Social Worlds Theory vs Feminist Standpoint Theory


This essay compares two different social research methods: social worlds theory and feminist standpoints/situated knowledges. There will be five sections in this essay. The first section includes a brief literature review of different theoretical texts and applied uses of social worlds theory, coming from five different articles. The second section will be an explanation of how I would use social worlds theory to construct a study around my research interest for my master’s thesis (classic car enthusiasts). The third section will be a brief literature review of feminist standpoint theory/situated knowledges, including three articles and one book. The fourth section will be an explanation of how I would use feminist standpoint theory to construct a study around my research interest. The fifth and final section will compare the differences and similarities between the methods, compare how they could be used methodologically, and what propose possible studies that would exemplify a preferred usage of each method. In sections I and III, the articles presented are in chronological order, with applications coming after theory.

Section I. Social Worlds Theory

Adele Clarke and Susan Star published “The Social Worlds Framework: A Theory/Methods Package” in 2008, arguing for a framework/theory package and giving an overview of social worlds theory. They argue that social worlds theory is based on meaning-making actions amongst groups of actors. Social worlds are defined within universes of discourse, or discussion, about a topic (think of the universe of discourse as a core curriculum class and each social world as groups of people in each major in that class). Clarke and Star say that over time, social worlds segment into other worlds; in this way, one could argue that social worlds are fractal. When multiple social worlds have huge intersections, this is called a social arena (such as a department) all have their own social worlds (such as professors, lecturers, teaching assistants, graduate students, undergraduate students, faculty, maintenance staff, and administrators). There are people who could fit into multiple social worlds (such as a graduate student who is also a TA or an undergraduate who is in a club that is instructed by someone on the maintenance staff). Clarke and Star discuss boundary objects as objects around which discourse can occur, and argue that social worlds theory allows for the drag of history, showing cumulative consequences of actor’s actions.

In “Institutional Ecology,” Star and Griesemer (1989) illustrate how a number of stakeholders in a natural history museum come together to cooperate when dealing with artifacts. Star and Griesemer argue that science is homogenous and there are different actors with different viewpoints that should be taken into account; many-to-many mapping, in other words. In order for this to happen, actors/stakeholders must cooperate towards a common goal. The authors describe the artifacts collected for the museum as the boundary objects around which the actors were able to work together. An implication from this article is that social worlds theory is about different actors coming together to achieve a certain goal. Star and Griesemer argue that there are two major activities central to translation between viewpoints and four different types of boundary object. The two translation activities are methods standardization (precise standards of collection, duration, and description) and development of boundary objects (locally plastic but globally robust). The four types of boundary objects are repositories, ideal types, coincident boundaries, and standardized forms (p. 410-411). Repositories are piles of objects that are collected and organized in a standardized form (like a card catalog or Wikipedia). Ideal type boundary objects are like a diagram, atlas, or other description-based tool (like a globe). Coincident boundaries are common objects that have the same boundaries but different contents (like a car). Standardized forms are methods of common communication across groups (like texting).

Within social worlds theory is the theory/methods package of trading zones. Collins et. al. describe trading zones in “Trading Zones and Interactional Expertise” (2010) as a framework for understanding how groups with a deep problem of communication manage to communicate, or more simple a framework for multidisciplinary cooperation. This text uses social worlds language, which helps theoretically place it in social worlds theory. The authors write about how trading zones exist along two axes, cooperation-coercion and homogeneity-heterogeneity. Lining these two axes up along a table helps show the four different kinds of trading zone. The first is an interlanguage trading zone (high cooperation and high homogeneity) in which two groups speak a jargon, then a pidgin, then a creole (each progression forward on this list shows an increased degree of commonalities in language and eventually the creation of a new, common language between the two groups). The next is an enforced trading zone, in which one group dominates another (high coercion and high heterogeneity); the example given is slavery, in which the goals of the masters are communicated through punishment and there is no backwards communication from the slaves. The authors say that “it should be said that there are circumstances in which an enforced trading zone is beneficial and even morally desirable,” (p. 10) such as in AIDS relief in South Africa, where outside aid will harm fewer people than folk cures such as having sex with virgins. The next type of trading zone is subversive (high homogeneity and high coercion), in which one culture overtakes another (such as Christianity in South America) and participates in cultural obliteration. The final type of trading zone is fractionated, and has two subtypes based on the type of communication. Fractionated trading zones are characterized by high collaboration and high heterogeneity. When communication is based on transfer of knowledge, then the fractionated trading zone is using interactional expertise. When communication is based on objects, then the fractionated trading zone is using a boundary object. Interactional expertise is the “internalization of the tacit components of a strange language,” and takes a lot of time and effort to complete. The authors argue that just a small fraction of language knowledge can help create a trading zone.

An example of a trading zone study in action is “The Evolution of a Trading Zone: A Case Study of the Turtle Excluder Device” by Lekelia Jenkins (2010). A common problem among many seafaring stakeholders is turtle bycatch during shrimping (which makes the turtles drown); different actors view this problem different ways. Shrimpers are annoyed at the space the turtles take up and their loss of profits, and conservationists are concerned about the loss of endangered marine life. This article includes a quick description of how trading zones work and then uses the study to show how different stakeholders came to communicate. The author shows how trading zones can evolve and even diverge over time. She explains how the trading zone in the study went from enforced to institutional power (still enforced) to fractionated, and then split into a different fractionated and eventually had one arm end in regulations (enforced). She doesn’t talk about the turtle or shrimp as actors in this study, only focusing on human actors.

Section II. How I Would Use Social Worlds Theory for My Master’s Thesis

My research interest is retired engineers in classic car communities. First, I would have to choose the scale at which to study the classic car community. At the largest scale, the social worlds one could observe are each different automotive manufacturer in the arena of car enthusiasm. Studying each and every social world based on a single automotive manufacturer wouldn’t make much sense as the study would still make sense when studying at a smaller scale requiring fewer resources. I would most likely choose to study within the Mopar social world of the classic car arena. Within the Mopar social world lies even more singular automaker fan clubs, though at this level they are more manageable. Many car enthusiast clubs include members that own cars from across Mopar brands, so going further down will remove a layer of nuance between each group. This is the scale at which I will look at the social worlds I wish to study.

The Mopar classic car community looks like a social world from when looking at all automaker communities (which would be the social arena), but could be classified as its own social universe in which different clubs, organizations, merchants, makes, and even car model clubs can be considered social worlds. From here I must choose which social worlds to study. I could choose to study merchants and makes interact, but I wish to look closer and see how clubs interact with each other and how retired engineers interact with everyone else. Within the social world of Mopar lies the social world of clubs, and within this social world lies the social group of retired engineers. At this point I could draw a map of every social world, and it would look like a very distracted person tried to put together nesting Russian dolls. In this study, the classic car that each member of the club owns would be a coincident boundary around which the members form a trading zone. The purpose of the study could be to find out what kind of trading zone this is and to see how communication around these boundary objects happens.

Section III. Feminist Standpoint Theory

In “Is There a Feminist Method?” Sandra Harding (1987) argues that current attempts at feminism in social research aren’t sufficient for truly feminist purposes and gives characteristics for truly feminist research. She also distinguishes between method, methodology, and epistemology, and concludes that even though they are different they are fundamentally connected. She says that “preoccupation with method mystifies what have been the most interesting aspects of feminist research processes” (p. 1). She describes the failings of simply ‘adding women’ to social research. She gives attention to “three different characteristics of those feminist analyses that go beyond additive approaches” (p. 1). The three characteristics Harding argues for are drawing from women’s experiences, having a research goal for women, and situating the researcher. She argues that this is not a method but a set of methodological features. In the end, she argues that men have something to contribute to feminist social research and should not be excluded. Her reasoning is that since men can be antisexist, as long as their research has these three characteristics they should not be excluded; she says that “If men are trained by sexist institutions to value masculine authority more highly, then some courageous men can take advantage of that evil and use their masculine authority to resocialize men” (p. 12). In other words, men can use their masculine privilege to dismantle sexist institutions for feminist goals.

In “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Donna Haraway (1988) writes in response to Sandra Harding’s article. Haraway argues against elitist assumptions of objectivity and argues for a situated knowledge as a feminist objectivity. The science question mentioned in the title is one of objectivity and validity of different types of knowledge forms. Haraway says that “feminists have both selectively and flexibly used and been trapped by two poles of a tempting dichotomy on the question of objectivity,” though the poles that she is discussing are somewhat unclear. It is possible that she is talking about social constructivism and feminist empiricism as these poles. Haraway mentions discourse, which is a more social worlds term, but the discourse she discusses is most likely the discourse in the social world of social research. Haraway discusses visualization as a tool for violence and a tool to be reclaimed by feminism. She discusses how everyone’s perspective is warped by their upbringing. She argues that technoscience and science fiction collapse into war, or abstract masculinity (p. 577-578). Haraway proposed situated knowledges as feminist objectivity, or embodied objectivity. Her argument for situatedness is that oppressed standpoints are preferred because in principle they are less likely to deny the interpretive core of knowledge (p. 584). Her argument for situated knowledge is that the standard theory of objectivity leaves out all accountability on the side of the researcher, but situating oneself makes the researcher more accountable for their work.

In “Maps, Numbers, Text, and Context: Mixing Methods in Feminist Political Economy,” Dianne Rocheleau (1995) presents a case study that exemplifies the multitude of ways in which different data collection methods can be used in feminist standpoint research. She discusses how she uses maps of a region in the Dominican Republic to ask different stakeholders in the region about who controls resources. She presents “three key insights from the works of feminist post-structuralists” like Haraway and Harding. The first insight distinguishes between identity and affinity in favor of identity (affinity cannot be compiled), the second “considers the role of both qualitative and quantitative methods in the quest for objectivity,” (p. 459), and the third is the use of visual imagery.

Section IV. How I Would Use Feminist Standpoint Theory for My Master’s Thesis

As stated earlier, my research interest is the classic car community. Rather than focusing on retired engineers, I could start the study by looking at women’s experiences when dealing with the classic car community. Some of these women are related to the men who love cars, some of the women love the cars themselves, some of them are selling products near the cars, and some of them are models for the men to drool over in a heteronormative space. This study would involve interviewing women in all of these roles and getting their honest opinions. I could also use participant observation in the lady’s tent at the Carlisle Mopar show to see how women interact when based in this tent.

To do this as a truly feminist study, I would have to follow the three characteristics by Sandra Harding and situate myself as a female mechanic who is the daughter of an automotive journalist/historian and became a social researcher. I would start the study by asking women what they thought of the community and what they thought were problems in the community that affected them. Then, my goal would be to analyze that problem for the purpose of aiding these women. It’s possible that the different groups of women will have different goals, but that’s to be expected as women aren’t a hive mind. Insights about the classic car community from the perspective of women would be fascinating as these women are navigating a traditionally masculine space as women.

Section V. Comparison

Social worlds theory and feminist standpoint theory can seem similar from afar; they both deal with groups of people and claim to be bottom-up approaches. Both can look at how interactions affect different groups and at communication. Both social worlds theory and feminist standpoint theory have symbolic interactionist themes, and both can use boundary objects. The actual data collection methods for both methods are much the same; one can do participant observation, interviews, ethnography, and analysis of texts for both types of research method.

However, feminist standpoint theory has a definite critical edge. While its symbolic interactionist root is based on starting from women’s lives and talking to women, the goals of feminist social research are critical in nature. Feminist research goes against androcentric norms in social research by following three characteristics that set it apart from this androcentric research; situatedness rather than objectivity, starting with women’s lives instead of women as an afterthought, and research for women’s purposes rather than research for an institution to understand how to pander to women or control women.

Social worlds theory, while claiming to be bottom-up, is very much a top-down approach to research. Social worlds researchers are abstracted from what they are studying. Let’s use a galaxy as an example. In feminist standpoint, researchers are observing the Milky Way from Earth. Their perspective is based on where they are in the galaxy, but they have a good knowledge of what the rest of it is like based on the principle of the universe’s homogeneity and isotropy[1]. In social worlds theory, the researchers are looking at the Milky Way from above and can claim that they are objective because they can see everything at once and can connect everything at once.

Feminist standpoint theory revolves more around epistemology than does social worlds theory. Because social worlds theory can claim objectivity by observing from the top downwards, it doesn’t really need to worry about the validity of knowledges. Feminist standpoint theory, because it is fundamentally subjective, must defend its truthiness through embodied objectivity. The visual metaphor used in feminist standpoint is quite compelling, especially because of its references to male violence and dominance and the reclamation of the act of visualizing.

That isn’t to say that these research methods are incompatible. Social worlds theory can be used in a feminist way if the researcher follows the three characteristics put forth by Harding. A combination of the study designs I painted earlier could be starting from the lives of women in their social worlds with the classic car community as a boundary entity to see how they communicate, trying to find out how to solve problems that the classic car community may pose to these women. There is an issue, however, in that feminist standpoint theory has argued against top-down frameworks (Haraway, 1988, p. 589) and social worlds theory may not always allow researchers to start from women’s experiences from above the galaxy.

While social worlds theory and feminist standpoint theory have some tenets in common, they have just as much distinctiveness from each other. They are used for different purposes; one is used for a top-down investigation of how groups cooperate, and one is a bottom-up approach aiming for the benefit of women. Social worlds theory is good for understanding how a device like a Turtle Exclusion Device is created, while feminist standpoint theory is good for understanding how homes are political places in which can women act for themselves. Both studies are useful, they just need different tools. The two methods discussed in this paper are equipped for different questions; neither is methodologically superior to the other in all cases.





Clarke, Adele, and Susan Star. “The Social Worlds Framework: A Theory/Methods Package.” In The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, 113-37. 3rd ed. MIT Press, 2008.

Collins, Harry, Robert Evans, and Michael Gorman. “Trading Zones and Interactional Expertise.” In Trading zones and interactional expertise: creating new kinds of collaboration, 7-23. MIT Press, 2010.

Haraway, Donna. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies14, no. 3 (1988): 575. doi:10.2307/3178066.

Harding, Sandra. Feminism and methodology: social science issues. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana Univ. Press, 1996.

Jenkins, Lekelia. “The Evolution of a Trading Zone: A Case Study of the Turtle Excluder Device.” In Trading zones and interactional expertise: creating new kinds of collaboration, 157-80. MIT Press, 2010.

Rocheleau, Dianne. “Maps, Numbers, Text, and Context: Mixing Methods in Feminist Political Ecology*.” The Professional Geographer47, no. 4 (1995): 458-66. doi:10.1111/j.0033-0124.1995.00458.x.

Star, Susan Leigh, and James R. Griesemer. “Institutional Ecology, ‘Translations’ and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39.” Social Studies of Science 19, no. 3 (1989): 387-420.

[1] The universe follows the same laws of physics in all directions.