Canadian Journal of Sociology Online January - February 2000

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Marjorie L. DeVault.
Liberating Methods: Feminism and Social Research.
Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999, 275 pp. $US 19.95 paper (1566396980) $US 59.50 cloth (1566396972)

Liberating Methods makes an innovative and valuable contribution to ongoing debates over the status and nature of feminist research in sociology. In contrast to many existing volumes – such as Shulamit Reinharz’s (1992) Feminist Methods in Social Research, Fonow and Cook’s (1991) Beyond Methodology, and Sandra Harding’s (1987) Feminism and Methodology – it does not offer a comprehensive survey of feminist research, a set of exemplary readings, or a conceptual overview of methodological and epistemological issues. Instead, DeVault’s purpose is to speak to a range of issues that are “compelling” for feminist researchers in the current context – issues that emerge from her reading of the increasingly rich literature, the challenge of helping students do feminist research, and “the puzzles of [her] own scholarly practice” (p. 2).

In tackling these issues, DeVault draws on her own intellectual work and biography, integrating several important previously published articles with new pieces of writing, in order to chart her own movement through the changing terrain of feminist research over the past two decades. Her approach is an effective one, illustrating the origins and innovations of early second-wave feminist research, the growing diversity and debate characterizing feminist research, and the shifts in her own thinking and practical research strategies over time. While such an approach might easily become parochial, DeVault is a wide ranging thinker, continually experimenting with research strategies and pushing out the edges of her own work to connect it to broader debates. The result is a book that is engaging and useful to a diverse group of readers – students seeking practical research strategies, teachers searching for new ideas and resources, and researchers interested in DeVault’s thoughtful engagement with feminist standpoint and post-modern perspectives.

In terms of its content, the book is organized into six broad sections. In Part I: Introduction, DeVault begins with an wonderful autobiographical essay, situating herself as a ‘second generation’ academic feminist scholar in the United States and speaking to the difficulties of working within, while also resisting, the discipline of sociology. In Part II: What is Feminist Methodology? DeVault elaborates on the distinctive nature of feminist research (Chapter 2), and discusses in detail the approach of institutional ethnography developed by Dorothy Smith (Chapter 3). These chapters make clear DeVault’s intellectual commitments to standpoint theorists – particularly Dorothy Smith and Sandra Harding – and while there is much here that is familiar, DeVault’s elaboration of Smith’s approach, especially in light of post-modern critiques, will be useful to many. In Part III: Excavation, DeVault turns to the important work feminist research has done in ‘excavating’ invisible or ignored aspects of women’s lives (eg. housework, sexual harassment). Here the innovative nature of DeVault’s work is clear. Her past empirical work, most notably Feeding the Family, is a wonderful example of feminist excavation and through the two chapters in this section she shows precisely how this work is done. Drawing on debates over language and representation, and using transcripts from her research, she illustrates strategies for listening as women articulate ideas that existing language or sociological concepts fail to capture. She also challenges early feminist researchers on their assumptions of ‘women-to-women talk’ and ‘rapport’, illustrating with narratives from her own work how differences between women, such as race and ethnicity, operate to limit understanding and exchange.

In the final three sections of the book, DeVault turns to issues of subjectivity, representation, and feminist research practice. In Part IV: The Self as Resource, she reflects on feminist commitments to personal experience, arguing for a more ‘disciplined’ use of the self in empirical research and discussing two of her own ‘experiments’ in personal/reflexive research strategies – a reading of Nadine Gordimer’s novel The Late Bourgeois World, and a study of female professionals. In Part V: Writing and Rhetorical Strategy, DeVault considers much debated questions over authority, interpretation, and representation. Her most interesting chapter explores the difficulties feminist researchers face in fitting into standard rhetorical practices within sociology; her close reading of Susan Krieger’s (1983) The Mirror Dance and Rosabeth Kanter’s (1977) Men and Women of the Corporation illustrates specific strategies feminist sociologists use to situate their work. Finally, in Part VI: Craft Knowledge of Feminist Research, DeVault provides more explicit, practical advice for feminist researchers, drawing heavily on her experiences working and teaching with her students. Included as well is a course outline from her seminar in Feminist Methodologies – an interesting and useful addition for those teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in this area.

Without doubt the greatest strength of this book lies in DeVault’s commitment to working through key debates in feminist research in a grounded, detailed manner, rather than at a more abstract, conceptual level. Drawing on her formation in interpretive and materialist traditions in sociology, her commitment to feminist standpoint theory, and a serious engagement with post-modern writers, she offers a compelling argument for an empirical feminist research that remains committed to understanding and changing the world. While not all readers may agree with her position, and or find her arguments sufficiently developed in places, there is still a great deal to learn from her thoughtful approach to the complex issues with which feminist researchers are now engaged. Those teaching courses on feminist research, in particular, will find this a valuable book for suggesting strategies, prodding thinking, and sparking debate.

Karen D. Hughes
Women’s Studies / Sociology
University of Alberta
January 2000
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