Feminist Theory in Sociology Research Paper Starter

Feminist Theory in Sociology

(Research Starters)

This article provides an overview of feminist theory in sociology, including its early themes, contributions to the discipline, and areas that pose the most resistance. The central focus of the feminist critique of sociology is that the discipline is incomplete, biased, and patriarchal. From a historical perspective, early themes of feminist thought in sociology centered on criticisms of sociology's dominant frameworks, the distinction between sex and gender, and criticisms of fundamentalism. As feminist theory made its way into mainstream sociology, it transformed discipline-based knowledge. For example, feminist scholars reworked prevailing sociology theories such as Marxist class theory and macrostructural theories. Both Marxist-inspired feminist theory and macrostructural-inspired feminist theory provide important insights into the linkages between gender and class relationships and gender stratification and other macrolevel structures, respectively. Indeed, virtually all dimensions of sociological theory have been reevaluated through the lens of feminist theory.

Keywords Epistemology; Feminist Theory; Functionalism; Gender; Marxism; Paradigm; Patriarchy; Sex

Feminist Theory in Sociology


Feminist theory in sociology emerged out of the political struggles of the 1960s and 70s, and in many ways it parallels the women's movement. A fundamental charge of feminist scholarship in general is to emphasize the validity of women's experience in the social world (Sydie, 1987). The early themes of feminist thought in sociology centered on criticisms of the discipline's dominant frameworks, the distinction between sex and gender, and criticisms of fundamentalism (Andersen, 2005). Virtually all dimensions of sociological theory have been reevaluated through the lens of feminist theory. Hence, feminist thought has made significant contributions to sociology. It has reduced the discipline's reliance on and acceptance of male experiences and perspectives as human experience, added to the discipline's existing knowledge base on social institutions and processes, introduced new topics and concepts, redirected explorations into previously overlooked areas of the social world, and actively fostered interdisciplinary linkages with a variety of other disciplines (Alway, 1995).

Feminist Theory Defined

The term feminist theory is used to refer to a multitude of types of works, produced by a movement of activists and scholars in a variety of disciplines (Chafetz, 1997). Feminist theory first developed in the 1970s as result of profound changes in women's experiences and situations that led to a political movement that challenged prevailing explanations of women's subordinate positions in society (Alway, 1995).

Feminist theory differs from general theories of inequality. Generally speaking, feminist theory refers to a set of theories that are concerned with explaining the relative position of women in society. While there is no one form of feminist theory, sociologist Janet Saltzman Chafetz, in Feminist Sociology: An Overview of Contemporary Theories (1988), argues that a theory is feminist if it contains three elements:

• Gender is the central focus of the theory,

• Gender relations are considered to be problematic, and

• Gender relations in society are considered changeable.

Lengermann and Neibrugge-Brantley (1990) state that feminist theory "implicitly or formally presents a generalized, wide-ranging system of ideas about the world from a woman-centered perspective " (p. 317). Of central importance to feminist theory is the focus not just on women's issues but how the theory deals with these issues in a way to challenge, counteract, or change a societal gender system that disadvantages or devalues women (Ransdell, 1991).

Within sociology, feminist theory has emerged through challenging and revising the discipline's dominant theoretical traditions. Indeed, feminist theorists have had a great deal to say about many issues central to sociological theory, such as the dynamics of social relations, power, and a wide range of social institutions (Thorne, 2006).

Feminist Sociological Theory Defined

According to Lengermann and Neibrugge-Brantley (1990), "feminist sociological theory attempts a systematic and critical reevaluation of sociology's core assumptions in the light of discoveries being made within another community of discourse-the community of those creating feminist theory" (p. 316). A good portion of the scholarship that is identified as "feminist theory" within the discipline consists of epistemology and epistemological critiques of mainstream or "malestream" sociology (Chafetz, 1997).

Judith Stacey and Barrie Thorne's (1985) paper titled The Missing Feminist Revolution in Sociology is a classic article in the field of feminist sociology. In this piece of scholarship, Stacey and Thorne define the parameters of a feminist sociology, such that it involves

… placing women at the center, as subjects of inquiry and as active agents in the gathering of knowledge. This strategy makes women's experiences visible, reveals the sexist biases and tacitly male assumptions of traditional knowledge, and…opens the way to gendered understanding (p. 302).

Further Insights

Early Themes of Feminist Thought in Sociology

The early feminist literature in sociology focused on identifying the consequences of excluding women from the knowledge of the discipline (Andersen, 2005). In doing so, early feminist scholarship tended to criticize and call into question the conventional and dominant assumptions, categories, and methods within sociology (Alway, 1995). A central target of this criticism was the (male) standpoint from which sociology is written. Emerging from the political struggles of the 1970s, feminist scholars exposed the discipline's almost exclusive focus on white men and the phenomenal world it created from their viewpoint (Smith, 1989), and thus, feminist sociology was formed.

There are three main themes of early feminist thought in sociology:

Criticisms of Sociology's Dominant Frameworks

Because feminist scholars devoted a good deal of their early work on criticism of the discipline's concepts and theories, the central question focused on where women fit in the dominant framework (Andersen, 2005). Marxist theory, as just one example, became a target of early feminist criticism for ignoring the importance of gender in systems of production.

The Sex

Early feminist scholars in sociology emphasized the important distinction between gender and sex. The objective of this distinction was to emphasize the social basis of gender and gender roles. This effort became the major avenue within feminist sociology toward debunking the prevailing explanations of sex differences, which rested on biological determinants rather than principles of social organization (Anderson, 2005).

Criticisms of Functionalism

Early feminist scholars’ criticisms of functionalism centered on its interpretations of the family. The fundamentalist idea that expressive and instrumental roles in the family were divided between the genders was fiercely challenged (Anderson, 2005).

Feminist Contributions to Sociological Theory

During the twenty-year period spanning the early 1970s to 1990s, feminist thought swept through sociology, and the percentage of women in the field grew dramatically (Thorne, 2006). Feminist theory has continued to flourish since the 1970s. Consequently, there is much theoretical work in sociology that has been produced as a result of feminism and the women's movement, and these contributions have transformed thinking in the discipline.

Indeed, feminist scholarship has offered an abundance and variety of valuable theoretical insights, critiques, and concepts that have contributed to the understanding of the social world (Alway, 1995; Chafetz, 1997). Wallace (1989) identified four main theoretical contributions of feminism on sociology:

• Critique and reevaluation of existing sociological theories,

• Discovery of new concepts and topics,

• Interdisciplinary linkages, and

• A new sociological paradigm.

The following paragraphs elaborate on each of these contributions.


The main target of feminist criticism has been sociology's prevailing functionalist theory, and, in particular, Talcott Parsons's work on the family. At the center of this critique are Parsons's categorization of role expectations and the structure of relationships, which tended to view women's roles as predominately expressive and men's as instrumental. Feminists also generally criticized Parsons's theory of gender socialization as oppressive for both genders, but particularly so for women.


(The entire section is 3963 words.)