Reflections on Hegemonies of Knowledge Production and the Politics of Disciplinary Divisions
by Ruth Streicher and Schirin Amir-Moazami
“Provincializing Epistemologies” is a discussion series that aims to politicize contemporary forms of knowledge production in both area studies and the social sciences. This series seeks to disclose how these particular forms of knowledge production exclude non-European archives and to mark and contest their hegemonic form. A key assumption of our discussion series is that, despite decades of critique, epistemological practices in both the social sciences and area studies continue to secure the hegemony of Euro-American archives and a certain politics of disciplinary divisions. We therefore understand this series, which builds on a number of events and conversations held at the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies since 2013 , as an exploratory forum for discussing two main sets of questions. How can we disclose, mark, and politicize the epistemological supremacy of Euro-American archives, which – in different ways – run through most social science disciplines and even through area studies? And what kind of methodological approaches could allow for different epistemological practices? Under this broad thematic bracket, the contributions to this series will put particular emphasis on the themes of the genealogies of disciplinary knowledge formations, gender/sexuality, and religion/secularism.
Provincializing What? The Debate on the Social Sciences and Area Studies
Our project started out by following earlier suggestions to provincialize the social sciences formulated first by Timothy Mitchell  and taken up by Michael Burawoy . Burawoy challenged the positivist incentives undergirding social science epistemologies and called for a more responsible participation by social scientists in public debates. Mitchell, in turn, voiced a more substantial critique of the Western-centeredness of US faculties. He questioned the supposedly context-free, universalist frameworks of the social sciences and their implication in marginalizing area studies as narrowly concerned with the particularity of individual world regions. He ended his critique by postulating a programmatic future for area studies, one in which they could serve as a strategic place to criticize, rethink, and provincialize the social sciences.
Building on Mitchell’s critique, targeting the social sciences as central to reproducing contemporary hegemonies of knowledge production makes sense in a number of ways. Disciplinary divisions between the social sciences and area studies have indeed enshrined the social sciences as the main site for the development of supposedly universal theories and methodologies. In the German language, “major” disciplines (“große Fächer”), such as political science or sociology, are contrasted with “minor” disciplines (“kleine Fächer”), such as area studies or Islamic studies. In this division, “minor” disciplines function as sites for providing empirical data, regional knowledge, and linguistic expertise; sites of the “non-West” where universal theories and methodologies should simply be applied to particular contexts.
Feminism, post-structuralism, post-colonialism, and critical studies on secularism (to name some of the most prominent strands of critique) have long dismantled these disciplinary divisions and their articulation with assumptions about a subject-object divide and the unmarked (social) scientist. In a different strand of critique, historians have moreover attempted to rethink history in transnational, transregional, and global terms, thus highlighting global entanglements of histories that disciplinary divisions had occluded. Nevertheless, the epistemological core of many social science disciplines has persisted unaltered, and many of these critiques have found new marginalized homes in recently born “interdisciplines” such as gender studies or cultural studies.
Even more problematically, positivist epistemologies are celebrating a remarkable return throughout the social sciences in Europe, particularly in projects aimed at gathering “big data”. These “big data” projects are mostly characterized by statistical truth claims and an absence of reflexivity vis-à-vis the epistemological underpinnings of the categories with which data is collected. Moreover, given that such survey studies have a direct policy orientation and strive toward producing “consumable” knowledge, they often fail to capture the complex social realities and their global entanglements.
Nevertheless, it is similarly misleading to suggest that area studies constitute a way out of these powerful knowledge formations in the social sciences. For calls to strategically use area studies to provincialize the social sciences tend to obscure the implication and complicity of area studies themselves in this very ordering of knowledge. In the case of the US, Mitchell himself has shown that the notion of the “area” was first configured in the social sciences to distinguish different social science disciplines concerned with different “exclusive territories”, such as the “society”, the “state”, or the “economy”. This development of the “area” as an object of knowledge with a territorial structure was indeed the precondition for the rise of area studies. The historical emergence of both “major” and “minor” disciplines thus needs to be understood as intrinsically intertwined, and disciplinary divisions have to be seen as the institutionalized product of an epistemological, and therefore also political, order undergirding both area studies and the social sciences.
Generations of area studies scholars themselves have moreover rendered specific aspects of area studies discourse problematic. In Berlin during the past decade , for instance, a whole series of conferences and initiatives have embarked on envisioning a different future for area studies. Most prominently, area studies carry the burden and legacy of an imperial order that divided the world into different, separable pieces; and they have contributed to normalizing the notion of areas as “bounded entities” that can be compared, classified, and ranked. “Minor” disciplines are thus not only marginalized by “major” ones, but also configure and legitimize themselves as theory-free zones that operate in methodologically eclectic ways even though the categories of knowledge are full of unexpressed theoretical presuppositions. As a result of this allegedly antitheoretical thrust, area studies scholarship has sometimes even revived theoretical presuppositions that have long been questioned in debates of political theory. In epistemological terms, these disciplinary divisions, which are often also reinforced in area studies discourse, have not only come to stabilize an idea of area studies as the non-Western “other” of the major disciplines, but also continue to produce a notion of these “major” disciplines as centers of supposedly universal knowledge production.
We therefore consider the labor to provincialize epistemologies underlying hegemonic orders of knowledge more suitable than a mere focus on certain disciplines and their dividing features. Being aware of the hegemonic game of dividing the “major” and “minor” disciplines, our main concern is to challenge the underlying epistemological presuppositions on both sides of this divide. These presuppositions ground and legitimize disciplinary divisions in the first place. We also want to go beyond a mere critique of such presuppositions by highlighting theoretical (self-)reflection as a precondition for envisioning both: different area studies practices that challenge and enrich social science theories, and different social science practices that can imagine their various “others” as productive sites for reconceptualizations. It is in this vein that we engage the notion of provincializing most fruitfully spelled out by Dipesh Chakrabarty (2000).
In his programmatic call to “provincialize Europe”, Chakrabarty raises a number of questions that constitute a productive starting point for our discussion series. The project of “provincializing Europe”, he argues, entails working through the tension that ensues once we follow his paradoxical insight into the simultaneous inadequacy and indispensability of the epistemological categories of Western social science. Inadequate, because imperialism entailed normalizing a form of rationality and historicism that located Europe as the only sovereign subject of history, modernity, and universal reason, while constituting a whole spectrum of life forms and practices as its Others. Indispensable, however, because these very categories ground much of the analytical tools that even critical theory operates with and that inform political practice globally. Chakrabarty’s insights challenge us to reflect about alternative methodologies that critically work from and through our ingraining in the epistemological categories of the modern social sciences while challenging their epistemic authority. He postulates research practices that engage with “other” archives, forms of social life, and religious practice while highlighting their relevance for theoretical conclusions – yet warns against replicating “Europe” as their “theoretical skeleton”.
This paradoxical tension that Chakrabarty highlights poses a productive challenge for our project. Despite recent innovative attempts to go beyond post-colonial theory, as demanded by certain strands of the “decolonial school”, we contend that our move to provincialize still allows for a more nuanced endeavor. In Walter Mignolo’s formulation, the decolonial option constitutes an attempt to undo and overcome the colonial and imperial aspect by turning to “local experiences and needs” that are uncoupled from the “colonial matrix of power” . In contrast to such programs of decolonizing knowledge, we do not call for reconstituting an alternative modernity that builds on indigenous experiences and does away with (Eurocentric) social science categories altogether. Rather than departing from an imagined distance invoked in the notion of decoupling, “provincializing epistemologies” starts from the insight into our own complicity and the consequent necessity of critically engaging these very categories and their epistemological legacies.
An important note on epistemologies and the political stakes involved is in place here. Our project builds on the Foucauldian insight into the nexus of knowledge and/as power. We hold that epistemological orders of knowledge not only anchor disciplinary divisions and hegemonies of knowledge production, but also, and more importantly, articulate them with normative political projects. Epistemological binaries that undergird constructions of the objectivity, universality, and generalizability of modern social science categories – among them the binaries of subject/object, male/female, knowledge/belief, West/non-West – are key in generating and upholding political structures of supposedly “secular” nation-states, a geopolitical world order of Western hegemony, and neoliberal economies. Central to our project is to constantly expose such political implications of the powers of knowledge production in their institutional and epistemological underpinnings – and to underscore our own situatedness therein.
Therefore, we do not conceptualize epistemologies as static and transcendental structures, but rather recognize epistemological orders as an inherently fragile result of discursive practices. Consequently, when speaking about epistemologies, we are concerned with the effects of complex reconfigurations of power-knowledge relations; their seeming stability results from a set of discursive practices. These practices continually demarcate the boundaries of what should constitute the universal versus the particular, or secular knowledge versus religious belief, or the unmarked subject of the social scientist versus his objects of knowledge.
A decisive part of “provincializing epistemologies” is thus marking seemingly abstract epistemic categories as the results of concrete historical and political labor, practices that are presently decisively articulated by geopolitics and neoliberal economies. On a more positive register, it is this focus on practices that also opens the possibility for alternatives, for exploring practices that work through the tension that opens up when the authority of these epistemic binaries is unsettled and their particularity is marked through engaging histories and experiences that have remained outside of canons of social or political theory.
Avenues for Reflection
The project takes three main thematic foci as points of departure to concretize our conceptual lenses: genealogies of disciplinary formations, gender/sexuality, and religion/secularism.
To start with the topic of genealogies, we are interested in critical histories of present power-knowledge formations that go beyond conventional histories of individual disciplines. Our focus lies on locating and situating specific objects of knowledge, research practices, and disciplinary divisions within historico-political contexts. Here, we hope to unpack the supposed universality of specific epistemic categories as the result of discursive practices, and therefore mark them as implicated in concrete political labor.
Situated in Berlin, this discussion series is particularly interested in works that track how knowledge production in the German context has been implicated in imperial ventures. After all, there is still a dearth of scholarship on the implication of disciplinary formations and academics in Germany in global imperial contexts in general and the German colonial empire more specifically. In particular, the bulk of critical historical energy challenging disciplinary divisions between the social sciences and area studies has been directed at the US Cold War context, while their connections with earlier formations of Oriental studies in the German/European context have remained understudied: Edward Said famously bracketed Germany from closer scrutiny in his “Orientalism”. More tellingly, up to date the majority of the few works that have begun to investigate “German Orientalism” or to “decolonize German theory” have been provided by US authors. This imbalance reflects the existing hegemonies of knowledge production within critical debates of the (often homogenized) global north, and, more importantly, it demonstrates the still marginal status of postcolonial discourse in the German academic community, especially in the social sciences. It is not accidental that the first and only existing political science chair for postcolonial theory in Germany, held by Nikita Dhawan in Frankfurt, was discarded after much controversy in 2014 .
Besides engaging genealogy as critique, we hold that the theoretical archives of feminist critique and critical studies on secularism provide research perspectives indispensable to our endeavor. The epistemological authority of social scientific knowledge production has to be linked to what Donna Haraway has pointedly conceptualized as a totalizing gaze from the “unmarked position of Man and White” . This “view from nowhere” is indeed also constitutive in the division between a secularized disciplinary knowledge and the study of “religions” in “other areas”, and hence remains equally potent regarding the teleological underpinning of the powers of secular modernity generally, and modern notions of religion in particular . We therefore consider a critical perspective on gender and secularism as foundational to the project of “provincializing epistemologies”, and investigations on both gender/sexuality and religion/secularism form central thematic foci of the series.
At the same time, however, these pivotal critiques of the secularist/masculinist bias of putatively universal epistemological categories have changed little about actual practices of knowledge production on the topics of gender and religion. Very few scholars have actually engaged with archives that are located outside of Europe or North America in order to rework the analytical categories of gender and religion through an in-depth incorporation of material from “elsewhere”. Post-colonial feminist critique has effectively dismantled the colonial birthmarks of Western feminist appeals to “global sisterhood”  and warned against the appropriation of feminist and queer agendas to legitimize imperialist military and nationalist projects. But the theorization of gender and sexuality discussed in the Euro-American academy has remained largely limited to Western European and North American experiences. Gender and queer studies therefore have a lot to say about the particular forms of patriarchy and heteronormativity predominant in the “West”, but they have reflected very little about their global entanglements, their implication in producing Other gender orders, and the problems of theorizing these Others.
Likewise, critiques of secularism as a universalizing project and of modern notions of religion as tied to and often limited by a Christian genealogy have recently gained unprecedented currency in many academic discussions across disciplines. Yet, few scholars have taken into account notions of religion that derive outside of the Christian matrix as a starting point to rethink the analytical categories prevalent since the foundation of the disciplines of sociology and anthropology of religion.
This discussion series provides a forum for precisely these kinds of explorations and particularly welcomes contributions that operate through both empirical and theoretical registers to engage with the project of “provincializing epistemologies”.
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