Situated Knowledge Research Paper

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The expression ‘situated knowledge,’ especially in its plural form ‘situated knowledges,’ is associated with feminist epistemology, feminist philosophy of science, and science and technology studies. The term was introduced by historian of the life sciences and feminist science and technology studies scholar Donna Haraway in her landmark essay Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective (Haraway 1991, pp. 183–201). The essay was a response to feminist philosopher of science Sandra Harding’s discussion of the ‘science question in feminism’ (Harding 1986). In her analysis of the potential of modern science to contribute to the goals of feminism, Harding noted three different accounts of objective knowledge in feminist epistemology: feminist empiricism, feminist standpoint, and feminist postmodernism (Harding 1986, pp. 24–6). Feminist empiricism attempted to replace more biased with less biased science. The feminist standpoint, echoing the Marxist tradition from which it derived, stressed the relevance of the social positioning of the knower to the content of what is known. Feminist postmodernism accentuated the power dynamics underlying the use of the language of objectivity in science. Haraway, taking off from Harding, diagnosed a ‘Scylla and Charybdis’ of temptations between which feminists attempt to navigate on the question of objectivity: radical constructionism and feminist critical empiricism. As she put it, what feminists wanted from a theory of objectivity was ‘enforceable, reliable accounts of things not reducible to power moves and agonistic, high status games of rhetoric or to scientistic, positivist arrogance’ (Haraway 1991, p. 188). Her notion of situated knowledges was her attempt to provide just such a theory of objectivity.

Despite the single author provenance, the term resonated with attempts by other scholars in the history, sociology, and philosophy of science to address similar epistemological tensions. The concept was quickly and fruitfully taken up in science and technology studies and feminist theory, provoking a certain amount of reworking in its turn.

1. ‘Situated Knowledge’ And Objectivity: Constructed Yet Real

The term ‘situated knowledge’ derives its theoretical importance from its seemingly oxymoronic character, particularly when applied to knowledge about the natural world. It is common to think of modern scientific knowledge as universal, so that it has the same content no matter who possesses it. It is also almost definitional to hold that objective knowledge is warranted by the fact that it captures reality as it really is, rather than being warranted by the situational circumstances out of which the knowledge was generated or discovered (see Shapin 1994, pp. 1–8 for discussion of, and citations relevant to, various manifestations of these points). Thus, if the law of gravity enables us to make reliable experimental predictions, it is because there is such a thing as gravity that is adequately captured by our scientific understanding; in short, the truth of the knowledge is its own warrant. It is only in the case of false or superseded knowledge that we typically explain what went wrong by reference to faulty assumptions, sloppy work, ill-calibrated equipment, the Zeitgeist, or other aspects of the context of discovery. The idea of ‘situated knowledge’ contests these supposed concomitants of objective knowledge. It suggests that objective knowledge, even our best scientific knowledge of the natural world, depends on the partiality of its material, technical, social, semiotic, and embodied means of being promulgated.

Haraway’s notion thus has affinities with other feminist epistemologies which have noted that facts can differ in their content from one time, place, and knower to another (e.g., Collins 1989). It also has sympathies in common with sociologists of science and scholars of science and technology studies who have suggested that capturing ‘reality as it really is’ may be dependent on institutional, technical, and cultural norms (Kuhn (1962 1970), on practice (Clarke and Fujimura 1992, Pickering 1992), and attempts to witness, measure, comprehend, or command assent to it (Latour 1987, Shapin 1994, Shapin and Schaffer 1985). All these scholars share a search for the theoretical resources to do justice to the embeddedness of science and truth. These challenges to conventional views of objectivity bring situated knowledges into conversation with key debates in the philosophy of science around the theory-ladenness of facts (Hesse 1980, pp. 63–110). Additionally, the suspicion of transcendent universalism entrains an epistemological and political distrust of clear-cut distinctions between subject and object, and a blurring of the distinction between context and content of knowledge or discovery.

Situated knowledges are as hostile to relativism as they are to realism. Haraway describes relativism as ‘being nowhere while claiming to be everywhere equally’ (Haraway 1991, p. 191) and realism as ‘seeing everything from nowhere’ (Haraway 1991, p. 189), and conceives of them both as ‘god-tricks’ promising total, rather than partial, located, and embodied, vision. In contrast to realist or relativist epistemologies, Haraway sees the possibility of sustained and rational objective inquiry in the epistemology of partial perspectives. This requires, she maintains, reclaiming vision as a series of technological and organic embodiments, as and when and where and how vision is actually enabled. This crafting of a feminist epistemology of situated knowledges on the basis of vision and partial perspective is noteworthy. The links in the history of science to militarism, capitalism, colonialism, and male supremacy have been theorized around the masculinist gaze of the powerful but disembodied knower disciplining and subjugating the weak by means of a multitude of technologies of surveillance. Feminists have lamented the privilege granted to the visual as a sure basis of knowledge and bemoaned the sidelining in modernity of what some cast as more feminine and less intrinsically violent ways of knowing involving emotion, voice, touch, and listening (Gilligan 1982). Haraway is concerned that feminists not cede power to those whose practices they wish critically to engage. It is in this spirit that she grounds her feminist solution in an embrace of science and vision, ‘the real game in town, the one we must play’ (Haraway 1991, p. 184).

2. The Feminist Roots Of The Dilemma

A tension between emancipatory empiricism and its associated egalitarian or socialist politics, and feminist postmodern constructionism and its associated identity politics, resonates throughout contemporary Western feminist theory. It is a recent hallmark of those engaged in feminist philosophical and social studies of science that they seek to resolve one or another version of this tension. One horn of the feminist dilemma, according to Haraway, represents the good feminist reasons to be attracted to radical constructionism. Feminist postmodernists, and analysts of science and technology influenced by semiotics (including Haraway herself ), helped develop and often appeal to ‘a very strong social constructionist argument for all forms of knowledge claims’ including scientific ones (Akrich and Latour 1992, Haraway 1991, p. 184). This position has the benefit of showing the links between power—such things as status, equipment, rhetorical privilege, funding, and so on—and the production of knowledge and credibility. The downside, from the point of view of feminists interested in arguing for a better world, is that the radical constructionist argument risks rendering all knowledges as fundamentally ideological, with no basis for choosing between more and less just ideas, more and less true versions of reality. As Haraway provocatively expressed it, embracing this temptation seemed to leave no room for ‘those of us who would still like to talk about reality with more confidence than we allow the Christian right’s discussion of the Second Coming and their being raptured out of the final destruction of the world’ (Haraway 1991, p. 185).

The second horn of the dilemma, according to Haraway, involves ‘holding out for a feminist version of objectivity’ through materialism or empiricism (Haraway 1991, p. 186). Haraway briefly discusses both Marxist derived feminisms and feminist empiricism. Feminisms with Marxist inspirations are several, and their genealogy can be traced in a number of ways. Feminists have long criticized Marxist humanism for its premise that the self-realization of man is dependent on the domination of nature, and for its account of the historical progression of modes of production that grants no historical agency to domestic and unpaid labor (Hartmann 1981). Some have responded by developing feminist versions of historical materialism (Hartsock 1983). Feminist standpoint theorists appropriated the general insight, inherited from both Marxist thought and the sociology of knowledge, that one’s social-structural position in society—such things as one’s class or relation to the means of production, or one’s gender or ethnonational characteristics—determine or affect how and what one knows (Smith 1990).

Likewise, the idea that some social structural positions confer epistemological privilege has been widely adopted by standpoint theorists and feminist epistemologists arguing for specifically feminine ways of knowing (Rose 1983). ‘Seeing from below,’ that is, from a position of subordination, has commonly been theorized by feminists as the position of epistemological privilege, on the grounds that those with little to gain from internalizing powerful ideologies would be able to see more clearly than those with an interest in reproducing the status quo. In Patricia Hill Collins’ version of standpoint theory, for example, these insights are used both to validate the knowledges of the historically disenfranchised, and to reverse the hegemonic ranking of knowledge and authority, and claim epistemological privilege for African–American women (Collins 1989).

Psychoanalytic theory, particularly anglophone object relations theory, inspired some of the early writings on gender and science (Chodorow 1978, Keller 1985). Object relations theory attempted to explain the different relation of women and men to objectivity, abstract thought, and science in modern societies. To account for this difference, the theory posited gender-based differences in the socialization of sons and daughters in Western middle class heterosexual nuclear families. Boys, according to this theory, are socialized to separate from the primary caregiver who is the mother in this normative family scenario. They thus learn early and well by analogy with their emotional development that relational thinking is inappropriate for them; separating themselves from the object of knowledge, as from the object of love, is good. Girls, on the other hand, are supposedly socialized to be like their primary caregiver, so that they can reproduce mothering when their turn comes. Relationality and connectivity, not abstraction and separation, are the analogous ordering devices of girls’ affective and epistemological worlds. As applied to objectivity and scientific knowledge, object relations theory seemed to explain to feminists, without resort to distasteful biological determinisms denying women scientific aptitude, why women were excluded from much of science and technology. It also suggested that there were (at least) two distinct ways of knowing, and that much might have been lost in the violence and separation of masculinist science that could be restored by a proper valuation of the feminine values of connection and empathy (Harding 1986, Keller 1983). Like Marxism, psychoanalytic approaches to objectivity gave feminists a means to show the relevance of one’s social position to knowledge. Like feminist empiricism, they encouraged the belief in the possibility of an improved, feminist, objectivity (Harding 1992).

The feminist canon contains a number of empirical studies that have revealed the negative effects of such things as colonialism and stereotypes about race and gender on the production of reliable science (FaustoSterling 1995, Martin 1991 1996, Schiebinger 1989, Traweek 1988). Evelyn Fox Keller’s call for ‘dynamic objectivity’ (Keller 1985, pp. 115–26) and Sandra Harding’s demand for ‘strong objectivity’ (Harding 1992, p. 244) are exemplary of the aspirations of theoretical feminist empiricism. These projects seek to prescribe scientific methods capable of generating accounts of the world that would improve upon disembodied, masculinist portrayals of science because they would be alert to the practices of domination and oppression inherent in the creation, dissemination, and possession of knowledge. Feminist empiricism nonetheless remains problematic because of its reliance on the dichotomies of bias vs. objectivity, use vs. misuse, and science vs. pseudoscience. The feminist insight of the ‘contestability of every layer of the onion of scientific and technological constructions’ (Haraway 1991, p. 186) flies in the face of leaving these epistemological dichotomies intact.

3. Subjects, Objects, And Agency

Haraway’s notion of situated knowledges problematizes both subject and object. Unlike standpoint theories which attribute epistemological privilege to subjugated knowers, and the sociology of knowledge which attributes espitemological privilege to those in the right structural position vis-a-vis a given mode of production, Haraway attributes privilege to partiality. This shift underscores that ‘situated knowledge’ is more dynamic and hybrid than other epistemologies that take the position of the knower seriously, and involves ‘mobile positioning’ (Haraway 1991, p. 192) In situated knowledges based on embodied vision, neither subjects who experience, nor nature which is known, can be treated as straightforward, pretheoretical entities, ‘innocent and waiting outside the violations of language and culture’ (Haraway 1991, p. 109). Haraway maintains that romanticizing, and thus homogenizing and objectifying, the perfect subjugated subject position is not the solution to the violence inherent in dominant epistemologies. As feminists from developing countries have also insisted, there is no innocent, perfectly subjugated feminist subject position conferring epistemological privilege; all positionings are open to critical re-examination (Mohanty 1984/1991). Subjectivity is instead performed in and through the materiality of knowledge and practice of many kinds (Butler 1990, pp. 1–34).

Conversely, the extraordinary range of objects in the physical, natural, social, political, biological, and human sciences about which institutionalized knowledge is produced should not be considered to be passive and inert. Haraway says that situated knowledges require thinking of the world in terms of the ‘apparatus of bodily production.’ The world cannot be reduced to a mere resource if subject and object are deeply interconnected. Bodies as objects of knowledge in the world should be thought of as ‘material-semiotic generative nodes,’ whose ‘boundaries materialize in social interaction’ (Haraway 1991, p. 201). The move to grant agency to material objects places the epistemology of situated knowledges at the center of recent scholarship in science and technology studies (Callon 1986, Latour 1987).

4. Uptake And Critique

Donna Haraway’s essay ranks among the most highly cited essays in science and technology studies and has been anthologized. As stated above, situated knowledges is a provocative and rich methodological metaphor with resonances in many quarters. The dialogue between Harding and Haraway continued after the publication of Situated Knowledges (Harding 1992, pp. 119–63). Her epistemology has directly influenced, and has in turn been influenced by, the recent work of sociologists and anthropologists of science (Clarke and Montini 1993, Rapp 1999), feminist philosophers of science (Wylie 1999), and practicing feminist scientists (Barad 1996). In addition, ‘situated knowledges’ is used as a standard technical term of the field by more junior scholars.

Critics of situated knowledges have been few. Timothy Lenoir has pointed out that many of the epistemological ideas behind Haraway’s situated knowledges are found not only in other major strands of science and technology studies, but also in the work of continental philosophers such as Nietzsche. He likewise critiqued the idea of situated knowledges for its dependence on the apparatus of semiotics (Lenoir 1999, pp. 290–301). Historian Londa Schiebinger, in her recent book summarizing the effects of a generation of feminist scholarship on the practice of science, places Haraway’s situated knowledges together with Harding’s strong objectivity as attempts to integrate social context into scientific analysis (Schiebinger 1999). Implicit critiques have been leveled against the limitations of the idea of being situated, for example, in the development of De Laet’s and Mol’s mobile epistemology (De Laet and Mol 2000). Sheila Jasanoff and her colleagues have argued for bringing differently spatialized entities such as the nation, the local, and the global, into the epistemology of science and technology studies, while retaining the insights gained by paying attention to practice, vision, and measurement. These critiques stand more as continuing conversations with, than rebuttals of situated knowledges, however. Overall, the idea of situated knowledges remains central to feminist epistemology and science studies and to attempts to understand the role of modern science in society.


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