Friday, May 11, 2007

A Clarification of Standpoint Theory

Thinking Girl has a neat post up explaining Standpoint Theory from a socialist feminist lens. She quotes an excerpt from Alison Jagger, too long to put here, that explains why the viewpoint of the oppressed in society is "epistomologicall advantageous" compared to that of the dominant class.
In a society where the production of knowledge is controlled by a certain class, the knowledge produced will reflect the interests and values of that class. In other words, in class societies the prevailing knowledge and science interpret reality from the standpoint of the ruling class. Because the ruling class has an interest in concealing the way in which it dominates and exploits the rest of the population, the interpretation of reality that it presents will be distorted in characteristic ways. In particular, the suffering of the subordinate classes will be ignored, redescribed as enjoyment or justified as freely chosen, deserved, or inevitable.

I don't really disagree with this, but I want to quibble a little bit to clarify what I think is an important point. I'm not sure that Thinking Girl will disagree with any of the following points, but I don't think they get the airtime they should (as usual, I'll be operating under the lens of race, because that's where I'm most comfortable, but the points I think cross-apply).

I agree that different classes or groups in society hold different perspectives from each other, and that these perspectives are independently valuable. I want to emphasize that I think this includes the perspective of the majority or dominant groups, so long as it is recognized as a mere perspective and not the Truth. A significant part of my future scholarly ambition is to see what happens to the dominant perspective if it is exposed as a mere perspective--both in terms of how the substance of the views would change, and in terms of what value we might derive from the now-subjectified perspective itself. Knowledge is being suppressed on both sides, albeit more so for the oppressed, and that distributional skew has substantive outcomes which reify privilege.

In this context, I do not disagree that the perspective of the oppressed is valuable in a way the majority's is not. However, I prefer the language of "uniqueness" to the language of "superior/inferior" to describe why this is--because minority perspectives are not included in the "default" worldview, the sights they are more likely to see are also more likely to provide novel insights on the world that are missing from the status quo. The White male perspective is already generally incorporated, so it is less likely to provide new ways of looking at difficult social problems. The flip side of that is that because the dominant caste can shield its mistakes from criticism by subordinated narratives, it is more likely to contain surviving errors in judgment that have yet to be exposed. Subordinated voices, by contrast, because they are constantly "in the fire," so to speak, are more likely to have purged seriously mistaken views. Hence, it isn't anything essential to the biologies of men and women or Blacks and Whites that give the subordinated party the epistemological advantage. It isn't even necessarily a question of biases: Although I think that minority perspectives are more likely to be aware of the majority view simply because of its pervasiveness, as a matter of interests there is no real reason to presume that the minority is any less biased or constrained by its perspective than the majority. Rather, the way society structures the knowledge each produces simply makes it more likely the subordinated class has more untapped veins to draw upon, because they haven't made it out into the open yet. We would be fools not to exploit those veins.

These are all tendancies, of course, they are not true in every case. As Jeremy Waldrom reminds us, majorities can be right about the rights due to minorities, minorities can be wrong about what they're owed. Uncritically choosing to adapt the subordinated perspective is mistaken as well. Nonetheless, I agree that subordinated voices, especially on issues relevant to the oppressed party, deserve implicit weight by virtue of their standpoint. And we need to bring out their stories, for all the reasons Jagger and Thinking Girl identify. Doing so will undoubtedly give us a clearer picture of the world we live in.

So why the nitpicking? Because I want to emphasize that I do not agree that simply replacing the masculine voice with the feminine one, or the White voice with the Black voice is the proper way to go. When it comes to race issues, White voices do have unique and valuable contributions to add to the discourse. Many of them, I suspect, are also structurally suppressed, in that they haven't come out because they don't make sense within a knowledge paradigm that says the White perspective is the universal perspective. Conditioned to believe that their experiences are universal, Whites haven't developed the language to talk about their experience as particularized events, and (speaking as a White) this cripples attempts to genuinely engage in racial dialogue in a very frustrating manner. But that doesn't mean that if such language came to be, the revealed thoughts might not provide clues at achieving a progressive racial vision.

Hence, I support efforts to articulate White perspectives on racial issues, too, and I think these perspectives have independent value. This is so for two reason. Ideologically, I'm uncomfortable with exiling any voice from the polity, even under the mantra of inverting hierarchies. There are plenty of democratic problems with such a move, and I have a strong pluralist commitment towards exposing and airing as many voices as possible. I don't think this has to be zero-sum. But also, from a pragmatic angle, I think that the progressive anti-racist community could score significant gains in the White community by affirming that, yes, their voice and their stories are valuable, and we want to hear them. As Kenji Yoshino has written, viewing majority members "only as impediments, as people who prevent others from expressing themselves" is a major factor in these people "respond[ing] to civil rights advocates with hostility." I don't actually think that the community is opposed to such a move, but the issue is rarely pressed and without it all this talk of "epistimological advantage" is understandably frightening to people who don't have a clue what this "post-modernism" thing is. As feminist and race theorists smarter than me have talked about, there is very little more frustrating than being stifled by linguistic inadequacy. White people, being part of our racial ecology, have stories to tell, and not only do they have no words by which to speak them, they aren't even sure they're supposed to be allowed to contribute. No wonder they default back to universalist paradigms which articulate (but do not replicate) a vision of reality that is familiar and comfortable to them. Breaking out of that paradigm necessitates a clear statements from standpoint theorists that we are interested in all standpoints, and that to the extent we are more interested in those of the minority, its a case of distributions rather than exclusion.


Rich Horton said...

So this sentence:

"In other words, in class societies the prevailing knowledge and science interpret reality from the standpoint of the ruling class."

Seems like something you could agree with?


So, the current understanding of evolution isn't really describing how the biological world works, it is in actuality expressing power relations within society?

Speaking as a Peircean Pragmaticist I can say there is a precise word for this type of thinking. It's called claptrap.

David Schraub said...

I'm not strong enough in the sciences to really argue this point, but evolution is a particularly bad example to use on your part. Social Darwinism (which still has some currency, albeit in a less extreme form than at the turn of the last century) was a classic example of science-as-ruling-class-interpretation. It is quite common to see the meaning of science and other forms of knowledge being created via ruling class perspectives--there's very little claptrap to it.

Anonymous said...

To the Iconic Midwesterner -

Though the man himself would probably be a bit upset to hear it, Peirce's epistemology is only a hop, skip, and a jump away from the account of scientific knowledge that you are mocking. On Pierce's account we approach knowledge as falliblists, recognizing that only provisional knowledge of the world is attainable. What we call scientific knowledge, to the pragmaticist, is not an absolute assesment of truth but rather a phase an in ongoing process of inquiry. Peirce would be hesitant to say, then, that at any point we know "how the biological world works". And of course, Peirce is quite attentive to the power of authority to fix answers to inquiries in advance.

The only thing missing from Peirce to have him in agreement with the piece you quote is an explicit acknowledgment that economies of power shape the modes of inquiry that establish that which we call true. Peirce even hints at this when he discusses the "economy of research". This idea has reasearch situted in a specific historical, cultural and economic context in which access to limited resources must determine which strands of inquiry we pick up on and wich we lay down for the time being. In suhc a model normative regimes matter, as social values will inevitably impact what is considered a frutiful strain of inquiry and what is not. And economic and social power matter, since the ability to provide material and ideological backing for research can keep a method of inquiry going where another might have replaced it.

Admittedly, I am extrapolating a lot from Peirce's discussion of the economy of research. I freely admit that Peirce is not Foucault. But I think that were you to have said to Peirce that "The current understanding of evollution" describes the world-as-it-is and is unimplicated in a social context that is circumscribed by relationships of power, the man most likely would have disagreed.

Rich Horton said...


"Social Darwinism" has precious little to do with modern evolutionary theory, and the problem with it int he first place is that it simply wasn't scientific in any way, shape or form. Think of it as "scientism," an ideological approach that dresses itself up in scientific sounding jargon in an attempt to sway people.

Now, if "Stanpoint Theory" was discussing "scientism" they would have a point, but a weakly made point compared to folks like Popper. But they are indeed making sweeping claims concerning science in general, which would include REAL evolutionary theory (concerning the distribution of genes in populations over time, etc.) But it would also apply to nuclear physics, and biomolecular chemistry. So all of that is really just an expression our own "class viewpoint"?


You are absolutely correct in decribing the "fallibilistic" foundations of the Peircean view of science, but incorrect in making any sort of analogy with the ideologically inspired views of things like "standpoint theory" (which just sounds like Subjectivism wedded to a little Gramsci...oh the joy!).

For Peirce the distinction is made between the "real" and the "truth." Truth is simply unattainable, or it is incommeasurable with any human activity. However, it does impact the world we live in. One of Peirce's categories (i.e. secondness) is devoted to this fact. Our will is NOT the only thing that exists for us (despite what Post-Modernists of nearly all stripes seem to believe). We do run into things that are independant of our will, and it is the shock of that "impact" that forms the basis of Pierce's science. The body of thought we build around those impacts is what science is and what Peirce calls "reality." It may be a slow, unsteady, and fallible process, but it fundamentally is not an expression of individual will.

In the essasy "Fixation of Belief" Peirce talks about people who turn away from "reality" and ignore, for whatever reasons, those parts of the world that our will cannot alter. He insists that such peole are not irrational (and I admit the force of his argument on this point, but it is sometimes difficult NO to think the opposite), but they are divorced from reality and are not engaged in science. People often have powerful psychological reasons from turning away from the work of putting together reality. They might draw comfort in believing aliens are really ruling the world, or that they are "victims" of some sort of world wide conspiracy (thus the "government is out to get me," "the UN is out to get me," "the Jews are out to get me," "the Capitalists are out to get me, "globalization is out to get me", etc.)

And here is the rub, and the reason things like "Standpoint Theory" want to debase real science. If they admit that there is something in this world which is not dependant upon human will they are, well, screwed. A couple of decades ago you would have heard about "western science", as if North Korea's nuclear reactors could only be built using "eastern science." It was the same notion; the belief that science was a cultural "value", and not based upon reality.

The kicker is that reality is real. Atoms behave the same way in Korea as they do in New Mexico. Genetic variations in butterflies folow the same laws in Nigeria as in Australia. And the reality of this is open to everyone, from a 45 year old wealthy heterosexual North American white man, to a 21 year old poor lesbian African black woman.

The arguments otherwise strike me as attempts to protect closed minds.

Stentor said...

So, the current understanding of evolution isn't really describing how the biological world works, it is in actuality expressing power relations within society?

It's both. The latter gets emphasized because that's the point at which standpoint theory diverges from mainstream views of science, but there's nothing in standpoint theory (at least as I understand it) that denies that science says something useful about its ostensible real-world topic. Standpoint theory doesn't say it's just our class viewpoint. Standpoint theory says our views of the real world are a combination of what's really out there and the social position of the observer.

concerned citizen said...

Hi david!
Now this is a cool post.
In my own rudimentary way I find your ideas very interesting & helpful.

Clarifying perspective from truth is kinda where i'm at now.

Mark said...

I come from a math/physics background and work as a software engineer.


In a society where the production of knowledge is controlled by a certain class, the knowledge produced will reflect the interests and values of that class. In other words, in class societies the prevailing knowledge and science interpret reality from the standpoint of the ruling class.

Sounds like, well, baloney to me. Could you clarify or explain how that makes any sort of sense? Especially in light of the observation that virtually all of our technological mastery achieved in the last 200 years has come at the result of advancements in math and physics being applied (via engineering) to the things in our lives. This means that "class/race" needs to be evident in our math and physics papers and results. Show us how you think that is obvious!

For a famous example, how does Andrew Wiles proof of the Fermat Theorem reflect on anything to do with class (or race).

I think the resistance to these theories is not that they are not inclusive of the "white race" or class in power. It's that they don't make any sense to those not singing in that particular (post-modern? standpoint? critical?) choir.

Rich Horton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rich Horton said...

Stentor said:

Standpoint theory doesn't say it's just our class viewpoint.

I'm positive it does. Logically it has to say that, and they know it.

Look at what I quoted before:

"In other words, in class societies the prevailing knowledge and science interpret reality from the standpoint of the ruling class."

That is obviously a categorical statement. All of our interpretation of reality, to their way of thinking, is an expression of class thinking.

based on what you said you believe that part of science is class thinking and part isn't. They have to argue that that is impossible. That us say you are right and science is part a look at reality and part class consciousness. Well, presumably we could be able to discern which is which. Logically this would be needed, because if we CAN'T do that, then we would have no way of showing that science is part reality and part class thinking. OK?

Well, if we really have the ability to seperate simply scientific thought from scientific thought contaminated with class prejudice, then we wouldn't NEED standpoint theory. In fact Stnadpoint theory would be a waste of time, because it wouldn't tell you anything different than what rigorous science would tell you, AND it real science would tell you lots of things that Standpoint theory doesn't address.

Standpoint Theory is NOT attempting to warn us of the dangers of allowing idelogical thinking to influence or scientific understanding, it is teaching us that ALL science is simply politics in another arena. They are not trying to improve science, they are trying to debase it.