Doing Gender: The Epistemological Groundings of European Women's Studies
Iris van der Tuin, Utrecht University, The Netherlands
Keywords: situated knowledge, praxis and power
Writing this position paper, I work both as a junior teacher and as a Ph.D. candidate, i.e. a researcher. In the summer of 2002 I constructed a research project combining my two disciplinary backgrounds: Women’s Studies and Philosophy of Science/ Epistemology. In June 2001 I completed my MA Women’s Studies with a science/ knowledge theoretical thesis on the level of integration of Women’s Studies in so-called ‘fundamental’ social science research conducted at the University of Amsterdam, Faculty of Political and Sociocultural sciences (Van der Tuin, 2001). Two years later, I completed my MA Philosophy as well, by writing a second thesis, namely on Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway, or: (feminist) science studies (Van der Tuin, 2003). In between I successfully submitted my research proposal ‘The Machinery of European Women’s Studies’ to Utrecht University, Research Institute for History and Culture, Department of Women’s Studies. Currently I have a Ph.D. position with Prof. Rosi Braidotti as my main supervisor. Since May 2003 I have been conducting my research and teaching introductory Women’s Studies courses within the Department. The courses I co-teach together with Prof. Gloria Wekker and Prof. Braidotti include: the introductory Women’s Studies course Gender, Ethnicity and Cultural Criticism; Historiography of Feminist Ideas; and Feminist Theory.
In the above, at least two of the three great disciplinary fields are represented: Science, Social Sciences, and the Humanities. Being aware of my own situatedness in a Humanities Department, at the moment my main interest lies in transdisciplinary dialogues. The research proposal I submitted centres on epistemological questions and suggests an empirical philosophical (as we recently started calling it in the Netherlands) (1) methodology. I want to investigate whether we as feminists in (the New) Europe can speak of ‘new’ feminist epistemologies, or, to be more precise, I am interested in whether it is possible and/or necessary to adapt and/or diversify the much-used and by now famous tripartition of feminist epistemological schools of thought as identified by Sandra Harding in 1986. This scheme has been used widely and paradigmatically ever since (2). What are, for instance, the implications of the recent growth of the field known as (feminist) Science Studies? Are Science Studies and feminist epistemology fundamentally in conflict? What about Cultural Studies, or ‘intersectionality’ - where do these new paradigms fit in? And further, do we need entirely new categories, when we want to understand the current state of affairs in European Women’s Studies? (Please note the geo-political dimension I am adding here, a move I consider very important.)
Simultaneously, I am interested in the following question: What are the consequences of transpositions of US concepts and theory into the European realm? Or: how do European Women’s Studies scholars ‘do’ North-American feminist epistemological perspectives, whereby the use of the verb ‘to do’ in this respect reflects a conscious choice (See Hayles, 2002: 104). With this formulation I try to find a way to stress the importance of empirical research for the answering of theoretical questions, in my particular research, epistemological questions.
Situatedness and Materiality
From my personal location in European Women’s Studies, and in a self-reflexive manner, I select as the single most important concept situatedness. ‘Situatedness’ in my view (3) refers both to an empirical reality we as (feminist) scholars should necessarily deal with, and to a theoretical concept. This concept has a long history in feminism, feminist philosophy, and feminist theory, and as such can be traced back to for instance, or at least, Simone de Beauvoir (1949). De Beauvoir stressed the need to assess women in their ‘situation,’ as well as the ability of women to gain better knowledge of the real by way of their situatedness as the historical Other. More recently, the concept has become closely associated Donna Haraway. Her paper on/concept of ‘situated knowledges’ has because very important in the field of Women’s studies globally (1988), and can be cited as my most important source of inspiration.
As Dutch feminist philosopher Baukje Prins has argued: in Haraway’s formulation situated knowledges is a multi-layered concept (1997). All knowledge is situated (descriptive layer), all knowledge should be situated (normative layer), and with some vision, better knowledges can be constructed (utopian layer). Through an active engagement with creatures that are normally ignored in the knowledge-building processes, the (feminist) knowing subject can reach the third layer. This is what Prins has called the active construction of new and surprising perspectives.
From a situated knowledges perspective, all knowledge is both embedded and embodied. The feminist emphasis on ‘embodiment’ is where my interest in materiality comes in, both as embodied perspective (see above) and as the importance of the inclusion of the media (i.e. ‘bodies’) of knowledge claims, theories, argumentation, etc. in one’s analysis. Materiality is my second most important concept. Focusing on travelling concepts or knowledge theories in general, in my view the simple observation has to be made that concepts or theories do not travel in a disembodied manner.
Concepts, knowledge claims, methodological enunciations and theories travel, for starters, within institutional boundaries. What happens when Ph.D. students make feminist knowledge claims or use feminist concepts such as for instance the basic concept of ‘gender’ in the context of the current European university system and its neo-liberal environment? Or more fundamental: can they? Does EU policy indeed facilitate/ push the making of gender sensitive or even gender critical knowledge by way of its requirement of a gender paragraph in 6th Framework proposals? More literally in relation to media, does it matter whether we speak about travelling via ‘fundamental’ scholarly work, teaching books, journals, off and online debates, courses, and so on? Do we need a so-called ‘media-specific analysis’ in this respect? (Hayles, 2002: 29) My answer to this question is obviously ‘Yes.’ As has already been suggested in the above, I consider it important to also add a geo-political dimension to the analysis of scholarly travelling. This dimension facilitates the theorizing of Trans-Atlantic (Dis)connection (Stanton, 1980: 78) (4), as well as the constitution of truly European concepts.
Knowledge, Praxis and Power
The shortest summary of my reading of the phenomenon of travelling concepts reads: ‘all knowledge practices are saturated with power.’ Knowledge, praxis, and power are three terms that I consider fundamentally interrelated.
In the position papers by Liana Borghi, Therese Garstenauer, Clare Hemmings, Soula Pavlidou, Eva Skærbæk, Veronica Vasterling, and myself several characteristics of power-saturated knowledge practices can be drawn out. Concepts travel through different academic fields, whether disciplinary, interdisciplinary, or transdisciplinary. This leads me to consider the two oppositional pairs suggested by Liana Borghi: grassroots versus institutionalized, and neoliberal versus activist knowledge practices. According to Borghi, Women’s Studies is ideally a hybrid mixture and an interdisciplinary cognitive space (multiple). The neoliberal aspect links with the geopolitical dimension I would like to add to the analysis, the problems of internationalization suggested by Hemmings’ paper, Garstenauer’s East-West agenda, and Vasterling’s elaboration of the relationship between globalization and Western hegemony. The latter aspect, in turn, refers to situatedness and the politics of location, two theoretical terms that repeatedly appear in several position papers. Last but not least, knowledge practices are material and semiotic at the same time (Borghi). When one’s goal is to study the way concepts travel, both dimensions should be taken into account. It is not just the travelling per se, it is also the travelling via specific media with specific characteristics that should be addressed.
When Researcher A Conducts Research Project B
Defining ‘doing research’ as a power-saturated knowledge practice, the following preliminary schematic account of the execution of Research Project B by Researcher A can be given on the basis of the above:
Researcher A is situated. The knowledge that she produces is being produced from a certain embodied and embedded point of view. How is her point of view constituted?
- She has a certain (inter)disciplinary background
- She has certain (inter)disciplinary academic affiliations
- She is located according to several socio-cultural categories at the same time, such as gender, ethnicity, class, sexuality
- She works at a certain university or research institute
Research project B is equally situated. Certain contextual factors already influence the possible outcomes of the project:
- The project is being carried out at a university/ faculty/ institute with certain characteristics
- The institute’s sensitivity for internationalization (for instance its degree of ‘Europeanness’) can be either deep, shallow or non-existent
- Universities are players in a world that is dominated by the West and in a state of globalization. Universities can be either critical followers of this trend or non-critical players
- The eventual outcomes of the project need to be disseminated via certain media that are of influence on the possible knowledge claims from the start
- The project’s report may need to be approved by a commission consisting of members with certain socio-cultural characteristics, (inter)disciplinary affiliations and so on
Ideally researcher A deals with both aspects of situatedness on her way to producing better knowledge. This means that she is both aware and critical of her own situatedness and the contextual factors that constitute the parameters of the project. Ideally she is in the position to (collaboratively, for instance with colleagues) reflect upon the following questions:
- Knowing that I am situated, how do I personally influence what I can come to know in the light of the project? Why do I use certain concepts (plus techniques, theories, and authors) and with what consequences?
- Knowing that my project is equally situated, how do I acknowledge this without producing over-determined, non-critical knowledge? What concepts (plus techniques, theories, and authors) have been used in the project proposal, and with what consequences?
Unlikely to be resolved in individual endeavour, these are some questions that are of concern when one wants to consider scholarly work in terms of situated knowledge, praxis, and power.
1. See Annemarie Mol (2000).
2. See for instance: Collins, Harding, Hartsock, Hekman, and Smith in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society ( 2004); Harding, Sprague, and Walby, also in Signs (2001); and Lorraine Code (1998).
3. For my definition of ‘point of view,’ see Haraway (1994).
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