Women's Ways of Knowing: a Foray into the Social Sciences

belenky_etal_bookcover.gifTaking a break from the poetic and the philosophical for a moment, I want to take a little jaunt into my sociological background to point a little spotlight on a very important book, Women's Ways of Knowing by Mary Field Belenky, Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger, and Jill Mattuck Tarule (henceforth BCG&T). Originally published in 1986 (I'm drawing from the 10th anniversary edition), this is an analysis of 135 interviews with women in different forms of formal and informal education, from prestigious colleges to programs through human service agencies. Using models of development from Carol Gilligan and William Perry as a baseline and sounding board, these interviews revealed ways in which these women's experiences and "ways of knowing" provide an alternate model of epistomological development. This book was initially so influential because it provided a new, empirically-grounded paradigm for thinking about how women think; now, I see it as required reading for anyone reflecting on their own intellectual development or concerned with the development of others (male or female).

BCG&T propose a categorization of certain types of thinkers - and this word categorization is key, because while some of their respondents transitioned between categories in a seemingly developmental progression, BCG&T resist ascribing their categories to particular age ranges or to an evolutionary model. Certain categories end up seeming more desirable than others; rather than chalk this up to authorial bias, though, it seems that the desirability factor stemmed from the respondents' own sense of emotional and intellectual fulfillment.

In order to outline BCG&T's categories, I want to first point out what they're writing against; namely, William Perry's 1970 research on Harvard undergraduates (mostly male, though including some women). Perry maps a progression through four phases of development:


  1. basic dualism, in which the world is polarized into a system of right/wrong handed down by authorities

  2. multiplicity, in which absolute authority is questioned and everyone is recognized as having the right to their own opinion

  3. relativism subordinate, where analytic evaluation of these multiple opinions is encouraged, and finally,

  4. full relativism, in which knowledge of the world is understood to be context-sensitive, and relativism understood to extend beyond the classroom.

The problem with the Perry scheme, suggest BCG&T, is not that it's wrong, but that it presupposes an educational privilege which allows for access to all four stages. Many of their interviewees, for reasons of upbringing, socioeconomic status, education, etc did not fit neatly into these categories; BCG&T suggest that an educational model based around the Perry scheme - which was, after all, founded on a study of Harvard students - might not take these differences sufficiently into account.

Instead, BCG&T grouped their respondents into five types of thinkers. I will try to be brief here, but be aware that this book has a lot of very astute things to say about each category.


  • Silence: Those who, for whatever reason, believe themselves subject to authority. According to them, their voices carry no weight, and their conception of self is dependent on how others see them. Language is not cultivated as a way of developing conceptual thought.

  • Received Knowledge: Those who learn through listening. They often see things in terms of right/wrong, true/false, because they are often concerned with taking in the "right answer" from a perceived higher authority. This is similar to Perry's dualism, but with a crucial difference: men, in Perry's study, seemed to identify more with the authority ("authority-right-we"), while the women interviewed tended to perceive themselves as separate and the authority as inaccessible ("authority-right-they").

  • Subjective Knowledge: Those who mistrust authority, and rather rely solely on their own experience and "gut instinct." This often comes at great social and professional cost, since as BCG&T point out, Western thought emphasizes rationality while Eastern philosophy may be more amenable to intuitive understanding (55). Subjective knowers sometimes feel that they are in a sea of possibilities, but without the guidance of any authority, they can feel lost, isolated, and alienated.

  • Procedural Knowledge: Those who, either through "separate" or "connected" knowing, learn how to play by the rules or mold their subjective knowledge into a framework of received knowledge. "Separate" knowers, much more common in formal higher education, perceive the self as separate from a system of "how They want you to think" (103). They may, for example, learn to write a paper the way a teacher wants them to, but may have no personal stake in the content of that paper. This problem can be exacerbated by debate or doubt, which can undermine a student's confidence in the worth of her personal experience in the classroom. "Connected" knowers, on the other hand, value personal experience over the dictates of the authorities, and they attempt to see others in the others' own terms (putting themselves in others' shoes). This learning through empathy can, however, lead to loss of a sense of valued selfhood. For both separate and connected knowing, form triumphs over content: "both learn to get out from behind their own eyes and use a different lens, in one case the lens of a discipline, in the other the lens of another person" (115).

  • Constructed Knowledge: Those who are "passionate knowers," who strive to integrate personal experience with the the voices and expertise of others. Knowledge is contextualized, with attention to the fact that all knowledge is constructed through a combination of internal and external forces. This seems to be the most rewarding type of knowledge for BCG&T (and I would personally have to agree), although they do point out that constructivist knowers sometimes have difficulty finding relationship partners (and satisfying conversation partners) who operate on a similar plane, and will sometimes shut down if they sense that their audience is not receptive to such complex thought.

This was a long description, but an important one for a discussion and critique of rationality. One concept which BCG&T bring up in their "procedural knowledge" section is that of methodolatry (not their term: it comes from Mary Daly). This has a great deal to do with rationality as a method: in short, methodolatry holds that the result is less important than the fact that you've considered the problem thoroughly and academically. This has a number of scary ideological issues - BCG&T evoke the image of military strategists coolly debating cost-benefit ratios of different forms of weaponry - but more pertinent to this blog, BCG&T's problem with a methodolatrous form of rationality is that women were not part of the process of creating this method:
Methodolatry may be especially dangerous for women, because women, after all, have not participated in designing the procedures developed by the various disciplines for acquiring knowledge; and the procedures may make it difficult or impossible for women to acquire the knowledge they need... The methodolators, although ostensibly basing their decisions upon form, implicitly decide upon content... In learning to "do philosophy," Faith [one respondent] learned how to formulate questions; but the questions had to be of a particular kind, and the questions she might have formulated on her own might have been quite different from those she was being taught to ask (95-6).

BCG&T fail to adequately (for me) prove why this might be more of a problem for women than for men; in many places in this book, I found myself think they've essentialized certain gender differences a little bit too much. On the other hand, I do believe that many men are taught to operate more on a confrontational model (in, for example, philosophical debate) which may lead many women to a sort of procedural knowledge which is uncomfortable for them and which eventually shuts them down academically.

In short (ha!), Women's Ways of Knowing has a lot to tell parents and educators about the way learners - and I want to say all learners, regardless of gender - might need different forms of support. In that way, it is a potent critique of rationality as one of many methods of learning, a method which often subordinates intuition and personal experience. (The predominance of men in the sciences might suggest that, aside from many obvious structural inequalities, men may have struggled less with this process of emotional subordination.) While some thinkers react by rejecting this method altogether (the subjective knower) or by embracing it single-mindedly (the received and the procedural knowers, in different ways and for different reasons), it seems that the constructed knower learns to accept rationality as a facet of a more complex and contextual truth - and that in the classroom, for whatever reasons, women have traditionally had a hard time reaching this stage of engagement. BCG&T's focus on adults leaves ample room for speculation on how to apply their model to issues in childhood education - for example, why some adolescent girls shut down in the classroom. But if it shows us anything for sure, it is that women interact with knowledge from a historically subordinate position, and although this is certainly changing, we may need to revise our definitions of knowing to fit the steadily growing place of women in academia.

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This page contains a single entry by Sophie published on April 6, 2010 1:35 AM.

The Unconscious (and Surrealism), Part Two was the previous entry in this blog.

Eight Women Philosophers: Not Finding What Isn't There is the next entry in this blog.

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