Standpoint Theory

On September 17, 2011, several dozen people gathered in New York City to protest corporate corruption and income inequality. Many of the demonstrators were young college graduates who had been unable to find employment following the Great Recession of 2008. They carried placards that spoke of massive student loan debt and illegal home foreclosures. Within a few weeks, the number of protesters grew to several thousand, and what became known as the Occupy Movement spread to other cities around the globe, forever changing America’s social and political dialogue.

Not everyone shared the protesters’ views, however. Many CEOs, politicians and journalists claimed the protesters were misguided. Business owners shared stories of how hard work and ingenuity led to their success. America was still the land of opportunity, they said; no matter how bad the economy got, people could still find work if they tried. Soon, many people began to question how those who live and work within the same country can view reality so differently.

Standpoint Theory attempts to explain such differences in perspective. Outlined by the work of German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in 1807, Standpoint Theory assumes that people’s experiences, knowledge and opinions are shaped by the social groups to which they belong. In the 1990s, researchers began applying the theory’s concepts to studies of women and minorities, with a focus on how social position affects communication behaviors.

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Modern Standpoint Theory operates according to a few basic assumptions. First of all, people’s social communities determine the types of information they receive and which issues they find important. However, since people generally belong to multiple social groups, it’s possible for a person to possess several standpoints at once, creating a unique worldview. Secondly, formulating a standpoint is a conscious, active process. To obtain a standpoint, a person must recognize and evaluate their experiences and social position. Thirdly, differences in standpoints arise from social inequalities. A homeless man, for instance, views the world much differently than a billionaire.

In addition, standpoint theorists claim that those in marginalized positions, like the homeless, tend to express a more objective view of reality than members of privileged groups. That’s because people outside positions of power must adopt the attitudes and behaviors common to privileged groups in order to assimilate into the dominant culture. Their struggle for validation also provides them with more convincing experiences. These factors result in a broad perspective of various social groups and their interactions. Since privileged individuals, on the other hand, have no need to observe the realities of inferior groups, their standpoints are usually narrow and biased by comparison. At the same time, standpoint theorists acknowledge the limitations class position places on understanding social relations for both marginalized and privileged individuals. Though some standpoints may be more objective than others, all human perspective is considered biased.

When it comes to communication, a person’s standpoint often determines how he or she composes, analyzes and relays messages. A woman who speaks bluntly, for instance, is often viewed negatively in certain environments by members of both sexes. Though her message may be clear and direct, social hierarchies and norms that expect women to exercise tact and restraint can prevent her straightforward disclosure from achieving the desired outcome. Knowing this, many women hedge their speech with adverbs, conditionals and passive phrases in order to appear warmer, more inclusive and less threatening. Women also have different criteria than men for evaluating expert knowledge.

The purpose of Standpoint Theory is to provide an understanding of why people communicate in different ways and promote the empowerment of marginalized individuals. However, the theory does contain some weaknesses. Critics say Standpoint Theory causes researchers to engage in essentialism, the practice of assuming that all members of a group possess the same characteristics or share similar experiences. Essentialism ignores the diversity that exists among members of a group, resulting in generalizations and stereotypes.

Critics also claim the theory overlooks the dualistic, or oppositional, thinking that pervades Western societies. In dualism, information is organized into opposing categories: masculine and feminine, reason and emotion, active and passive, and introverted and extroverted to name a few. The drawback to dualism is that social groups are often sorted into such categories where one becomes valued over the other; reason is considered superior to emotion, and active is preferred to passive, for instance. Standpoint Theory itself focuses on the dualism between subjectivity and objectivity, with no clear definition of experience to guide theorists. Research that begins from a dualistic perspective fails to consider the complexity of human interaction and leads to false and narrow conclusions that further devalue marginalized groups.

Standpoint theorists acknowledge these complaints and have been working to improve the theory. They say the theory’s weaknesses may be resolved by using it in conjunction with other theories of communication. Nevertheless, Standpoint Theory has been extremely valuable in drawing attention to the communication behaviors of various social groups, enriching our understanding of human interaction.

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