Some Dissertation Thoughts: On Social Movements and Epistemic Communities

The first sentence from a chapter on ‘epistemic communities’, found in a book tellingly entitled Social Epistemology: Essential Readings, states: “Increasingly epistemologists have become interested in the relationship between social influences and proper epistemic behavior” (Goldman and Whitecomb 2011, 338). The chapter goes on to model epistemic behaviors, mapping them out in such ways as to, one hopes, predict certain kinds of epistemic relations. Not unlike the modeling that social movements scholars engage in (see McAdams DATE), these epistemologists are theorizing the linkages shared amongst certain kinds of communities, ones we could classify as epistemic. It enlists a troubling vocabulary of ‘influences’ and ‘proper’ behavior. This invites an analysis that should unpack what constitutes ‘influence’ as well as ‘proper’ – as if to behave outside the epistemic norms of the group might exclude that person altogether. Is that how an epistemic community works, by maintaining ties only at the level of a truth-claim and the practices those truth-claims tend to produce? By that I mean, does one only belong to epistemic communities from time to time, by virtue of some propositional content one holds be true one minute, but not the next? Or can we say that epistemic practices that connect some but not others to epistemic communities work on two coextensive levels: that of shared knowledge and that of the body, or of the material world and its forces?

A simple Google search of ‘epistemic community’, to paraphrase numerous sources, produced the following: a group of otherwise (historically) disconnected people working towards a common ‘knowledge-based’ goal. The definition seems woefully incomplete. I would ask what kind of goal is ever not knowledge-based? On the one hand, isn’t any kind of collective effort a means of identifying a level of truth about some thing in the world? For instance, a collective movement for the purposes of consciousness-raising about racism – this movement has at its core an epistemic commonality. They agree that racism is a threat, a problem, a social disease. They agree that it is not an inevitable social outcome, that it can be changed. They unite toward explaining its injurious effects. But they also have what epistemologists might separate from the epistemic goal, that of the material goal. They want to see material, concrete changes in the relations among people – namely through the realm of the political, that of policy.

The idea that the epistemic and the material (or more broadly the epistemological and the ontological) are separate is problematic for a number of reasons. First, it adopts an analytic perspective that erases embodied experiences from the level of shared knowledge production. Second, it assumes that, for ease of analysis, an epistemic claim can be verified without necessary recourse to the material world or the body. I would say that both problems have the effect of stultifying contemporary analyses of social movements (or new social movements). It suggests that collective movements have certain non-material bases for action/agency. It further demarcates an end, or limit, to where epistemology can take us with regard to the study of collective behaviors.

For theorists like Medina (2011), these sorts of delineations hamper understanding how epistemic communities in fact share a common history: particularly, in his analysis, a history of marginalization. He argues that this history has a common, material basis by and through which analysis must proceed. And he finally produces a monograph that consists mainly of theoretical accounts of the ways that material circumstances have shaped the epistemologies of the resistance movements globally. I adopt Medina’s stance, shared with Fricker (2007), that there is a material basis for epistemic claims to knowledge and thus epistemic communities in general. And for that reason, we must turn toward the subjection of the body, treating it as a site of power (Foucault DATE), and understand it not only as a source of certain truth-claims, but for recourse to understanding how bodily experience redefines the ways social and political scientists explain ‘the political.’

Could we say that a political community is simultaneously an epistemic one, in which the shared social imaginary of the group (the common, if not fundamental, symbols that stand in for comprehending the material world) produce political effects and affects? I believe we can. And that claim centers on the ways that an embodied account of subjectivity generates an analysis and deconstruction of the concept of the political. And that simply diverging from what is epistemically verifiable as a truth claim does not exclude any person from either that epistemic or political community.

The distinction of what is political has ranged. Politics, or the the political, is classically treated as a terrain in which a social community participates in a sustained struggle over certain governmental outcomes. In this terrain, friends and enemies (at the level of purely political distinctions) are delineated, and factions form in order to sway government this way or that. That ‘political’ could mean any number of things. The commonplace ‘personal is political’ slogan has stood in for second-wave feminism’s claim to everyday discrimination. But packed within the term ‘personal’ is a notion what is grist for politicization. In that sense, what stands as intelligibly political within the private goings on of everyday life, and for what lifeworlds will this ‘everyday life’ be treated as everyday? The personal pre-supposes personhood, and the idea of personhood is an ideologically-packed one that is easily taken for granted when we engage in conversations about political identities, and political events.

What I am driving at here is that how we examine the political itself excludes (Ong DATE) from intelligibility the certain definitions of the personal, because the examination defines the terrain of personhood. That certain bodies will and have been excluded from what is in fact politically viable. And that certain politics within these (what I would call) epistemic communities are viewed as irrational or altogether untenable (Dean Spades anti-prison movement, for example). That the personal is political may be obvious; but the non-obviousness of that claim is that personhood must first be bestowed upon those who can participate in the dialogic terrain of political negotiation.

Trans bodies are of central concern for this chapter, considering that as a site of state and ideological investment, the body must be encountered as legible. In some respects, the trans body does not comport to this legibility. It in many instances renounces a degree of normative legibility – either by ‘transitioning’ from one sex to another, or by rejecting a gender binarism that would enforce a ‘typical’ biological-sex-to-gender expression. And thus within this set of relations of power, or knowledge of the body, we have numerous areas of analysis: (1) the development of an epistemic community/communities whose experiences with cisnormativity have been discontinuous but nevertheless contained within a common narrativized terrain; (2) the development of certain epistemic practices that seek to adjust and readjust a person’s position within that terrain so as to be intelligible, and as such participate in the otherwise normality of cis-ness; (3) the conditions for the possibility that these epistemic practices are products of, and in fact certain resistances to, the hetero/cis norms that inform everyday life.


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