Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Standpoint Theory and The Muted Group Theory

Compare and contrast the two theories discussed.

From a sociological perspective, people’s social group memberships tend to affect the way they experience and know about the world and also understand the ways in which they communicate with themselves, others and the world. As such, Sandra Harding (Harding) and Julia Wood (Wood) established the “Standpoint Theory,” that claims that to answer many of the questions about how the world works, one has to look at an issue from the standpoint of women and other marginalized groups in society. According to Harding, the perspective from the lives of the less powerful can provide a more objective view than the perspectives from the lives of the more powerful. Even though this theory can be used in inequalities in gender, race, class, and sexual orientation, Harding and Wood particularly focused on the standpoint of women in society. The “Muted Group Theory” was established by Cheris Kramarae (Kramarae) to show that language reflects worldview. The theory claims that dominant group members in society (Men), formulated language to uphold their perceptions of the world and hence perceive it to be the appropriate language for the rest of society. Therefore, according to Kramarae, language does not serve all of its speakers equally, since those who are marginalized in society, particularly women, did not get to contribute to its development equally. Kramarae claims that this man-made language has been constructed to deliberately discount the thoughts and words of women in society, which in turn puts these women into a muted group.

Both the theories facilitated the development of a model that addresses the communicative experiences of those persons marginalized within the structures of a dominant society. (Orbe, 25) Both theories have also largely been used as a feministic theoretical framework to explore the lived experiences of women as they participate in the larger society while having to battle the problem of mutedness. They are used to see the critical differences between men and women that affect their communication. However, the standpoint theory can be only be said to be more of a method of inquiry rather than a complete theory and hence can help to further investigate the muted group theory in various issues concerning women.

What are the epistemological, ontological and axiological similarities and differences in the assumptions of the two theories?

Axiological Assumptions: The standpoint theory borrowed from the proletarian ideas of Karl Marx and hence claims that the perspective from the lives of the less powerful can provide a more objective view than the perspectives from the lives of the more powerful. It also was influenced by George Herbert Mead’s symbolic interactionism theory and claims that the idea of gender is a social construction rather than a biological characteristic. The postmodernism of theorists such as Jean-Francois Lyotard, which suggests a critique of male dominated epistemologies also lent a hand in developing the standpoint theory, although both Harding and Wood reject postmodernism’s absolute relativistic ideas. Hence, the standpoint theory can be said to be a product of a patchwork of conflicting ideas, with the stitching that is holding them together being the doctrine, that all scholarly inquiry should inaugurate from women and others who are marginalized. Kramarae was driven to develop the muted group theory based on the assumption that women perceive the world differently from men and that men’s political dominance in the communication structure of the society stifles women’s freedom of expression. The muted group theory also borrowed heavily from the works of Edwin and Shirley Ardener who first postulated that women are a muted group. Edwin likened muted groups to black holes, as they are often ignored, suppressed and deemed unimportant in society and hence the Ardners theorized that mutedness was a result of a lack of power within the marginalized society. However, the mutedness theory does not imply that the muted group is always silent. Shirley argues, that the primary issue with the muted group is, whether they are able to say what they want, when they want to say it, or, do they have to re-encode their thoughts to make them understood in the public domain. (Griffin 495)

Ontological Assumptions: In establishing the standpoint theory, Harding and Wood focus on a method of inquiry based on the standpoint of women who are marginalized and the issues that are affecting them in society whereas Kramarae built on the Ardeners’ work and used it to explore the mutedness of women and how to free them.

Epistemological Assumptions: In focusing their research on women, Harding and Wood base their research from the vantage point of the women. In the case of muted group theory however, Kramarae examines how the communication structure developed by the dominant groups (men in general) have enabled the mutedness of women and other marginalized groups in society.

Do you think that the Internet is furthering muted group communication or constraining it?

I think that the internet is constraining muted group communication. From the muted group theory, I learned that language on the whole is a man-made construction that consistently disempowers non-dominant groups especially women. In the case of the internet, I can say that the same applies as the entire communication structure of the internet, is based once again on man-made language. There is also the issue of technological disparity as well. The internet is not available to everyone. Those who are poor or are from undeveloped countries do not have access to the internet and hence are unable to reach out to the larger society and the people who are able to use the internet are either rich or are from developing or developed countries. Therefore, the internet, more than anything, has only strengthened even more, those from dominant groups while pushing the nondominant groups deeper and deeper into mutedness.


EM Griffin, “A First Look at Communication Theory,” 6th Ed

McGraw Hill, 2005, pp. 495

Mark P. Orbe, “Constructing Co-cultural Theory: An Explication of Culture, Power, and Communication,” Sage Publications, 1997, pp.25

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