From Situated Knowledges, Partial Truths, Extended Ethnographies, Locating of Selves to Ethnography of Fragments/Fragmented Access

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As I continue my interviews and ethnographies for my three books in-progress (don’t don’t ask ….) I begin to understand anew (it happens each time I embark on a new research project and try to sort out how to verify information from one interview to another – from one ethnographic context to another source of information and so on) that a lot of the research is based in researcher access to contexts  – this access is mediated – and I don’t mean just by communication technology when I interview them via skype. The mediations and negotiations are social, cultural and while it appears that I as the academic researcher might be in a position of power to represent – with so many ways to put the stories out – there is no guarantee my “power” is more than other representers of situations, selves and others. The question of who can represent who is always layered and mediated by hierarchies – who says what is a “good” hierarchy? The best I can do is map the hierarchies, differences and similarities as they become visible in the fragments I access and describe. Thus my methodology is based in fragmented access,fragmented ethnographies and fragmented narratives from various interviewees and media texts. In the putting together of the fragments, I take full responsibility for the stories I tell. But the stories are based in evidence that you are free to verify and reconstruct into counter narratives and stories based on what other pieces of the many puzzles you find.


In 1988, Haraway asked how we could aspire to “have simultaneously an account of radical historical contingency for all knowledge claims and knowing subjects, a critical practice for recognizing our own “semiotict echnologies”fo r making meanings, and a no-nonsense commitment to faithful accounts of a “real” world, one that can be partially shared and that is friendly to earthwide projects of finite freedom, adequate material abundance, modest meaning in suffering, and limited happiness.”

In 1993 Alcoff wrote “On the Problem of Speaking for Others”  where she noted that “a speaker’s location (which I take here to refer to her social location or social identity) has an epistemically significant impact on that speaker’s claims, and can serve either to authorize or dis-authorize one’s speech…..location is epistemically salient.”

She further asks, “However, we must begin to ask ourselves whether this is ever a legitimate authority, and if so, what are the criteria for legitimacy? In particular, is it ever valid to speak for others who are unlike me or who are less privileged than me?

We might try to delimit this problem as only arising when a more privileged person speaks for a less privileged one. In this case, we might say that I should only speak for groups of which I am a member. But this does not tell us how groups themselves should be delimited. For example, can a white woman speak for all women simply by virtue of being a woman? If not, how narrowly should we draw the categories? The complexity and multiplicity of group identifications could result in “communities” composed of single individuals. Moreover, the concept of groups assumes specious notions about clear-cut boundaries and “pure” identities. The criterion of group identity leaves many unanswered questions for a person such as myself, since I have membership in many conflicting groups but my membership in all of them is problematic. Group identities and boundaries are ambiguous and permeable, and decisions about demarcating identity are always partly arbitrary. Another problem concerns how specific an identity needs to be to confer epistemic authority. Reflection on such problems quickly reveals that no easy solution to the problem of speaking for others can be found by simply restricting the practice to speaking for groups of which one is a member.
Adopting the position that one should only speak for oneself raises similarly difficult questions. If I don’t speak for those less privileged than myself, am I abandoning my political responsibility to speak out against oppression, a responsibility incurred by the very fact of my privilege? If I should not speak for others, should I restrict myself to following their lead uncritically? Is my greatest contribution to move over and get out of the way? And if so, what is the best way to do this—to keep silent or to deconstruct my own discourse?
The answers to these questions will certainly depend on who is asking them. While some of us may want to undermine, for example, the U.S. government’s practice of speaking for the “Third world,” we may not want to undermine someone such as Rigoberta Menchu’s ability to speak for Guatemalan Indians.7 So the question arises about whether all instances of speaking for should be condemned and, if not, how we can justify a position which would repudiate some speakers while accepting others.”




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