Does Social Scientific Knowledge Have aPoltics?Addressing the presence of politics in socialscientific knowledge, this essay will provide a criticism of the standard viewof science as a proponent of apolitical objective knowledge (Chalmers, 1982).Feminist epistemologies will be used to counter argument this view, as theyfocus on the existence of politics within social scientific knowledge (Bar On,1993). One of the key points of dispute between the feminist epistemologies andstandard view as philosophies of science is the location of the knower withinsocial and political context as well as in relation to the acquired scientificknowledge itself. To address whether science does or does not have a politicsis thus directly related to the question of objectivity in both the knowledgeand the knower.
Firstly, the notions of the standard view of science and itsimportance for the obtainment of objective scientific truth will be outlined.This will be followed by the challenge posed on the standard view by the feministstandpoint view (Hill Collins, 1986), postmodern feminist epistemology(Yeatman, 1995) and feminist empiricism (Holmwood, 1995) Finally, the pointwill be made, why feminist theory provides a convincing argument for thepresence of politics particularly within social science, however this is notdone so to dispute social science as a scientific discipline, or befall into arelativism epistemology, rather to highlight the very particular pitfallssocial science might face when it commits to objective truths (Gross andLevitt,1994) as opposed to theoretical positions. The standard view of science is based upon theassumption that the inductivist method of observation rather than the theory isthe starting point to scientific enquiry and from such observation the truthcan be securely derived (Chalmers, 1982). The truth being of course objective,in need of no explanation, and independent of time and space.
The knower isassumed to be only immediately influenced by the observation rather than thelocation in which he/she is situated. In fact, Nagel (1989) referred to theview of the knower as understood within the standard view of science, as the”view from nowhere”. Universal and objective truths can be thus derived, anddefensible observation statement can be formed based upon the assumption thattruth is not attached to any moment in time therefore the location of theknower bears little importance (Newton-Smith, 1981). This is not to argue thatbiases do not occur within this understanding of science, however they ought tobe addressed and eliminated as truth itself is self-explanatory, and it is onlyuntruth which needs scientific explanation (Chalmers, 1978). By addressing andremoving biases, it can again be assumed that knowledge is not located. Thussummarized, by addressing the bias, the scientific enquiry can recover from thelocatedness of the knower and place him/her back into the territory of absoluteobjectivity (plato.
standford.edu, 2018). This is a particularly powerfulideology, precisely because of the described attributes it gives to theknowledge produced, such as being transcending of all locations. It can be thusargued, that for social enquiry to have sufficient scientific gravitas, itshould aim to follow the standard view of science insofar to aim to removebiases and be as objective as possible. Within the natural sciences, it isoften the case that albeit historically changing, there is one acceptedontology and one accepted epistemology, such as the standard view (Chalmers,1982). The Sokal affair (a publishing hoax by physics professor Alan Sokal, whosubmitted and got published a nonsensical article to the academic journalSocial Text) (Guillory, 2012), by showing the difficulties with providingthorough peer review in a discipline that is not committed to one unifiedepistemological and ontological grounds, the standard view for example,provides a convincing argument as to why social sciences, despite thedifferences in objects of study to the natural sciences, should aim to beobjective and apolitical, to gain sufficient scientific kudos. Feminist theory challenges the notion of theview from nowhere insofar that it is impossible for the knower to occupy anunattached space.
What feminism does, is to bring to the forefront the figureof the knower and shine a light on the location of such knower within thepolitical and social play field and then particularly on the influence of theknower, or presumed objectivity on the formation of knowledge itself9plato.standford.edu, 2018). To connect this argument to the previousstatement, about the possibly negative consequences for social science incomparison to natural sciences, Stacey and Thorne (1985) use it to differentiate between interpretativeand positivist traditions, with the latter laying claims to objectivity (Smith,1978) and the former being more reflexive about the grounds on which the theorydevelops.
To question the locatedness of the knower, and the politics ofscience also means to enquire about the effect of social and political groundingin which knowledge is formed. The feminist enquiry is particularly focuses onthe questions of the effects of the gender of the knower on the knowledgeproduced (Quine,1963). Predictably, feminism argues that the so call voice fromnowhere, is the voice of white privileged men, which was so dominant andremained unchallenged so that it was mistaken for objective, apolitical andscientifically rigorous position. Furthermore, as Addelson (1983) writes, thescientific method in the standard view of science is presented as the height ofhuman rationality, invented to answer enquiries about the world, and to seekobjective truths. Science appears as though it describes one set of factscorresponding with one reality (Gregory, 1998).
It also enjoys tremendoussuccess, as scientists are seen to have access to facts, and the objectiveunderstanding of the world (Newton-Smith, 1981). The success is attributed tothe scrutiny of scientific enquiry, the criticism and testing forfalsification, which in the end differentiates scientific knowledge from layknowledge. To say that knowledge has a politics is to argue that what we knowand the art in which the knowledge is obtained, mirrors the situation or theviewpoint of the knower (plato.standoford.edu, 2018b). This of course conflictswith the “apolitical knower” or the so called “view from nowhere” (GrossLevitt, 1984). Feminism challenges the existence of such position from anempirical, postmodernist and feminists’ standpoint view perspective.Additionally, feminist theorists argue that the view from nowhere, thus withoutany perspective nor politics, applied to social sciences is not only false butalso leads to creating scientific theories which disadvantage those inoppressed social positions.
This is to be understood as the dominant voice ofreason is a male voice, the presumptions that would have arisen had that voicebeen female are omitted by default. This of course can be transferred fromgender upon class and as well as race. Feminist, argue, in the most radicalforms of their critique of the standard view, that aperspectivity hides theandrocentric exercise of male power being used to shape women’s behaviouraccording to that of men.
Feminist epistemology lays its focus on theway in which social location of the knower influences the “how” of acquiringknowledge. When we speak of location,this is of course not to be understood literary, we refer to the ascribedsocial identities such as gender, race and ethnic identities. As individuals,we occupy different location with these ascribed identities, which are additionallyattached to different powers and interest. This alone provides grounds forforming an argument, claiming that social scientific knowledge ahs a politics,because for knowledge to be located means for it to have a politics. At thispoint however, we must address the concerns that the feminist critique of theposition of the knower and the supposed “view from nowhere” may lead torelativism, thus crumbling science up into ideologies without any intrinsicmeaning. Rather than to completely forget about the efforts to understand theworld rationally, this effort should be advanced, as argued by feministtheorists.
This is to be done by creating consciousness of self (Piaget), bywhich we realise the structures that underlie the science’s claim to universality.However, the question remains, how many elements of the location can beanalytically included when making a scientific argument? As we can haveestablished the knower can only occupy a very particular location (a whitefeminist will have a different perception of the oppressive nature of theandrocentric scientific enquiry from a white feminist). Arguably, we willalways adopt a point of view that is based upon our social and politicalpositioning, thus unavoidably being centric either way, even if the desiredoutcome is heterogeneity. So how is the knower meant to navigate the world ofinfinitive perspectives and politics? The deconstructionist answer is that theknower, instead of occupying the position in a political ether, is occupying aposition from “somewhere” (as supposed to nowhere), however this view is alwayslimited.
Contrary to the deconstruction notion,locatedness of the knower can also be used in a positive way in terms ofdeveloping a critical theory. One such critical theory is the feministstandpoint theory. It is critical in terms of its intentions being to givegreater power to the oppressed by focusing on studies for, by and about theoppressed (women). This may thus create a more valuable representation of womenby appealing for an epistemic privilege of social situations in which gender isentangled on behalf of sexist assumptions. By combining the notions ofknowledge being attached to a knower, thus situated and not being in freefloating in the ether of nowhere and the sociological concept of gender as atype of a social location, we can come to understandings that what we as peopleknow and how we come to said knowledge, is influenced by our gender, and or ournotions of it. Arguably each “type” of gendered knowledge raises newepistemological questions. However, theobvious criticism of standpoint theory lies in the problematic of establishingwhich standpoint has said epistemic privilege (Longino, 1993). The feministtheorist Bar On (1993) argued against the notion of women’s epistemic privilegebeing based on women’s oppression through feminine cognitive styles (Crenshaw,1999) as our way of gaining moral knowledge is inevitably founded upon thecontinuum of already established gender relations .
By anchoring epistemicprivilege in feminine cognitive styles, we are forced to decide between ethicalknowledge and the life in a society without sexism (ibid). Nonetheless, the most apparent criticism ofthe feminist standpoint theory came from the postmodernist feminist movement,which pointed out that women cannot possibly have a shared insight intocapturing the basis of their oppression, as the category of a “woman” isunattainable, given the different oppression brought upon by different race,sexual orientation etc (Barwell, 1995). They go as far as asserting that theuniversal women’s point of view, the universal female knower is the viewpointof a well-positioned white woman (McLennan, 1995). There are two conclusions tobe drawn from feminist postmodern perspective and that is that the claim of aunified womanliness and the aim to gain a single perspective withepistemological privilege in the name of objectivity is unfeasible andunfounded. Postmodernism as such discards the fixation and unison of personalidentity, which is the basis of relativism, a notoriously dangerousepistemology, as it disables criticism.
Thus it is crucial to acknowledge, thatalthough feminist claim stem from a politics of feminism it cannot be simplereduced to being only about feminist politics, or to represent the view of oneparticular knower (Strickland, 1995).However, the criticism of postmodernistfeminist theory is based precisely upon their argument of the impossibility ofa unified female perspective, thus leading to a crumbling apart of perspectiveswithin feminist discourse. Notably Kathrine MacKinnon (2000) criticises therejection of the overarching category as women, arguing that albeit women ofdifferent class relations and different ages may experience various kinds ofsexist oppression, it is still within the realm of sexism. Consideration ofintersectionality, rather than being the ground for rejecting woman as oneunified actor, can contribute to structural analysis of gender (Haslanger,2000). Finally, feminist postmodernist arguments lead to the falling apart ofgroups, by which it reinforces individualism, emphasised in the veryepistemological notion they seem to argue against.
Put in other words, the viewfrom nowhere has been in feminist postmodernism replaced by what we might argueis the view from everywhere. However, within the feminist discoursepostmodernism prevails as successful epistemology, attributed to the agreementwithin the discourse on the diversity of situated knowledge. The critique offeminist postmodernist notions is the hanging onto the idea of the knower as atranshistorical figure without any social identities (Harding, 1990).Furthermore Scott (1991) elaborates that it also suggests that the lack of thefemale perspective represented by the knower is a bias which can be eliminatedwithin science without the addition of feminist thought to the basis of theenquiry. A third view of the feminist discourse whichwe may be used to debunk the argument that social science does not have apolitics is feminist empiricism (Quine, 1963). Firstly, empiricism rests on thenotion that experiences are the key explanations of knowledge. Leading from thispremise, feminist empiricism is thus the notion that empirical questions can beadded a dimension by considering feminist values. It also considers the ways inwhich the discovery of gender biases in current research can improve scientificmethods (Campbell and Nelson, 1990).
The argument against using thisepistemology as critique of the standard view is that it does not go farenough. Yes, it acknowledges the bias caused by the knowledge being located,but addresses this a way notably like the standard view of science. This is ofcourse not surprising as empiricism is based upon the presumption, thatknowledge can be derived and justified solely from experience. Feministpostmodernists disapprove of feminist empiricist for presuming the existing ofan individual as a transhistorical subject of knowledge outside of socialdetermination (Harding, 1990). Feminist empiricists are also criticized for toleratingan naïve concept of experience (Scott 1991), and for naively holding thatscience will correct the errors and biases in its theories about women andother subordinated groups by itself, without the aid of feminist values orinsights.
Handleby (1997) criticizesfeminist empiricism from a standpoint feminist perspective. She argues thatfeminist empiricism omits the part feminists’ politics play in the growth of anunderstanding of an alternative foundation for forming hypotheses that can bebased upon to dispute the androcentric standard.In the last two decades of social scienceresearch and feminist epistemology however, the lines between the distinctforms of epistemology (empirical, standpoint theory, and postmodern) as definedby Harding (1986) have become more blurred. This is due to previously theseepistemologies concerning the overarching questions of who does the view fromnowhere belong to and how is gender implicated within such view. More recentlyhowever, the focused been more narrowed down onto how gender (or any otherbias) influences particular subjects (Harding, 1990, 1991, 1998). Of course, the notion of feminist empiricismis not without criticism. There are theorist dooming feminist epistemologies asdishonest in its search for the objective, overarching truth (Monist,77(4) (1994), Gross and Levitt (1994), Haack (1993), and Pinnick, Koertge andAlmeder (2003).
It is unsuitable for such enquiry as it interchanges scientificfacts with values, thus disabling the possibility of a objective, apoliticaloutcome. This is done so to prevent truths problematic to the feminist agendacoming to the surface, alongside with rejecting science by wrongly associatingits foundations with patriarchal dominance. Furthermore, as feministepistemologies debunk the notion of objective, apolitical truth ideals, theyare seen to hold a overexaggerated view that all views are influenced bypolitical power struggles.
However, founded on the previous clarificationsgiven of each feminist empirical standpoint, it is clear that such condemnationis based on a fundamental misunderstanding of such epistemologies, for theiraim as argued, is not to dispute the scientific objectivity as a whole, ratherto highlight the possibility of an addition of points of view to improve thedominant view, tainted with sexist and androcentric biases (Lloyd 1995a, 1995b,1997a, 1997b, Nelson 1990). It further does not contradict the truths thatscience has produced, it is more a uncovering the hidden strings, such as maleinterests of maintain the status quo, pulling on the attempt at a objectiveknowledge (Harding 1986, 1998, 1993; Tiles 1987). To finally dispute such criticism beingbestowed upon feminist epistemologies, rather than using values instead offacts and truths, they are used to inform the truth (Anderson 1995b). This isdone, as independent and equal rules informing cognitive authority combinedwith the necessity of the scientific knowledge being prepared to answer tocriticisms based on varying grounds, is irreconcilable with not acknowledgingthe political grounds which undermine the objectivity and thus universality ofthe theory (Longino 1990, 1993a, 2001; Anderson 2004). One can sum thispostulate up in a Lacatoshian fashion, arguing that acknowledging the genderednature of male produced scientific facts, does not dispute their claim to be factualand consisting of valid knowledge, it rather attracts their claim touniversality. In conclusion, although this essay hasprovided a feminist critique of the standard view of science applied to socialenquiry, it demonstrated how the feminist critique exceeded the realms offeminism and did not focus solely on the effects of gender by questioning thevery assumption underlying the claims to objectivity. In the argumentspresented it was made clear, that feminism argues not only for the uncoveringof the biases informing knowledge formation but also to acknowledge the effectof the biases on the knowledge itself. Ultimately, feminism transformed thediscussions within the social scientific research disciplines, which areessentially about dialogue.
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