DeVault, Marge. Liberating Method: Feminism and Social Research. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1999. Print.

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Summary:

In this book, DeVault puts forth a discussion of feminist research methodology premised on the idea that there are no fixed “right practices” in feminist research, but rather shifting and evolving strategies for working within our disciplines while also challenging patriarchal bias within them. DeVault places particular emphasis on the idea of feminist methodology as working towards “excavation”–a term she uses to signify the process of shifting critical perspectives away from the male perspectives traditionally represented in sociology and towards bringing forth women’s knowledge and perspectives. Excavation seems different from other discussions of giving voice to women or adding women’s experience to our sites of research because it is primarily an epistemological project aimed at shifting our ideas of what counts as knowledge and aimed at shifting the epistemological foundations of the field.

DeVault’s book is split into six different parts, the first two of which introduce her own position as a feminist researcher and then unpack the question: what is feminist methodology? In defining feminist methodology, DeVault argues that it is important that we resist defining this work in the conventional terms of our disciplines (see quote below). DeVault instead argues that feminist methodology is a perspective we’ve developed that helps us think critically about methodology. Thus, rather than being an entirely new and separate set of practices, feminist methodology is more so a critical lens for reevaluating accepted research methods and strategizing ways of shifting methods to better reflect feminist commitments. In the second chapter, “Talking Back to Sociology,” DeVault outlines three principles of feminist methodology:

  1. Seeks a method that will excavate the knowledge and perspectives of women
  2. Works to “minimize harm and control in the research process” (31)
  3. Privileges research that will lead to social change that benefits women
DeVault argues that feminist methodology is an open and ongoing debate nonetheless united by a common history and a commitment to particular questions. She characterizes feminist researchers as researchers struggling with the discipline as “committed participants.” The remaining parts of the book deal in more detail with the concept of excavation, with strategies for using the personal as a resource in research, with the rhetorical strategies of feminist researchers, and practical advice for feminist researchers. Throughout the book, DeVault balances theoretical discussions of methodology and epistemology with pieces in which she models feminist research methods.
Comments:

For me, the most compelling concept that comes out of DeVault’s work is the idea of excavation because it highlights the epistemological commitments of feminist research. The word itself–excavation–also suggests that the knowledge and perspectives being brought forth have always been present, although ignored, which means that it’s not the researcher alone who is creating knowledge. The struggles and strategies involved in excavation are perhaps most evident in the chapters where DeVault discusses her own research projects. For example, in one chapter she talks about the importance of using her own standpoint and knowledge as a woman to listen to significant gaps and silences in women’s interviews and working to highlight the significance of these silences rather than only listening to what is said. Later chapters also deal with the importance of remembering that ‘woman’ is not a unified, universal category and that the work of excavation also means listening for differences of race and class.

Key Quotes:

“When I am pushed to define feminist methodology simply and completely in the terms of mainstream social science, I risk distorting what feminist methodologists do. Instead of rushing to answer, it may be more useful to notice that the question comes from a discourse that is not eager to make room for us. Feminist scholars insist that the answers to questions should fit with the contours of women’s lives, including our own. Thus, the researchers doing feminist work, and using feminist methods, are the starting point and the anchor for my answer, rather than some established notion of what a ‘methodology’ should look like. The apparently tautological answer (‘It’s what we do’) asserts that feminist researchers should not be expected to explain their methodology fully or definitively in ‘twenty-five words or less’ or in the token article or talk. It puts forward the strong claim that a body of diverse work exists and deserves attention on its own terms.” (23)

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