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Provincializing Epistemologies: Reflections on Hegemonies of Knowledge Production and the Politics of Disciplinary Divisions

by Schirin Amir-Moazami and Ruth Streicher

Reversed Earth Map

Reversed Earth Map
Bildquelle: Wikimedia Commons

“Provincializing Epistemologies-Reflections on Hegemonies of Knowledge Production and the Politics of Disciplinary Divisions” is a new discussion series on TRAFO - Blog for Transregional Reserach. The series is edited by Schirin Amir-Moazami (Freie Universtität Berlin) and Ruth Streicher (University of California, Berkeley) and pursues a set of events and conversations held at the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies since 2013.

The central aim of this discussion series is to foster a more sustained conversation to politicize and contest the epistemological hegemony of particular kinds of knowledge formations that systematically exclude non-European archives. “Provincializing Epistemologies” is designed as a productive and exploratory exercise to disclose hegemonic research paradigms and practices and to simultaneously reflect on epistemological openings.

This initiative derives from a number of concerns and observations regarding the hegemonies of knowledge production and the politics of disciplinary divisions. Much energy has recently been expended to strengthen the transcultural, transdisciplinary, transregional, and in particular theoretical potential in various domains of area studies throughout Germany. While these efforts have been extremely timely and relevant, they have only marginally affected or challenged the authoritative status and epistemological location of European archives. A number of factors have contributed to this lacuna.

For one, we can observe a remarkable return to positivist epistemologies, especially in many social sciences faculties in Europe, characterized by a revitalized belief in the truth of “big data” and a significant absence of reflexivity vis-à-vis the epistemological underpinnings of the categories with which data is gathered. Moreover, despite increasing efforts to foster interdisciplinarity, we see a notable persistence of disciplinary divisions between theory-strong “major” disciplines and “minor” ones, whose regional focus often lies outside of the West. The archives of these “minor” disciplines, most notably area studies, still have little conceptual or theoretical relevance for those archives of knowledge that have usually provided methodologies, conceptual tools, and theoretical frameworks.

Most importantly, the exclusion of non-European archives operates on a set of epistemologies that have become hegemonic and that are equally, if often implicitly, ingrained in area studies. The central aim of “Provincializing Epistemologies” is therefore to problematize those hegemonic epistemologies that derive from European thought and experience and innocently or explicitly foreground the conceptual frameworks, analytical tools, and normative assumptions through which “other regions” of the world are studied.

Continuing some of the paths traced by Chakrabarty’s programmatic call to provincialize Europe, Provincializing Epistemologies entails a double movement. On the one hand, it means to mark, politicize, and rework the inscription of a “European” modernity into the various archives of knowledge production, an inscription that has largely survived unmarked despite various critiques ranging from feminist scholarship to various articulations of constructivism. On the other hand, it implies elaborating critical research practices that provide epistemological openings toward archives of knowledge that have been marked as non-universal, local, and particular. The longer-term goal of this endeavor is thus not only to ask which archives are worth studying, but also how these archives might be fruitfully reread as locations for re-conceptualizations. “Provincializing epistemologies” in this regard implies working through the tension that opens up when the epistemic authority of these categories is unsettled and their particularity is marked through an exploration of histories and experiences from “elsewhere”.