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Epistemology and the politics of knowledge

If scholars accept that all knowledge is socially constructed, and historically situated, we must also understand social research methodologies as historically produced social formations that circumscribe as well as produce culturally specifi c forms
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  Epistemology and the politics of knowledge Celine-Marie Pascale Abstract:  If scholars accept that all knowledge is socially constructed, and histori-cally situated, we must also understand social research methodologies as historically produced social formations that circumscribe as well as produce culturally specific forms of knowledge. In this article I examine some of the ways in which an underlying 19th century philosophy of science constrains the ability of contemporary researchers to examine 21st century cultural complexities. In particular, I discuss how the notion of evidence derived from the physical sciences prevents social sciences from examining a range of phenomena such as routine relations of privilege and contemporary media. Taking up the argument that social   sciences need social   epistemologies, I explore sociological studies of language as one form of epistemic shift that would enable researchers to apprehend the circulation of power as expressed in routine relations of privilege, as well as apprehend the porous social relations introduced through media old and new. Introduction Social sciences emerged as part of a modernist discourse of progress, concerned with goals of value neutrality and an ever-increasing effort to generate insights into social life that could stand as the equivalents of physical laws. With the benefit of hindsight, social scientists in the 21st century frequently recognize that science has been more than a search for objective knowledge. One does not have to look hard to find scientific research that advanced various forms of bigotry; today such studies clearly reveal more about cultural hierarchies of power than about the people, places, and cultures that were studied. The ‘ways of knowing’ that have been privileged by academics in dominant cultures con-tinue to be a site of contention and resistance – particularly for those who have been constructed as ‘Other’ in their discourses. Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2004: 1) writes: ‘. . . the term “research” is inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism. The word itself, “research,” is probably one of the dirtiest words in the indigenous world’s vocabulary.’ © 2011 The Author. Editorial organisation © 2011 The Editorial Board of the Sociological Review. Published by Wiley-Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA  155 Epistemology and the politics of knowledge ©  2011 The Author. Editorial organisation ©  2011 The Editorial Board of the Sociological Review The practical work of scientific research necessarily reproduces culturally specific assumptions among dominant groups regarding how the world exists and how it works. To the extent that social sciences developed alongside the nation-state, they are bound by national assumptions and experiences (della Porta and Keating, 2008). The epistemological ground of social research devel-oped, in part, as a legitimated form of knowledge about ‘the Other’ produced by and for those in power. Social research is itself a relation of power that pro-duces (and is produced by) ‘domains of objects and rituals of truth’ (Foucault, 1977: 194).Long before Foucault, Bertrand Russell (1938: 10) described the fundamen-tal concept in the social science as power – in the same sense in which energy is the fundamental concept in physics. Like energy, there are many expressions of power, and none of these can be necessarily regarded as subordinate to another; there is no single expression of power from which other forms derive, no stag-nant expression of power and no expression of power that exists in isolation. The complex networks of power that infuse social life require specific and diverse methodologies and methods.Despite many significant changes in social research paradigms, the discipline of sociology continues to rely upon epistemic foundations derived from the physical sciences, even in qualitative methods. For example, qualitative para-digms rely upon ‘local contexts’ for data. Such contexts are constructed to be congruent with a physical science model and then are made to appear in scien-tific discourse as if they are naturally occurring phenomena. Social sciences have no ‘scientific’ means for addressing the broader cultural conditions that shape these localized contexts. This is particularly significant since the meaning   of any utterance or text exceeds localized contexts.Sociologists can never fully examine the production of routine relations of power and privilege if we attend only to a localized context of interaction, regardless of whether we use qualitative or quantitative methods. In addition, sociological studies of media have yet to join mainstream sociological research in any substantial way largely because the methods best suited to apprehending media tend to fall outside the frame of ‘scientific methods’. If it has been difficult to effectively study old media (such as film, television, and newspapers) with existing sociological methods, the narrow conceptions of evidence makes it all but impossible to study new media that have radically transformed all under-standings of social interaction and social context.The social sciences in general and sociology, in particular, can benefit from additional analytic strategies, which apprehend the complex networks of power that infuse the (re)production of culture and knowledge; yet our research methods successfully inhibit such innovation. In what follows I make the argu-ment that social   sciences need social   epistemologies. I focus explicitly on qualita-tive research and suggest sociological studies of language as one form of epistemic shift that would enable researchers to apprehend the circulation of power as expressed in routine relations of privilege, as well as apprehend the porous social relations introduced through media – old and new.  156 Celine-Marie Pascale ©  2011 The Author. Editorial organisation ©  2011 The Editorial Board of the Sociological Review The politics of knowledge Auguste Comte (1798–1857) believed that authentic knowledge came from per-sonal experience, rather than from metaphysical or theological foundations. He argued that by ‘relying solely on observable facts and the relations that hold among observed phenomena, scientific inquiry could discover the “laws” gov-erning empirical events’ (Hawkesworth, 2007: 472). Comte’s positivism articu-lated a search for laws of social life that could stand as equivalents to the natural laws of the physical sciences. 1  It is anchored to the same ontological premise of the natural sciences: the world exists as an objective entity and is (at least in principle) knowable in its entirety; epistemologically, the tasks of the researcher are first to describe the reality accurately and then to analyse the results (della Porta and Keating, 2008).In this sense, positivism (and neo-positivism) mirrors the commonsense ontology of daily life in which things exist as they appear, unless one is dream-ing or deceived. Positivist research is characterized by a quest for determinacy; its reductionist impulse is reflected in attempts to develop precise meanings and operational indicators. By embracing the ontological belief that a single reality exists and the epistemological claim that this reality can be known objectively, social scientists have argued that there was one, and only one, correct logic for scientific inquiry. Positivism served as the  methodological foundation of the early social sciences.Antonio Gramsci (1995) was an early critic of the desire to use the methods of the physical sciences as the basis for empirical research in the social sciences. He referred to it as ‘science as fetish’ and wrote: ‘There do not exist sciences  par excellence  and there does not exist a method  par excellence , “a method in itself” ’ (Gramsci, 1995: 282). At the time Gramsci was concerned with social science’s inability to apprehend Italian politics. The same narrowness, however, makes it impossible to critique processes such as reification and hegemony through social science. Gramsci had argued that every process of inquiry must be con-gruent with its own particular purpose. Despite the prevalence and power of such critiques, the discourses of the physical sciences have been used to legiti-mate all forms of social research. 2  As scientific knowledge became idealized, its philosophical underpinnings largely faded from view.For well over a century qualitative data has been limited to that which we can point to – that which we can see in a localized context. For those immersed in hegemonic scientific discourse, it is difficult to imagine why this could possibly be problematic or how it might be otherwise. Yet within the parameters of a local-ized context it is impossible to apprehend particular aspects of power, privilege, culture and knowledge, which always and inevitably exceed any immediate context. If we don’t see ‘. . . the big picture, narrow empiricism provide[s] an ingenious smoke screen. It is a method perfectly tailored to an epistemology of ignorance. As the adage goes, we “look” but never “see”.’ (Steinberg, 2007: 11).Generally ignorance is understood as a result of a bad or neglectful epistemic practice, not as a substantive epistemic practice in itself (Alcoff, 2007: 39). Yet  157 Epistemology and the politics of knowledge ©  2011 The Author. Editorial organisation ©  2011 The Editorial Board of the Sociological Review ignorance is not simply ‘not knowing’ but an active misapprehension that sys-tematically produces inaccurate information – ignorance is an active social pro-duction . An epistemology of ignorance exists when one uses socially acceptable but faulty systems of justification (Alcoff, 2007; Sullivan and Tuana, 2007).Eugenics, for instance, can be understood as an epistemology of ignorance (Zuberi, 2001; Zuberi and Bonilla-Silva, 2008). The intrinsically scholarly framing of race discourse was not, in itself, enough to establish the scientific legitimacy of race research in general or eugenics in particular. Such studies gained prominence in particular times and places because they also have practical applications that resonate with perceptions held to be ‘commonsense’ by dominant groups in society. In this sense, academic research has provided what might be called factic-ity to racism: it appealed not to greed nor to spiritual passion, but to reason, albeit reason that is prefigured and operating in a particular mode.Similarly, much of Freud’s work is based on an epistemology of ignorance (Hoagland, 2007). Consider that although Freud initially believed the stories of women reporting rape, he subsequently chose to discredit their testimony in favour of a theory in which women and children fantasized about being raped, a theory which helped to silence women’s voices and deny their experiences for decades. Misrepresentations of race and gender such as these found widespread scientific acceptance because they supported hegemonic worldviews in Europe and North America. Science validates itself, yet hegemonic culture provides structural validation for epistemologies of ignorance that reproduce existing social hierarchies. Science itself is a cultural activity, a kind of performance that enacts itself.If we accept that all knowledge is socially constructed, and historically situ-ated, we must also understand social research methodologies as historically produced social formations articulated through particular discourses and systems of signification. Any mature science needs to include a broad range of strategies and tools in order to be fully capable of responding to contemporary issues. From this perspective, it is possible to appreciate the importance of refusing to reify the analytical constructs of social research.The most basic (and perhaps most powerful) level of critique directed at social science takes up the issue of ‘evidence.’ In all research methods, ‘evidence’ counts as evidence only if it is recognized in relation to a potential analysis (Gordon, 1997; Scott, 1991). Evidence is always the political effect of decisions regarding what constitutes valid and relevant knowledge as well as decisions that regard the conditions a researcher must fulfill to give her or his work value as science. The changing social landscapes of the 21st century mandate a shift in how social sciences conceptualize the nature of ‘evidence.’ Power and privilege A social scientist needs evidence – indeed a particular kind of evidence, some-thing in a specific context to which one can point. Yet privilege does not leave a trail of evidence in the same way that oppression does. Once routinized, privi-  158 Celine-Marie Pascale ©  2011 The Author. Editorial organisation ©  2011 The Editorial Board of the Sociological Review lege functions largely as an unmarked category. For example, white racial identities, as an  unmarked   category, leave little or no empirical evidence in daily interaction or in media, precisely because they pass without remark in dominant discourse. If researchers can prompt interviewees to talk about whiteness (cf Bonilla-Silva, 2003) analysing whiteness in interaction, in unprompted conver-sation, and in media, poses an arguably insurmountable challenge within the existing paradigms of science.All routine  relations of power and privilege pass without remark; this is the measure of how deeply embedded such relations are in a culture. Even though scholars appreciate the importance of whiteness, we lack effective social science tools for demonstrating how it functions. Social science is not prepared to enable scholars to examine the effects of what isn’t expressed. On the one hand, a reader must ask, should it be? On the other hand, this problem directs us back to an analysis of the politics of knowledge production. If social research is not yet capable of fully accounting for human experience, there must be something in our assumptions that alienates research processes from aspects of human experiences.What I am suggesting here is that the social sciences have been predicated on ‘an epistemology of ignorance,’ a state of ‘unknowingness,’ in relationship to routine relationships of power and privilege – indeed our identities as social researchers are forged through institutional processes that simultaneously con-struct and obfuscate our own privileged positions of power. We should not and cannot trust that research methodologies, created by the most privileged and during eras of great oppression, will serve as the basis of socially just research. It is not a matter of good methods applied to bad uses but, rather, academia’s ignorance of its own processes of reproduction. Opacity seems to be built into our own formation as we construct ‘others’ who are knowable. Media old and new In the 21st century, daily life is mediated by technology in unprecedented ways. Even ‘old’ forms of media such as television have become less singular texts and more a technological movement and mediation of culture. The extension and intensification of ‘teletechnology’ has moved television well beyond a broadcast model (Clough, 2000: 96). Shows can be viewed online, on DVD, through Wii, or downloaded onto iPods. Soundtracks for television shows have moved from the background to centre stage; popular music now has a regular and important place in the soundtracks of primetime network television. Consider that iTunes sells both television shows and their soundtracks. Yet perhaps more consequen-tially, television provides, and draws upon, cultural resources for more than immediate audiences. Consider how key phrases from media creep into the vocabularies of people who have never seen the media that produced the expres-sions. For example, the phrase ‘You’re fired!’ entered the US media and con-versations in ways that were no longer anchored to the television show ( The
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