Sunday, 11 October 2015

Weekend 1 reading: Patricia Hill Collins - afrocentric feminist epistemology

Collins, P. H. (1991). Towards an afrocentric feminist epistemology. In: P. H. Collins (ed.). Black feminist thought. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Black feminist thought, like all specialised thought, reflects the interests and standpoints of its creators. Tracing the origin and diffusion of any body of specialised thought reveals its affinity to the power of the group that created it. Because elite white men and their representatives control structures of knowledge validation, white male interests pervade the thematic content of traditional scholarship. As a result, black females' experiences with work, family, motherhood, political activism and sexual politics have been routinely distorted in or excluded from traditional academic discourse.

"Black feminist thought as specialised thought reflects the thematic content of African-American women's experiences. Subordinate groups have to use alternative ways to create independent self-definitions and self-valuations. African-American women have developed a distinctive Black female's standpoint and have done so by using alternative ways of producing and validating knowledge.

"Epistemology: the study of the philosophical problems in concepts of knowledge and truth."
To investigate this work, Collins consulted established bodies of academic research but also her own experiences and those of other Af-Am females - this is illustrated by the use of the word 2our" rather than "their" within the research. Few statistics are reported; instead. the voices of Black women are used. This allows Collins to explore the thematic content of Black feminist work in a way that doesn't violate its basic epistemological framework.

Black women intellectuals often encounter two distinct epistemologies - elite white male interests, and Afrocentric feminist concerns.

Eurocentric masculinist knowledge validation process

The Eurocentric masculinist knowledge validation process: the institutions, paradigms and other elements of the knowledge validation process controlled by elite white men.
Two political criteria influence the knowledge validation process:
  1. Knowledge claims are evaluated by a community of experts whose members represent the standpoints of the groups from which they originate;
  2. Each community of experts must maintain its credibility as defined by the larger group in which it is situated and from which it draws its taken-for-granted knowledge.
Therefore scholars challenging the basic beliefs of the culture at large are deemed less credible than those supporting popular perspectives. This has suppressed Black feminist thought. Accepting a few "safe" outsiders legitimises keeping outsiders out. Those who challenge the taken-for-granted assumptions run the risk of being ostracised.

Af-Am female academics face potential rejection of knowledge claims on epistemological grounds (theories of knowledge). Rather than using Eurocentric, masculinist criteria for assessing knowledge, they may use other criteria. These methods of validating knowledge claims must be acceptable to the group controlling the knowledge validation process.

For example, positivist approaches of validating knowledge do so by producing objective generalisations, distanced from values, interests and emotions of the researcher. Positivist methodological approaches:
  1. Distance the researcher from the 'object' of study;
  2. Show an absence of emotions;
  3. Ethics and values are deemed inappropriate;
  4. Adversarial debates are the preferred method of ascertaining truth.
For these reasons, it's unlikely that Black women would use a positivist epistemological stance in rearticulating a Black female standpoint. Back females are more likely to choose an alternative epistemology, using different standards consistent with Black females' criteria for substantiated knowledge.

So, what does this look like? The core African value system that existed prior to racial oppression, and also a sharing of the common experience of oppression leads to a distinctive Afrocentric epistemology. This is similar to the feminist advance of a history of gender oppression which led to the feminist epistemology. There is an alternative epistemology for Back women - an Afrocentric feminist viewpoint. There is a discussion of the overlap between the feminist and Afrocentric standpoints - with Black women belong to 2both/and" - there is some overlap but also some separate, in addition. The Afrocentric feminist epistemology is rooted in the everyday experiences of AfAm women.

What are the dimensions of an Afrocentric feminist epistemology?

1. Concrete experience as a criterion of meaning

AfAs use wisdom to assess knowledge, and an understanding of their oppression through race, gender and probably class. "Knowledge without wisdom is adequate for the powerful but wisdom is essential to the survival of the subordinate". Those individuals who have lived through the experience about which they claim to be experts are more believable and credible than those who have merely read or thought about such experiences; i.e. the 'lived experience'.

Some scholars claim that women, too, as a group are more likely than men to use concrete knowledge in assessing knowledge claims. Therefore, in valuing the concrete, AfAMFems invoke not only an Afrocentric tradition but a woman's tradition as well. There is considerable institutional support in traditional AfAm communities for valuing concrete experience - sharing it through the 2sisterhood".

2. The use of dialogue in assessing knowledge claims

"Dialogue is a talk between two subjects, not speech of subject and object - it is a humanising speech, one that challenges and resists domination."
Through dialogue, connectedness rather than separation is an essential component of the knowledge validation process. The use of dialogue has Afrocentric roots, seeking harmony. Different to adversarial debate, it has its basis in African-based oral tradition. The use of call-and-response discourse needs the active participation of all. For ideas to be tested and validated, everyone in the group must participate. Black female centrality in families and community organisations provides AfAm women with a high degree of support for invoking dialogue as a dimension of an Afrocentric feminist epistemology. This ties in with a female way of knowing.

3. The ethic of caring

"Talking with the heart" taps the ethic of caring - another dimension of an alternative epistemology used by AfAm females.
  • Emphasis on individual uniqueness, rooted in a tradition of African humanism;
  • Use of emotions in dialogues - emotion shows a speaker believes in the validity of an argument;
  • capacity for empathy.
There is growing evidence that the ethic of caring may be part of women's' experience as well.

4. The ethic of personal accountability

People are expected to be accountable for their knowledge claims. AfAms believe it is essential for individuals to have personal positions on issues and assume full responsibility for arguing their validity. Knowledge claims made by individuals respected for their moral and ethical connections to their ideas will carry more weight than those offered by less respected figures.

It seems (with limited research) that there is a female model for moral development, therefore there is another convergence between Afrocentric and feminist institutions.

"An alternative epistemology challenges...knowledge an opens up the question of whether what has been taken to be true can stand the test of alternative ways of validating truth".

My thoughts

Very interesting. I've heard talk of intersectionality on Twitter, and not really understood it (or taken much notice of it) until now. It seems clear to me that experiences and understandings will vary. What a middle class white woman conceives of as their feminist viewpoint will be different, though no more or less valid, than that of a Black woman. However, the Black/transgendered/with impairments will have additional barriers of oppression. It was fascinating to learn of different ways in which research can be viewed as 'valid', based on cultural roots. It's obvious that this should be so, but my own view has been blinkered by the standard white Eurocentric masculinist approach that it is very hard to conceive of alternative voices towards validity, as suggested here. Something to read  more about. It's unlikely to be something I develop, but it has made me more aware of the frames within which I operate, as being a privileged, white, cis-, able-bodied woman.

If I had to categorise Collins, it would be as a critical theorist, with one key concern being from a feminist viewpoint, though of course taking in other oppressed sections of society, particularly that of African-Americans. As a CT, she would espouse 'transformation'.

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