Intersubjectivity, Knowledge Production and Recognition (1)

Eva Skærbæk, Associate Professor, Ǿstfold University College, Norway

Keywords: Intersubjectivity, Recognition, Care, Knowledge (Production)

Since our working group took its first unsteady steps into the world of Athena II, most of us have had to realize once again that knowledge does not travel in a disembodied or unsituated manner. Working in this group, travelling to meet and to understand in Lund, Trento, Helsinki and London, marked by the workload we all have in common, was at first challenging, then exhausting, and now inspiring. To recognize the ‘other’ and establish intersubjectivity is, however, just as difficult between us as elsewhere. Maybe it is important to recognise the complexity, not only of concepts, but also of embodied beings. To agree that the ‘travelling concepts approach’ by definition is self-reflective and self-critical, is not as difficult as it is to realize that this also includes yourself. The participants of this group are subjects in a never-ending struggle for identity, in which claims about sovereignty and subjectivity are in tension (Passerini, 2000). Our last meeting in London was a turning point, as if we had all silently tuned in to Sinatra: ‘If we make it here, we can make it everywhere’.

Mieke Bal, in her book Travelling Concepts in the Humanities focuses on intersubjectivity ‘for its insistence on the democratic distribution of knowledge’ (Bal, 2002: 12). This is my concern too. How to make intersubjectivity in the Beauvoirian sense work, in practice as well as in theory.

My research and teaching on ethics has for the last 8 years been concentrated on ethics as it is practiced in the area of care work. My thesis, Who Cares: Ethical Interaction and Sexual Difference (2001), is based on an empirical investigation of five women in their first year of professional work, the main theme being how to understand, teach and practise ethics so that the dignity of those involved in the relation and interaction of care is addressed, and if necessary, redressed. I claim that a presupposition of ethical interaction, in the public sphere as well as in the private sphere, is to recognize equally the different embodiment of the ’other’ sex, how she/he lives, works, thinks, loves and generates knowledge. Only such recognition will produce a redefinition of subjectivity compelling both sexes to value and position equally the difference of other ’others’, irrespective of sex, sexual preference, class and race (2). Elena Pulcini’s understanding of the subject as contaminated is relevant and intriguing to me in this regard, especially when she links it to the often nebulous concept of recognition. It is not, Pulcini underlines, possible to recognize the difference of the other without departing from one’s own internal ‘difference’. A central theme in my teaching and research is how to abolish the subject/object opposition and how to develop intersubjectivity. In practice, however, this is not easy. My understanding of intersubjectivity is founded in a broader societal and political context within which I am witnessing how inequality is produced. This understanding of intersubjectivity has been inspired by Simone de Beauvoir’s ethical philosophy. Her intention in An Ethics of Ambiguity, (1947/1976) was to find ways to prevent war in the future. Although many things have changed since then, it is obvious today, when the world is concerned about yet another war, that intervention in another state presents an intricate ethical dilemma as it presupposes a well established subject/object opposition.

Inspired by Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of the lived body, Beauvoir claims that one of the great merits of phenomenology is that it abolishes the opposition between subject and object. When developing her understanding of the human existential condition as ambiguous and interdependent, Beauvoir realised that this interdependency works out differently for the sexes. Apparently half of the world’s population was neither regarded nor regarded themselves as subjects. The ambiguity of human existence means that our bodily existence continuously reminds us that we are both subject and object, never simply one or the other. Recognising the bodiliness of our existence further indicates the limitations of our recognition.

If it is no longer possible to understand the other completely, and the human condition as interdependent is accepted, it becomes relevant to ask: How do we acknowledge the other person as a subject? How does the concept of respect relate to that of acknowledgement? It seems easy to agree upon and honour a concept like respect. Nobody, at least not in the world of caring, will admit that they do not respect their fellow man or woman. It is, however, a fact that many patients do not feel respected or seen. Is this due to a lack of recognising the knowledge of the other? In this sense, respect is a phenomenon that changes when it has to be concretised either in care work, or in other material professional or ethical settings.

In Norway, equality between the sexes was been formally established long ago. At the same time it has produced and seems to reproduce one of the most segregated labour markets in Europe. Within this context, care- and social workers are consistently scrutinised for their ability to keep up the subject-understands-and-helps-object way of seeing and treating the other. As indicated above, this may have to do with the fact that the majority of care workers are women, who themselves are exposed to the same kind of ’othering’. The difficulty of establishing intersubjectivity is thus connected to how society and knowledge production are linked and constructed. As stated by K. E. Tranøy, a Norwegian analytic philosopher, there is a ‘bridge principle’ between need, right and justice, which, by means of recognising the needs of the ’white healthy male between 20 and 50’, inevitably reproduces inequality in society (1981). Such material inequality reinforces a knowledge discourse founded in the masculine norm of the human being whose needs construct society.

Knowledge Production - A Case Study
I am coordinator of a one-year further education program in psychic healthwork. This was originally established by and for nurses only, but due to governmental regulations it, like all further education in Norway, has become transdiciplinary. In the field of psychiatry this shift has been part of a larger plan of revising the concepts of psychic health and illness. The question is no longer restricted to how psychic illness is to be dealt with, it is extended to how it can be prevented. Inviting diciplines other than nurses into the medical preserves of psychiatry has not been easy. At the education level, this has mostly been due to the fact that the majority of students were and still are nurses; at the practice level, there has been a reluctance towards hiring professionals other than nurses. Despite these difficulties, you rarely find so many different disciplines represented as in the newly established psychiatric ward where I did my research for two years.

In 2001–2003 I investigated what kind of knowledge and competence is expressed, recognised and developed at a psychiatric hospital, in a ward for patients aged 13-18. The research very soon became focussed on the staff. The staff of this ward were handpicked, and compared to the other units of the hospital, they represented a wider variety of professional disciplines. One half of the staff was nurses, and the other half were social pedagogues, child pedagogues, social workers, all of them with at least three years of professional college study. The staff decided they would all take the same title: milieutherapist. The nurses were more reluctant than the other groups to accept and agree to this common title. My analysis shows, however, that the nurses were the ones that profitted most by this interdisciplinary title. This confirms Iris van der Tuin’s observation that interdisciplinary dialogue is important, but not easy to make workable in practice. This fact not only underlines the need to focus on material contexts of knowledge production, but an additional need to understand the practices, both linguistic and social, behind a discipline or a concept, as Soula Pavlidou suggests in her paper.

As psychiatry is a department of medicine, it has until recently only employed staff trained in that field. My analysis confirmed that the medical discourse remained the dominant one. In spite of its transdiciplinary ambitions, the structure continued to be hierarchical. Other knowledges, as for instance pedagogic milieutherapy, were rarely acknowledged. As one participant ironically noted: milieutherapy is what is going on while a client is waiting for an appointment with the doctor, the psychologist or the psychiatrist. As the agenda was set by medical knowledge paradigms, the other professionals either had to work with the ‘left-overs’, or to work as ‘mini-nurses’. This left the nurses with the advantage of working both as nurses, and as milieutherapists (although they had little or no training in milieutherapy), but it also contributed to the low estimation of milieutheraphy.

The ideology of this ward was to listen to everyone, the principle being that if the director listened to the staff, the staff would listen to the patient. At staff meetings concerning modes of treatment, everyone present had to share her/his view on the case (patient). To some extent this did work out. It did, however, highlight that psychiatry defined as biomedical knowledge constituted the overarching framework. To be really heard -and not only listened to - required that one stayed within this framework of knowledge. This was evident to those born and raised within this medical hierarchic system. To the person coming from another system and frame of knowledge, however, the impact of this biomedical dominance was estranging and silencing, even if it was theoretically rejected as a paradigm. These experiences were reinforced by the fact that in our culture more broadly as well, psychiatric expertise is considered part of medical expertise, so that the hierarchical valuation of competing knowledges was silently accepted by patients. Since the majority of the staff and the patients were female, it certainly raised questions about the relation between knowledge production, gender and intersubjectivity.

Having analysed the data I have collected, I found that knowledge production is a situational process, in which bodies and differences in sex, education/training and position play a significant role. However, the subjects (staff) taking part in these situations did not recognize the interactions as ones that produce knowledge. They were rather seen as procedures to make the ward run smoothly or make decisions. In other words, although the ideology of the ward was to utilize different perspectives and knowledges, the practice was ruled by a dogmatic understanding of knowledge. According to this, ‘real and true’ knowledge has to be explicit, verbalised, rational, verifiable and external in relation to the human being. Through the ages, it has been depicted in stone, papyrus, paper, graphs and on IT-screens. In other words, knowledge has status as object.

My investigation underlines that being seen yourself as ‘other’ (producing ‘other’ knowledge), makes it difficult to see and recognise other ‘others’ and their knowledges. The above mentioned concept of knowledge as an objective ‘thing’ belonging to the professional expert, is thus confirmed in the minds as well as in the interactions of the staff. Moreover, my findings indicate that knowledge produced by women is acknowledged as female and ’soft’, in the sense that it is valued as necessary in certain areas (care, social work) but relatively undervalued in comparison to biomedical knowledge. Bodily - i.e. personal - knowledge is often, at least in the area of care, mistaken for or confused with what I call ’the tyranny of intimacy’, the result being either repudiation or replacement. In other areas it can be used to ’soften’ the hard facts of truth. This makes women a co-worker in the production of a dogmatic and traditional discourse that does not recognise the bodily and situational knowledge produced contextually by both parts of the relation (3).

Recognising (Sexual) Difference
Raised and trained in a philosophy and culture that values evidence-based knowledge, we tend to devalue other knowledges, including unfortunately our own. Joan Anim-Addo points to the absence of black women as theorists in larger feminist debate. She indicates that when the tradition of white women ‘speaking for’ black women persists unchallenged, this is due to the perceived difference of racialised bodies. In other words, knowledge is embodied, and different not only with regards to sex but also racial marking of the body. When put into language, however, knowledge often returns to a traditional dogmatic and abstract disembodied understanding of knowledge, in part due to the many dualisms in our language. Although Norwegian, Danish and Swedish languages only have one word ’Køn’ eller ’Kjønn’ covering both sex and gender, the languages are filled with dualisms carrying traditional conceptions of knowledge.

Elizabeth Grosz has inspired me to see sexual difference as pre-ontological and pre-epistemological. Difference in sexual embodiment becomes decisive for identity, for position, for subjectivity, relation, interaction, knowledge production and thus also for ethics (1994). This difference is not only a construction that can be de-constructed and changed. It is incorporated, integrated and part of an ongoing interdefinition with the world around us. The crucial point is to understand subjectivity as irreducibly connected to the specificity of bodies without ending in two separate types of entities, men and women (Skærbæk, 2001). In this Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of the person as someone that at the same time is and takes part in a process of becoming – I presume – inspired Grosz.

At my college, feminist critical theory is not yet part of the curriculum. This leaves students with a traditional and dogmatic understanding of knowledge. Drawing on my observations and dialogues at the hospital ward, it is my intention to create a curriculum that strengthens the link between epistemological and ethical thinking, thus generating at the same time an open and a critical attitude towards different modes of knowledge production. The metanarrative goal of feminist education, must be, as Liana Borghi underlines, to teach students to be critical and analytical. The presuppposition here is that the teacher is self-critical and analytical. Clare Hemmings demonstrates this, pondering whether she is lazy and disingenuous when she resists extending the curriculum to meet the demands of international students, or whether she, as a good teacher, is acting on the basis of her knowledge that extensions of curriculum often result in a ‘reduction rather than an increase in critical thinking’.

My research has confirmed how important it is to help students identify their experiences as knowledge, and to make them draw a parallel between how knowledge is created in the classroom and in their interactions with clients. In this work it is important to remember that while gender is a primary analytic category, it is not an enclosed category: ‘it is always interwoven with such other sociopolitical-historical locations as class, race, and ethnicity, to mention a few. It is experienced differently, and it plays differently into structures of power and dominance as its diverse intersections with other specificities’ (Code, 1993: 20). To make change happen, women in particular have to find their voice, their language, and last but not least, a position from which to make their voice and language heard. At the same time we must not, as Dasa Duhacek points out, loose sight of the living people we are facing. As she points out, to teach in Serbia today means to burden wounded subjects with an acceptance of responsible citizenship.


As time goes by... it is now April 2007. I am still working within the same field of research. The case study I mention in the positionpaper above was - to put it nicely - not well received by the leaders of the ward I made my research at. And I simply had to write about this process. It is to be published in the first volume of Nora in 2007 with the title: Ethical Dilemmas in Qualitative Research. I hereby challenge you to read it and/or write to me about your reflections and/or research on this urgent theme of research or your ideas around concepts as intersubjectivity, recognition, knowledge.

(1) The editors of NORA (Nordic Journal of Women’s Studies) challenged me to write an article based on this position paper, presented at the conference Gender and Power, Lund 2003. Those who take an interest in this paper, will in NORA find a more consistent and elaborated article, based on my latest research, as well as a more extended bibliography.
(2) Regarding race, Giovanni Covi points to the importance of raising awareness that race is not simply and always razza, and similarly that negra represents widely different identities depending on where and by whom it is used.
(3) These observations connect to Marina Calloni’s focus on women’s citizenship, and especially her suggestion to take into consideration the dialectical notion of recognition in moral and political terms.

Bal, M. (2002). Travelling Concepts in the Humanities: a Rough Guide. University of Toronto Press.
Code, L. (1993). Taking Subjectivity into Account. In L. Alcoff and E. Potter (Eds), Feminist Epistemologies. New York: Routledge.
De Beauvoir, S. (1947/1976). The Ethics of Ambiguiy. New York: Carol Press.
Grosz, E. (1994). Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism. London: Routledge.
Passerini, L. (2000). Becoming a Subject in the time of the Death of the Subject. Paper given at the 4th European Feminist Research Conference: Body Gender Subjectivity - Crossing Disciplinary and Institutional Borders, Bologna September 28th - October 1st.
Skærbæk, E. (2001). Who Cares: Ethical Interaction and Sexual Difference. Acta Theologica. 2. Unipub: Oslo.
Skærbæk, E. (2003). Anerkendelse, frihed og faglighed (Recognition, Freedom and Professionality). Høgskolen i Østfold. Forskningsrapport, 5.
Skærbæk, E. (2004). It Takes Two to Tango: On Knowledge Production and Intersubjectivity. NORA. 2. 12.
Tranøy, K.E. (1981). Need, Right and Justice. Paper for Tenth Interamerican Congress of Philosophy Tallahassee, Florida.