Situated Knowledges: Reflections from the Field

I am in London for a fieldwork immersion at our London hospital research sites.  Conducting research in two countries, in two global cities, is turning out to offer rich points of view that can be very fruitful as heuristic to understand one’s own context.

I have been struggling for an Archimedean point – that impossible vantage point where the analyst is able to perceive the subject of inquiry in its totality — to get the gestalt of how prayer and spirituality take form in the London hospitals that serve as site to this project.

However hard I’ve been trying to move beyond my suppositions and positions, I keep bumping up against my own particular subjectivities from whence I make sense of the world.

My classed subjectivity.  During my first hours in the hospitals, I was quickly drawn into the aesthetics of the place (the spatiality and modern art is described in other blogs).  Yet, at one point I commented that my auntie who spent much of last year in a Canadian hospital would not have recognized her world in the art of this London hospital.  My own subjectivities drawing on Canadian prairie and mountain landscapes are classed in their way, reflecting less access to the art so esteemed in this context.  How then might class affect how I read the social relations of prayer?

My raced subjectivity.  I am well versed in the critique of Whiteness, and yet my Whiteness as vantage point has meant I am highly tuned to the ethnic identities that fill the hospital spaces.  The Roman Catholic nun from Kenya.  The Baptist chaplain from India.  The Muslim spiritual care volunteer from Uganda.  The Black-Caribbean woman who leads the Christian service in the chapel.  From my White vantage point, I wonder whether faith feels counter-culture in this setting because it is associated with ethnic minorities.

My subjectivity as a woman of faith.  At a seminar presentation at Kingston University London, a colleague asked about the religious identities of our team and how these might shape our engagement with the data.  I am well aware of the draw to privilege religious and spiritual experiences in the study (nearly inevitable when the phenomenon of interest is prayer) and have had to work hard to understand less religious forms of spirituality and prayer.

The challenge of these subjectivities is in part a methodological one—unlike the phenomenologist who supposes they can “bracket” their positionality, the feminist, critically-informed researcher recognizes that these lenses are inevitable and hence one makes every attempt to account for and even benefit from them.  Feminist researcher Donna Haraway back in 1988 described the concept of “situated knowledges” whereby knowledge and truth are partial and inseparable from the lived experiences of the researcher and the researched.

My goal thus is not the Archimedean vantage point, but rather a reflexive stance that leverages my situated knowledges, my subjectivities, to gain deeper insight into the social relations of prayer.

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Haraway, D. (1988). Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective. Feminist studies, 14(3), 575-599.


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