Knowledge, Recognition and Development: Concepts and Practices Moving over Spaces and Times

Marina Calloni, University of Milano-Bicocca in Milan

Keywords: Knowledge, Recognition, Development

Concepts travelling with our own life

One of the main mottos of feminism was ‘we are our body’: we are gendered and concretely situated in a life context. What does it mean if we take into account this statement not only from a biographical perspective but from an epistemological viewpoint? Indeed, I have always tried to combine my researches and teaching commitment with daily practices and travelling experiences. Theories should be ‘concretized’ in their reference to human beings, condition, problems and hopes.

Concepts have thus travelled with me over years, challenging them in various contexts and cultures. I had in fact the opportunity to live in different places and to develop comparative and interdisciplinary research in countries in development/ transition. This ‘concrete knowledge’ was at the basis of the International Network for Research on Gender that I established ten years ago. This experience as a ‘networker’ had the effect of evidencing my own cultural/ scientific limits but also of strengthening my efforts in understanding different cultures and integrating into my life the viewpoints of ‘others’. Concepts have thus always traveled with me in times, in different spaces and with different companions, changing their content and shape.

At present, I am professor of social and political philosophy at the Faculty of Sociology of the University of Milano-Bicocca in Milan. I’m teaching undergraduate, postgraduate and master’s courses. I employ a mainstreaming approach, so that gender issues are always present in my lectures, research and seminars, taken as theories or examples. In addition, I encourage my students to reflect upon their experiences and to elaborate their thesis or papers taking into account gender problematics.

In my university the number of colleagues working on Gender Studies has increased over the years, also thanks to a new gender sensitivity, the development of ad hoc scientific policies and the institutional recognition of Gender Studies in academia. We have also a research center called ABCD (which means Ateneo Bicocca Coordinamento Donne), an elected Committee for Equal Opportunities and a delegate of the Rector for gender issues and equal opportunities.

Gender Studies and Concepts
Why is Gender Studies crucial for a renewed approach to science and for the development of innovative equal opportunities strategies in academia? This question can be answered only if we summarize its genealogy.

Gender Studies has been defined as an interdisciplinary field, able to criticize and reconceptualize the origins of social inequalities, cultural roles and scientific issues over centuries. Patriarchy, power, domination and the crisis of masculinity have been considered key terms for re-thinking the entire process of Western ‘civilization’, the idea of rationality and the practices of politics. Therefore, natural and social sciences were criticized for being epistemologically inappropriate and gender blind. The notions of subject and object – which lie at the basis of daily experience, knowledge and the definition of science –have been redefined from a gender viewpoint and through a multicultural perspective (Taylor, 1991; Cohen et al, 1999), that is in relation to contexts and cultures. The ideology of socio-cultural and political features of knowledge, democracy and science has thus been underlined, thanks to standpoint theory.

Since the 1990s, a gender perspective was employed in different social and scientific fields as a key mainstreaming issue, in order to approach historical, epistemological and theoretical analysis in a more adequate way, as well as socio-political and pragmatic questions for the development of targeted social policies. Connected to this kind of social criticism, science policies have been reframed through ‘mainstreaming gender equality’ programs at national/ European and international levels (UN, 1996).

Yet, during recent years, changes in science, politics and culture have produced the transformation of epistemological and methodological approaches in Women’s and Gender Studies. Indeed, thanks to the critique of women coming from the South and East of the world, from countries in transition and development, researches and initiatives on gender issues have moved from a consideration of woman as a victim of patriarchy to a conceptualisation of woman as an active social actor, who, nevertheless, can be discriminated against through private/ public practices. Gender theory cannot, therefore, be reduced to a purely descriptive or narrative discourse because it implies normative assumptions and a radical critique of factuality, indicating pragmatic perspectives on social change.

Starting from this historical and methodological background, I come to the main questions of my research and interest in teaching social and political philosophy. How can we conceptualize and conceive problems raised at the present time, employing in a critical way concepts that were traditionally used in the history of thought and social/ natural sciences? How can concepts and traditions contribute to understand different contexts of life, cultures, diversities and the ‘life-world’? Or, do we need different conceptual frameworks? And what is the standpoint we have to keep in mind while we are planning our research or teaching?

This is not only a methodological matter, but also an issue concerning the ‘sense’ and the purposes of our thinking and the responsibility of our actions and related consequences. In fact, how can teaching and research influence the education of responsible citizens and the development of a global public sphere (Anheier et al, 2003; Held, 2004) aimed at building fairer and non-violent societies, respecting human beings and cultures?

My interest consists thus in shedding new light on key concepts of the history of philosophy and natural/ social sciences, thanks to the employment of new conceptualizations and issues arising from daily life, public reasoning and the praxis of active social actors. The aim is to challenge present scientific discourses and public debates from a normative point of view, which can avoid forms of ethical relativism, preventing any social criticism, as in the case of the violation of human rights, genocides and crimes of war (Gutman et al, 2002; Kaldor, 2003)

The three main concepts that I consider relevant not only for political philosophy and Gender Studies, but for the establishment of democratic societies in general are:
1. Knowledge.
2. Recognition.
3. Development.

These three concepts imply a dialogue among different disciplines: at least between history, philosophy, psychology, anthropology, epistemology, ethics, politics, sociology, economics, biotechnologies, life and environmental sciences, information systems, etc.. Taken together, a development of an ethical framework combining all three concepts might contribute to the understanding of worldwide events and the critique of private/ public violence from a global perspective.

The women’s movement and feminism was one of the most important revolutions of the twentieth century in socio-political and epistemological terms, because it overturned consolidated forms of understanding and observation. Scientists and philosophers conceptualised the notion of knowledge as based on doctrines, common sense in the ‘life world’ and forms of observation – assumed to be neutral – and judgement. Yet these notions seemed to be too abstract and too far from the concrete life of individuals, excluding differences in the search for ‘exactness’.

Because of the ‘scientific’ separateness of mind and body, the women’s movement pointed out that a concrete and gendered subject should always start to reason from the life perspective she/ he lives in. The pretence of objectivity/ neutrality in the construction of the object of research was questioned, considering instead the interaction between the judging subject and the analysed object. A different connection between subject and object permitted women to attribute a cognitive value to biographies and life courses as a form of resistance against domination (see Silvia Caporale Bizzini’s paper for further elaboration). Indeed, Gender Studies also became a way of approaching the meaning of knowledge and the construction of social/ natural sciences in a more adequate way.

The introduction of concepts like ‘situated knowledge’ (Harding, 1991, 1998; Harding et al, 2003) and ‘embodied self’ (see the papers of Veronica Vasterling and Biljana Kašić) have thus become matters aimed at making sense of the relationships between science, life contexts, daily experiences, research and teaching, stressing a different meaning of the individual as a producer of knowledge and organiser of scientific disciplines, starting from her/ his viewpoint.

In this context, I’m interested in reframing the notion of knowledge in an interdisciplinary way (see also Eniko Demény, Ulla Holm and Soula Pavlidou), in reconstructing central philosophical statements and in analysing the meaning of ‘knowledge society’ and ‘science in society’ in different theories and science policies, for example within the European Union (European Commission, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004a, 2004b). In this case, gender mainstreaming becomes crucial for the establishment of a more ‘democratic’ scientific environment.

The second concept which I think is relevant for Gender Studies, is the notion of recognition. It lies at the basis of the self-definition of an individual as an autonomous and unique being, who is related to but different from other subjects. Recognition implies a complex process of knowledge of the other/ others in the constitution of an individual/ collective identity (Habermas, 1992, 1996) through diversified forms of communication and language (see also Giovanna Covi and Melita Richter).

Since the nineteenth century, recognition has been considered one of the key concepts on which to base moral questions, conceive of social issues and perform political representations. In the last few decades, recognition has become crucial for the debate on communicative action, deliberative democracy, interculturalism (see Liana Borghi’s paper), inclusion (Young, 2000; Calloni, 2004 and 2006) and mutual respect – without humiliation (Margalit, 1996) - among human beings, populations and cultures.

Recognition lies at the basis of intersubjectivity (Benhabib, 2002, 2004) and can be both symmetrical and asymmetrical, depending on the different meaning of interaction among human beings (see Eva Skærbæk’s paper). Therefore, it implies the creation of positive and negative stereotypes as well as the construction of a dichotomy between who is considered as a friend and who is seen to be an enemy. Within this interactive context, the concept of power – based on asymmetrical roles – can be understood and questioned.

Taking as a background recent debates on struggles over recognition vs. struggles over distribution (Fraser et al, 2003) on the one hand, and the moral-political concern regarding respect of human rights on the other hand, my aim is at re-conceptualising traditions of thought and feminist approaches, which have taken into consideration the dialectical notion of recognition in both symmetrical and asymmetrical terms. Indeed, the idea and praxis of a respectful intersubjectivity, responsibility (see Dasa Duhacek) and reciprocity (where the role played by sentiments, emotions and passions is essential) (see Elena Pulcini and Teresa Joaquim’s papers) should be at the basis of a cosmopolitan democracy, rights/ duties, social justice and the critique of private/ private violence.

The third notion that I think is basic for Gender Studies is the concept of development. In the twentieth century, this idea was connected to an evolutionary vision of human/ economic progress/ innovation and to a linear approach to the philosophy of history. In economic terms, development was related to the growth of industrial production and the capitalist system. Later, it was applied in an imperialistic way to non-Western states, that is to the so-called post-communist states ‘in transition’ (as Therese Gastenauer also points out) and post-colonial countries ‘in development’. They were ideologically and economically supposed to reach the same life standard and welfare experienced by Western countries. But new approaches to development studies, bio-diversity and subjectivity (see Joan Anim-Addo’s use of the term ‘creolisation’ for this purpose) have radically criticised previous assertions of continuous economic progress, whose policies were destructive of cultural contexts and the environment.

Within this framework, my concern consists in the possibility of conceiving of development in a twofold way: as the development/ functioning of human capabilities (Sen, 1992, 1999; Nussbaum et al, 1995; Nussbaum, 2003; Fukuda-Parr et al, 2003) and the exercise of equal liberties on the one hand; and as a democratic economical/ political development, based on fair distribution of common resources, equal opportunities for all individuals and the respect of diversities on the other hand. The capability approach – integrated by a gender perspective – can thus contribute to rethinking and improving the content of human rights, the idea of a contextualised universalism and the perspective of ‘humanitarism’.
In this regard, experiences of women in countries in transition/ development (UNDP, 2000, 2004), which have showed the possibility of developing differentiated forms of global networking and cross-borders cooperation, shall be taken as an alternative example for reframing the traditional notion of development and international cooperation, mainly in combating violence (see Sabine Grenz) and deprivation.

Normativity, Social Criticism and Public Reasoning
The choice of the concepts of knowledge, recognition and development can be attributed to the following reasons. They have a strong impact on theory, praxis and daily life, and can be practiced by different social actors, travelling toward diverse world contexts and cultures. In addition, they are challenging because of their intrinsic power to question consolidated methods of reasoning and social practices. These ‘classical concepts’, belonging to the history of philosophy and natural/ social sciences, can be reframed, acquiring new meanings and permitting transdisciplinary dialogues (see Iris van der Tuin). This shift permits us to understand their critical potential in stressing both the limits of their previous conceptualisation and the possibility of understanding issues at stake in the public arena and in scientific debates, moving in different spaces and times. They are contextual and normative at the same time because they are capable of self-critique, dislocatable and dislocating.

Their conceptualisation and immanent application in teaching, research and academic organisation can be thus very fruitful both for teachers and students in developing a process of continuous interaction, correcting and evaluating reciprocal limits and outputs. The notions of knowledge, recognition and development can in fact be permanently judged and criticised in the daily praxis of teaching, learning, researching, planning, organising and interacting. Having a normative (i.e. counter-factual) as well as a pragmatic (i.e. practical) meaning, they constitute a basis for public reasoning and social criticism.
In addition, the notions of knowledge, recognition and development mentioned above can be ‘applied’ in manifold ways within mainstreaming: they transverse different disciplines. They are key words for developing both theoretical and empirical research in different times and cultural contexts; they can be used for historical reconstructions and employed for diverse comparative analysis. For instance: research on the meaning of knowledge in the history of philosophy can be developed from a gender perspective in order to consider specific cultural practices and ‘scientific’ notions, characterising human groups over time and changing over time due to processes of homologation and globalisation (see Assimina Karavanta). An analogous conceptual procedure can be adopted in teaching, using the concepts of knowledge, recognition and development as a bridge for communicating and exemplifying different theoretical issues, historical frameworks, socio-economic issues, political problems, cultural dynamics and scientific frameworks to students, who often have different cultural backgrounds and disciplinary education, so that the viewpoint of the teacher is always questioned as well.

A further motivation for employing the key words of ‘knowledge’, ‘recognition’ and ‘development’ is that they can be translated into several languages, even though their semantic meanings may change depending on different traditions and contextual uses, which should be emphasised. Yet understanding the different employment of these notions might usefully be a goal for teaching and research in Gender Studies as well as in social/ natural sciences.

Rethinking, teaching and researching in the light of gendered and normative theories and practices implies not only the possibility of reconstructing in a different way the socio-political, economic and scientific history of Western societies and their projections over ‘non-developed’ countries. It implies the possibility of redefining the main duties that democratic societies should fulfil and that can be synthesised as following:
1. The functioning/ empowerment of human capabilities and the recognition/ respect of diversities
2. The building of legitimate institutions
3. The construction of a democratic knowledge based society
4. The implementation of equal opportunities for all individual.
5. The improvement of the social quality of daily life at the global level
6. The perspective of a cosmopolitan society, able to struggle over violence and deprivation.

These tasks are for all citizens, who must have, however, equal opportunities in order to improve capabilities, liberty and justice.

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