Recently I came across a paper called “Wikipedia’s Politics of Exclusion: Gender, Epistemology, and Feminist Rhetorical (In)action” (2015, published in Computers and Composition 37) where feminist academic Leigh Gruwell tackles Wikipedia’s “gender gap”: only 13% of its editors are women. That’s a valid topic to discuss, but she takes it in a very frightening direction. She argues that Wikipedia’s standards on verifiability and objectivity are exclusionary, and that the subjective knowledge of women and feminists should be given a privileged status.
- An “exclusionary discourse community”?
- Is objectivity futile?
- What does this have to do with feminism?
(Length: 1,400 words)
1. An “exclusionary discourse community”?
What’s the reason for the gender gap among editors? Her primary criticism is that Wikipedia is an “exclusionary discourse community” that “privileges patriarchal methodologies and epistemologies” over “feminist ways of knowing and writing”, namely “personal narratives” (“[m]any feminists thus have advocated narrative as an especially powerful way of knowing”) and “lived experiences” (“feminism, as a political movement and as a philosophy, arose from women’s lived experiences”).
There aren’t many examples of the content she wishes Wikipedia allowed, but one example she does give is a woman she interviewed who wasn’t allowed to edit an article on local schools and mention that her area doesn’t have a high school because she didn’t have a source for it. Gruwell laments that this woman’s “local knowledge was excluded by Wikipedia’s policies, even though readers might very well value such knowledge”. Similarly, another interviewee reports that “perhaps one of the biggest barriers for participation” was Wikipedia’s emphasis on verifiability.
Wikipedia is exclusionary, in the sense that it has a specific goal and a defined scope. It’s not a free-for-all repository that includes any and all content related to the topic it’s addressing. But this is trivial; most resources are like that. An academic journal of sports science wouldn’t publish an autobiography from a former professional athlete, and a documentary about people’s experiences in poverty probably wouldn’t include your master’s thesis in economics. Similarly, it’s understandable that an encyclopedia whose articles are meant to be “intelligent summaries and reflections of current published debate within the relevant fields” and “an overview of the relevant literature” will exclude unverifiable sources and “dear diary” content.
Let’s say we got rid of that policy and allowed the woman to use her “lived experience” and say that her area doesn’t have a high school. What happens if someone else deletes her edit and uses their own “lived experience” to say that the area does have a high school? What recourse does she have, and how does the community determine which one is true? We’d need some sort of method to verify whose information is true, which brings us back to Wikipedia’s existing policy on verifiability. This isn’t to say that no resource anywhere should allow unverifiable sources, personal narratives, and lived experiences. But it’s entirely valid for a resource like an encyclopedia (which is generally expected to be more authoritative and objective) to not be the place for those things.
2. Is objectivity futile?
Gruwell wouldn’t be convinced by appeals to the goal of objectivity in an encyclopedia because she’s dismissive of the idea of objectivity in the first place. Many feminists have, she explains, “rightly noted” that “neutrality or unbiasedness is an illusion”—“our varied (gendered) experiences and embodiment shape how and what we know”. She’s right that perfect objectivity is impossible, but that doesn’t mean we can’t strive for relatively higher levels of objectivity. It’s like how 100% gender equality is impossible, but we can still strive for more gender equality.
From Wikipedia’s own policies: “It may not be possible to describe all disputes with perfect objectivity, but it is an aim that thousands of editors strive towards every day.” (Its policy isn’t actually to provide objective truth, but rather to objectively describe the state of the existing consensus or debate. I think that results in getting closer to the objective truth anyway, so I won’t make much of the distinction.)
However, rather than striving for relatively higher levels of objectivity, she seems to give up and embrace subjectivity in the form of valuing “a multitude of voices and positions”. She cites prominent feminist Donna J. Haraway’s advocacy of “a feminist epistemology of situated knowledges”, which Gruwell explains means knowledge arising “from lived experience in the complex network of social, material, and discursive relationships that formulate subjectivity”. She cites another author extolling the benefits of personal narrative: “experiential evidence necessarily destabilizes certainty.. stories encourage contradiction and inconsistency and offer narrative layerings, all open to interpretation”.
Subjective sources of knowledge like personal experiences and narratives can be interesting, entertaining, and even informative, but it’s clear that relatively more objective sources have the edge when knowing something is important (and an encyclopedia is an authoritative source you can seek out when you really need to know). Let’s say you’re picking what car to buy and your priority is safety. A compilation of people’s (often contradictory) “lived experiences” with different types of cars might be useful, but an actual scientific study (based either on crash tests, or statistics from the real world) will be even more useful. When the stakes are high, and even in many other contexts, you legitimately might not want a source of knowledge that “encourage[s] contradiction and inconsistency”.
We should also note that Wikipedia actually does allow “a multitude of voices and positions”, but only when they’re based on published work that’s verifiable and coming from a reliable source. This insistence on avoiding original research is a core tenant of Wikipedia, in accordance with its goal of being “an overview of the relevant literature”. This isn’t the only way to run a wiki (one could conceive of a wiki centred on personal experiences, fiction writing, original research, etc.), but it’s a valid way to run a wiki. It’s “exclusionary” but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
3. What does this have to do with feminism?
Her point isn’t just in favour of subjectivity though, it’s about subjectivity with a preference for the voices of women and feminists. Her statement that “our varied (gendered) experiences and embodiment shape how and what we know” was followed by “and women’s embodiment specifically affords them a different, privileged understanding of patriarchal systems”. She groups feminists and women together in this point: “feminist scholars have long contested the common distinction between ‘objective’ knowledge and subjective knowledge derived from the embodied positions of women and feminists”.
This is actually very scary, and I’d be extremely concerned if Wikipedia adopted anything as partisan and ideological as this. I don’t know her intention, but the effect of what she’s saying would be to discredit more rigorous sources of knowledge and in their place legitimize lower standards of evidence, reliability, and verifiability… but only for “her side”, whether that’s gender (women) or ideology (feminists). It’s not even clear how much of a voice men, specifically non-feminist men, would get at all. In her paper she interviews only female contributors to Wikipedia and she says she does it “with the understanding that their stories do not comprise the whole story, if a whole story is desirable or even possible”. Choosing not to have the whole story in her paper is fine, but choosing not to have the whole story in a more general resource like Wikipedia isn’t fine. In fact, it’s exclusionary—in a much more meaningful and concerning way than Wikipedia’s policy of verifiability is “exclusionary”.
It’s interesting that she says things like “the values of the male-dominated discourse community discount feminist ways of knowing, thus alienating and silencing alternative epistemologies and subjectivities” but she doesn’t question the assumption that “feminist ways of knowing” must necessarily be accommodated. An example of this in action is that the Wikipedia page for “Feminist Movement” has been flagged as needing a cleanup because “it is written like a personal reflection or essay”, which she objects to. She says it’s ironic that “Wikipedia would let users write about feminism, but not from the embodied position of a feminist”. However, why must a resource allow “feminist ways of knowing”, even on an article about feminism? Wikipedia has articles on religion and religious texts and yet it doesn’t allow (in general or in those articles) a contributor to use their own divine revelations or other “religious ways of knowing” as an acceptable source.