Social Justice Usage
Source: Sensoy, Ozlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, first edition. Teacher’s College Press: New York, 2012, p. 5, then 7.
Efforts among scholars to understand how society works weren’t limited to the Frankfurt School; French philosophers (notably Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, and Jacques Lacan) were also grappling with similar questions (this broader European development of Critical Theory is sometimes called “the continental school” or “continental philosophy”). This work merges in the North American context of the 1960s with antiwar, feminist, gay rights, Black power, Indigenous Peoples, and other emerging social justice movements.
These movements initially advocated for a type of liberal humanism (individualism, freedom, and peace) but quickly turned to a rejection of liberal humanism. The ideal of individual autonomy that underlies liberal humanism (the idea that people are free to make independent rational decisions that determine their own fate) was viewed as a mechanism for keeping the marginalized in their place by obscuring larger structural systems of inequality. In other words, it fooled people into believing that they have more freedom and choice than societal structures actually allow. (p. 5)
One of the key contributions of critical theorists concerns the production of knowledge. Given that the transmission of knowledge is an integral activity in schools, critical scholars in the field of education have been especially concerned with how knowledge is produced. These scholars argue that a key element of social injustice involves the claim that particular knowledge is objective and universal. An approach based on critical theory calls into question the idea that “objectivity” is desirable, or even possible. The term used to describe this way of thinking about knowledge is that knowledge is socially constructed. When we refer to knowledge as socially constructed, we mean that knowledge is reflective of the values and interests of those who produce it. This term captures the understanding that all content and all means of knowing are connected to a social context. (p. 7)
New Discourses Commentary
The term Foucauldian refers to ideas that were produced by or that derive from the thinking of the French postmodern philosopher Michel Foucault. Foucault’s thinking, particularly his thoughts about the nature of knowledge, power, discourses, and the relationships between these, has been incredibly influential on the development of the Theory of Critical Social Justice. Indeed, many of Foucault’s ideas lie at the very core of the “Woke” worldview of Critical Social Justice. The starting place for the Foucauldian view of knowledge, power, and discourses is that knowledge is socially constructed and has been defined in the service of power, so knowledge and power (politics) are the same thing, and what we consider knowledge may have little or nothing to do with reality outside of its political (mis)applications.
Critical Social Justice has taken up so many Foucauldian ideas because it is a fusion of a number of radically leftist schools of thought, one of which is postmodernism, and Foucault can easily be considered to have been the most influential postmodern Theorist. Foucauldian thought is complicated and sometimes somewhat incoherent and contradictory, but it focused on a handful of particular themes that can be roughly associated with the term today. Of primary interest to Foucault was how power and knowledge are ultimately two features of the same object, which he called power-knowledge, and how this can be used to effect social control, under what he called biopower. Foucault also insisted that what constitutes knowledge or truth is historically and culturally contingent, appearing in what he referred to as different “epistemes,” which (reflecting his underlying assumptions about the relationship between power and knowledge) can be understood to be something like “regimes of truth.”
Simply, Foucauldian thought sees truth or knowledge as something that arises within a particular culture. That is, a true statement, to Foucault, is one that a particular culture (at a particular time and place in history and geography) believes is true, which is mostly independent of its actual truth value. Put another way, Foucault’s view is that the truth value of a statement (whether it is true or false or somewhere in between) is entirely a function of the cultural milieu in which it is being considered, and moreover that status is set by the dominant and powerful interests and groups in society, usually in a way that serves those interests and works to maintain them. Foucault, for instance, in History of Madness, is particularly concerned with the way that dissident ideas are excluded from the dominant discourses, thus from having any political influence, by being labeled with the socially constructed concept of being “mad.” In his History of Sexuality, he argues similarly about the ways that homosexuals were controlled by the changing authoritative and “scientific” views of homosexuality throughout history. This means that for Foucault, knowledge and power are the same thing, power-knowledge, and all claims on knowledge are ultimately political devices.
Foucault also believed that statements of truth reside within discourses, which are ways things are spoken about, or more accurately ways in which it is considered legitimate to speak about things. These discourses are, themselves, cultural artifacts (see also, cultural relativism), and thus any statements of truth are cultural artifacts themselves. As various sorts of discourses become dominant, so too are certain statements able to be considered true or false—or insane. For example, in the premodern era, “truths” were mostly determined by their alignment with holy writ, scripture, or the claims of prophets, priests, kings, and other authorities. This is because the acceptable discourses were all religious or set by royal authority. Later, however, in the modern era, “truths” became those statements validated by scientific processes, like empiricism, and the application of reason; that is, scientific and rationalist discourses became dominant (see also, positivism and objectivity). For Foucault, this change seems to have marked little more than a change in the authoritative guard, with scientists and other experts taking the role of priests, prophets, kings, and counselors. This Foucauldian line of thought established a postmodern epistemological era, in which “truths” are to be seen as utterly contingent on the culture that produced them, and thus “truth” in the sense that most of us understand it is unobtainable, if not mythological (see also, metanarrative). In this sense, Foucauldian postmodernism is a kind of “waking up” to the fact that we can’t really know anything at all.
The dominant discourses of specific historical and geographical localities define “epistemes,” or truth regimes, for Foucault (see also, hegemony). The episteme is the set of dominant discourses that define how it is and is not acceptable to think about various ideas, and these, being cultural, are ultimately political objects that fuse power and knowledge into a single entity, power-knowledge. The application of power-knowledge is referred to as biopower, and it is also a political instrument, specifically a means of social control. This application of power can be more or less just, but it is always, by necessity, political and thus unjust for those for whom it is marginalizing or oppressesive. Because truth is viewed as historically and culturally contingent in Foucauldian thought, this marginalization and oppression become the most relevant sites for interrogating the claims to knowledge and thus the dominant discourses that enable them (see also, post-Marxism).
One result of Foucauldian thinking that is relevant to Critical Social Justice is to believe that different cultural groups necessarily have different knowledges (see also, racial knowledge), and that these knowledges are difficult or impossible to compare against one another (see also, cultural relativism). Because of the observations just above about truth regimes (i.e., epistemological relativism) and about injustice, marginalization, and oppression, the experiences of those phenomena become an alternative means of assessing the validity of statements cross-culturally. This concept, perhaps more than any other feature of Foucauldian thought, has had a profound effect on the shape of our current social and political experience. (Of note, Michel Foucault remains the single most-cited scholar in history, with nearly a million academic citations currently to his name.)
That is, under applied Foucauldian thought, while one cannot directly compare any cultural artifacts (e.g., knowledge claims) on shared terms because such a comparison is deemed literally unintelligible, injustice, marginalization, and oppression gain something like a universal currency by which certain “truths” become more important to take seriously than others. Specifically, because they have been excluded, ignored, and marginalized, claims from the marginalized, especially about oppression, should be given more attention and weight than claims from or speaking in support of dominant discourses (see also, standpoint epistemology). To be abundantly clear about the point, science, reason, evidence, and so on, are deemed features of dominant white, Western, Eurocentric, masculinist/patriarchal culture that are too unaware of their own dominance, privileged status, and inbuilt bias to be taken as universally applicable or true.
This aspect of Foucauldian thought has been reified in intersectionality as the Matrix of Domination (in fact, the Matrix of Domination is roughly black feminist Patricia Hill Collins’ interpretation and application of Foucault to the idea of intersectionality), and the constant demand from within intersectional Critical Social Justice to intentionally engage our own positionality is a feature of the resultant worldview. When Kimberlé Crenshaw indicates in her most famous paper, “Mapping the Margins,” that intersectionality is a concept meant to link contemporary (identity) politics to postmodern Theory, it is, in fact, the Foucauldian understanding of knowledge, power, and discourses that she is primarily referring to. When Judith Butler seeks to outline her (mis)understanding of poststructrualism and its application to what has become gender studies and queer Theory, she draws heavily upon both Foucault and Jacques Derrida (see also, Derridean). This is obviously most pronounced when she draws upon History of Sexuality. Through these highly influential thinkers and others, Foucauldian thought, inter alia, has become dominant throughout cultural studies fields (especially fat studies and disability studies) and thus core to the Theory of Critical Social Justice.
Bias; Biopower; Black feminism; Critical; Cultural relativism; Cultural studies; Derridean; Disability studies; Discourse; Dominance; Engagement; Episteme; Eurocentrism; Exclusion; Fat studies; Gender studies; Hegemony; Identity politics; Injustice; Interrogate; Intersectionality; Justice; Knowledge(s); Marginalization; Masculinism; Matrix of Domination; Objectivity; Oppression; Patriarchy; Positionality; Positivism; Post-Marxism; Postmodern; Poststucturalism; Power-knowledge; Privilege; Queer Theory; Racial knowledge; Science; Social construction; Social Justice; Standpoint epistemology; Systemic power; Theory; Truth; Truth regime; Universality; Western; White; Woke/Wokeness
Source: Bingham, Charles W. “A Dangerous Benefit: Dialogue, Discourse, and Michel Foucault’s Critique of Representation.” Interchange, 33(4), 2002: 351–369, pp. 357–358.
For Foucault, the word is not on a different, more innocent ontological plane than things and ideas. Words do not serve as windows onto things, but are instead active participants in the world. Discourse works and acts. It contains contradictions and world-effects just as other material aspects of this world do, just as people do. Language-as-discourse has bandwidth; it is not a thin glass pane. Describing discourse, Foucault notes that there are “barely imaginable powers and dangers behind this activity, however humdrum and gray it may seem” (1972b, p. 216). Within discourse, there are “conflicts, triumphs, injuries, dominations and enslavements that lie behind [the] words, even when long use has chipped away their rough edges” (p. 216). Discourse does work that may include, but also far out steps, the role of signifying. As such, language use such as dialogue cannot be taken solely as an innocuous activity of representation. Language is a site of where ideology, power, and representation are contested.
Source: Bingham, Charles W. “A Dangerous Benefit: Dialogue, Discourse, and Michel Foucault’s Critique of Representation.” Interchange, 33(4), 2002: 351–369, pp. 352–353.
In this paper I will use Michel Foucault’s conception of discourse to provide a scaffolding for the way we think about dialogue. My argument will follow these lines: First, I show how educational discussions have considered conversation largely from the perspective of dialogue as representation. Then, I will note how critiques of educational dialogue, while salient, have remained within the representational perspective on dialogue. I will next detail a model of dialogue based on Michel Foucault’s understanding of language as discourse. Foucault’s understanding of dialogue as discourse is a needed addition to any project of dialogue in education. Because educational institutions are places where raced, gendered, classed, and sexed representations of self are necessary for social gains and personal agency in spite of the fact that the very act of representing tends to occlude the workings of power and oppression, Foucault’s position contributes to a vigilant and educationally productive sensibility for intersubjective dialogue. Foucault shows that dialogue is a dangerous benefit.
Source: Sensoy, Ozlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, first edition. Teacher’s College Press: New York, 2012, p. 52–53.
Power in the context of understanding social justice refers to the ideological, technical, and discursive elements by which those in authority impose their ideas and interests on everyone. Michel Foucault’s (1977/1995) analysis of a 19th-century prison structure might be helpful for understanding the concept of power. The panopticon shown in Figure 4.4 is a design unveiled in 1843 in which the cells of a prison were located around the circumference of a circle with a tower in the center and a guard located in the tower. The key to the panopticon design is the funneling of light in ways that create strategic darkness and blindness. Much like the effects of being onstage with the lights shining in your eyes, the prisoners in the cells could not see the guard watching. The prisoners were constantly visible to the central tower while they themselves were blinded—never knowing when they were being watched. Thus the guard could monitor the prisoners without the prisoners knowing when, or even if, they were being observed.
This model produced a type of self-policing, a self-imposed mechanism for control and supervision. In other words, the prisoner becomes fearful of the threat of the ever-watching eye of authority. Not knowing when that eye will be turned on him, he begins to monitor himself in order to avoid penalty. This structure of surveillance produces a conforming and passive prisoner.
Foucault argued that the panopticon was a metaphor for the ways in which power is transmitted, normalized, and internalized through our social institutions, such as prisons, military, hospitals, and schools. This metaphor illustrates how these institutions socialize us into compliance with the norms that serve dominant interests. Those who have the motivation, authority, and resources to design, institute, and enforce the panopticon are those who hold institutional power in a society. These power relations are in place well before our birth, and we might think of ourselves as born into a cell that already exists and is waiting for us.
However, Foucault did not see these relations as fixed and unchangeable but rather as constantly reproduced and negotiated in society. This means that we have the ability to challenge power, but first we must see and understand how power works.
Source: Bingham, Charles W. “A Dangerous Benefit: Dialogue, Discourse, and Michel Foucault’s Critique of Representation.” Interchange, 33(4), 2002: 351–369, pp. 360–361.
In addition to the nullifying effects of a representational order of things, Foucault maps out two main discursive ways of thinking about language, the “critical” and the “genealogical.” A critical analysis of discourse looks into the ways that language and conversation set up boundaries of exclusion and inclusion, the ways that speakers and their speech, as well as writers and their texts, are positioned “within the true” (1972b, p. 224). Throughout Foucault’s oeuvre, examples of critical discourse analysis point to the ways that language has a delimiting role, categorizing what is available to be said and by whom. For example, in The Order of Things, Foucault describes the disciplinary boundaries of philology, natural history, and political economy (1970). These social sciences exemplify the delimiting work of discourse. A critical analysis such as this brings to light “principles of rarefaction, consolidation and unification in discourse” (Foucault, 1972b, p. 233). It attempts “to mark out and distinguish the principles of ordering, expulsion and rarity in discourse” (p. 234). Later on, in The History of Sexuality, Vol. I, Foucault points to the discourse of “Bio-Power” that works to consolidate clinical descriptions of human acts (1980). Thus in the 19th century, the category of homosexual is reified, consolidated, ordered, and maintained within a complex of discursive practices such as psychology, psychoanalysis, and medicine. Whole categories of humanity are in fact sustained through the codifying practices of discourse.
On the genealogical side, Foucault is more concerned with the way that certain forms of discourse get invested by power. “The difference between the critical and the genealogical enterprise is not one of object or field, but of point of attack, perspective” (1972b, p. 233). Foucault’s genealogical investigation into discourse is, following Nietzsche, is concerned with a history of effects rather than a history of causes. It is a concern over Entstehung rather than Ursprung (Foucault, 1984; Nietzsche, 1967). For example, in Foucault’s genealogical investigation of pastoral power, he highlights the ways in which the practice of “telling the truth about one’s inner self” is first invested with religious significance, and then, with the eclipse of Christianity in the West, is in turn invested with social-scientific significance with the emergence of psycho-therapeutic models of the “talking cure” (Foucault, 1980). A genealogical analysis centers on the ways that discursive practices (such as truth-telling) become employed by various regimes of power. Rather than analyzing how discourse patrols its borders and orders what can be said, genealogy investigates how already-established borders of discourse get subjected to investment and control. As Foucault puts it, “genealogical description must take into account the limits at play within real formations” (1972b, p. 233). Existing linguistic practices must be analyzed according the power invested in them by various forms of power.
Revision date: 3/23/20