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Dorothy E. Smith, groundbreaker in feminist sociology, dies at 95

Dorothy Smith, a feminist scholar and sociologist, spoke at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health in 2018.FRANCOISE MBENOUN MAKANDA/NYT

Dorothy E. Smith, a feminist scholar and sociologist whose extensive criticism of her own field led her to establish groundbreaking theories and subdisciplines that pushed sociology away from its foundations as a male-dominated, male-centered endeavor, died June 3 at her home in Vancouver, British Columbia. She was 95.

Her son David said the cause was complications from a fall.

Smith, who spent most of her career at Canadian universities, was best known for her contributions to what is called standpoint theory. She argued that while conventional sociology claims to be the disinterested pursuit of objective truth, it is in fact encoded with ideologies that see the male experience as universal.

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“As women, we have been living in an intellectual, cultural and political world, from whose making we had been almost entirely excluded and in which we had been recognized as no more than marginal voices,” she wrote in her first and best-known book, “The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology” (1987).

Sociology, she said, was not just a lens for viewing society but also a tool for ordering it, turning the events and facts of everyday life into administrative jargon (“single mother,” “special-needs child”), organized according to the needs of the male-centered world. Worse yet, all this was invisible, she maintained; what she called “relations of ruling” were taken as natural, because the only point of view on offer was the one defined by men.

She posited that a better, liberating alternative would be to reverse the focus of sociology. Rather than making people — in particular women, but also people of color, gay men and lesbians, anyone on the margins — the object of study, they should be the subject, with the sociologist focusing on the world around them as seen and experienced from their standpoint.

“She was critical of forms of investigation that study people, particularly people in marginalized circumstances, and make them the object of study, whereas if you kind of take the standpoint of people, you’re not looking at them, you’re looking around them,” said Liza McCoy, a sociologist at the University of Calgary and a former student of Smith’s. “You’re looking at what are the conditions and the practices that create the conditions that they find themselves.”

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Smith offered herself, a single working mother, as a case study. She explained what her home life was like, in all its messy complexities, then showed how certain seemingly neutral terms — “single parent,” for example — fed those lived experiences into a series of social assumptions and bureaucratic processes: how her children were taught in school, how policymakers treated people like her and even how her colleagues viewed her.

“Starting with experience was what we knew how to do in the women’s movement,” she wrote in a biographical essay in 2004. “Indeed we needed it because we came to see more and more clearly how the intellectual and cultural world we’d participated in had been put together from men’s standpoint.”

Smith called this approach “institutional ethnography,” and it has become a dominant mode of inquiry in feminist social science as well as outside academia, where community-based researchers use it to understand the relationship between a person’s everyday world and the organizing forces surrounding it, including schools, places of worship, the workplace and police.

Dorothy Edith Place was born July 6, 1926, in Northallerton, a small town in northern England. Her father, Tom Place, was a timber merchant. Her mother, Dorothy Foster (Abraham) Place, was a university-trained chemist who as a young woman had been active in the women’s suffrage movement. She spent time in jail for breaking windows at Harrods department store in London, alongside Sylvia Pankhurst. When she left the movement in the 1920s, her parents bought her a small farm, where she met her future husband.

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Smith grew up amid a brilliant brood: Her brother Ullin became a renowned philosopher, while another brother, Milner, became a widely published poet. All three, as well as another brother, David, went to boarding school, although Smith’s education was primarily to prepare her for motherhood.

She resisted that path as much as she could. She took a two-year course in social work at the University of Birmingham, then moved to London, where she became active in Labour Party politics. She worked as a secretary for a publishing company. To widen her career opportunities, she applied to study at the London School of Economics. She was 25 when she was accepted.

She received a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1955. Along the way she discovered Marxism and the work of French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, both of which would greatly affect her work; that same year she married an American, William Smith, who was studying in London on the GI Bill.

They both entered graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, where she received her doctorate, also in sociology, in 1963. She defended her dissertation nine months after giving birth to her second son. Around that time, her husband abandoned the family.

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With two children to raise alone, Smith took a temporary job lecturing in sociology at Berkeley. The only woman on a faculty of about 40, she was often ignored by her colleagues. That imbalance led her to wonder what effect the male dominance of a field, especially a social science, might have on the questions it asks and the methods it uses to answer them. It was the starting point of a nearly 60-year career.

She continued her inquiries during two years at the University of Essex, in Britain, and then at the University of British Columbia, where she arrived in 1968.

By then the women’s movement was in full swing, and she joined several colleagues in creating a women’s studies program at the university, only the second in Canada.

She moved in 1977 to the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in Toronto, where she remained until her retirement, in 1996. Along with her son, she is survived by three grandchildren. Another son, Steven C. Smith, died in 2019.