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situated knowledge

  A term coined by the feminist cultural critic of science Donna Haraway (1991, p. 188), to denote \'a doctrine of embodied objectivity that accommodates paradoxical and critical feminist science projects\'. Situated knowledge replaces the traditional conception of scientific practice as the pursuit of a disembodied, inviolable and neutral objectivity with an alternative formulation that stresses embodied physicality, social construction, and cultural politics. It is also an agenda for political action, and subsequently a key term in the \'science wars\' (see Social Text, volumes 46/47, 1996).

Haraway argues that vision or sight has been a guiding metaphor for western scientists in carrying out their work: they see the world and write down its truths. But in so doing they write themselves out of their own stories; their role is solely as \'modest witness\' (Haraway, 1997, ch. 1). That presumption of modesty, Haraway argues, is a direct consequence of the starting point of visuality. It creates the illusory possibility of a disembodied science. She calls this illusion a \'god trick\', the idea that it is possible to have \'vision from everywhere and nowhere\' (Haraway, 1991, p. 191). Moreover, it is just such a trick that is the basis of one of science\'s most cherished ideas, objectivity, the belief in the possibility of a single, final, detached, and unblemished rendering of the world.

For Haraway the \'gaze from nowhere\' (Haraway, 1991, p. 188), as she calls objectivity, is really a kind of front, or rhetorical move, that hides and protects the interests of those who propose and most benefit from it, typically white western males. As Haraway (1997, p. 23) writes, \'modesty pays off … in the coin of epistemological and social power\'. In this sense, being a modest witness turns out not to be very modest at all. It is a strategy to promulgate a particular kind of knowledge which is often masculinist and racist. (Specific illustrations are found in Haraway\'s, 1989, critical examination of primate research.)

Scientific practices that masquerade under the cloak of objectivity are labelled \'fetishistic\' by Haraway (1997, ch. 4) because knowledge is conceived as a thing rather than a social process. Fetishism would not occur if it was recognized from the outset that all knowledge is embodied and partial, that is, \'situated\'. Indeed, only with that recognition does it become possible \'to construct a usable, but not an innocent doctrine of objectivity\' (Haraway, 1991, p. 189; see also spatial fetishism).

Take in turn the two definitional components of situated knowledge. By embodiment Haraway means not just the literal definition of that word. While it is important to recognize the organic embodiment of vision in particular kinds of human bodies, each of which make a difference to what is seen, embodiment is also technological. Machines, like humans, are not passive observers, but in their very construction record the world from a particular slant. For example, the software used in the computer programs of geographical information systems come with a systematic set of biases, hidden assumptions, and aporias. Print-outs are not mirror copies of the world, \'the view from nowhere\', but always the view from somewhere. Furthermore, embodiment means recognizing the collective nature of inquiry involving interaction, difference, and debates over meanings and responsibilities: \'feminist embodiment … is not about fixed location in a reified body … but about nodes in fields, inflections in orientations, and responsibility for differences in material-semiotic fields of meaning\' (Haraway, 1991, p. 195).

By partial knowledge Haraway means the recognition that no one, except omniscient Gods and Goddesses, ever has full (objective) knowledge. Instead, there are only partial perspectives, a consequence of our own circumscribed subject location that makes us who we are, and what we know. As Haraway writes, \'The knowing self is partial in all its guises, never finished, whole, simply there and original; it is always constructed and stitched together imperfectly.\'

While embodiment and partiality might seem like difficult conditions under which to acquire knowledge, for Haraway they are pregnant with political possibility. They are also the only hope of achieving an attainable, as opposed to a mythical, objectivity, for the partiality of individual knowledge necessitates that people reach out and construct networks of affiliation, to engage in discussion, to recognize difference but also common beliefs and shared responsibilities. It is then through these \'shared conversations in epistemology\' that it is possible to forge \'solidarity in politics\' (Haraway, 1991, p. 191). Not that the end result is unanimity, or even a trajectory towards some final end point of agreement. That was the problematic assumption of the old type of objectivity. Rather, \'shared conversations\' are open-ended, varied, sometimes inconsistent and paradoxical. Most importantly, conversation is social intercourse, and for Haraway a necessary condition for both political projects, such as feminism, and epistemological ones, such as objectivity.

In sum, and returning to Haraway\'s original definition, situated knowledge is embodied in that it is grounded in the physicality of specific human bodies and their artefacts. Knowledge does not \'come from above, from nowhere, from simplicity\', but from ground level, from somewhere and from complexity (Haraway, 1991, p. 195). As a result, the traditional notion of objectivity must be recast, conceived as an incomplete process, not a final outcome. Specifically, objectivity is the process of working out of difference and commonality, of struggling epistemologically and politically to make connections, affiliations, and alliances. Consequently, situated knowledge is often paradoxical, but always containing the possibility of critical engagement. Those possibilities for critical engagement are picked up in geography by Gregory (1994) and Harvey (1996) and in a sustained case study by Merrifield (1995). In addition, Rose (1997) has added an important qualifier: that anyone claiming to fully situate their own knowledge is practising precisely the same kind of God trick that they criticize in others. All situated knowledge is partial, including the situated knowledge we have of our own knowledge about ourselves. (See also body, geography and.) (TJB)

References Gregory, D. 1994: Geographical imaginations. Oxford: Blackwell. Haraway, D.J. 1989: Primate visions: gender, race, and nature in the world of modern science. New York: Routledge. Haraway, D.J. 1991: Simians, cyborgs, and women: the reinvention of nature. New York: Routledge. Haraway, D.J. 1997: Modest-Witness@second-millennium. FemaleMan©Meets_OncoMouse TM: Feminism and Technoscience. New York: Routledge. Harvey, D. 1996: Justice, nature and the geography of difference. Oxford: Blackwell. Merrifield, A. 1995: Situated knowledge through exploration: reflections on Bunge\'s \'Geographical Expeditions\'. Antipode 27: 49-70. Rose, G. 1997: Situating knowledges: positionality, reflexivities and other tactics. Progress in Human Geography 21: 305-20.

Suggested Reading Gregory (1994); Haraway (1991), ch. 9.



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