Comment: In the last entry I clarified a distinction between “situated knowledge” as a challenge to transcendental knowledge claims, and “situated knowledges” as “preferred” knowledges in Haraway (1988). The first position is commonly adopted in critical poststructural theorizing and is often roundly criticized for being “relativist”. The argument here is that, if all knowledges are “situated”, there are no epistemological grounds for preferring one “knowledge” over any other. The further claim is that such a position leaves us floundering in a world without meaning.
This common critique of poststructuralism – indeed I faced just this critique at the Swedish Political Science Association (SWEPSA) Conference in Malmo where I delivered the keynote address on 3 October 2018 – was dealt with in the last entry. There I made the case that the insistence on the politics of knowledge production in Foucault-influenced poststructuralism 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 how systems of thought work through the world, constituting it in definite ways as they do so (Bletsas 2010; Chia 1996; Foucault 1984a).
Unsurprisingly, this issue has led to considerable reflection by critical scholars on their own knowledge claims. Haraway (1988: 584, 586; emphasis in original) emphasizes that “there is no immediate vision from the standpoints of the subjugated” and that “how to see from below is a problem requiring at least as much skill with bodies and language, with the mediations of vision, as the ‘highest’ technoscientific visualizations”. Writing about the field of organization studies, Chia (1996: 32) highlights that “if it is true, as many meta-theorists maintain, that all organizational accounts are paradigmatically circumscribed, this must reflexively apply to their own accounts”. And so, he argues, “The thorny question of reflexivity becomes, therefore, an inevitable one”.
Chia (1996: 32-34) mentions that one response to this “thorny question” or “reflexivity quagmire” has been to adopt a more modest and even ironical stance to proposed theories – a stance labeled “meta-reflexivity” in Latour (1988). But, as Chia says, such a response treats reflexivity as an epistemological problem, obscuring its “deeper ontological character”. Here Chia proceeds to contrast an ontology of being-realism, which “emphasizes the primacy of permanent and static states”, to an ontology of becoming-realism, which “privileges a thought style in which movement and the becoming of things are accentuated” (see entry on 3 September 2018). This shift in focus from how things “are” to how they “become” redirects attention to the “primary organizing micro-practices” involved in their becoming. A study of such practices, as explained above, involves a political rather than an epistemological undertaking.
Chia (1996: 49) argues that, to facilitate this focus on continual becoming, it follows that poststructural theoretical products must be “self-deconstructing”. Other researchers offer specific ways to enact this proposition. Todd May (2006: 94 ff.) suggests that it is possible to produce a “genealogy of genealogy”. Norma Rudolf (2017: 8) deploys a form of “autoethnography” developed “in dialogue” with participating South African communities “to question many of my own western assumptions that have been normalized as truth”. In line with these interventions, Step 7 in WPR (Bacchi WPR CHART) calls upon researchers to apply the other questions in the approach to their own proposals in a form of self-problematization. I distinguish self-problematization, as developed in WPR, from reflexivity because it institutes a practice of the self, applying the WPR questions to our own proposals (see next entry). For example, applying Question 3 to our own proposals incites exactly the form of “genealogy of genealogy” Todd May envisions.
Chia’s (1996: 49) call for “self-deconstructing” theories is accompanied by the suggestion (following Latour 1988: 174) that poststructuralists ought to produce “throw-away explanations” instead of “dogmatically using theories we generate to try to explain everything”. While I certainly agree with the critique of dogmatic theory, elsewhere, Joan Eveline and I (2010: 157) question the notion of “throw-away explanations”. This conclusion, we suggest, appears to assume that all explanations are equally dispensable. In contrast we highlight the hierarchal organizing of discursive relations illustrated, for example, through the way in which medical discourse is privileged over the home birth movement.
Rudolf (2017: 79) explores the operation of power relations in the hierarchy of knowledges in her careful deployment of the concept of “subjugated knowledges”, showing precisely how that concept can be useful. She emphasizes how “evidence-based” policymaking in South Africa “prioritises scientific knowledge over other knowledges” and thus influences “who can speak, when, where and with what authority” (Ball 1990: 17-18 in Bacchi 2009: 237). With Somé (1995) she highlights the desirability of “making African cosmology more accessible to the West” without “judging one worldview as better than the other” (emphasis added). She appeals to Santos’ (2007: 1) call for “global cognitive justice” (Santos 2007: 1), challenging the tendency simply to “add-on” local and indigenous knowledges to the dominant western view of knowledge. At the same time, with Cross (2015: 53), she emphasizes that hierarchies of knowledge are not fixed but are locally constituted and reconstituted in the policy arena through “dynamic compromises between competing forms of knowledge and knowledge producers” in the changing political context.
In the next entry I consider the extent to which I apply Step 7 in WPR in my own work – something I have been asked about – with some unpleasant surprises.
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Eveline, J. and Bacchi, C. 2010. Power, resistance and reflexive practice. In C. Bacchi and J. Eveline (eds) Mainstreaming politics: Gendering practices and feminist theory.Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press. pp. 139-62.
Haraway, D. 1988. Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies14(3): 575-599.
Latour, B. 1988. The Politics of Explanation: An Alternative. In S. Woolgar and M. Ashmore (eds)Knowledge and Reflexivity: New Frontiers in the Sociology of Knowledge. London: Sage. pp. 155-76.
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Rudolph, N. 2017. Hierarchies of knowledge, incommensurabilities and silences in South African ECD policy: Whose knowledge counts? Journal of Pedagogy, 1.
Santos, B. de Sousa 2007. Beyond abyssal thinking: from global lines to ecologies of knowledges. Review of African Political Economy, 30 (1).
Somé, M. P. 1995. Of water and the spirit: Ritual, magic and initiation in the life of an African shaman. New York: London Penguin.