It is obvious thing to say that every scientific research needs theory. Theories provide us with abstract categories and their, more or less precise, definitions. They suggest connections between different elements of social realities and characterise them in a way that help us understand how society works, evolves or stays the same. Thanks to certain theories we can explain for instance why people organize themselves into social movements, how they mobilize others to join, and how together they push for certain cultural or institutional changes, and remain successful or not. Theories inform our understanding of the world but there is always a back and forth exchange between abstract, general statements and the examination of people’s lives.
Back in the 70s, Dorothy E. Smith, a Canadian ethnographer and feminist sociologist, highlighted the ambiguous consequences of who actually participated in theoretical reflection and decided about research. As the only woman in her faculty, and a divorced mother of two sharing her time between university and her household, she noticed that within this male-dominated field, her experiences as a topic of study were completely absent. All sorts of women’s problems were just not there, by tacit assumption that they remain trivial and not “scientific” enough.
Dorothy E. Smith also realized that her own assumptions, arising from her everyday experiences, impacted how she herself looked at social realities and interpreted them. According to her, it was a particular standpoint, which determined what people noticed and found as deserving examination. This standpoint was rooted in social hierarchies: people’s different positions within society and the material conditions of their lives.
The strong bias of academic work, which Smith spoke about, reveals at least two essential points. First, it challenges the quality of academic knowledge as partial and potentially always limited. Secondly, it shows how knowledge is closely intertwined with power. Refusing access to academia, undermining the importance of some people’s lives or declining their full humanity petrifies social inequalities.
We can find a good example of this mechanism in post-communist Poland of the early 90s. The democratic transition of 1989 brought essential changes to political and economic life of millions of Poles. The joy coming from the first democratic elections and long-awaited collapse of the authoritarian regime was soon overshadowed by the impact of neoliberal reforms. The unemployment and economic inequalities skyrocketed, harshly hitting the working class and rural communities all over the country.
At this critical moment, Polish sociology started to use a category of homo sovieticus – a different kind of man, whose character was determined by the previous communist system. It was marked with lack of initiative, lack of individualism, laziness, and irresponsibility. Some well-known sociologist employed this label to depict the poor and explain the reasons of their misery. The diagnosis underlined the problem of some groups’ civilizational “backwardness”, and the mental “incompetence” to follow the new modernization trends. Structural problems of neoliberal transformation were thus translated into the weakness of individuals, who were reduced to “a burden” for the rest of society.
Polish anthropologist Monika Bobako argues that this expert narrative promoted the social acceptance of economic exploitation and growing class inequalities. Social sciences contributed to the legitimization of economic injustice by creating very naïve “knowledge” that actually obscured the real dynamics of the post-communist transformation. Experts from academia and media described people who struggled under the new free market regime, as if they belonged to a different race. Their characteristics were essentialized and presented as of a distinct “nature”: collectively shared and unable to change. This kind of labelling, of “post-communist leftovers”, was used for instance to describe jobless mothers from the Polish “fallen city” of Wałbrzych, who in 2008 went on a hunger strike as they could not afford rents and protested against brutal evictions.
Still, knowledge not only reproduces hierarchies of power, but also can lead to liberation. Patricia Hill Collins, American, Black feminist scholar, made this point crystal clear. Speaking about Black women’s knowledge, marginalized and downplayed by academia, she insisted on its extreme significance for Black women’s struggle. Hill Collins underlined that the knowledge of the disempowered should be carefully preserved and passed on, as it kept the highest value for both understanding the matrix of oppression/domination, and defining truly emancipatory strategies for those deprivileged by their gender, race, class or sexual identity.
In CCINDLE, we look for theories and research that could support feminist and democratic futures in Europe. Our aim is produce knowledge which is relevant, but also helpful in social justice struggles. Being fully aware of the problematic position of social theories and academia in knowledge/power production, we have devoted the last several months to discuss and carefully decide about theories which will guide our work. Greatly inspired by bell hooks and many other feminist, Black and queer thinkers, we want to take our theoretical framework from the margins and put them in centre. Thus, we hope to avoid previous failures of social sciences and make CCINDLE a meaningful part of feminist change.
By Marta Rawłuszko