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Chapter 4

Feminist Research
Debbie Kralik and Antonia M. van Loon

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Introduction
Feminist theory
Feminist epistemology
Feminist principles in research
Case study on the use of feminist research
principles
Conclusion

Introduction
The purpose of this chapter is to explore feminist
methodology in the context of nursing research.
The questions posed in this chapter are: what is feminist research and how can feminism inform nursing
research? To respond to these questions, we explore
feminist epistemology, feminist principles, methodology (how research should proceed) and method
(approach to generating data) used by feminist
researchers. We demonstrate the method and methodology used in community-based research with
women who were sexually abused when they were
children.

Feminist theory
There are four main orientations of feminist theory:
liberal, Marxist, radical and socialist feminist
theory. Whilst further reading is required to understand each of these orientations, a brief overview is
provided. The liberal feminist view developed during the 1800s where the focus was womens lack
of rights and opportunity based on family, gender,
race, religion, and unequal distribution of wealth
(Chinn & Wheeler 1985). Liberal feminism focused
on reform through education.
Marxist feminist theory claims womens oppression was caused by the introduction of private
property which led to the development of class
systems and sexism. Marxist feminists contend
that the oppression of women will resolve when
there is a revolution to redistribute the property
to society as a whole (Chinn & Wheeler 1985).

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Section 1 Approaches to Research

Socialist feminist theory proposes that the patriarchal family, motherhood, housework and consumerism are the basis of womens oppression. This
theory considers the oppression of poor, working
class women, third world women and women of
colour (Chinn & Wheeler 1985, Speedy 1991).
The principles of radical feminist theory are
derived from a woman-centred world view that
challenges patriarchal systems. The perspective is
that the oppression of women is caused by cultural
institutions and cannot be resolved by changing
those institutions. For oppression to be resolved
gender discrimination and gender roles must be
abolished (Chinn & Wheeler 1985).

Feminist epistemology
Feminist epistemologies argue that knowledge is
incomplete, situated in time and place, and embodied
by cultural constructions. Feminist epistemologies
identify the manner that dominant ways of knowing
may be disadvantaging women and other oppressed
groups, with the aim of surfacing and challenging
power constructions to reshape understandings and
practices, aiming to improve the situation for the
oppressed group. Central to feminist epistemology
is the idea of situated knowledge. The knowers perspective that situates their understanding of a topic
is questioned. Feminist epistemologies contend that
gender affects understanding; informing approaches
to the central issue being studied and influencing
social and political roles of people in the study. This
impacts the values underpinning the inquiry
and understanding of objectivity, consistency and
authority. Consequently feminism becomes difficult
to define, but a simple description by Stanley and
Wise (1983, p. 55) provides a useful summary from
which to start our discussion. It says feminist understanding relies on theoretical constructions about
the nature of womens oppression and the part that
this oppression plays within social reality more
generally.
It is important to recognise that there is no single
way of knowing that can be described as feminist
because all knowledge is context based. Thus

diverse methods of understanding womens experiences are legitimate ways of knowing in feminist
epistemology. Many understandings of the same
subject will be reflected by the individuals location
to, and relationship with, the subject under investigation. People experience the world with their body
and their mind. Thus understanding personal
experiences of a phenomenon is assisted by first
person accounts about the lived experience of the
phenomenon under study. The researcher may only
know these states by interpreting signs and features,
or obtaining descriptions of the study subject from
the person experiencing the phenomenon. Such
knowledge relies on how the person represents their
experience and the emotions, values, attitudes and
interests the phenomenon holds for that person. In
many instances this knowledge is tacit, unspoken
and highly intuitive.
Those who have more information about the phenomenon under study are likely to interact and react
to the phenomenon in different ways than those who
come from a position of ignorance. People will form
various beliefs about the phenomenon and these will
be influenced by their prior experiences, values and
belief systems, and their prior knowledge of the phenomenon under study. The varying places in which
the person stands in relation to other inquirers also
affects their access to necessary information about
the phenomenon and their capacity to communicate
about the phenomena to other people. This position
may have an impact upon their judgement regarding
what is significant or otherwise regarding the study
subject. So we can see that how a person is situated
affects their understanding of their experience
and/or the phenomenon under study. The incredible
diversity of individual peoples lives and personal
experience necessitate the need for multiple and
flexible approaches to research. Feminist knowledge
emerges from an exploration and unpacking of
each persons terms of reference, which are evolving
understandings.
Feminist approaches to research enable ones
personal perspectives to surface (Chinn 2003). The
researchers epistemology is shaped by the life
experiences she or he brings to the research as well

Chapter 4 Feminist Research

as the influences of the many voices and conversations within feminism. As researchers, our assumptions and values underpin the research process. It is
important to identify them prior to embarking on
research and during the research process. The challenge for us is to develop a kind of self reflexivity
that will enable us to look closely at our own practice
in terms of how we contribute to dominance in spite
of our liberatory intentions (Lather 1991, p. 150).
Feminism is not a set of rules, methods and ideas
(Lumby 1997) but is a perspective that may inform
and guide the way we live. Hence feminism
challenges us to be accountable for congruence
between our thought and our behaviour (Maguire
1996). Locating ones feminism, and ones personal
epistemology, is a dynamic process involving reflection and a critical consciousness. Feminist research is
not an intellectual exercise guided by theory, but is
passionate, political, participatory and personal. Feminist principles are intimately connected to our lives;
hence knowing our world through a feminist lens has
implications for how we live and work, and whether
we engage in feminist research (Maguire 1996).
Diverse feminist positions have evolved over time
(Olesen 1994). The historical context and development of the arguments that constitute feminist theory are important for gaining a sense of where we
have been and how we have arrived at this point.
Theoretical history has meaning and purpose in connecting the old to the new as it allows us to record
advances and lay the foundation for advancing
inquiry. Many gains made for women can be attributed to the feminist movement. One example is the
movement against domestic violence. Until feminism, there had been no acknowledgement of domestic violence, no legal avenues and support for women
and no supported accommodation/sheltered housing. During the 1970s, feminist groups funded shelters, but the government, police, and media paid
little attention to violence within the family, even
though violence continues to be one of the most pervasive health and social issues facing women worldwide. In 2006 there is funded supported
accommodation in our cities, improving public
awareness based on long-term media campaigns

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against domestic violence, reformed laws and police


practices, and altered legislative strategies aimed at
contesting violence against women and children.

Feminist principles in research


Common to the various feminist theoretical orientation is the notion of patriarchal power relations
that oppress women where womens interests or
social positions are subordinate to men (Speedy
1991). Although there are many forms of feminist
thought, there are also shared aspects. A feminist worldview sensitises researchers to consider
voice, that is who is being heard and who is being
excluded. It is also of central importance to explore
and understand the context and lives of people
participating in research by understanding power
relations and how those play out in individual
experiences of help-seeking (Crotty 1998). In so
doing, however, a feminist perspective refrains
from perpetuating the view of the woman as victim of their circumstances; instead it celebrates
diversity and varied strengths (Maguire 1996).
Chinn and Wheeler (1985, p. 76) explain this characteristic of feminist research:
A feminist perspective does not seek to romanticise or idealise these women, but rather to develop
insights that allow us to appreciate their struggles,
understand their limitations and see their joys and
their pains as similar to ours.
The diverse feminist theories hold differing perspectives about the forces that oppress women, and
consequently advocate different ways by which
justice (via action and change) may be achieved
(Kolmar & Bartkowski 2000). Feminist theory
aims to transform womens lived experiences and
womens participation in the construction of
new possibilities (Smith 1991). A woman-centred
approach is fundamental to feminist research, with
the aim of illuminating the life context and experiences of women, grounded by their frame of
reference, experiences and language (DuBois 1985,
Speedy 1991). This thinking develops through a
critical awareness of experiences, values, ideologies

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Section 1 Approaches to Research

and goals. It is through this awareness that consciousness raising and action becomes possible as
women learn to view the world through a critical
lens and contradictions in their lives become illuminated. Some common threads in feminism (Maguire
1996, p. 107) have been identified as:
n

acknowledgement that women face oppression


and exploitation;
n women experience their oppressions, struggles
and strengths in diverse ways;
n a commitment to reveal the forces that cause and
sustain oppression;
n a commitment to working with women (individually and collectively) towards action that will challenge and change oppressive structures and forces.
The intent of feminist principles is to encourage
women to take action to develop new structures
or reshape existing forces so that women can live
out new ways of being in relationship with the
world (Maguire 1996, p. 108).
Feminist inquiry has often been conceptualised as
research for women and with women rather than
research on women (Campbell & Bunting 1991, Hall
& Stevens 1991, Olesen 1994, Scharbo-DeHaan
1994, Webb 1993). Feminism focuses on the waywomen are represented, and the way in which knowledge is constructed (Griffiths 1995, Maynard &
Purvis 1994). Feminist research has revealed that,
while most knowledge has been generated and
defined by males, the perspective they espouse is
not the only one and not always appropriate (Speedy
1991). The experiences of men are not the experiences of women, nor are the experiences of women
homogeneous. Feminists have challenged not only
the view of the way knowledge is produced but
also whose view the research represents. Feminist
principles in research are political, transformative
and transparent and therefore used where the aim
of the research is to create change (Jackson 1997).
It is important that feminist research extends
further than the creation of knowledge to have a
commitment to social justice (Drevdahl 1999) and
social change that will serve to enhance the lives
of women (Hall & Stevens 1991).

Speedy (1991, p. 201) identified three main


principles that inform feminist research. They are:
n

recognition that women are oppressed, and


that the reasons for oppression need to be examined so that action can be taken and changes
made;
n valuing of womens experiences; and
n consciousness-raising that results in alternative
views of the world from a womans perspective.
Consciousness-raising involves the recognition of
social, political, economic and personal constraints
on freedom, and is the forum in which decisions
of actions are made that will challenge those
constraints and initiate change (Henderson 1995).
Consciousness-raising allows women the opportunity to view the world in a different way.
Consciousness-raising is when:
. . . women experience a shared sense of reality
and a shared sense of oppression; they become
conscious of their problems as group problems
rather than as their own individual problems
(Henderson 1995, p. 63).
In feminist research, the questions that are asked
and the research focus are as important as the data
generated. Questions focus on exploring womens
perceptions and feelings, and experiences are valued and made visible (Bowes 1996, Crowley & Himmelweit 1992, Lather 1988 and 1991, Puwar 1997). It
is important that the words feminism or feminist
are used in the research and that feminist literature
is cited (Chinn 2003). The research process ensures
a balance of power in the relationship between
researcher and researched, and consciousnessraising is used as a methodological tool to empower
women participants (Bowes 1996, Millen 1997,
Punwar 1997, Webb 1993). The research is reported
in a way that the reader becomes engaged with
womens experiences (Chinn 2003) and the research
findings are made available to those who participated
in the generation of data. It is also important that the
research findings are disseminated widely to women
so that the findings can be incorporated into their
lives (Webb 1993). Participants are involved in all

Chapter 4 Feminist Research

aspects of the research; hence it is important that


researchers consider ways of ending the research so
that participants are unharmed and the benefits of
the research can be sustained. It is fundamentally
important that feminist research also attempts to
bring about progressive change in the interests of
women.
Feminist theory can guide nurses to explore
issues that are relevant to women and nursing, and
yet a review of the literature will reveal that in
comparison with the total amount of nursing
research that is published, the contribution from
feminist research is relatively small. Drevdahl
(1999) called for nursing research and the development of nursing theories to extend further than the
creation of knowledge and have social justice as their
goal. Ford-Gilboe and Campbell (1996, p. 173) were
also concerned with a narrow focus of feminist
nursing research:
Feminist research not only studies women and
womens experience within the social context, but
it also seeks to help women deal with the issues
that are revealed as part of the process. Both the
knowledge gained and the research process itself
may serve as vehicles for creating social change
that enhances lives of women.
A feminist perspective in nursing research can challenge the medical dominance over health care consumers and create a consciousness raising that is
necessary to plan and implement change (Drevdahl
1999, Speedy 1991). Feminism provides a framework
by which differences such as gender and culture may
be incorporated into the design of nursing research.
Jackson (1997) contends that feminism is an openly
political and transformative process; hence feminist
principles can be used in research where the aim is
to catalyse changes in nursing practice.

Case study on the use of


feminist research principles
The purpose of this section is to demonstrate how
feminist principles (shown in italics) can guide
nursing research. We illustrate using a research

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study that aimed to promote the capacity of adult


women survivors of child sexual abuse (CSA) who
had become addicted to alcohol and/or drugs and
subsequently become homeless (van Loon & Kralik
2005a, 2005b and 2005c). Through the research process that spanned 2 years, women participants generated personal resources that enabled them to
move into a healthier and more life-affirming future.
The intention was to develop a programme that
facilitated change through action and to disseminate
that programme in the form of resources that were
sustainable and transferable to similar service
settings. The resources increase understanding of the
issues impacting women survivors of CSA, and those
with alcohol, drug and gambling misuse problems as
they transition their past and move toward self-management. The resources aim to promote personal
capacity for this community group and service provider capacity to provide more appropriate responses
to the needs that these women have identified.
Feminist research considers how the social
position of the knower affects what and how they
understand. A persons social location is culturally
endorsed by such attributes as gender, race, ethnicity,
family relationships, social status, roles and positions.
These attributes are shaped into a social identity that
affords the person power and status. This identity is
subject to sociocultural norms which prescribe the
responsibilities, qualities, behaviours, feelings and
life-skills which the society believes are proper for
that role. The women in this study on child sexual
abuse experienced significant social dislocation, as
this woman explains:
My Mum used to say to me, Youve always been
weird. Youre strange. The strangeness came
from seeing the dislike in her face and reacting
to it. I developed another identity. I did it to save
myself from being hurt. Ive had severe beatings
and stood up and said, Yeah, come on, go again!
Even though it was killing me inside. I was hurting
so much and crying within. Its the face you put on
to pretend it doesnt matter, so you can survive
emotionally. I think inside all of us theres a little
grain of hope that wants to keep trying to save

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Section 1 Approaches to Research

the relationship all the time. Theres a little spark


that keeps waiting and hoping to find a connection. (van Loon & Kralik 2005c, p. 38)
The groups included women from culturally diverse
backgrounds: Indigenous Australians; women from
fragmented families homeless due to violence;
and women struggling with addictions. These
women were positioned by society as problematic
and less worthy citizens. The women recognised
their difference, being fully aware that they did
not fit the status and roles of normal members of
our community. They had always felt different, as
this woman illustrates:
I was very quiet. I did a lot of reading, it was my
escape. I didnt get along with other kids, because I
was very shy. I was often sick. No one was allowed
to come to my place, not that I would have invited
them anyway. I never went to anyones house either.
I didnt trust anyone because it wasnt safe to do that.
I was tormented at school because I was different. . . I
got used to it. . . I was everyones scapegoat at home
and at school. I was just different so I learnt to shut
up so I was noticed less. I stopped speaking because
that meant less trouble for me. (van Loon & Kralik
2005c, p. 39).
Most had accepted a position of less than and
always wanting. They affirmed the norms that
went with labels such as homeless and addict,
viewing themselves as incapable of changing their
circumstances. They had been typecast and marginalised by mainstream society as a group who were
wasting valuable resources. This common understanding and its concomitant oppressive fate had to
be challenged if it was to be overcome, then change
may be possible (van Loon et al 2004).
The research partnership was a South Australian community nursing organisation and an organisation that facilitates emergency and transitional
supported accommodation, plus a range of service
providers to women with complex health and social
needs. The main stakeholder groups (women and
services) were bought together in discrete groups
between 2003 and 2005 using a participatory action

research process. We documented the process and


articulated the outcomes, so that both would be
transferable to other settings.
The need to work with women to develop capacity
was important. Over 93% of the women coming
through the supported accommodation had experienced the trauma of child sexual abuse and as a result,
some had used drugs, alcohol and gambling to manage their emotional and physical suffering (van Loon
& Kralik 2005a). Thus it was essential that the
research method employed built capacity while
providing a degree of liberation from this oppressive
state. Feminist inquiries seek to understand oppression in social groups, and via this understanding,
transform that situation. The commitment to feminism was one motivation for this research; thus
research and action could not be separated. The
unashamed goal of emancipatory inquiries is social
change that surfaces oppressive processes so they can
be overcome (Freire 1970). Both the research process
and the research outcomes must meet this objective.
Thus participatory action research was deemed the
most appropriate method to meet these goals.
This research took a feminist standpoint by
representing the experience of child sexual abuse
from the perspective of the women CSA survivors,
giving epistemic privilege and authority to their
voices. Thus the subject matter generated remained
in the participants control. The language used was
theirs so we could accurately describe and represent
the truth of their experience. We sought to understand their current social location, role, and the subjective identity resulting from labels such as
homeless, unemployed, abused, addict etc. It
was important to privilege the womens voices if we
were to gain a reliable understanding of what was
required to help these women transition their struggles and their oppressed social position. The goal
was to understand the realities of experiences constructed by this particular group of women, with
the emphasis being on the context in which their
lives were lived. In this way, the research was
grounded in the actual experiences of the women
and was therefore able to raise the consciousness of
the women who participated. Their understanding

Chapter 4 Feminist Research

was illuminated through the processes of reflecting on


and describing their lives, as this participant notes:
I have been here for six months and in that time I
kind of believe the hardened shell I had around me
about talking about these things has cracked a bit.
It was really hard to speak about my life at first,
but since the shell cracked, it has been a real
release of a lot of pain and pressure within me.
(van Loon & Kralik 2005c, p. 8).
These women were disadvantaged, experiencing fundamental disruption in their lives that drove them to
misuse alcohol, addictive substances and/or gambling.
If we only heard from the service providers standpoint
we would not understand the strengths and human
potential present in these women. We would gain a
superficial understanding of their experience. Privileging the standpoint of the women represents their
understandings as socially contingent and allows the
women to consider actions they can take to overcome
their situation. We took the perspective that every
woman was the expert of her experience and she knew
what she needed to facilitate her healing. We believed
and accepted that each womans story was true and
sought to validate her experiences, empowering her to
work with the strengths in her story.
Our research used a participatory perspective
where we aimed to help women reflect on past experiences and current issues in their lives, making
connections between past and present in their life
story. Finally, each woman was invited to action
change that might move her toward her preferred
future. We did not engineer discussion to a prefixed
agenda, although we did seek clarification on
discussion to unpack issues as they surfaced. This
was done to facilitate understanding. We did not
psycho-pathologise the womens addiction/s, or any
other behaviour they may have used to cope with their
life situations. Instead we viewed these as responses
that enabled survival at that time. Through dialogue,
perspectives shift, as these women note:
I dont think the reasons for using have disappeared;
they will always be there; but the way I have storied
those within my head has changed. I think what I

41

used to treat with contempt, rebellion and anger


has changed into something else. I have become more
patient and compassionate with myself and others.
(Van Loon & Kralik 2005c, p. 18)
I couldnt get emotionally close to anybody. It
was like my body would just switch off and Id just
be there, but you know I might as well have been
doing something else. Now its starting to feel like
my bodys coming back to me and all my emotions
and everythings coming together in a more manageable way. (van Loon & Kralik 2005c, p. 31)
As a group, we discussed issues raised by the
women and these were fed back in written form
after each meeting for reflection and considered
action. We listened for what was being said and
what was not being said. We paid particular attention to power constructions, gendered understandings, choices or lack thereof, and the practices
and structures sustaining reactions and choices.
We looked carefully for barriers and enablers that
impacted upon each womans capacity to act. This
was their story so we tried to faithfully represent
their issues to the service providers for their action.
This service provider speaks about how that process can initiate changes to practice:
I have noticed improvement in my own approach
to working with young people. I am changing the
way I do assessments (actually considering CSA
questions as part of assessment) since I have been
partaking in this group. This is due to my heightened awareness. (van Loon & Kralik 2005c, p. 58)
Feminist research says participants are the owners
of their story and as such material must be critiqued
and validated by the participants. This occurred at
every stage of this research process up to publication. It did add workload and expense to the project,
which is a challenge in todays competitive funding
environment. As researchers we did author and collate the work, but the women owned the final product with great pride as their work. They could look
back on the process and see how they had shifted
to a position of more personal power, as this woman
notes:

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Section 1 Approaches to Research

What makes up you makes up me, but in different


degrees. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses.
With the new knowledge I gain, I can build a
new sense of who I am a new beginning each
day always changing, always becoming. I am
more than the sum of what happened to me as a
child. Much, much more! I am only just beginning
to see the real me, and I think I like what I see!
(van Loon & Kralik 2005c, p. 86)

Women experience their oppression, struggles and


strengths in various ways because of their diverse
realities and their identities as women. Within this
context of diversity, feminist research celebrates
the practical and informs the theoretical. Understanding and knowledge gained from feminist
research approaches are more than theory or
description; they are based on women making
sense of their own lives and facilitating collective
action to change their social situation.

Conclusion
Feminist research acknowledges that most women
face some form of oppression and exploitation.

EXERCISES
Consider the following questions:
1.
2.
3.
4.

Where can feminist theory be identified or located in nursing?


What is theory?
What is the subject or focus of feminist theory women? What women?
What are the goal(s) or role(s) of feminist theory and feminist research?

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