Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Social Epistemology

I'm in the midst of editing an interview/profile of Steve Fuller that will be published later this year. It's coming along well, and I'm hoping to be done by the end of the week. Right now, it has got me thinking about some theoretical issues that I've been leaving on the back burner while thinking about grammar and writing processes.

Steve's "social epistemology" was an eye-opener for me, albeit a slow one. At first, I thought I disagreed very strongly with his attempt to approach the problem of knowledge as a set of sociological problems, or even as a set of social problems. These days, of course, I take that as an obvious thing to do.

Any self-respecting theory of knowledge ought to have implications for research practice. On the ground, I like to get people to think about what they mean when they say they "know" something and then to see whether what they do as academics can reasonably be expected to bring such a thing (knowledge) about.

Social epistemologists want to know what sort of social organization is needed to maintain knowledge of a particular subject. Does your current position actually give you the conditions to know what you claim to be an expert in. Are your own practices likely to give insight into the range of topics that define you as a researcher?

Perhaps more obviously, given what we think knowledge is, how likely are our teaching programmes to impart knowledge to our students?

Consider the idea that research is a conversation. Knowledge, then, is something that emerges from discussion, both oral and written. (This is essentially the insight behind Foucault's concept of "discourse".) Well, how often do you talk about what you know? Do you view your knowledge as an ability to participate in particular conversations?

If so, with whom? That's a question I really like to emphasize when editing journal articles. Many authors begin, more or less consciously, with a monological sense of their own knowledge. They imagine a patient, willing audience that doesn't hold any particular view on the given topic in advance, someone who will listen to them. At bottom, they are imagining a "popular" audience. They often need to rethink the article in terms of a reader who already knows ninety percent of what it says and who may disagree with the remaining ten.

That is, they need to understand themselves as actors in a social field, not holders of privileged knowledge. They are privileged, of course, but only in a sense that is as sociological as it is epistemological. More later.

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