knowledge that has traditionally been overlooked.
Developing Intersectional Standpoint Awareness
The struggle towards social justice requires that all of us develop a sensitive awareness of our intersectional standpoints.
This awareness enables us to understand the complex ways our privileges interact with our oppressions and how they shape the ways we perceive and interact with the social world.
This critical intersectional awareness helps us to question whose standpoints are framing the sites of our struggle.
So if you’re an environmental activist, for example, you would interrogate dominant assumptions of:
- The environment
- Natural ‘resources’
- Environmental responsibility
- Climate change
This exercise would involve questioning why we perceive the environment as being outside of and separate to ourselves as human beings. Why we describe nature as ‘resources’ to be collected and consumed. Why we prioritize production above conservation, where the consumption of natural ‘resources’ is seen as part of the necessary function of capitalism as well as human existence. Why environmental responsibility is more often framed as an individual obligation (i.e., to recycle, go waste-free, go vegan, etc.) than an organizational one. Why climate change is considered by some as a hoax.
Answering these questions would suggest that the standpoints of corporations and their owners have disproportionately shaped our knowledges about the natural world.
We could repeat this exercise for any site of social justice.
Men have disproportionately shaped our knowledges about gender, marriage, and family. White people have disproportionately shaped our knowledges about race, policing, and respectability. Cisgender straight and able-bodied people have disproportionately shaped our knowledges about sexuality, health, and what constitutes a ‘normal’ body.
Intersectional standpoint theory also encourages us to question how we personally contribute to privileged and subjugated knowledge production, to confront the intersections of power and identity in our own lives, and to then create and enact social justice strategies.
Psychology scholar Chana Etengoff offers a list of insightful questions to ask yourself or your students to sharpen your standpoint awareness:
- Who am I today?
- How did I become the person I am today?
- Who do I want to become?
- How can I direct my own self-development?
- How do my social location and identity intersect and interact?
- How does my self-understanding inform and contribute to my interactions with others?
- How do I want my world to be structured in the future?
- How can I contribute to the collective task of creating a more equitable and just world?
- How can my knowledge production interrupt and challenge systems of inequity?
Standpoint theory has a long history of challenging the ways oppression shapes our knowledges about the world.
From Marxism to feminism, we’ve understood how social reality is shaped by the dominators.
In order to develop a fuller picture, we must seek the perspectives of those who are marginalized and oppressed in the world. Their vantage points as ‘outsiders within’ affords them incredible insight into how things really are.
As standpoint theory crossed with intersectionality theory, we’ve come to appreciate how identity and power are structured through complex interlocking systems around class, gender, race, sexuality, and dis/ability. Each of us has unique social locations that offer a partial view of the world.
Through individual and collective reflection, we may be able to develop more meaningful understandings of who we are, our social structures, and most valuably, how we may intervene to create more just and equitable futures.
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Sandra Harding (2008) Sciences from Below: Feminisms, Postcolonialities, and Modernities
Patricia Hill Collins (2008) Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment
Patricia Hill Collins (1986). Learning from the outsider within: The sociological significance of black feminist thought. Social Problems, 33(6), S14–S32.
The discussion of Patricia Hill Collins’ theory of ‘outsiders within’ is adapted from my book chapter: Helena Liu (2018). Leadership from the margins: Practising inclusivity with “outsiders within.” In S. Adapa & A. Sheridan (Eds.), Inclusive Leadership: Negotiating Gendered Spaces (pp. 1–20). Palgrave Macmillan.
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Featured image by Gabby K