Psychiatry On-Line
Version 1.1 January 1997

Feminism and Forensic Psychiatry

Dr Brian Boettcher

Is Feminist Research different and of any use to psychiatry ? Does Feminist Research have any lessons for Forensic Psychiatry or the behavioural sciences in general.

The qualitative and subjective nature of psychiatric techniques along with the tendency of some psychiatric clinical practice to empower marginalised groups causes it to have a kinship with feminism . Of course Forensic psychiatry can disempower just as much as empower these groups , often without the psychiatrist being aware that it is even happening and especially if the psychiatrist is not sensitised to feminist principles which are discussed in this discourse. The disempowerment can also be deliberate and in the name of such things as administration , law or money (especially hired guns) . Feminist research targets areas where there is disempowerment and inequality for women whether the area is in the use of the law, in criminological theory, institutions such as the Criminal Justice system or some other area of society. Feminist research tends toward a more holistic method, but does so in an attempt to question 'traditional truths' within any field of knowledge (discourse) and this is also true for criminology and to a lesser extent forensic psychiatry. Feminism attempts to take account of difference and provoke a more 'realistic' view of the position of people in the world.

Generally it tries to expose the silences not considered by normative theories and grand narratives that often work to maintain status quo positions by affirming hegemonic stereotypes. The feminist line of inquiry is generally deconstructive , attempting to expose the non-rational basis of many 'traditional' conceptual orders and has dealt with and corrected masculinist thinking about women ( van Swaananingen R, 1989).

It is also a moral critique, aimed at the appreciation of difference and uses this line to promote a more critical perspective than some other theoretical methods.

Its history was initially as a tool of liberation for oppressed women, but both the categories of 'woman' and 'oppression' are problematic in terms of their attempts to represent universal positions. This has lead feminist discourse into areas dealing with marginality and marginalised groups, attempting to show how hegemonic discourses gobble up difference in the interests of their own systems of value.

Within legal discourse, and to a lesser extent psychiatric discourse, feminism has attempted to expose the difficulties with the liberal conceptions of 'formal' equality and 'substantive' equality. The disinterested gaze and 'objective' separation of the judiciary from lived social contexts is a falsity for feminists because of the impossibility of personal impartiality and the need for affirmative action and intervention to redress power imbalances. The impartiality of the judiciary and the professional shadows behind them such as psychiatry, only serves as a justification to ignore power imbalances (inequalities) within the world. Thus there is approval of the status quo and therefore the subordination of marginal and minority interest groups whose lived realities do not conform to the expectations of the judicial and professional expectation. The legal profession has been especially slow to absorb the concepts of Feminism whereas psychiatry coming from the medical perspective has been a little faster - but only a little. Forensic Psychiatry tends to be rather too influenced by the legal lethargy when it comes to feminism.

The school of Critical Legal Studies (CLS) has been at the forefront of exposing the partiality and value bias present in judicial determinations ( Stubbs M 1995) . In fact there is a bias present in the entire criminal justice system in the form of institutional filtering agents such as forensic psychiatrists. This bias might be derived from the individuals within these institutions (namely white, middle, class, heterosexual men -- although this could be changing ???), but also this bias may be served by the interrelation of their value systems and their positions of power, so as to disproportionally represent those values within society and impose them more broadly upon the population. There is a whole political economy of belief in the world and peoples' world views are very influenced by the stereotypes and ideals promulgated by the public power.

In the light of this criticism, the feminist academic power lies in its ability to always retreat to the margins for its information and critical gaze. It is the people on the margins of conceptual orders and stereotypes who feel the pressures to conform. Really its about identifying the political and power laden nature of norms and how they affect 'justice' but also how they produce inequality. Equality is troublesome because differences are hard to equate and the feminists try to expose many differing positions and direct attention to how those positions are influenced in society.

I think this is why many people feel feminism to be a threat, because it attempts to decenter the convenience of normative and universalising theories as being fundamentally problematic. Foucault's ideas on truth being a means to power is a useful concept as feminists try to expose the 'truth claims' of those in power (academics, politicians, media) as fundamentally partial.

Feminist discourse sees an importance in involvement and practice. Dialogue between academics, professionals and the world at large becomes a necessity in any search for justice. The need to recognise difference comes with the necessity to never make one's own position absolute, to always be open to constructive criticisms. This might be seen to make the academic affair a lot more fluid and dynamic, incorporating a recognition of the inevitability of change and also that there is a danger in attempting to speak on behalf of someone else. Some people say this threatens to collapse into extreme relativism and nihilism,but I think there is a general recognition that there is a need to take up such a position however, post-modernism threatens to destabilise any position one takes! Women who are victims of crime are continually exposed to the failure of the system to protect and litigate their interests effectively. Women who are perpetrators themselves of crime are subject to a dubious justice by double standards.

Traditional concepts of justice framed in terms of liberalism and just deserts are seen to be unsuccessful in achieving lower crime as well as producing substantive justice. Such is the dissatisfaction with the traditional system of criminal justice by some feminists that the use of the system as a tool for women's interests has been abandoned and the search for a new model of justice has begun.

At a more practical level there are the issues that Sandra Harding has brought up ( Harding S, 1987) where she asks who can be the knower and discusses " the appropriate relationship between the researcher and his/her research subjects (must the researcher be disinterested, dispassionate, and socially invisible to the subject ?) ; what should be the purpose of the pursuit of knowledge (to produce information for men ?). " She goes on to discuss several other issues such as the problem that policitized inquiry may produce distorted results. She comments that " feminist empiricists argue that sexist and androcentric bias are eliminated by stricter adherence to the existing methodological norms of scientific inquiry ". These same empiricists also go on to point out that women's movements enable and empower female researchers to do more work which is more likely to pry out of the patriarchal matrix the androcentric bias. Feminists Standpoint theorists provide further justification for feminist research by pointing to the likelihood that researchers grounded in women's experiences provide a more complete and less distorted knowledge base. Seuffert (Seuffert N, 1993) believes such claims, especially when made by white women, are subject to the same critique made that Harding levels at the " perverse perspective " of the " ruling gender" : the resulting " universal scientific truth " may exclude the experiences of many women". This author extends the gender specificity to race, class, culture, sexual orientation and placement in another socially constructed categories.

Harding believes the themes of feminist empiricism and feminist standpoint appeal to different audiences and that they are transitional epistemologies and that all modern cultures are transitional. That is, it is important to recognise the diversity of truths in women's and men's experiences .

Harding goes on to discuss how ranged against feminist empiricism and feminist standpoint are the feminist post modernists who are interested in reflexivity : looking back at how knowledge is produced , by whom, under what conditions and whether there are inherent bias and areas of blindness in this production. Is science replicating undesirable ways of being in the world (i.e. androcentric being) .

At an even more practical level then, formal interviews are discouraged by feminist researchers and seen as a form of exploitation " stemming from the relationship between the researcher and researched " ( Jupp V) . So it was with some concern that I, a male researcher and treating doctor who gave evidence for her in court , approached a prisoner in a Womens Prison for permission to use her as a subject in a research project. The research was after the court case had finished however and I had also obtained permission from the solicitor involved . Because of these ethical concerns she was the only live prisoner involved. One committed suicide despite my warnings to the prison authorities and for others I merely used public records and had no contact with the subject . This woman prisoner who was in prison for killing her de facto and suffering from a severe metal illness ( Major Depression ) was, I recognised, in an extremely helpless and vulnerable position and I discussed all this with other university staff and took steps to try to empower her but realised that it was not possible to do this in a totally satisfactory way. All one could hope to do was to gain as thoroughly an informed consent as was feasible by talking over the situation with her on a number of occasions . Some people might say however that under the circumstances the air is too thick with power laden undercurrents for a the mentally disturbed prisoner to make a completely free choice.

It seems that qualitative research methods are the preferred methods in feminist research or at least not a purely quantitative approach, but there are problems with using these methods in marginalised and powerless ,whether they are psychiatric patients in prison or Koori peoples (the indigenous people of Australia). For example, in the methods described in the principles and procedures for the conduct of research at the Koori Centre at University of Sydney when there was a studying being conducted on "Aboriginal women, domestic violence and the legal system" An attempt was made to to empower the researched subjects and a mandatory respect for the culture of the marginalised and powerless was established.

There is a statement that there is to be consultation and collaboration at all times with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and that they will have a " principle role in decision making within the research project". The areas are spelt out in detail which this applies to. Employment and development principles are stated Publication and ownership principles are clarified . Financial principles are stated .

In the " Domestic Violence Legal Help, Aboriginal Women and the Legal System" study by the Darwin Community Legal Centre, there were considerable efforts to consult with the aboriginal communities being studied . In the first stage there was a letter written and a project officer visited the communities to explain the study and a meeting was then held with the community and a number of the researchers to further explain. In the second sage more visits and consultations were made with the selected communities. Involved with the research were an aboriginal worker with the Department of Women's Affairs, a dedicated domestic violence trainer, and an Officer with the Police Domestic Violence Unit .

Individual's responses were written up and sent to the subject for comment and individual responses were not identified in the final report. The tone in both projects was one of care and respect for the people and their culture and a concern for the most ethical approach possible. In times past no such consideration was given and the subjects were examined like mice in a laboratory. These ethical considerations clearly should make forensic psychiatrists more aware of the ethical dilemmas that can occur in using such an invasive tool as a psychiatric interview for anything other than the treatment of the person.

Feminist research uses all the methods of qualitative and quantitative research useing qualitative methods with the greatest skill. It also brings to the research the added insights and understanding inherent in feminism and this has changed and continues to change attitudes , methodological approaches and ethics of research for the better. It has emphasised the awareness of the construction of norms and stereotypes , the research subjects and the researchers position and focused on marginal areas that traditional criminology has not looked at. If one looks at the psychiatric examination, especially that seen in forensic psychiatry, then the discourse in feminist research can illuminate many areas that they have in common.



Jupp V, (1989) Methods of Criminological Research. Routledge, London.

Seuffert N (1993) Epistemology , Methodology and Methods Paper presented at the Feminist Legal Theory Conference, Columbia University , New York, June 14-18 1993

Stubbs M, (1995) Feminist Legal Theory 3 Aust J of L & Soc. 63.

van Swaananingen R, (1989) Feminism and Abolitionism as Critiques of Criminology. International Journal of the Sociology of Law 17, 287-306


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