A bridge over clashing waters? Empirical legal studies bridging structural and poststructural feminist standpoints in research

During my time as a master’s student in Sociology of Law, I often came across the pretense that combining structural- and post-structural feminist standpoints in research is a nearly impossible equation due to epistemological and ontological differences. A clear distinction is that post-structural feminism challenges heteronormativity and the male/female dichotomy that structural feminism illuminates. For example, structural feminists aim to illuminate men’s violence against women whilst post-structural feminists approach violence in a more gender-neutral way.  Thus, differences in structural- and post-structural feminist theories were often highlighted in courses and discussions. However, I started to wonder if theoretical differences mean empirical incompatibility or if combining them could be beneficial in empirical legal studies. Additionally, when studying issues of violence through a feminist lens, I felt a need to apply intersectionality and simultaneously illuminate power structures. Hence, when I decided to conduct an empirical socio-legal study on feminism and violence in Turkey, I decided to challenge the assumption that one can not use a post-structural feminist approach for a structural feminist objective.

I conducted a field study in Istanbul during the spring of 2022 in which I explored the current socio-legal conditions under which feminists operate to advance their claim of ending violence against women in Turkey. The study was conducted within the field of Sociology of Law through a qualitative mixed method of interviews and observations. I wanted to use intersectionality by acknowledging that different factors such as gender, religion, ethnicity, and sexuality do matter in questions of violence, but I also wanted to illuminate power structures such as men’s violence against women. The following text is a reflexive presentation of how I tried to combine a post-structural feminist approach (intersectionality) with a structural feminist objective (illuminating power structures), and my thoughts on why this is useful and important.

Laying the foundation for intersectional, empirical research: a methodological reflection

While mapping the research area of feminism and violence in Turkey through a socio-legal perspective, I identified a knowledge gap. Besides the fact that few studies have been made overall, specific elements were lacking in previous research; qualitative methods and intersectionality. This, as Galip (2021, 509-510) expresses, results in “theoretical and methodological inadequacies” and “monolithic misrepresentations of Third World women”. Hence, it would be hard to conduct proper and relevant non-empirical research in this research area – the empirical aspect became crucial. To contribute to the identified knowledge gap, I chose to include informants from different feminist strands and different positions which created dichotomies such as secular/religious, Turkish/Kurdish, and grass root activists/professionals.

I also needed to position myself as a researcher with awareness of my own intersecting factors (white, cis-woman from Sweden, and so on) as it affects the research in different ways. I positioned myself as an outsider in this context with an objective to include the people of whom this research revolved. To avoid the pitfalls of eurocentrism, western centralism, and orientalism, I applied a thematic narrative analysis to highlight the story of my informants without occupying or co-opting it.

Even though I highlight some points of convergences and divergences in my upcoming papers, this was not a comparative study. Rather, by including informants from different feminist strands and positions, I hope to provide a nuanced picture. Worth mentioning is that when the different strands describe themselves, they identify with the structural feminist objective, and at the same time, they acknowledge how different intersecting factors such as ethnicity and religion affect their own and other feminist strands’ struggles. This indicates that feminists in Turkey have moved beyond the dichotomy of structural/post-structural feminism and can either be seen as alternating between- or combining them which, I argue, illustrates the need for feminist research to do so also.

Acknowledging patterns: Using intersectionality to illuminate power structures

By including feminists from different strands and positions, it was possible to identify power structures in the social- and legal spheres from different perspectives. The informants illuminated everyday behavior and attitudes, such as sexism and nationalism, that catalyze violence and contribute to social- and legal oppressive structures. The attitudes are politically established and reproduced and operate through legal institutions which contribute to transforming Turkey into an authoritarian state.

The informants named the underlying attitudes and power structures in similar ways but described them in different ways. For example, the informants talked about state violence but had different experiences of it, from censorship to sexual violence. They all identified men’s violence against women as a structural issue but expressed different vulnerabilities with regard to ethnicity, religion, marital status, sexuality, and education/profession. This also affects opportunities and ways to resist. Hence, by considering intersectional factors, it was possible to illuminate more than one power structure from different perspectives. This, I argue, creates nuanced and inclusive feminist research.

I think it is absolutely crucial that we don’t assume that structural and post-structural feminist standpoints in research are incompatible and that we don’t pin them against each other. We can talk about experiences of men’s violence, and at the same time problematize heteronormative assumptions of violence. It’s possible to highlight how attitudes such as sexism create unequal conditions for women and men during court proceedings and simultaneously discuss how nationalism and ethnic prejudices entail that women from minorities are more unlikely to obtain victim status than women belonging to the majority/norm. I believe that we can use empirical legal studies to build bridges between structural- and post-structural feminist theories which can be useful in creating inclusive and nuanced feminist research. It seems hard to challenge power structures, such as men’s violence against women without identifying and acknowledging them. At the same time, there are several power structures within a structure such as men’s violence against women with regard to intersecting factors. By using a post-structural feminist approach for a structural feminist objective, it’s possible to both illuminate power structures and their complexity. The result of my study will be presented in two papers, their pre-print versions being available online:

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Universität Lund
Karlsson, A bridge over clashing waters?, RECHTS|EMPIRIE, 27.03.2023, DOI: 10.25527/re.2023.02