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Feminist empiricism is a perspective within feminist research that focuses on combining the objectives and observations of feminism with the research methods and philosophical underpinnings of empiricism. Feminist empiricism is typically connected to mainstream notions of positivism; feminist empiricism proposes that feminist theories can be objectively proven through evidence. However, one should not conclude that feminist empiricism is a positivist approach furthering a feminist agenda. Feminist empiricism is a distinct perspective, critiquing what it perceives to be inadequacies and biases within mainstream research methods, including positivism.
Feminist empiricism is part of three main feminist epistemological perspectives, the other two usually referred to as standpoint feminism and post-structural/postmodern feminism. In International Relations politics, rationalist feminism utilizes feminist empiricism to explain the political landscape. Rationalist feminism examines state, transnational, and institutional actors, and specifically looks at causal relationships between these actors and gender issues. Quantitative data is chiefly utilized to explain gender’s involvement in these relationships. This may be directly through correlating gender data to specific state behaviours, or indirectly by examining a “gender gap” through indirect causal relationships. Popular perspectives within International Relations which are often linked to rationalist feminism include conventional constructivism and quantitative peace research.
Among other criticisms, standpoint feminism critiques feminist empiricism for its use of norms related to positivist methodology. In particular, standpoint feminism argues that feminist empiricism cannot explain the way the political world works because the very foundations on which it is built are based on the same gendered assumptions that all mainstream scientific inquiry faces. Feminist empiricism argues that because of its epistemological outlook, it can tackle this inherent gender bias within scientific inquiry.
Post-modern feminist epistemology is entirely discursive, unlike feminist empiricism which favours an approach closer to positivism. Similar to mainstream interpretivist epistemology, post-structural feminism seeks to maintain an understanding through social analysis. Thus the two theories differ: post-structural feminism seeks to interpret rather than explain feminist theories in the political world. Post-structuralism, and post-structural feminists by extension, are inherently opposed to the idea of an objective truth in the social sciences. The belief is that those who study within the human sciences are ensnared by the same structures that affect the society in which they study. As such, post-structural feminism is in disagreement with one of the core principles of what feminist empiricism believes in. Apart from this, feminist empiricism is more likely to favour qualitative data. Objective measurements are seen as important to ridding the gender bias that exists. Post-structural feminism critiques the belief that any viewpoint is impartial; knowledge is not found but constructed. A specific result of this disagreement is the way in which the two theories view gender: post-structural feminism sees gender as a socially constituted entity, while feminist empiricism claims that gender variables are based on biological gender.
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