Dorothy E. Smith

For other people named Dorothy Smith, see Dorothy Smith (disambiguation).
Dorothy Edith Smith
Born Dorothy Edith Place
(1926-07-06) July 6, 1926
Northallerton, Yorkshire, England
Academic background
Alma mater University of California, Berkeley
Academic work
Main interests Feminist Studies, Sociology
Notable works Institutional Ethnography: A Sociology for People; The Conceptual Practices of Power: A Feminist Sociology of Knowledge; The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology
Notable ideas Institutional Ethnography, Ruling Relations, Standpoint Theory, Bifurcation of Consciousness

Dorothy Edith Smith (born July 6, 1926) is a Canadian sociologist with research interests in a variety of disciplines, including women's studies, psychology, and educational studies, as well as in certain subfields of sociology, such as feminist theory, family studies, and methodology. Smith founded the sociological sub-disciplines of feminist standpoint theory and Institutional Ethnography.


Smith was born in Northallerton, Yorkshire England to Dorothy F. Place and Tom Place, who also had three sons. One of her brothers, Ullin Place, is well known for his work on consciousness as a process of the brain, another is a recognized British poet, Milner Place.

Smith did her undergraduate work at the London School of Economics, earning her B.Sc in Sociology with a Major in Social Anthropology in 1955. She then married William Reid Smith, whom she had met while attending LSE,[1] and they moved to the United States. They both attended graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, where she received her Ph.D in Sociology in 1963, nine months after the birth of their second child. Not long afterwards she and her husband were divorced; she retained custody of the children. She then taught as a lecturer at UC Berkeley from 1964 to 1966.[2] In 1967 she moved with her two sons to Vancouver British Columbia to teach at the University of British Columbia, where she helped to establish a Women's Studies Program. In 1977 she moved to Toronto, Ontario to work at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, where she stayed until she retired. In 1994 she became an adjunct professor at the University of Victoria, where she continues her work in institutional ethnography.

Standpoint Theory

It was during her time as a graduate student in the 1960s that Smith developed her notion of standpoint. During this time, Smith recognized that she herself was experiencing “two subjectivities, home and university”,[3] and that these two worlds could not be blended. In recognition of her own standpoint, Smith shed light on the fact that sociology was lacking in the acknowledgment of standpoint. At this point, the methods and theories of sociology had been formed upon and built in a male dominated social world, unintentionally ignoring the women’s world of sexual reproduction, children, and household affairs.[3] Smith determined that for minority groups, the constant separation between the world as they experience it versus continually having to adapt to the view of the dominant group creates oppression, which can lead to members the marginalized group feeling alienated from their “true” selves.[3]

Noteworthy Standpoint Theory Example

Smith often uses one particular story as an example of the importance of Standpoint Theory, and as a way of explaining it better. It goes as such...

One day, while riding in a train in Ontario, Smith observed a family of Indians standing together by a river, watching the train pass by. It was only after having made these initial assumptions that Smith realized that they were just that; they were assumptions, assumptions that she had no way of knowing if they were true or not. She called them "Indians," but she couldn't have know, for sure, what their origins were. She called them a family, which could have very well not been true. She also said they were watching the train go by, an assumption that emerged solely based on her position in time and space, her position riding in the train, looking out at the "family." [4]

For Smith, this served as a representation of her own privilege, through which she made assumptions and immediately imposed them on the group of "Indians." It helped lead her to the conclusion that experiences differ, across space, time, and circumstance, and that it is unfair to create society - and ruling relations - based on only one point of view/being.[5]

Institutional ethnography

Institutional ethnography (IE) is a sociological method of inquiry which Smith developed, created to explore the social relations that structure people's everyday lives. For the institutional ethnographer, ordinary daily activity becomes the site for an investigation of social organization. Smith developed IE as a Marxist feminist sociology "for women, for people;" it is now used by researchers in the social sciences, in education, in human services and in policy research as a method for mapping the translocal relations that coordinate people's activities within institutions.

Ruling Relations

Smith also developed the concept of ruling relations, the institutional complexes that "coordinate the everyday work of administration and the lives of those subject to administrative regimes."[6]

Bifurcation of Consciousness

Bifurcation is defined as the dividing or separating into two parts or branches.[7] In the case of the bifurcation of consciousness, specifically related to standpoint theory, this refers to the separation of the two modes of being for women. Since Sociology is a male-dominated field, women must fight to push past their expected roles as housewives and mothers, moving from the local realm of the home to the "extra local" realm of society.[8] Women, therefore, split their consciousness in two in order to establish themselves as knowledgeable and competent beings within society and the field of Sociology.


Dorothy Smith has influential ties to theorists such as Karl Marx and Alfred Schutz,[3] building on top of Marxist theory, Smith evolves alienation into gender stratified capitalism, explaining in her work Feminism and Marxism how “objective social, economic and political relations . . . shape and determine women's oppression.”[9] From Schutz, Smith explains, “Individuals are experienced as ‘types,’”[3] developing upon his concept of umwelt and mitwelt relations. In The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology, Smith explains mitwelt and umwelt relations of male dominance claiming, “women's work conceals from men the actual concrete forms on which their work depends.”[10]

Umwelt & Mitwelt

Alfred Schütz describes mitwelt relationships as less intimate than umwelt relationships. Mitwelt relations refer more to a type of relation, such as an individual and their mail carrier. Umwelt relations are found on a more intimate level, such as a husband and wife. Dorothy Smith extends these concepts by demonstrating how umwelt is more “central in women’s lives, and men regulate their umwelt relations to women.”[3]

Professional recognition

In recognition of her contributions in the "transformation of sociology", and for extending the boundaries of "feminist standpoint theory" to "include race, class, and gender", Dr. Smith received numerous awards from the American Sociological Association, including the American Sociological Association's Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award (1999) and the Jessie Bernard Award for Feminist Sociology (1993). In recognition of her scholarship, she also received two awards from the Canadian Sociological Association and the Canadian Anthropological Association; the Outstanding Contribution Award (1990) and the John Porter Award for her book The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology (1990).

Some argue that her work is some of the most important produced in 20th and 21st Century sociology, and that 'Institutional Ethnography' should be considered a contemporary classic.[11]

Selected works

Important Quotes

"Rather than explaining behavior, we begin from where people are in the world, explaining the social relations of the society of which we are part, explaining an organization that is not fully present in any one individual's everyday experience" (Smith 1987) [10]

"Social phenomena are products of action and interpretation by actual women and men. Rational order itself, order itself / is an accomplishment of members of society" (Smith 1987) [10]

"The everyday world is not fully understandable within its own scope. It is organized by social relations not fully apparent in it nor contained in it" (Smith 1987) [10]

"An alternative sociology, from the standpoint of women, makes the everyday world its problematic" (Smith, 1990: 27) [4]

"An alternative sociology must preserve in it the presence, concerns, and experience of the sociologist as knower and discoverer" (Smith 1990) [4]

"The persistence of the privileged sociological version (or versions) relies upon a substructure that has already discredited and deprived of authority to speak the voices of those who know society differently" (Smith 1990) [4]

"There are and must be different experiences of the world and different bases of experience. We must not do away with them by taking advantage of our privileged speaking to construct a sociological version that we then impose upon them as their reality" (Smith 1990) [4]

"Committed to exploring the society from within people's experience of it, rather than objectifying them or explaining their behaviour, [a sociology from women's standpoint] would investigate how that society organizes and shapes the everyday world of experience (Smith 1999) [12]

"The ruling relations are of this kind, coordinating the activities of people in the local sites of their bodily being into relations operating independently of person, place, and time" (Smith 1999) [12]

"Experience is always now and hence embedded in an historical trajectory, coming into being dialogically in the discourse of its time" (Smith 1999) [12]


  2. Wallace,R. & Wolf, A., "Contemporary Sociological Theory" 6th Edition (2006), Pearson Prentice-Hall. p. 297-298
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Appelrouth, Scott; Edles, Laura Delfor (2008). Classical and Contemporary Sociological Theory: Readings and Text (First ed.). Pine Forge Press. ISBN 978-0761927938.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 Smith, D. E. (1990). The conceptual practices of power: A feminist sociology of knowledge. Boston: Northeastern University Press.
  5. Lemert, C. C. (2004). Social theory: The multicultural and classic readings (4th ed.). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  6. DeVault, Marjorie. "Ruling Relations". Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology.
  7. Bifurcation. (n.d.). Retrieved October 16, 2016, from
  8. Mann, D. (2008). Understanding society: A survey of modern social theory. Don Mills, Ont.: Oxford University Press.
  9. Smith, Dorothy (1997). Feminism and Marxism: A Place to Begin, A Way to Go. Vancouver: New Star Books.
  10. 1 2 3 4 Smith, Dorothy (1987). The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology. Northeastern University Press.
  11. Hart, RJ. & McKinnon, A. (2010). 'Sociological Epistemology: Durkheim’s Paradox and Dorothy E. Smith’s Actuality'. Sociology, vol 44, no. 6, pp. 1038-1054.
  12. 1 2 3 Smith, D. E. (1999). Writing the Social: Critique, Theory, and Investigations. University of Toronto Press.
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