Dorothy E. Smith, Groundbreaker in Feminist Sociology, Dies at 95

Dorothy E. Smith, a feminist scholar and sociologist whose extensive criticism of her own field led her to establish groundbreaking theories and sub-disciplines that pushed sociology away from its foundations as a male-dominated, male-centered endeavor, died on June 3 at her home in Vancouver, British Columbia. She was 95.

Her son David said the cause was complications from a fall.

Dr. Smith, who spent most of her career at Canadian universities, was best known for her contributions to what is called standpoint theory. She argued that while conventional sociology claims to be the disinterested pursuit of objective truth, it is in fact encoded with ideologies that see the male experience as universal.

“As women, we have been living in an intellectual, cultural and political world, from whose making we had been almost entirely excluded and in which we had been recognized as no more than marginal voices,” she wrote in her first and best-known book, “The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology” (1987).

Sociology, she said, was not just a lens for viewing society but also a tool for ordering it, turning the events and facts of everyday life into administrative jargon (“single mother,” “special-needs child”), organized according to the needs of the male-centered world. Worse yet, all this was invisible, she maintained; what she called “relations of ruling” were taken as natural, because the only point of view on offer was the one defined by men.

She posited that a better, liberating alternative would be to reverse the focus of sociology. Rather than making people — in particular women, but also people of color, gay men and lesbians, anyone on the margins — the object of study, they should be the subject, with the sociologist focusing on the world around them as seen and experienced from their standpoint.

“She was critical of forms of investigation that study people, particularly people in marginalized circumstances, and make them the object of study, whereas if you kind of take the standpoint of people, you’re not looking at them, you’re looking around them,” Liza McCoy, a sociologist at the University of Calgary and a former student of Dr. Smith’s, said in a phone interview. “You’re looking at what are the conditions and the practices that create the conditions that they find themselves.”

Dr. Smith offered herself, a single working mother, as a case study. She explained what her home life was like, in all its messy complexities, then showed how certain seemingly neutral terms — “single parent,” for example — fed those lived experiences into a series of social assumptions and bureaucratic processes: how her children were taught in school, how policymakers treated people like her, and even how her colleagues viewed her.

“Starting with experience was what we knew how to do in the women’s movement,” she wrote in a biographical essay in 2004. “Indeed we needed it because we came to see more and more clearly how the intellectual and cultural world we’d participated in had been put together from men’s standpoint.”

Dr. Smith called this approach “institutional ethnography,” and it has become a dominant mode of inquiry in feminist social science as well as outside academia, where community-based researchers use it to understand the relationship between a person’s everyday world and the organizing forces surrounding it, including schools, places of worship, the workplace and the police.

While she first applied her approach as a middle-class, educated, heterosexual mother and wrote about it in feminist terms, Dr. Smith saw it as a tool available to anyone marginalized by conventional sociology’s dominant forms of inquiry. And, indeed, subsequent scholars have used her methodology to study things as disparate as

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Back to top button