Studying up and feminist rut-riding

We’re reading Feminist Methodologies for Critical Researchers for our (you guessed it) methodology class this semester. It’s by Joey Sprague, a sociologist at the University of Kansas, and I have so far been impressed with her level-headed, non-reactionary approach to feminist research methods and methodologies.

One thing in particular that caught my attention was the concept of “studying up,” which is the practice of studying people or groups who are less disadvantaged or more privileged, socially, than the researcher is. While I had never heard the term until I read about it a couple of days ago, I was familiar with some sub-fields of women’s studies that have made it their business to study up, most prominently masculinity studies and whiteness studies. As Sprague acknowledges, the vast majority of feminist research involves studying marginalized, systemically disadvantaged, abused or otherwise vicitmized groups of people — rape victims, spousal or domestic abuse victims, prostitutes, immigrants, racial minorities, the poor, the disenfrachised, single mothers, gays and lesbians, transgender people, refugees, and so on. Each of those groups, among others, is vastly overrepresented in the research journals, and all of these types of projects are instances of studying down. Masculinity and whiteness studies, and the rest of the poorly-established fledgling fields interested in studying the powerful and advantaged, are instances of studying up, and they are vastly underrepresented in feminist research journals.

Not surprisingly, the advent of masculinity studies was met with a great deal of opposition from feminists who were engaged with the “traditional” kinds of research, out of fears that (among other things) masculinity studies was buying in to the men’s rights movement. The men’s rights movement, quite unlike what masculinity studies turned out to be, was a critical response to feminism that saw feminism as a threat, or at least an unfair advantage, to women in such arenas as law and the workplace (because of affirmative action and sex-based legislation, for example). In contrast, masculinity studies has been concerned less with augmenting or reinforcing men’s advantages as studying why men are advantaged; although women are rarely blamed for their social subordination, the concept of studying the etiology of that subordination by going to its “source” was relatively unheard of until the 80s.

Despite the fact that masculinity studies is gaining currency within women’s studies departments, studying down is by far the status quo among feminist researchers. So much so, in fact, that that many people take it for granted that research by feminists or within women’s studies departments will deal with disadvantaged groups. Even Sprague, who champions the reflexivity of feminist research, tends to slide back into the status quo on occasion; she claims that one of the three ways that researchers have power is that “they come from relatively privileged positions in social structures of inequality”; in a section on studying up she focuses more on the disadvantages of studying up (such as the participant dominating the interview) rather than the need for it.

Still, her point remains a good one: she says, “the focus on what’s wrong with disadvantaged people creates a picture in which those on the downside of hierarchies have, and thus are, problems. Researchers ‘studying down’ make the relatively powerless even more visible to observation. Posing questions in this way implies that those with power are normal; their traits, behaviours and social position require no justification.” Those in power are at least half the problem, but they get much less than half of the attention from feminist researchers.

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