Comment: In the last entry I raised for discussion a distinction between “subjugated knowledges”, as used by Foucault (1980), and “situated knowledges”, in the classic article by Haraway (1988). Without oversimplifying Haraway’s argument, her references to “situated knowledges” and “‘subjugated’ standpoints” as “preferred” positions makes an epistemological claim to “better knowledge” for groups positioned as oppressed. By contrast Foucault (1980: 83) describes “subjugated knowledges” – including the knowledges of the psychiatric patient, the ill person or the delinquent – as “disqualified, illegitimate knowledges” (Foucault 1980: 83). He is not making an epistemological claim as to their contents but a political claim as to their tactical usefulness in challenging the “centralizing powers” of “an organized scientific discourse”. The aim in Foucault, through genealogies, is to play off subjugated knowledges against “the rights of a science that is in the hands of the few” (Foucault 2003: 9).
This distinction between “subjugated knowledges” (in Foucault) and “situated knowledges” is further complicated by another argument frequently made in contemporary critical social and political theory, an argument that directs attention to all forms of knowledge as situated. Here the point of the analysis is to challenge the idea of transcendental knowledge by showing that knowledge is a social product, reflecting specific circumstances and influences (Bacchi 2009: 234). In this sense all knowledges are, to borrow from John Law (2009: 3), “contexted truths”.
This argument, that all knowledge is (socially) situated, can (understandably) lead to references to “situated knowledge” (Vitelloni 2018), or even “situated knowledges”. However, the implication of this usage contrasts starkly with references to “situated knowledges” as “preferred” perspectives in Haraway. In the first instance, the argument is that, since all knowledge claims are situated, there are no epistemological grounds for privileging one claim over any other. In the second instance, “situated knowledges” become “preferred”“partial perspectives” (Haraway 1988: 584) – clearly an epistemological claim.
The argument that all knowledges are situated and none is to be preferred in epistemological terms is an argument often used to typecast poststructural thinking as relativist. However, the insistence on the politics of knowledge production, elaborated in the last entry, shifts the focus from primarily philosophical issues about “truth” to concerns with the political production and effects of knowledge (“truth”) claims. Poststructuralism thus constitutes a skeptical rather than a relativist stance on knowledge claims, articulating the ways systems of thought work through the world, constituting the world in definite ways as they do so (Bletsas 2010; Chia 1996; Foucault 1984a).
In this situation it is incumbent on researchers to clarify the sorts of claims they are making when they draw on these languages. In WPR I recommend using Foucault’s concept of “subjugated knowledges”, with a clear explanation that the term does not involve a claim to “truth” (it is not an epistemological claim). I might on occasion also refer to knowledges as situated or “contexted” as a way to challenge any assumed transcendental status for knowledge. However, I avoid the phrase “situated knowledges” (in the plural) given its historical association with Haraway’s position on “situated knowledges” as “preferred” “partial” perspectives.
Barry’s comments on “the political” suggest the reasons I distance myself from claims that oppressed groups have privileged access to “truth”. He says:
an action is political . . . to the degree to which it opens up new sites and objects of contestation. And it is anti-political to the extent that it closes down the space of contestation (2001, p. 194, emphasis in original).
In my view epistemological claims close down the space of contestation. Therefore, I endorse Foucault’s call for “indispensable restraint” that “records the singularity of events outside of any monotonous finality” (Foucault, 1984b: 76).
I have been thinking that even the language of “subjugated knowledges” appears to retain some sense of knowledge as a “thing” or essence. Here it may be possible to follow John Law’s (1994: 14) suggestion that we need a sociology of verbs rather than of nouns (see also Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 94 n1). Hence we could refer to “knowledging practices” as an alternative to “knowledges”.
In the next entry I would like to follow up these brief reflections with consideration of the implications of this stance for researchers, which Robert Chia (1996: 31) characterizes as “the reflexivity quagmire”. Due to an overseas trip I will not be able to make an entry for several weeks.
Bacchi, C. 2009. Analysing Policy: What’s the Problem Represented to be?Frenchs Forest: Pearson Education.
Bacchi, C. and Goodwin, S. 2016. Poststructural Policy Analysis: A Guide to Practice.NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Barry, A. 2001. Political Machines: Governing a Technological Society. NY: A & C Black.
Bletsas, A. 2010. Poverty in the “age of affluence”: A governmental approach.PhD Thesis, Politics Department, University of Adelaide.
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.
Foucault, M. 1984a. What is Enlightenment? In P. Rabinow (Ed.) The Foucault Reader. NY: Pantheon Books. pp. 32-50.
Foucault, M. 1984b. Nietzsche, genealogy, history. In P. Rabinow (Ed.). The Foucault Reader. London: Penguin.
Foucault, M. 2003. Society must be defended. In M. Bertani & A. Fontana (Eds), Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-76, Macey, D. (trans.). NY: Picador.
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.
Law, J. 1994. Organizing Modernity. Oxford: Blackwell.
Law, J. 2009. The Greer-Bush Test: on Politics in STS, version of 23rd December 2009, available at http://www.heterogeneities.net/publications/Law2009TheGreer- BushTest. See also J. Law 2010. The Greer-Bush test: on politics in STS. In M. Akrich, Y. Barthe, F. Muniesa, and P. Mustar (eds.). Débordements: Mélanges offerts à Michel Callon. Paris: Ecole des Mines, pp. 296–281.
Vitelloni, N. 2018. Situating the syringe. International Journal of Drug Policy