Book Review: Experiments in Knowing – Gender and Method in the Social Sciences by Ann Oakley

by Gwen Redmond


An interest in the methodological debate between qualitative and quantitative research methods, as well as an inclination to read methodological approaches with a feminist perspective, drew me to reading Ann Oakley’s Experiments in Knowing. Published in 2000, it still has relevance to anyone with an interest in the history of research in the social sciences, and will resonate with anyone looking to challenge their own thinking on methodologies. It is a tome of heavily referenced reflections on the origins of research in the field of science, in particular health science which, in its early history influenced by philosophy, was eager to distance itself from abstract theory and so began providing quantifiable evidence. I expected to read a resounding affirmation for the qualitative method, instead I found an explanation for how qualitative research found itself in the feminist realm and why quantitative research was, and still is, seen as the patriarchal, distanced and clinical method.

The book is divided into four parts. Part One looks at the origins of what Oakley calls ‘The Paradigm Wars’ claiming that the hierarchal debate between the two methods did not exist prior to the 1960s, when the feminist movement ‘infiltrated academia’ and began to question methodology. This in turn influenced the first feminist social science texts published in the 1970s querying the absence of women’s voices in research. Good feminism, she purports, became synonymous with qualitative methods. Feminist researchers rallied against the ‘three p’s’, positivism, power and p values. At this point she traces the change in language around research, subjects became participants, research was for participants not about and democratic values espoused. She goes further in arguing against experimental methods claiming they were seen as masculine and patriarchal in that they pillaged, plundered and then abandoned participants. Feminist research was arguing for inclusive equal participation with full disclosure on part of the researcher.

Part Two delves further back into the history of methodologies, sociology and gender. Making references to some of the great ‘fathers’ , (founding or otherwise) Descartes, Bacon and Galileo, Oakley unearths the 16th and 17th century views that nature was herself feminine and in need of ‘dissection’ by the sciences in order to control her. This pervading discourse, she feels, led to women being seen as naturally inferior to men. She goes on to trace how social science became equated with numbers and refers to the work of Hobbs in the 1600s and Condorcet in the 1700s. She reveals the origins of the terms ‘normative distribution’ and ‘the average man’ (who was in fact your average army conscript!)as coined by Qúetelet in the 1800s, as well as the father of statistics John Graunt. Making reference to women using statistics also, Florence Nightingale’s empirical work offers a surprising juxtaposition with her historical image. In chapter six, Oakley again revisits the background methodology of social sciences through the ‘penetration’ of nature by male scientists in order to understand evolutionary biology. She again refers to the influence of more ‘founding fathers’ such as Herbert Spencer and Charles Booth and their influence on another surprising researcher, Beatrix Potter. Oakley traces new sociological thinking when she talks about Durkheim (1895) reflecting Mills’ (1843) view that experimentation was not the ideal sociological tool of discovery, but that only the observation of society and its social phenomena (or absence thereof) can provide a truth unmitigated by the researcher. The latter part of the 1800s, she says, was the birthing of the new social science, different and separate from its roots in natural science and philosophy. The era recognised the emerging tensions between ‘hard’ empirical data and ‘soft’ experiential data (often in the form of art and literature, especially the novels of the era) and Oakley sees this clash as a seed for the future paradigm wars between the quantitative and qualitative methods.

The RCT is introduced in the final chapter of Part Two, however Part Three of the book in the main concerns itself with the continuation of the history of the development of the field of social science, and shifts now from Europe to North America to recount the ‘full-blown’ use of RCTs in social and health experimentation. Early models of experimentation (by McCall in education for example) used the idea of chance, or random selection, as a control, however it was not until the 1946 streptomycin trial was the design officially applied. Oakley makes her way through a dense history of RCT experimentation in order to remind the continued post-positivist defence of the qualitative method, that the ‘frontiersmen’ in sociology used experimentation and statistics as a means to take the field into the domain of public policy. The golden age of experimentation in the US led to policy reform in areas of social concern; unemployment, drug misuse, crime and poverty. Oakley argues that although there were disagreements in how to interpret these findings they did however lead to reform, undermining the continued argument against positivist methodology as an impossibility within the field of sociology. In Chapter eleven, Oakley explains some of the resistance towards experimentation lies with its history of unethical methods, for example on animals or without full disclosure and therefore uninformed consent. She queries, with the recent shift to qualitative methods, whether the public will be better informed without RCTs. This question reflects a recurring practice of Oakley’s (in this book) where she queries but often leaves us without answers, or even a direction in which to find those answers.

Part Four aims to conclude the strands Oakley has weaved throughout the book, with her aim being to free social science of the divide between patriarchal quantitative and feminist qualitative ways of knowing and reclaim both as ‘people’s ways of knowing’ free of their gendered past. Oakley advocates a ‘reconstruction’ of the field of social science built on ‘new fundamentals’. She argues that reality exists and experimental methods have a role to play in the social sciences, and that freeing the method of its ‘baggage’ and association with patriarchy will enable its rejuvenation.

Returning to my initial reasons for being drawn to the book, I have to admit some disappointment. I struggled with Oakley’s constant referrals to ‘founding fathers’, ‘frontiersmen’ and ‘master’s tools’ when referring to male historical figures and methods but not ‘founding mothers’ or even ‘sisters’ in reference to female researchers. I felt deference is given to the empirical positivist researchers, and rightly so historically, but that the ‘paradigm wars’ are not wholly served by the retrospective elevation of these methods currently. I agree with Oakley that the quantitative remains a valuable method but only to shine a light on sociological issues rather than possibly being ‘the right tools for the job’ (in some instances) as she claims. However, this is an excellent book on the history of the field and I imagine anyone with an interest in broadening their knowledge would do well to find a more complete reference book.


Gwen Redmond is studying for a Master of Education degree in The Department of Adult and Community Education at Maynooth University, Kildare, Ireland. Working in the field of Adult Literacy education for ten years, her studies and practice are informed by Critical Theorists.

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