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Lessons in Reflexivity: Encounters, Standpoint, and Realism

This is a guest blog post by Paige L. Sweet (Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago). Her work focuses on the biomedicalization of domestic violence, trauma, and feminist politics. She participated in the 2015 Philosophy of Social Sciences Summer Seminar and is one of the co-organizers of the graduate student working group. She is currently working on an article exploring the relationship between critical realism and feminist standpoint theory.

**This blog post contains images of violence**

Lessons in Reflexivity: Encounters, Standpoint, and Realism

In the early 1980s, a young photographer named Donna Ferrato was beginning a project on polyamorous couples in New York City. Ferrato was photographing a couple in their home one evening when the husband became angry with his wife and began to scream at her, holding her up against the bathroom sink and eventually striking her multiple times. Ferrato began snapping photos, believing it would stop him. It did not. In a Time Magazine piece in 2012, Ferrato notes, “I took the picture because without it I knew no one would ever believe it happened” (Sun 2012). For Ferrato, this set of images would become the first of thousands in which she documented the lives of domestic violence victims and perpetrators. In these photos, Ferrato is very clearly in a situation. Ferrato is visible in the mirror, both in the center and background of the scene. In the second photograph, she appears between the violent scene and the reflection of the violent scene, her own image spliced by the corner of the mirror.

To observe and document this social phenomenon – hidden beneath ideological layers of masculinity and the private family – Ferrato unavoidably finds herself between the reality and its representation, literally at the nexus between the subjects and their mirror images. Ferrato is located multiply in this encounter – she is an observer of the events, she is commanding the method of documentation (the camera), she is intervening in the situation by documenting it, and in so doing she finds herself permanently placed in the center of her representational project. Like any photograph, these tell us both more and less than what is there. We cannot see the context of this man’s violence, for example, or the vulnerabilities in the woman’s social situation, or her negotiation tactics and options for escape. Even Ferrato’s exit plan is unclear to us. What we can see, though, is something typically invisible to us: the place of the analyst in the representation.

That Ferrato can photograph the violence and not be victim to it is important to the story. That she uses a visual image to document physical abuse is important for the analysis of domestic violence given to us. It is also important that Ferrato thinks to snap these photos at all, because she finds domestic violence both abnormal and urgent. Ferrato tells us a story that centers physical violence, the reality of which is buried behind the mundane setting of (eerily reflective) suburban bathrooms. This story could be told many other ways – psychological abuse documented with trauma checklists, hospital intake forms documenting pregnancy coercion, narrative accounts of women escaping abusive homes. Ferrato’s instrument of story-telling (the camera) and her place in the image (centered in the terrifying scene, but not immediately subject to harm) are important for the story that ends up being told. It also matters that domestic violence survivors have historically been robbed of credible witness status and so this indisputable, photographic evidence is the only kind deemed worthy. We need Donna Ferrato present to make this a legitimate story at all, since domestic violence must be filtered through various kinds of ‘experts’ in order to be ‘real.’ The clear cleavages here between the knower, the context, and the subjects provide insights into the social structures and violence that underlie our social inquiries.

Most researchers are not as directly involved in an encounter as Ferrato is here. But most of us do enter into some sort of situation when we conduct research. The nature of this encounter informs our practices of interpretation and makes accessible the operations of social forces we seek to analyze. While Ferrato uses her camera to bring something hidden into view, she literally cannot get herself out of the scene. Indeed, it is her presence in the photographs that, in part, makes the images so jarring. The mirror – perhaps the quintessential technology of reflexivity – is embedded into the photo itself, capturing the observer (Ferrato) and the knower’s representation of the analytic object. We are forced to reckon with the encounter between Ferrato, the couple, and the camera.

Critical realism offers certain resources for understanding the layers of social forces that could be involved in producing such an event, via its insistence on complex causal accounts, for example. However, critical realism provides less in the way of theorizing the research encounter as part of the event or its representation – both of which may be full of disorienting, distorting, and fracturing mirrors. Feminist standpoint theory has long been interested in this type of theorizing. There are readings of standpoint theory which cast it as subjectivist, as reducing questions of knowledge/power to the subject herself, essentializing women as a group. However, a closer reading of standpoint theory indicates that epistemic privilege goes to social locations, not subjects (Haraway 1988). A standpoint is not the same as the “spontaneous consciousness” of a particular group (Collins 2000; Sprague 2006). Standpoints are developed rather that inborn, achieved through strategies of boundary crossing (Sprague 2006), of tacking back and forth between marked categories and the unmarked universal. Further, epistemic privilege comes from being able to identify the points at which social differences are cleaved (Pitts-Taylor 2016). The analyst must be able to root out the way categories of knowledge slice up the world into incommensurable chunks, and use those as a resource for understanding social ontology (Decoteau 2015). By making bodies and boundaries visible and by making them count, standpoint epistemology exploits difference for its explanatory resources instead of trying to theorize around or beneath them.

Standpoint theory, then, allows us to exploit the disjunctures and splices inherent in the research situation in order to develop a fuller ontological account, forcing us to acknowledge what is not immediately present but there nonetheless (Harding 1998). This means that we must consider Ferrato’s place within the scene, her methods of documentation, and the representation rendered. Indeed, the sights, oversights, and blind spots produced through the research encounter will shift over time. As domestic violence becomes more public and more criminal, Ferrato will have less access to such blatant displays of violence. As photographs of violence come to play a greater role in legal proceedings, Ferrato’s images blur the boundary between art and evidence. Such shifting epistemic boundaries and investigative contexts provide resources for different and better ontological accounts. While this violent event may have occurred whether or not Ferrato had been there to document it, she nonetheless becomes deeply embedded in both the scene and its representation, and the ‘reality’ of domestic violence becomes forever embedded in what such a representation will or will not allow us to understand. This does not mean there is no realness to domestic violence outside of our knowledge of it, but that we cannot place the violence or ourselves outside of its representation. When we fix our eyes on the violent husband, we also see his reflection, interrupted again by the image of Ferrato’s body and her camera. Social reality, run through with such representational and embodied interruptions – this can be our striving rather than our obstacle.


Collins, Patricia Hill. 2000. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge.

Decoteau, Claire. 2015. “Learning to See Otherwise.” Ethnography 1-8.

Haraway, Donna, 1988, “Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective,” Feminist Studies 14:575-99.

Harding, Sandra. 1998. Is Science Multicultural? Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Pitts-Taylor, Victoria. 2016. The Brain’s Body: Neuroscience and Corporeal Politics. Duke University Press.

Sprague, Joey. 2006. Feminist Methodologies for Critical Researchers: Bridging Differences. Lantham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Sun, Feifi. June 27, 2012. “I Am Unbeatable: Donna Ferrato’s Commitment to Abused Women.”