Dorothy E. Smith

Dorothy Edith Place

(1926-07-06)6 July 1926
Died3 June 2022(2022-06-03) (aged 95)
Academic background
Alma materUniversity of California, Berkeley
London School of Economics
Academic work
Main interestsFeminist studies, sociology, educational studies, social anthropology, psychology, ethnography
Notable works
  • Institutional Ethnography: A Sociology for People
  • The Conceptual Practices of Power: A Feminist Sociology of Knowledge
  • The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology
Notable ideasInstitutional ethnography, ruling relations, feminist standpoint theory, bifurcation of consciousness

Dorothy Edith Smith CM (née Place; 6 July 1926 – 3 June 2022) was a British-born Canadian ethnographer, feminist studies scholar, sociologist, and writer with research interests in a variety of disciplines. These include women's studies, feminist theory, psychology, and educational studies. Smith is also involved in certain subfields of sociology, such as the sociology of knowledge, family studies, and methodology. She founded the sociological sub-disciplines of feminist standpoint theory and institutional ethnography.


Smith was born on 6 July 1926,[1] in Northallerton, North Riding of Yorkshire, England,[2][3] to Dorothy F. Place and Tom Place, who also had three sons. Her mother was a university-trained chemist who had been engaged in the women's suffrage movement as a young woman, and her father was a timber merchant.[4][5] One of her brothers, Ullin Place, was known for his work on consciousness as a process of the brain, and another was poet Milner Place.[6]

At the age of twenty-five, Smith entered the work force as a secretary in the book publishing industry, but this left her wanting more.[7] After this realization, Smith completed her undergraduate degree at the London School of Economics, earning her B.Sc. in sociology with a major in social anthropology in 1955. She then married William Reid Smith, whom she had met while attending LSE, and they moved to the United States.[8] They both attended graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, where she received her Ph.D. in sociology in 1963, nine months after the birth of their second child. Not long afterward she and her husband were divorced; she retained custody of the children. She then taught as a lecturer at UC Berkeley from 1964 to 1966.[9] Smith started teaching sociology, and was the only female teacher in a faculty of 44.[10]

Following the divorce, Smith was lacking in day care and family support while trying to raise her two children alone and as a result decided to move back to England in the late 60s.[11] While she was there she gave lectures on sociology at the University of Essex, Colchester.[11] In 1968, Smith moved with her two sons to Vancouver, British Columbia to teach at the University of British Columbia, where she helped to establish a Women's Studies Program.[11] In 1977 she moved to Toronto, Ontario to work at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, where she lived until she retired.[11] In 1994 she became an adjunct professor at the University of Victoria, where she continued her work in institutional ethnography.[11] Smith served on the international advisory board for the feminist journal Signs.[12]

Smith died of complications of a fall at her home in Vancouver on 3 June 2022, at the age of 95.[5][13]

Familial Influences

Dorothy Smith came from a long line of feminist activists.[14] Each of these familial figures had an impact on Smith’s sociological theories and ideas.[14] Most notably were Margaret Fox, Lucy Ellison Abraham, and Dorothy Foster Place.[14]

Margaret Fox née Fell was the feminist leader of the 17th century Quaker movement.[14] Often referred to as the “mother of Quakerism” she opened her home to be used as one of the first headquarters for the Quaker religious Society of Friends.[14] Lucy Ellison Abraham and Dorothy Foster Place were Dorothy Smith’s grandmother and mother respectively.[14] Both were members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and engaged in militant suffrage activism.[14] Abraham participated mostly in the organizational and office work, while Place was more active, even getting arrested once during a window breaking campaign.[14]

Smith’s own identity as a Marxist-feminist developed during the 1970s, when her life history and the on going women’s movement merged to contribute to her life and sociological practices.[14] The Vancouver Women’s Movement from 1968-1977 proved to be a key moment in the development of Smith’s identity.[14] The combination of Smith’s feminist ancestry and her own experiences in women’s movements went on to shape her standpoint theory.[14] Through watching and learning about her familial history and how each of the three women previously mentioned addressed feminism and the inequality of women through their roles as women Smith transformed these actions into a theory.[14] Smith’s standpoint theory argues that the origin of standpoint came from women’s experiences as housewives.[14] Each of her three ancestors were housewives and that added to and shaped their approach to feminism and activism.

Standpoint theory

Before Smith, American feminist theorist Sandra Harding conducted the 1986 study, The Science Question in Feminism, which created the concept of standpoint theory in order to emphasize the knowledge of women, arguing that hierarchies naturally created ignorance about social reality and critical questions among those whom the hierarchies favored.[15] However, those at the bottom of these ladders had a perspective that made it easier to explain social problems.[16]

Standpoint theory is rooted in the idea that what one knows is impacted by their position in society.[11] It also contains three main beliefs: no one can have complete and objective knowledge, no two people can have exactly the same standpoint, and we must not take for granted our own standpoint.[11] Smith emphasized the importance of recognizing our standpoint and utilizing it as the entry point to our investigation.[11] Smith’s overall goal with standpoint theory was to fully account for the perspectives of different genders and their effects on our reality.[11]

It was during her time as a graduate student in the 1960s that Smith developed her notion of standpoint, shaping Harding's theory. During this time, Smith recognized that she herself was experiencing "two subjectivities, home and university",[17] and that these two worlds could not be blended. In recognition of her own standpoint, Smith shed light on the fact that sociology was lacking in the acknowledgment of standpoint. At this point, the methods and theories of sociology had been formed upon and built in a male-dominated social world, unintentionally ignoring the women's world of sexual reproduction, children, and household affairs.[17] Women's duties are seen as natural parts of society, rather than as an addition to culture. Smith believed that asking questions from a woman's perspective could provide insight into social institutions.[18] Smith determined that for minority groups, the constant separation between the world as they experience it versus continually having to adapt to the view of the dominant group creates oppression, which can lead to members of the marginalized group feeling alienated from their "true" selves.[17] Smith compared the women's experience to the women's standpoint, and believed that women's oppression was grounded in male control. The idea that women shared a method in their experiences with oppression was enforced by Smith.[19]

Connection to Marxism

The idea that not all standpoints are viewed equally shows how Smith’s take on standpoint theory also draws direct connections with Marxism.[11] This inequality in standpoints and how they are perceived in society reflects Marxist ideas of the impact of social, economic, and political relations on shaping and determining oppression.[11]


Smith often used one particular story as an example of the importance of standpoint theory, and as a way of explaining it:

One day, while riding in a train in Ontario, Smith observed a family of Indians standing together by a river, watching the train pass by. It was only after having made these initial assumptions that Smith realized that they were just that; they were assumptions, assumptions that she had no way of knowing if they were true or not. She called them "Indians", but she couldn't have known, for sure, what their origins were. She called them a family, which could have very well not been true. She also said they were watching the train go by, an assumption that emerged solely based on her position in time and space, her position riding in the train, looking out at the "family".[20]

For Smith, this served as a representation of her own privilege, through which she made assumptions and immediately imposed them on the group of "Indians". It helped lead her to the conclusion that experiences differ, across space, time, and circumstance. It is unfair to create society—and ruling relations—based on only one point of view/being.[21]

Institutional ethnography

Main article: Institutional ethnography

Institutional ethnography (IE) is a sociological method of inquiry which Smith developed, created to explore the social relations that structure people's everyday lives. For the institutional ethnographer, ordinary daily activity becomes the site for an investigation of social organization. Smith developed IE as Marxist feminist sociology[22] "for women, for people";[23] it is now used by researchers in the social sciences, in education, in human services and in policy research as a method for mapping the translocal relations that coordinate people's activities within institutions.[24][25] Smith insisted that her outline of Institutional ethnography would be expanded upon in a collaborative manner amongst sociologists, emphasizing the networking needed to progress the idea.[26]

Smith uses the example of the everyday act of walking her dog to show how a benign act can actually be used for sociological investigation.[11] She claims that in walking her dog and allowing it to do its business on some lawns, but not others actually reaffirms the class system.[11] In choosing which lawns are acceptable or not for her dog she is reaffirming the differences in forms of property ownership.[11]

In her work on sociology for women, Smith spent time attempting to show that the standpoint of women has been historically excluded from aspects of life related to professional ruling.[27] Meaning managing, organizing, and administering.[27] Here Smith highlights how important it is to investigate how the everyday worlds we live in are shaped by the institutions we are surrounded.[27] In this case Smith defines institutions as complex, functional organizations, in which many forms and groups are interwoven.[27] Institutional processes then particular actions into standardized and generalized forms.[27]  Smith draws on Marx’s discussion of commodity relations: when goods and services are exchanged in the market setting, their value appears in the form of money.[27] In a similar way, bureaucratic forms of organization make actions accountable in terms of abstract and generalized categories.[27]

Lecture video

Smith gave a recorded lecture introducing her work and thoughts on institutional ethnography. This lecture was hosted at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health on November 5, 2018.[28]

Ruling relations

Smith also developed the concept of ruling relations, the institutional complexes that "coordinate the everyday work of administration and the lives of those subject to administrative regimes".[29] This allows a society to have control and organization, with examples being systems of bureaucracy and management.[30] It also defines how they will interact with one another. Smith argues that ruling relations dehumanize people. She focuses on how it can limit women to only being seen in their traditional roles of mother, wife, homemaker, or housekeeper.[31]

Bifurcation of consciousness

Bifurcation is defined as dividing or separating into two parts or branches.[32] Smith argued that there is a split between the world that an individual actually experiences and the dominant view that one is supposed to adapt, in this case being the male-dominated view.[33] In the case of the bifurcation of consciousness, specifically related to standpoint theory, this refers to the separation of the two modes of being for women. Since sociology is a male-dominated field, women must fight to push past their expected roles as housewives and mothers, moving from the local realm of the home to the "extra local" realm of society.[34] Women, therefore, split their consciousness in two in order to establish themselves as knowledgeable and competent beings within society and the field of sociology.[35]


Smith had influential ties to theorists such as Karl Marx and Alfred Schütz.[17] Building on top of Marxist theory, Smith evolved alienation into gender-stratified capitalism, explaining in her work Feminism and Marxism how "objective social, economic and political relations ... shape and determine women's oppression".[36] From Schutz, Smith explains, "Individuals are experienced as 'types'",[17] developing upon his concept of umwelt and mitwelt relations. In The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology, Smith explains mitwelt and umwelt relations of male dominance claiming, "women's work conceals from men the actual concrete forms on which their work depends".[37] Smith was also influenced by George Herbert Mead after taking one of his classes, as well as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, after stumbling upon one of his books.[38]

Umwelt and mitwelt

Alfred Schütz describes mitwelt relationships as less intimate than umwelt relationships. Mitwelt relations refer more to a type of relation, such as an individual and their mail carrier. Umwelt relations are found on a more intimate level, such as a husband and wife. Smith extends these concepts by demonstrating how umwelt is more "central in women's lives, and men relegate their umwelt relations to women".[17]

Professional recognition

While Smith's early essays were influential in the emergence of sex and gender education in sociology, her work is neglected by other sociologists.[39] However, in recognition of her contributions in the "transformation of sociology", and for extending the boundaries of "feminist standpoint theory" to "include race, class, and gender", Smith received numerous awards from the American Sociological Association, including the American Sociological Association's Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award (1999)[40] and the Jessie Bernard Award for Feminist Sociology (1993).[41][42] In recognition of her scholarship, she also received two awards from the Canadian Sociological Association and the Canadian Anthropological Association; the Outstanding Contribution Award (1990)[43] and the John Porter Award for her book The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology (1990).[44] In 2019 she was named as a member of the Order of Canada.[45][46]

Her work is ranked among the most important produced in 20th and 21st Century sociology,[47] and it has been suggested that Institutional Ethnography should be considered a contemporary classic.[48]

The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology (1987)

Smith wrote chapters two and three of The Everyday World as a Problematic: A Feminist Sociology between 1977 and 1981. Her concept of the line of fault is the notion of recognizing the male biases as a society and being conscious from a woman's perspective and noticing the inequality between male and female.[49] In Toronto, while teaching at Ontario Institute of Studies, Smith published her paper about everyday lives as a woman, and the sociology behind the everyday housewife and mother.[50] Her work intended to create a sociology for women, as this is a male dominated field. Smith wanted to create a field of sociology that questioned the everyday problems of life.[51]

Selected works


  1. ^ Dorothy Edith Smith: History & Feminist theory
  2. ^ Smyth, Deirdre Mary (1999). A Few Laced Genes: Sociology, the Women's Movement and the Work of Dorothy E. Smith (PDF) (Doctor of Philosophy thesis). University of Toronto. p. 43.
  3. ^ Allan, Kenneth (2011). Contemporary social and sociological theory : visualizing social worlds (2nd ed.). Los Angeles: SAGE. p. 385. ISBN 9781412978200. Retrieved 5 January 2018.
  4. ^ "Papers of Dorothy Foster Place". Archives Hub. Retrieved 17 June 2022.
  5. ^ a b Risen, Clay (16 June 2022). "Dorothy E. Smith, Groundbreaker in Feminist Sociology, Dies at 95". The New York Times. Retrieved 16 June 2022.
  6. ^ Graham, George; Valentine, Elizabeth R. (2004). Identifying the mind : selected papers of U.T. Place. New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press. p. 5. ISBN 978-0195161373. Retrieved 5 January 2018.
  7. ^ Smith, Dorothy. "Dorothy E. Smith". Université du Québec à Chicoutimi. Retrieved 14 March 2023.
  8. ^ Smith, Dorothy (2 February 2005). "Dorothy E. Smith". UQAC. Retrieved 5 January 2018.
  9. ^ Wallace,R. & Wolf, A., "Contemporary Sociological Theory" 6th Edition (2006), Pearson Prentice-Hall. p. 297-298
  10. ^ "Dorothy Smith: History & Feminist theory". SchoolWorkHelper. Retrieved 21 October 2021.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Appelrouth, S; Edles, L.D (2020). Classical and contemporary sociological theory: Text and readings. Sage Publications. pp. 560–566.
  12. ^ "Masthead". Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 22 August 2012. Retrieved 22 August 2017.
  13. ^ "Dorothy E. Smith". Kudoboard. Retrieved 7 June 2022.
  14. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Smythe, Deirdre (April 2009). "A few laced genes: women's standpoint in the feminist ancestry of Dorothy E. Smith". History of the Human Sciences. 22 (2): 22–57. doi:10.1177/0952695108101285. ISSN 0952-6951. PMID 19999830. S2CID 27464035.
  15. ^ Smith, Dorothy E (1992). ""Sociology from Women's Experience: A Reaffirmation."". Sociological Theory. 10 (1): 88–98. doi:10.2307/202020. JSTOR 202020.
  16. ^ Borland, Elizabeth. "Standpoint theory". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 8 March 2023.
  17. ^ a b c d e f Appelrouth, Scott; Edles, Laura Delfor (2008). Classical and Contemporary Sociological Theory: Readings and Text (First ed.). Pine Forge Press. ISBN 978-0761927938.
  18. ^ Borland, Elizabeth. "Standpoint Theory". Encyclopedia Britannica.
  19. ^ Smith, Dorothy E (1992). "Sociology from Women's Experience: A Reaffirmation". Sociological Theory. 10 (1): 88–98. doi:10.2307/202020. JSTOR 202020. Retrieved 14 March 2023.
  20. ^ Smith, D. E. (1990). The conceptual practices of power: A feminist sociology of knowledge. Boston: Northeastern University Press.
  21. ^ Lemert, C. C. (2004). Social theory: The multicultural and classic readings (4th ed.). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  22. ^ Carpenter, Sara; Mojab, Shahrzad. "Institutional ethnography: pursuing a Marxist-feminist analysis of consciousness" (PDF). Paper presented at the 38th Annual SCUTREA Conference, 2–4 July 2008 University of Edinburgh. Retrieved 5 January 2018.
  23. ^ Smith, Dorothy E. (2012). The everyday world as problematic a feminist sociology. Boston: Northeastern University Press. p. 121. ISBN 978-1-55553-794-4.
  24. ^ Trenerry, Ruth (2011). "A Portfolio of Research Career-work: An Institutional Ethnography exploring women's 'career' activity in the paid workplace". School of Education Division of Education, Arts and Social Sciences University of South Australia. Retrieved 5 January 2018.
  25. ^ Walby, Kevin (29 June 2016). "On the Social Relations of Research". Qualitative Inquiry. 13 (7): 1008–1030. doi:10.1177/1077800407305809. S2CID 143598915.
  26. ^ Devault, Marjorie L. (2006). "Introduction: What is Institutional Ethnography?". Social Problems. 53 (3): 294–298. doi:10.1525/sp.2006.53.3.294. JSTOR 10.1525/sp.2006.53.3.294.
  27. ^ a b c d e f g Grahame, Peter R. (October 1998). "Ethnography, Institutions, and the Problematic of the Everyday World". Human Studies. 21 (4): 347–360. doi:10.1023/A:1005469127008. ISSN 0163-8548. S2CID 144243329.
  28. ^ An introduction to Institutional Ethnography and the work of Dorothy E. Smith, retrieved 5 October 2022
  29. ^ DeVault, Marjorie. "Ruling Relations". Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology.
  30. ^ Hicks, Stephen (31 December 2009). "Sexuality and the 'Relations of Ruling': Using Institutional Ethnography to Research Lesbian and Gay Foster Care and Adoption". Social Work & Society. 7 (2): 234–245. ISSN 1613-8953. Retrieved 19 July 2020.
  31. ^ DeVault, Marjorie L. (15 February 2007), "Ruling Relations", in Ritzer, George (ed.), The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, Oxford, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, pp. wbeosr082, doi:10.1002/9781405165518.wbeosr082, ISBN 978-1-4051-2433-1, retrieved 4 October 2022
  32. ^ "Bifurcation". Retrieved 5 January 2018.
  33. ^ Appelrouth, S; Edles, L.D (2020). "Feminist and Gender Theories". Classical and contemporary sociological theory: Text and readings (PDF). SAGE Publications. p. 312-380.
  34. ^ Mann, D. (2008). Understanding society: A survey of modern social theory. Don Mills, Ont.: Oxford University Press.
  35. ^ Bowell, T. "Feminist Standpoint Theory". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 5 January 2018.
  36. ^ Smith, Dorothy (1997). Feminism and Marxism: A Place to Begin, A Way to Go. Vancouver: New Star Books.
  37. ^ Smith, Dorothy (1987). The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology. Northeastern University Press.
  38. ^ Smith, Dorothy. "Dorothy E. Smith". Université du Québec à Chicoutimi. Retrieved 14 March 2023.
  39. ^ Laslett, Barbara; Thorne, Barrie (1992). "Considering Dorothy Smith's Social Theory: Introduction". Sociological Theory. 10 (1): 60-62. doi:10.2307/202016. JSTOR 202016.
  40. ^ "Dorothy E. Smith Award Statement". American Sociological Association. 9 June 2009. Retrieved 31 December 2017.
  41. ^ Scott, John (2007). Fifty key sociologists : the contemporary theorists (1st ed.). London: Routledge. pp. 203–204. ISBN 978-0415352567. Retrieved 31 December 2017.
  42. ^ "Jessie Bernard Award". American Sociological Association. 29 May 2009. Retrieved 31 December 2017.
  43. ^ "Outstanding Contribution Award / Prix De Contribution Remarquable". Canadian Sociological Association. Retrieved 31 December 2017.
  44. ^ "The John Porter Award / Le Prix du livre de John Porter". Canadian Sociology and Anthropology Association. Retrieved 31 December 2017.
  45. ^ "Governor General Announces 83 New Appointments to the Order of Canada". Rideau Hall Press Office. 27 June 2019. Retrieved 20 July 2020.
  46. ^ Lapierre, Matthew (27 June 2019). "2019 Order of Canada appointees have made their mark on all aspects of Canadian society". The Globe and Mail. Retrieved 20 July 2020.
  47. ^ Zake, Ieva; DeCesare, Michael (2011). New directions in sociology : essays on theory and methodology in the 21st century. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland. pp. 50, 64–65. ISBN 9780786463428. Retrieved 1 January 2018.
  48. ^ Hart, RJ. & McKinnon, A. (2010). 'Sociological Epistemology: Durkheim's Paradox and Dorothy E. Smith’s Actuality'. Sociology, vol 44, no. 6, pp. 1038-1054.[1]
  49. ^ Smith, Dorothy E. (1 January 1987). The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology. University of Toronto Press. ISBN 978-0-8020-6702-9.
  50. ^ "Dorothy Smith: History & Feminist theory". SchoolWorkHelper. Retrieved 22 October 2021.
  51. ^ Collins, Patricia Hill (1992). "Transforming the Inner Circle: Dorothy Smith's Challenge to Sociological Theory". Sociological Theory. 10 (1): 73–80. doi:10.2307/202018. JSTOR 202018. Retrieved 14 March 2023.
  52. ^ Smith, Dorothy E. (1992). "Sociology from Women's Experience: A Reaffirmation". Sociological Theory. 10 (1): 88–98. doi:10.2307/202020. JSTOR 202020.
  53. ^ Smith, Dorothy E. (1975). "What It Might Mean to Do a Canadian Sociology: The Everyday World as Problematic". The Canadian Journal of Sociology / Cahiers canadiens de sociologie. 1 (3): 363–376. doi:10.2307/3340418. ISSN 0318-6431. JSTOR 3340418.