Women’s Way of Knowing (Belenky et al. 1986)

One of the criticisms about Perry’s work was that it was based on mainly white, elite college students. Belenky et al. were interested in women’s knowing and learning. Using interview questions specifically related to gender, relationships, moral decisions, education, and knowledge, Belenky et al. interviewed 135 women—where 90 of these participants came from 6 diverse academic institutions and the additional 45 were participating in services provided by human service agencies on parenting. Using the metaphor of “Voice,” Belenky et al. grouped women’s ways of knowing into five categories:

  • 1. Silence. A position in which women experience themselves as a voice-less, mind-less, and passive being and subject to external authority. They view themselves as “deaf and dumb” and as not being able to learn from others’ words.
  • 2. Received Knowledge. Women with this perspective perceive themselves as being able to listen to other’s voices. They can receive knowledge from external authority and even reproduce knowledge. However, they believe that all knowledge originates from external authority; they themselves are not constructors of knowledge. Women who adhere to the perspective of received knowledge also believe an either-or dualism. There is no gray area to truth; it is either right or wrong.
  • 3. Subjective Knowledge. Women with this perspective see truth as subjective, intuited, and personal. Truth is a private issue and cannot be forced on others. Belenky et al. (1986) noted that Subjectivism or (Subjective Knowing) is interchangeable with Perry’s Multiplicity because of the emphasis on personal truth in both positions. The difference is that a woman with subjective knowing holds an anti-rationalist attitude and bases her knowing on intuition or personal experiences.
  • 4. Procedural Knowledge. In this position, women start to realize that they cannot know everything by intuition or experiences. Knowing requires careful observation and reasoning. They are learning and applying procedures, techniques or skills of acquiring and communicating knowledge. Within Procedural Knowledge, two ways of knowing—Separate Knowing and Connected Knowing —were identified. The separate knower learns through excluding personal feelings and beliefs and adopting a different lens through explicit formal instruction, while the connected knower learns through being empathetic with the object (e.g., a poem)/person and adopting the lens of another person (in the case of a poem, the lens is that of the poet). Separate and connected knowers both learn to take off their own lenses and take up different ones. Although Hofer and Pintrich (1997) enlisted Procedural Knowing as parallel to Perry’s Relativism, there are only a few indications showing that some parallel characteristics exist between Procedural Knowing and Perry’s Relativism; for example, in both positions, the knower starts to abandon the either-or thinking and takes into consideration alternative perspectives. However, Procedural Knowing cares only about the form of knowing, whereas Perry’s Relativism is concerned to a greater extent with the certainty of knowing or knowledge.
  • 5. Constructed Knowledge. Constructed knowing refers to an effort in which women try to reclaim the self by integrating intuitive knowledge and the knowledge that they learned from others. A constructed knower abandons either-or thinking completely and demonstrates a high tolerance of ambiguity and conflict. Their thought aligns with the basic thought of constructivism: “all knowledge is constructed, and the knower is an intimate part of the known” (p. 137).

The work by Belenky et al. extended the work of Perry by including women’s ways of knowing, thereby providing a unique perspective for gender-related study. They also acknowledged that similar categories can be found in the original Perry model except the Silence position. However, researchers have noted a serious concern in Belenky et al.’s methodology in the study (Hofer and Pintrich 1997). On one hand, in the interview protocol by Belenky et al. a section on “Gender” and a section on “Relationships” were placed before sections on “Real Life Moral Dilemma,” “Education,” and “Ways of Knowing.” On the other hand, their main findings focus on women’s self-knowledge, the relation between self-knowledge and knowing, inner and outer voices, and the connected characteristics of women’s way of knowing. Considering the methodology and findings, it is hard to tell the degree to which the interview questions have affected these main findings. Also, different from Perry’s theory, which focuses more on the certainty or limits of knowledge, Belenky et al.’s women’s way of knowing emphasizes more the source of knowledge, especially in relation to the self (Hofer and Pintrich 1997). Last but not least, Belenky et al. chose to study only women participants, which itself can be both an advantage to draw conclusions about women and a drawback open to criticism about the claims. Although they claim that some of the ways of knowing are not limited to women, e.g., connected knowing, no substantial evidence was provided to support these claims.

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