“Feminist Theory and Sociology: Underutilized Contributions for Mainstream Theory” by Janet Saltzman Chaftez

Chafetz, Janet Saltzman. 1998. “Feminist Theory and Sociology: Underutilized Contributions for Mainstream Theory.” Annual Review of Sociology. vol.23, pp.97-120.

Chaftez works in the Department of Sociology at the University of Houston. This article argues that feminist versions of certain theories already used in sociology are necessary to get the full view of the world, recognizing both genders.


The term “Feminist Theory” is used to describe countless works. There is no single definition of “Feminist Theory”, or of a feminist for that matter.

There are 4 types of Feminist Theory included in the article:

  1. A study of how societies and relationships should be, what is wrong with them at the time, and how to direct societies to the way they ought to be.
  2. Critiquing androcentric theories, concepts, and assumptions. Androcentric means focused or centered on men.
  3. How to appropriately theorize from a feminist perspective
  4. Explanatory theories about the relationship between gender and other structures and processes.

-Chaftez does not describe feminist theory as being “woman centered”. She defines it in terms of four criteria:

  1. Feminist theory has gender as a central focus or subject matter
  2. It views gender as a problem and seeks to relate gender to social “inequities, strains, and contradictions” (Chaftez, 98).
  3. Gender relations are constantly changing
  4. Feminist theory can be used to counteract, challenge, or change, something that devalues or disregards women.

General theories tend to ignore gender. Even when sociology textbooks are used, the topic feminist theories is usually confined to a chapter within the book. Some feminists simply argue that there are too few feminist theories. Chaftez, however, will focus her article on the variety of feminist insights that many sociologist have never known or studied.


Epistemological Issues (Issues With Theories of Knowledge)

It is important to note that feminist theory is not a uniquely feminist approach to sociology, but it extends the insights to include those of women.

Standpoint theory is the idea that knowledge and ideology about the social world depends on the standpoint of the knower. There is no person who understands everything, we all understand parts of sociology based on our viewpoint. No person’s knowledge about sociology is superior to another, although some feminists would consider women’s views as superior because they are a “disempowered outsider” (Chaftez does not agree).

Dorothy Smith and Patricia Hill Collins are two of the most cited women in sociology. Their idea of “standpoint theory” is traced to Marx and Mannheim’s ideological theories. Marx and Mannheim consider a person’s standpoint to be their social class. Smith adds gender to this idea and Collins adds both gender and race. Feminist sociologists begin their studies assuming that all sociological knowledge has come from one “knower”- white, middle class men. They believe that the more variety of “knowers” the more extensive the insights.

Women have different experiences through out their lives than men do. Hence, different standpoints. This theory goes onto suggest that having different standpoints means men and women think differently. Because usually sociology is discussed from a male’s standpoint and structured for a male’s thinking, women end up with a “bifurcated consciousness” (to bifurcate means to divide into two branches). Collins argues that women are forced to think the way that men think, suppressing their potential for success. She suggests that positivism (an epistemology commonly used in sociology) is a “Eurocentric masculinist epistemology”. Positivism is the idea that every assertion can be scientifically verified or is capable of solid acclaiming solid proof. Collins argues that the lives of African American women cannot be learned through positivism. She also critiques the theory because it objectifies everything, leaving out emotion, ethics, and values, and treats its research subjects (people) as objects. Other feminist scholars (including Chaftez) do not believe that men and women think differently to the extent that you could categorize their thought processes.


The Proposed Alternative

Smith and Collins both agree that instead of using “masculine” ways of researching sociological phenomena (such as positivism), the best use is through personal experience. Exploring the world as an insider and expressing your standpoint would give more insight than a prepackaged set of statistics. They believe that if a female were to break down and critique a text written by a male sociologists, more insight would be gained on the subject. It would lead to new concepts and theoretical understandings that represent a woman’s standpoint.

Patricia Hill Collins offers 3 pieces of advice for research with an emphasis on experience:

1. Knowledge claims should result from active participation and connectedness of the researcher and the subjects.

2. Personal experience, emotions, and empathy, are central to knowledge.

3. Personal accountability is important in social research. “Knowledge claims should be evaluated in terms of what one knows about the character” (Chaftez, 102).

Unfortunately, rejecting abstract research practices makes it difficult to perform their own social “experiments”.


The Issue Of Essentialism

Essentialism is the idea that things have a set of characteristics that make them what they are. In sociology, essentialism can be described as the view that groups of people have intrinsically different natures or dispositions and can be categorized.

Feminist Standpoint Theory is constantly changing as mainstream theory changes. Some feminist sociologists believe that there are overarching characteristics that apply to males and females. This is where essentialism gets rejected. However, rejecting essentialism makes it difficult to refer to things as “masculine” without being contradictory in ones beliefs that there is no such thing as set “masculine” or “feminine” characteristics.

Conceptual Problems

A small section of the article regards the problem between differences of kind and differences of degree. Many research reports will include that there is a certain kind of, say, patriarchy, exploitation, or oppression in an area. It won’t report the degree to which this concept exists. Terms can also be infrequently defined or include subjects that are much too broad to actually get any real understanding from them.


Neo-Marxist Theories

Marxist-inspired feminist theories, also know as socialist feminism, insists that the non-waged labor that women often get stuck doing is just as important as the waged labor that men do, and that oppression of women results from patriarchy and class structure. Neo-Marxist feminists believe that capitalism feeds patriarchy, and thus would need to cease to exist in order to achieve equality. Capitalism and patriarchy are an interwoven web that are dependent on one another to continue.

In capitalist systems, the division of labor makes women responsible for unpaid domestic work, care and reproduction of the future labor force (raising children), and other necessary unwaged work. The fact that the non-waged work done by women is so important and profitable by capitalists (who get the benefits for free) makes this un-waged labor exploitative for women.

Socialist feminists believe that patriarchy, or male supremacy, is justified by reproductive gender differences. Working class men benefit in their households from the women doing the domestic work because the jobs are reserved for men. However when a woman enters the workforce she finds that the higher paying jobs are reserved for men, assuming that women would be working domestically. This results in dual exploitation within the household and the labor market.

Feminist scholars have also extended the Marxist-based World Systems Theory, which proposes that capitalism is not just an economic system bounded by a nations borders, but that it involves relationships between nations based of inequality. Feminist scholars include women in this theory. When capitalist nations make profit by cheap labor in another country, the status of women there becomes reduced. Some argue that the World Systems Theory ignores the economic contributions of women. As Chaftez puts it, “Marxist-inspired feminists demonstrate that gender is as central a component as class in understanding exploitation/oppression within capitalist systems” (Chaftez, 106).


Cultural and Social Macrostructural Theories

Macrostructural feminist theories that aren’t neo-Marxist share a common goal: to explain variations in level of gender classifications across time and space and also how that level is maintained or changed. These theories divide mostly into 2 groups:

  1. Those that say culture and ideology are the most important emphasis
  2. Those that say socio-economic factors are the most important

Within this section, Chaftez suggests that because of women’s reproductive functions of birth and lactation, and the division of labor, women are more associated with “nature” and men are more associated with “culture”.

Macrostructural social theories emphasize environmental, demographic, technological, economic, and political variables as its mechanisms, as well as physical and social hazards. Some findings have come out of using these mechanisms, such as the fact that there is greater gender inequality in areas with high rates of male violence. Where there is more opportunity for non-domestic work for women, there is less gender inequality, and vice versa.

Feminist mactrostructural theories are rarely meant to demonstrate the impact of gender inequality on other aspects of social structure, but to point out the social structure’s impact on the gender system. They link gender to other macro level structures. Theories that fail to reference gender when acknowledging social change are “radically incomplete” (Chaftez, 109).


Rational Choice and Exchange Theories

The rational choice theory assumes that people make choices based on what will benefit them the most. Feminist critics accuse the theory of assuming a, “selfish, separative, and non-emotional actor who is masculine, thereby ignoring the connective, altruistic, and emotional motivations, claimed to be characteristically feminine”.

The social exchange theory assumes that social behavior is a result of an exchange process meant to maximize benefits and minimize costs. People weigh the two factors and abandon the idea when the risks outweigh the benefits. This theory is criticized because women’s risks are higher when they are dependent on men. For example, a woman who works at home may be less likely to risk cheating on her husband because she would be risking losing financial support, a home, etc. The man wouldn’t worry about such risks. I think this makes sense, however I don’t understand why you would critique the actual theory. To me, this theory is correct, and the fact that women may have more “risks” than men is unfortunate, but still not the theory’s fault.


Network and Status Expectations Theories

The central thesis of feminist-inspired network and status expectations theories is that men are more expected to “take charge” within social settings because they have been accrued a higher social status. They emphasize that different-sex interactions are heavily affected by small gender differences and inequalities.


Symbolic Interactionist and Ethnomethodological Theories

Symbolic Interactionism refers to the symbolic meaning that people develop and rely upon in the process of social interaction. Ethnomethodology refers to a method of studying communication that emphasizes common-sense views of conversation and the world. The feminist versions of these focuses on “gender as an ongoing accomplishment that emerges during interaction processes, both between and within sexes” (Chaftez, 111-112). Chaftez explains how gender is “omnirelevant” because any action can be interpreted as exemplifying it. She goes on to explain how even when we aren’t trying to, we act according to our assigned gender in all situations, all the time. Two sociologists, West and Zimmerman, term this act as “doing gender”.

It also suggests in this topic that conversation between women and men reinforces gender inequalities because it is the man who decides what is appropriate within the conversation, setting the tone for it. I disagree with this thought as well. I do not believe that men “dominate conversations” as the article says. I could understand this for in the past when women were told to act in a way that would please a man, but not in today’s world.

Another idea stemming from symbolic interactionism is that women are likely to be judged on their “femaleness” or “lady-like-ness” which spirals into them being completely objectified. Because of this objectification, women begin to see themselves as inferior and may suffer from low self esteem and other issues.

To conclude this sections, the article states that gender plays a huge role in our day to day interactions with others and should not be ignored when talking about general interaction theories.


Neo-Freudian and Role Theories

This section focuses of the emergence of “sex role” theories in the 1960s and ‘70s. The sex, or gender, role perspective is focused on delineating the processes of childhood socialization. Neo-Freudian Feminists argue that children are taught from an early age how to act according to their gender, and develop gender identities that last for life.

One theory about the way this occurs refers to the fact that the mother is usually the child-bearer. While girls are raised by a same-sex caretaker, boys are raised by a person of the opposite sex as them. Because of this, girls are comfortable growing up to be like their mother, and their main concern is connection with other people. However, boys will at some point have to detach from their mother. This process makes boys more independent and more concerned about their own well-being than that of others. In addition to this, fathers differentiate their different children much more than mothers do. Mothers tend to treat both boys and girls the same, while fathers are more know for trying to “man up” their boys and treat their girls like a princess.



The intersection of race, class, and gender, is very important when considering sociology. Collins believes that often times the oppressed is also an oppressor, and vice versa. It all depends on the combination of race, class, and gender, as well as other “layers”. Other sociologists, West and Fenstermaker, point out that nobody can experience gender without also experiencing other statuses (class, race, etc). Both of these ideas reflect the idea that most sociological research has been too middle class, white, and male, for everyone to relate to.

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3 Responses to “Feminist Theory and Sociology: Underutilized Contributions for Mainstream Theory” by Janet Saltzman Chaftez


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