Situated Knowledge


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"all eyes, including our own organic ones, are active perceptual systems, building on translations and specific ways of seeing, that is, ways of life." in his illustrations of retinal cells, santiago ramon y cajal depicts the neuromechanica of vision as fantastically active. it is only through the constant work of a wide variety of situated rods and cones, amacrine, ganglion and bipolar cells that the computationally intensive work of visual transduction takes place.

Situated knowledge is a form of objectivity that accounts for both the agency of the knowledge producer and that of the object of study. The concept as it relates to science studies was developed by Donna Haraway in response to Sandra Harding's The Science Question in Feminism, in which Harding enumerates standpoint theory. Situated knowledge and standpoint theory both continue to inform discourse in science studies, feminism, and education theory.

Stated briefly, situated knowledge questions the foundational myths of traditional objectivity: the subject as a simple, singular point of empirical knowledge-gathering, the scientific gaze as an omniscient observer, the object of inquiry as a passive and stable. Through situated knowledge, subjects become complex contraptions made of biological vision and personal will, the scientific gaze is dissolved into a network of contested observations, and objects become Coyote-Frankensteins, produced and yet much more in control than the traditional modest witness would care to admit. It is a means of avoiding abject relativity while simultaneously rejecting phallogocentric positivism.

Stated less briefly, Haraway's “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective” offers an excellent exposition of the concept.

The quest for a feminist objectivity was central to feminist science studies in the late 1980s. Radical social constructionist arguments had pulled the rug out from under positivism, but left feminist science studies without any rug to stand on. Haraway describes her frustration with the constructionist program:

“I, and others, started out wanting a strong tool for deconstructing the truth claims of hostile science by showing the radical historical specificity, and so contestability, of every layer of the onion of scientific and technical construction, and we end up with a kind of epistemological electroshock therapy, which far from ushering us into the high stakes tables of the game of contesting public truths, lays us out on the table with self-induced multiple personality disorder” (p. 578)

In the harsh light of radical constructionism, all knowledge is theorized as “power moves, not moves toward truth” p. 576). In a constructionist philosophy of science, there is no sense in speaking of objectivity or truth, knowledge claims are a constant struggle, science is essentially meaningless outside of its rhetorical posturing.

So, I think my problem, and “our” problem, is how to have simultaneously an account of radical historical contingency for all knowledge claims and knowing subjects, a critical practice for recognizing our own “semiotic technologies” for making meaning, and a no-nonsense commitment to faithful accounts of a “real” world, one that can be partially shared and that is friendly to earthwide projects of finite freedom, adequate material abundance, modest meaning in suffering, and limited silliness. (p. 579).

Feminists sought a means of escaping the relativistic quagmire. In The Science Question in Feminism, Harding asks whether “science, steeped in Western, masculine, bourgeois endeavors, [can] nevertheless be used for emancipatory ends” (1986, back cover). Her answer is to generate a mode of knowledge production that “studies up” to explain the practices of power that created masculinist science. Haraway recognizes the importance of the science question, and the value of Harding's response, but casts her doubt on the standpoint model.

Harding's “view from below” doesn't satisfy Haraway. The quest to find the most subjugated standpoint – the most privileged spot from which to observe masculinist science – brings with it the “serious danger of romanticizing and/or appropriating the vision of the less powerful while claiming to see from their positions.” Even forgiving Harding's urge to romanticize the oppressed, standpoint epistemology brings with it the problem of how to take on that viewpoint: “to see from below is neither easily learned nor unproblematic, even if “we” “naturally” inhabit the great underground terrain of subjugated knowledges” (p. 584).

Haraway turns instead to the metaphor of vision, the all-seeing eye of Western science. Vision has historically been used “to distance the knowing subject from everybody and everything in the interests of unfettered power” (p. 581). Haraway describes the position of scientific vision as a “god trick” (Ibid., p. 582), a move that places the sciences as an omniscient observer. Relativism does a similar kind of work; instead of seeing from everywhere, relativism offers view from nowhere, while “claiming to be everywhere equally” (p. 584).

In order to develop the concept of situated knowledge and move away from either of these god tricks, Haraway reappropriates the passive, all-knowing observering eye of the god trick and offers the image of the embodied, complicated, actively seeing eye. She reinscribes the eye with biological and technological meaning: “all eyes, including our own organic ones, are active perceptual systems, building on translations and specific ways of seeing, that is, ways of life” (p. 583).

Rather than the simple singularity of will and consciousness imagined in the eye of Western science, Haraway proposes a split and contradictory observer.

I am arguing for politics and epistemologies of location, positioning, and situating, where partiality and not universality is the condition of being heard to make rational knowledge claims. These are claims on people's lives. I am arguing for the view from a body, always a complex, contradictory, structuring, and structured body, versus the view from above, from nowhere, from simplicity. Only the god trick is forbidden. (p. 589)

In Modest_Witness, Haraway uses the concept of diffraction to describe the work of this kind of complex and embodied observer. In optics, diffraction is a phenomenon in which rays of light interact to produce new patterns; their interaction is recorded in the strange new shadows they cast. In situated knowledges, “diffraction is the production of difference patterns in the world, not just of the same reflected—displaced—elsewhere” (p. 268). Diffraction is a useful metaphor for the sense-making necessary in the split and contradictory self.

The work of a feminist science, then, is linking the knowledges produced by multifaceted and complexly situated observers into a new form of deeper, stronger rationality. It is based not on omniscient positioning but on the contradictions between embedded positions.

Science becomes the paradigmatic model, not of closure, but of that which is contestable and contested. Science becomes the myth, not of what escapes human agency and responsibility in a realm above the fray, but, rather, of accountability and responsibility for translations and solidarities linking the cacophonous visions and visionary voices that characterize the knowledges of the subjugated. (p. 590)

A feminist science endorses conversation not only between observers, but between the observer and the object. Haraway re-interprets observation as a conversation, feminist objectivity “makes room for the surprises and ironies in the heart of all knowledge production; we are not in charge of the world.” Haraway uses the Coyote of Navajo legend to illustrate a form of observation that allows for the possibility of trickery. She suggests that we conceive of the earth as having a sense of humor.
In order to account for the agency of the trickster-object in the process of observation, Haraway theorizes it as

a “material-semiotic actor.” This unwieldy term is intended to portray the object of knowledge as an active, meaning-generating part of apparatus of bodily production, without ever implying the immediate presence of such objects or, what is the same thing, their final unique determination of what can count as objective knowledge at a particular historical juncture. (p. 594)

The material-semiotic actor is not a passive object of observation, but takes a role in its own construction.

See also:

Agential realism (Weiss)
Objectivity (Jalbert)
Situated knowledge (Hubbell)
Standpoint theory (Weiss)

References:

Haraway, D. (1997). Modest−Witness@Second−Millennium.FemaleMan−Meets−OncoMouse. New York, NY: Routledge.
Haraway, D. (1988). Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies, 14(3), 575-599.
Harding, S. (1986). The Science Question in Feminism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press