ways of knowing. . .Focus on Lay’s arguments   4 comments

Mary Lay presents a case study in which public health and safety seem to be at stake, but the real stakes involve how those perceived as “other” may try and, in this case, ultimately fail to persuade the dominant culture of their expertise/knowledge claims. This case is so significant because it highlights the inequity of systems of discourse that privilege certain ways of knowing over other ways of knowing based on a community’s perception of such claims.

According to Sandra Harding, there is no objective way of knowing, only “situated knowledge” (see Sandra Harding’s Feminist Stand-Point Theory Reader). A “witness” is required to instantiate the knowledge claims that affect and are affected by the existing dominant discourses. This need for a “witness” has been described by stand point theory, which is about much more than perspective. It relies on a “mediated” rather than “immediate” understanding, as Nancy Hartsock claims in her essay, “The Feminist Standpoint: Developing the Ground for a Specifically Feminist Historical Materialism.” We need this mediated understanding or situated knowledge so that we do not rely on only dominant discourse in order to understand the epistemological underpinnings of power and oppression.

So who should be mediators? When the feminist agenda is at stake as it is in the case of midwifery, it makes sense that a woman’s standpoint be the witness to events and creator of alternative epistemologies. Lay states, “Language or discourse creates and negotiates knowledge, standardizes and modifies practice, and urges or suppresses action.” It is the action part that is the clincher. The ability to inspire action is part of a power dynamic that Lay explores. This power is actionable only because it is legitimized by the masses who are indoctrinated to value/respect only certain ways of knowing, which are reflected in the rhetorical practices of the discourse community.

Lay explains that “rhetorical scholars can understand what the community believes is truth, what constitutes its authoritative knowledge about important subjects, and what evidence the community uses to sustain or alter its knowledge. Rhetorical scholars can also examine what status and power competing knowledge systems may have in broader society if the conflict is aired publicly.” What we believe in directly influences our actions, our standards and practices. These standards and practices can and often do serve to oppress less than mainstream actions like direct-entry midwifery, homeopathy, etc. What rhetorical methodology serves to do, as I am finding out, is uncover these seemingly invisible forces that create and maintain the power of dominant discourse.

What can we do once we identify “competing knowledge systems?” Is there room for many different ways of knowing to be legitimate? Are there any models for this?

Posted September 13, 2010 by jenwojton in Uncategorized

4 responses to “ways of knowing. . .Focus on Lay’s arguments

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  1. Jen:

    Regarding your question: “What can we do once we identify “competing knowledge systems?” Is there room for many different ways of knowing to be legitimate?”

    I wonder about the power of the phrase “not normal for me.” What would happen if we all said this to doctors in order to legitimize our knowledge of our bodies without devaluing the doctor’s medical knowledge.


  2. Ahh…great connection to Harding / Standpoint Theory.

    In the case of childbirth, women should be considered experts of their own bodies, but they are clearly not according to medicine. What we feel, experience, think often has no bearing in a medical context—what matters is what they know, what they see. We can’t even birth our own babies anymore without radical medical intervention. Sauer observes the “notion of expertise excludes women’s experiential knowledge” (29)…ain’t that the truth!

  3. Interesting strategy, Elle.

    How would Lay (now Schuster) answer your questions, Jen?

    • Having read her commentary on our BLOG. . .I suspect that she would advocate social justice action. In other words, that “legitimacy” can and should come from many different sources. We should not be limited to what is “normal” (to refer to Elle’s idea). We should be able to choose what is normal to us, and we should trust the authority of people in whom we feel vested rather than people who have been “approved” by the state.

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