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Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 8.1 (2001) 33-37

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"Impossible Things before Breakfast":
A Commentary on Burman and Richmond

Gwen Adshead

"Why sometimes, I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

--Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Both Burman and Richmond discuss how a feminist critique or take on a body of theory helps to illuminate or confuse further theoretical development. Burman applies such a critique to False Memory Syndrome (FMS); Richmond to psychoanalytic accounts of eating disorders. In this commentary, I want to discuss the application of a feminist critique to two vital concepts for psychiatry: the recording and measurement of data, and truthful accounts of experience. These concepts are of course related, and I want to explore their connections, not only with each other, but with specific areas of mental health practice, namely, mental health research, psychodynamic psychotherapy, and expert psychiatric testimony.

The Recording Angel:
Subjectivity and Objectivity, Measurement and Truth

Most feminist critiques of measurement begin with an attack on the traditional theoretical distinction between objective and subjective worlds (for example, Fox Keller 1985). Classical accounts of Western scientific practice have assumed that it is possible to divide external physical experience in this way, and this assumption generates two further beliefs: first, that it is possible for an observer to , as it were, stand apart or outside the events observed, and second, that objective accounts of events are somehow real-er or true-er than subjective accounts. This account contains some very old ideas about natural experience: first, that a fixed reality exists that is external to those who have experienced an event, and second, that this reality is observable by others, that is, there is a space between the observer and the observed. This notion of objectivity has been thought to be crucial to valid measurement.

In contrast, a feminist critique counterargues that every observer is influenced and influences what he is studying; that he is himself "positioned" in the subject of his interest, in Rom Harré's term. Further, feminist theory argues that because the objective-subjective split is artificial, subjective accounts of experience may be just as "true" as objective accounts. Overarching is the notion that all social behavior is socially constructed and affected by social context, including "science" in all its forms.

Such doubts about the exact nature of science have been fueled by two sets of theory within [End Page 33] "science"--the claims of quantum theory in the 1920s and Thomas Kuhn's account of shifting scientific paradigms in the 1960s--and both of these theories have been important for feminism and feminist critique of scientific practice. Despite many odd features, quantum theory has produced research with considerable explanatory power (Hawking 1988, Barrow 1991, Smollin 1997), and some of its claims provide indirect support for the feminist position described above. For example, one claim of quantum theory is that, at the micro-level of events, what is being observed is influenced by the position of the observer. If true, then the notion of an easy divide between internal and external space, in which observer and observed are separately located, is undermined; rather, every position taken by the observer influences the observed in a dynamic relationship. There is no objectivity but rather a developing matrix of positions that are not externally fixed, but changing and uncertain. Similarly, in relation to social construction of theory, Kuhn's description of the changing nature of scientific paradigms also emphasizes the importance of social and community influences on scientific theories and how "true" accounts of events can change.

Internal and External Worlds:
Implications for Mental Health Research and Psychotherapy Practice

Arguably, feminist claims about the social positioning of science are now unremarkable; no one involved in research (especially mental health research) could dispute that what is studied, what is funded, and what is published is hugely influenced by many social and political processes. Even if only to a limited extent, quantum theory and Kuhn do support the doubt thrown on classic notions of objectivity by feminist theory; if only by suggesting that reality...


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