Harroway, situated knowledge

Situated Knowledge

“research and knowledge production are embedded within their historical and social contexts. The theoretical frameworks researchers use and the questions they ask, how they define the phenomena or topics they investigate, and what research methods they choose, will all relate directly to the historical time and place in which they live, work and conduct their research, whether or not the relations are acknowledged.”

(Course Book 1, p. 76)

The concept of “situated knowledge” is developed by Donna Harroway, in a 1988 essay, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective”.

“Feminist objectivity means quite simply situated knowledges.”

“I would like to insist on the embodied nature of all vision and so reclaim the sen­sory system that has been used to signify a leap out of the marked body and into a conquering gaze from nowhere.”

In this essay Harroway asserts a feminist, embodied, situated, objectivity, against the disembodied objectivity that lays claim to the view “from nowhere”.

This disembodied objectivity is exemplified in The National Geographic, in frontier-imagery, of both space – in which photographic style images of far-away planets are assembled out of “digitalized signal” data, and of “infetisimal… T cells and invading viruses” – in which photographic style images of microscopic entities are assembled through “lasers” and “electron microscopes”. Harroway says the ideology behind these images presupposes an “infinite vision” that is “innocent”, manufacuturing vision as an immediate, neutral, and all-seeing, access to the world .


“The eyes have been used to signify a perverse capacity- honed to perfection in the history of science tied to militarism, capi­talism, colonialism, and male supremacy-to distance the know­ing subject from everybody and everything in the interests of unfettered power. The instruments of visualization in multina­tionalist, postmodernist culture have compounded these meanings of disembodiment”

Instead we need to “learn [see, practice science] in our bodies, endowed with primate color and stereoscopic vision”, and “name where we are and are not”, in “dimensions of mental and physical space we hardly know how to name”.

Importantly, whilst knowledge, or vision, needs to be resituated in the human-primate body, and we need to dispense with the dominant culture’s “instruments of vizualization”, this doesn’t preclude feminists from developing their own “technological mediations”.

To summarise:

“[O]bjectivity turns out to be about particular and specific embodiment and definitely not about the false vision promising transcendence of all limits and responsibility.”

This theorisation of situated knowledge has a moral implication. It implies that knowledge is situated in practice, that objectivity is achieved through good acts – acts that intend to learn – and that as feminists, we are obliged to further, and responsible for,  this situated knowledge-making.

“The moral is simple: only partial perspective promises objec­tive vision. All Western cultural narratives about objectivity are allegories of the ideologies governing the relations of what we call mind and body, distance and responsibility. Feminist objectivity is about limited location and situated knowledge, not about trans­cendence and splitting of subject and object. It allows us to become answerable for what we learn how to see.”

Harroway’s summary:

Situated knowledges are about communities, not about isolated individuals. The only way to find a larger vision is to be somewhere in particular. The science question in femi­nism is about objectivity as positioned rationality. Its images are not the products of escape and transcendence of limits (the view from above) but the joining of partial views and halting voices into a collective subject position that promises a vision of the means of ongoing finite embodiment, of living within limits and contradic­tions- of views from somewhere.

Speculative links to functionalism, or pragmatism:

At the risk of naive conflation, it seems that this situated knowledge is similar to that implied by James/Pierce/Dewey’s pragmatist ethos. Against the dualistic correspondance between knowledge and the world, we have a naturalistic view from within, a knowledge made out of, in, and through the world.

Anti-humanism, anti-prometheanism

Harroway says the world is not there is the reosurce of humans, the relation is not human (agent) – world (object). Instead, the world should be seen as an agent, acting back on the human.

“Situated knowledges require that the object of knowledge be pictured as an actor and agent, not as a screen or a ground or a resource, never finally as slave to the master that closes off the dialectic in his unique agency and his authorship of “objective” knowledge.”


“Femi­nist objectivity makes room for surprises and ironies at the heart of all knowledge production; we are not in charge of the world. We just live here and try to strike up noninnocent conversations by means of our prosthetic devices, including our visualization technologies. No wonder science fiction has been such a rich writing practice in recent feminist theory”


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