Situated knowledge

Situated knowledge relates to a criticism of the idea of researchers as neutral observers of reality. The expression was coined in an analysis of how the establishing of modern science from the 1500s and onwards was part of the creation of a new form of masculinity: the scientist, who was assumed to be free from social and biological ties that could interfere with the ability to remain unbiased in the study of reality. In feminist theory, the assumed ability to act as a neutral observer, to be able to see everything from nowhere without being seen, is called God’s trick. The seeing is always bodied; that is, you have to have a body to be able to see, and that body has a gender, a variation of functionality and an ethnicity, to name some of the many factors that shape a person’s experience and understanding of the world.

There is a relationship between knowledge production and power structures such as gender, class, ethnicity, functionality and sexuality (see also heteronormativity). The knowledge of one’s social position, formed by the prevailing power structures, is a prerequisite for knowledge about society and human beings. There are no neutral positions that can give privileged persons the right of interpretation when it comes to other people’s experiences.

The concept of situated knowledge brings attention to the fact that our possibility to gain knowledge about reality is limited by what it is to be human. Researchers can never be completely neutral. However, their objectivity can be strengthened by making them – as well as their social and cultural understandings – visible in the research process. Interpretations of reality are always incomplete, and researchers take responsibility for making the knowledge more trustworthy by acknowledging this limitation.

Since knowledge is produced in a specific social context, certain experiences, which vary with the topic, are particularly valuable in the generation process. It can be the ability to ask the right questions or see which experiences and perspectives are made invisible. For example, knowledge about oppressive social structures and relations becomes more trustworthy if it is produced from the perspective of the oppressed people’s position and experiences. One current example is discrimination and oppression based on preconceptions about certain races, such as afrophobia (see also racialisation). When people who have personal experience of this are asked about it, new knowledge about the oppressive structures emerges, knowledge that Whites do not have access to (see also whiteness). This is called standpoint epistemology. Another example can be found in the field of history, where feminist researchers since 1960s have brought attention to the observation that only men’s experiences have been addressed and that the research therefore can only be considered to concern men’s history. Thus, it has been important to conduct complementary research.