Dorothy E. Smith

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Dorothy Edith Smith (1926–2022) was a feminist sociologist focusing primarily on phenomenology, ethnomethodology, and is a proponent of Standpoint Theory. Born in England, she grew up learning sociological practices and theories through university, but quickly found a discrepancy to how sociology was being taught and her own subjective experience. She lived through a time at which gender segregation for jobs was still institutionalized, and at which sociological thought was still primarily dominated by males. Because of the lack of feminist work at the time, she realized that her standpoint was not being acknowledged by the totality of sociological thought, as the current theories at the time reflected macro-statements about society rather than focusing on the different perspectives that people can have in a society. Being the only female in a male-dominated area of teaching sociology, she placed an emphasis on women's studies where none had existed. She was one of the major players in establishing sociological feminist thought.[1]

Ethnomethodology and phenomenology[edit]

Her work on phenomenology stemmed from her experience in mainstream sociological circles. While there had been a flurry of sociological thought being developed in the academic sphere, her life experience eventually made her realize that there lacked emphases on different social groups' interpretations of reality. One of the main contributors to her 'everyday sociology' approach was Erving Goffman, who tried to draw a link between daily life and the social situations. While Smith didn't necessary take all of his practices into her thought, the idea of everyday sociology and understanding subjective viewpoints and interpretations supported her case about feminist thought and feminist ethnomethodology.

It was only recently that women started speaking out about their subjective positions and shortcomings in their perspective of society: a Marxist thought that the lower class had access to information that the ruling class was unaware of was a similar principle that Smith instituted in her thought, that women had access to perspectives and knowledge that were foreign and unknowable to men. Her essential critique was that sociology was becoming too much like an 'ideology', whereas social science is supposed to be regarded as objective. Rather, she emphasized the importance of objectively understanding the subjective understandings of actors acting within a society, not simply accepting the assumption that an external society existed and that everyone viewed it mistakenly.

Her main conclusion from this specific strain of phenomenology was that women themselves were heavily disregarded in their perspectives. When a theory was instituted by a group of male researchers, the primary viewpoint of society will be predominantly male-based. This doesn't necessarily mean that they were wrong, but that rather the side-effect of not understanding the full picture was a necessary one due to the demographic. In a sense, the sociological theory became itself a social construct that was regarded as a correct one. Smith strove to provide ways in which social life could be fully understood by indiscriminately understanding perspectives, rather than treating certain perspectives as higher priority than others.[2]

Standpoint theory[edit]

Standpoint theory follows the line of reasoning that knowledge is collected and maintained by individuals and interactions, but goes a step further to suggest that social position is a vital detail in understanding the totality of society. Certain stratifications such as race, gender, and class all provide towards this position in society, and contribute to the general perspective that one holds. Despite things such as these being social constructs maintained by groups and individuals, they nevertheless exist and continue to shape the interactions completed not in special circumstance, but simply in everyday happenings and events.

This line of reasoning questions and criticizes macro-level sociological theory because it necessarily acknowledges the importance of subjective interpretation of events. To understand an event as oppressive, one must understand that one feels oppressed. The fundamental assumption that marginalized people's opinions and standpoints don't matter is an assumption that must be dealt away with, and must be replaced with an equal representation, evaluation, and legitimization of viewpoints of people in society. In addition, one has to take care of their assumption that the experience of all women are fundamentally the same: because they are not. However, within a society that systematically marginalizes certain social groups, one also realizes that there is a rough sketch of who is being marginalized, and how. It is the fundamental basis of understanding both the standpoints of the individuals within a society, and the placement of that group within a society, that one is able to market the big picture from their studies.

Because Smith propagated Standpoint Theory, it was a fundamental basis for further feminist thought, being instituted by later sociologists such as Patricia Hill Collins, who took it a step further in analyzing the different standpoints of race, gender, and class and how each standpoint constructed to a totality of a perspective in society. To fully understand a movement such as feminism or the Black Lives Matter movement, one must be able to digest and learn about the fundamental standpoints of those actually within the movements, rather than judging it from the outside.[3]