COMMENT: I am prompted to prepare this entry because I am concerned that there may be some terminological and conceptual confusion around “situated knowledges” (Haraway 1988), “situated knowledge” (Vitelloni 2018) and “subjugated knowledges” (Foucault 1980), and would like to open up a conversation on the matter. I think the topic is important because of the need to find ways to put in question conventional theories about “knowledge production”. The topic is tied also to questions about the kinds of claims researchers wish to make in relation to qualitative material based on interviews and participant observation. This entry and the two following entries engage these questions.
To begin, I suggest that “situated knowledges”, as in Haraway (1988), and “subjugated knowledges”, as in Foucault (1980), are not interchangeable terms, though they are sometimes treated as such (Haraway 1988; St Pierre 2013: 648). I can understand why this occurs. The two terms sound similar and appear to do similar things, drawing attention to “minority” or “oppressed” “points of view”. However, when Foucault introduced the concept of “subjugated knowledges”, this goal was not one he shared.
Without oversimplifying Haraway’s (1988: 584) argument, her references to “situated knowledges” as “preferred” positions makes a claim that “vision is better from below” (583), that is, from groups positioned (or situated) as oppressed: “they seem to promise more adequate, sustained, objective, transforming accounts of the world”. While Haraway qualified this claim carefully, “situated knowledges”, as used here, makes an epistemological claim, a claim that some people are better positioned (situated) than others to produce “knowledge”.
Haraway uses the term “‘subjugated’ standpoints” to make the same claim, indicating a direct link to feminist standpoint theory. Sandra Harding (1993: 56) elaborates the argument:
Standpoint theories argue for “starting off thought” from the lives of marginalized peoples; beginning in those determinate, objective locations in any social order will generate illuminating critical questions that do not arise in thought that begins from dominant group lives.
She describes these marginalized “starting points” as “epistemologically advantaged” (Harding 1993: 56).
In Poststructural Policy Analysis: A Guide to Practice (Palgrave Macmillan 2016: 48), I, with Susan Goodwin, point out that, when Foucault introduced the concept of “subjugated knowledges”, he was making a political claim about knowledges, not an epistemological claim. His expressed concern was with the tactical usefulness rather than the content of “subjugated knowledges”. He clarified his specific concern in his elaboration of genealogy as a form of critique:
We are concerned, rather, with the insurrection of knowledges that are opposed primarily not to the contents, methods or concepts of a science, but to the effects of the centralising powers which are linked to the institution and functioning of an organised scientific discourse within a society such as ours … it is really against the effects of the power of a discourse that is considered to be scientific that the genealogy must wage its struggle (Foucault, 1980:84; emphasis added).
“Subjugated knowledges”, in Foucault, include forms of “erudite” knowledges and “disqualified” knowledges. “Erudite” knowledges consist of “blocks of historical knowledges that were present in the functional and systematic ensembles, but which were masked”. The role of critique is “to reveal their existence by using, obviously enough, the tools of scholarship”.
The second grouping of “subjugated knowledges” are those
that have been explicitly disqualified as inadequate to their task or insufficiently elaborated: naive knowledges, located low down on the hierarchy, beneath the required level of cognition or scientificity (1980: 82).
His examples include the knowledges of the psychiatric patient, the ill person or the delinquent.
The analytic task is to bring all these knowledges to the fore, to contribute to an “insurrection of knowledges” in order to challenge “the centralising powers linked to the institution and functioning of an organised scientific discourse” (Foucault 1980: 84). To “emancipate” “subjugated knowledges” from “subjection” renders them “capable of opposition and of struggle” and of being used “tactically” (Foucault 1980: 84).
How does this position differ from the meaning of “situated knowledges” as used by Haraway and many others (see above)? Put simply, Foucault is not claiming that any particular group has privileged access to “truth”; rather, he insists that truth claims are always political claims. In Foucault, the thing to examine in relation to “psychological knowledge”, for example, is its effects, not its truth. What needs to be questioned resides “in the political character of what it creates rather than in the epistemic character of its claims” (May 2006: 94-95).
At stake in this view is not an alternative epistemological position, but a contrasting ontology that is prior to epistemological principles. In opposition to an ontology of being, which asserts the primacy of “things” (such as “knowledge”), a poststructural ontology recognizes an ontology of becoming, “in which the processual becoming of things is given a fundamental role in the explanatory schema” (Chia 1996: 31). The central focus in the latter position becomes the study of “reality-constituting practices” – political practices – that shape how “knowledge” has come to be taken-for-granted as “truth”. “Knowledge” then is an effect of power relations rather than some “thing” to be pursued.
The implications for research are significant. St Pierre (2013) points out that much qualitative research (including the use of interviews and participant observation) relies on some sense of research subjects as the sources of foundational knowledge based on “experience” (see for example Vitelloni 2018 on “drug users [sic] situated experience”). This position bypasses relevant questions about subject formation and subjectification (see Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 49-51). By contrast, “subjugated knowledges” can be drawn upon as a challenge to established knowledge frameworks without reverting to epistemological claims.
WPR creates space to bring in “subjugated knowledges” under Question 4 on silences (see Bacchi WPR CHART). The term, however, needs to be used carefully to ensure that it is NOT mistaken to be a synonym for “situated knowledges”. There is no claim that these accounts offer access to “truth”; rather, there is insistence on the need
to entertain the claims to attention of local, discontinuous, disqualified, illegitimate knowledges against the claims of a unitary body of theory which would filter, hierarchise and order them in the name of some true knowledge and some arbitrary idea of what constitutes a science and its objects. (Foucault 1980: 83).
Attention is thus “redirected” from the justification of particular knowledge claims to “an examination of the workings of primary organizing micro-practices which generated stabilized effects such as ‘truth’ and ‘knowledge’” (Chia 1996: 31).
The next entry further complicates this picture (sorry!).
Chia, R. 1996. The Problem of Reflexivity in Organizational Research: Towards a Postmodern Science of Organization. Organization 3(1): 31-59.
Foucault, M. 1980. Two lectures. In C. Gordon (Ed.) Michel Foucault power/knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings 1972-1977 by Michel Foucault. NY: Pantheon Books.
Haraway, D. 1988. Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies14(3): 575-599.
Harding, S. 1993. Rethinking Standpoint Epistemology: “What is Strong Objectivity?” in L. Alcoff and E. Potter (eds) Feminist epistemologies. NY: Routledge, pp. 49-82.
May, T. 2006. The Philosophy of Michel Foucault. Chesham: Acumen.
St. Pierre, E. 2013. The posts continue: becoming. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 26(6): 646-657.
Vitelloni, N. 2018. Situating the syringe. International Journal of Drug Policy.