Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997


Humphries, B. (1997) 'From Critical Thought to Emancipatory Action: Contradictory Research Goals?'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 2, no. 1, <>

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Received: 23/9/96      Accepted: 18/3/97      Published: 31/3/97


This article results from reading Lather's Getting Smart (1991) and Hammersley's The Politics of Social Research (1995). The theme is the debates between 'traditional' research approaches and 'emancipatory' research approaches. It is argued that these debates are based on stereotypical views which obscure important characteristics held in common, and both require to be interrogated. The article examines two of these characteristics, appeals to a metanarrative of emancipation and the will to power, and considers the implications of the privileging of scientific knowledge over other forms of knowledge. It concludes by considering the possibilities for a praxis-oriented research which may lead to possibilities for emancipatory action.

Emancipatory; Feminism; Knowledge; Power; Research


This article has arisen from my reading of two books: Patti Lather's Getting Smart (1991) and Martyn Hammersley's The Politics of Social Research (1995). Lather's book discusses feminist postmodernist research and pedagogy and Hammersley's is a critique of Lather and other explicitly political research. In particular, Hammersley is concerned that emancipatory approaches to research represent the abandonment of the obligations of the researcher.

Since this is a serious accusation it is important to reflect on the arguments for emancipatory research and to unpack some of the concerns that are at issue in these different conceptions of research. There are a number of dimensions to this which I have been exploring, four in particular: the notion of agency - who can be a knower? Legitimacy - what tests do claims to knowledge have to pass? Truth - can we speak of certainties which are universally valid, in all places and in all times? Finally purpose - what are legitimate goals of research?

It is the last of these - purpose - which I want to focus on in this paper. My aims are to examine claims made by emancipatory approaches, to ask why they are different from those of traditional approaches and to explore how we might generate knowledge that takes us 'beyond ourselves'. In particular I want to focus on two aspects which they have in common, appeals to a metanarrative of emancipation, and a will to power.

The Terms Of The Contest

Let me first rehearse the debates, which are by now familiar to all. Traditional (positivist-influenced) approaches to research see the proper role of the researcher as committed to the discovery of the truth by means of reliable research instruments and rational discussion, being prepared to offer evidence for claims made, to submit to the scrutiny of the research community, and to be willing to change her/his views on the basis of compelling evidence to the contrary. The concept of 'disinterested knowledge' is central to this approach - it is innocent knowledge, untainted by political agenda. Such knowledge may of course be used in unethical and oppressive ways, or towards a market orientation, or for ideological ends. The researcher may have a concern that the knowledge produced may be abused, but nevertheless these consequences are outside her/his control. The major goal is to achieve an accurate representation of reality.

Hammersley's book contains arguments depressingly similar to those he offered in an article some years ago (Hammersley, 1992), sparking a debate in the journal Sociology to which a number of feminists contributed (Gelsthorpe, 1992; Ramazanoglu, 1992; Williams, 1993). His concern is that the politicization of research is founded on 'arguments which are defective and which serve to undermine research as a distinctive form of activity to the extent that they become widely accepted they negate social researchers' attempts to preserve some autonomy from the state and other powerful social interests, thereby destroying the conditions in which research can flourish, perhaps even threatening its survival' (1995: p. vii). (This of course assumes that research was not political before it was politicized.) He points out that positivism takes a number of forms, and that its influence has faded in recent times. However its continuing significance is apparent in its role as a norm against which other perspectives can react. In this sense, however it is conceived, it remains a primary signifier and an absent presence in the discussions about alternatives.

Definitions of positivism are many, and for example Halfpenny (1992) describes twelve different meanings, and Hammersley himself does not subscribe to a crudely positivist view. However his view of what we can learn from positivism is revealing in his claim that positivism is prepared to address difficulties and to resolve them (p. 18). The assumption here is compatible with a view that problems in social research are largely methodological, resolvable by more refined and more reliable research instruments. There is no admission of notions of contradiction, tension, contingency implied in this position. He insists that the natural sciences should remain the primary model of research (p. 18) but he does not make clear why he holds this opinion. Ramazanoglu (1992) suggests an answer to this when she identifies his 'uncritical privileging of reason in some sort of established scientific community' (p. 207). He admires 'clarity' of expression in positivism (p. 19), but this does not sit easily with his statement that feminist critiques have revealed the hidden bias in traditional research (p. x). His critique of 'emancipatory' research falls into the trap of stereotyping and caricaturing alternative approaches (similar to the caricaturing of positivist philosophies from some elements of the 'emancipatory' camp). As a result he sets up a series of straw people which he proceeds to knock down and makes his point by ignoring the diversity of 'emancipatory' positions and being highly selective in his critique (see also Ramazanoglu's 1992 response). For example he devotes a chapter to arguments for a specifically feminist methodology, expressing his concern that he is not suggesting he is assessing a single position, yet he presents the issues as though they are uncontroversial. He chooses to discuss the themes of (i) the omni-relevance of gender; (ii) personal experiences versus scientific method; (iii) rejection of hierarchy in the research relationship; (iv) emancipation as the goal of research. He rightly is critical of any claim that gender alone should be the basis of analysis, and that other phenomena are also important, incidentally, a claim not made by most feminists, and a lively debate continues about the intersection of different sources of divisions amongst women. His discussion gives only cursory acknowledgement of the developments in feminist theory. The work of bell hooks (1994) and Audre Lorde (1984) on the importance of analyzing the interaction of class, race, gender and sexuality, are ignored. Are these women not feminists also? Why has Hammersley chosen not to include them and to present such a static view of feminism?

Hammersley's discussion of 'personal experience versus the scientific method' suffers from a similar exclusionary treatment. The work of Birke (1986), Harding (1986), Haraway (1981, 1991), Rose (1983) on feminism and science is excluded from his discussion and the result is a reductionism which does not reflect the dynamic debates in process. His discussion of the feminist 'rejection of hierarchy in the research relationship' ignores writings by for example Bhavnani (1991), and Mohanty's (1991) critique of imperialist feminist research, thus creating an homogeneous feminism which falls over with the touch of a finger. As to the final theme, 'emancipation as the goal of research', the criticism of political research goals is his main topic for the book. He appears to see no contradiction between this criticism and his apparent approval of the radical and liberatory goals of early positivism (p. 9). I return to this topic below. Finally, as Williams (1993) pointed out when Hammersley's article was published in 1992, his argument fails to recognize the feature which, despite differences in approach to issues around power, on the whole unites many feminists. That is they are committed to ways of knowing that avoid subordination, and have questioned the taken for granted dichotomies around issues to do with knowledge creation, particularly objective/subjective, reason/emotion, grand theorizing/lay theorizing and researcher/researched.

In the discussion above I have tried to show that the concerns expressed by Hammersley are based largely on stereotypical, selective debates which do not do justice to the controversies to be found in alternative research approaches. His arguments are structured in simplistic, reductionist and binary terms. This discourse of derision obscures what characteristics 'traditional' and 'emancipatory' approaches might have in common.

In contrast to the position represented by Hammersley, theorists in the 'emancipatory' camp argue that all research is value- laden and is inevitably political, since it represents the interests of particular (usually powerful, usually white male) groups. Neutrality is seen as problematic, arising from an objectivism which assumes scientific knowledge is free from social construction. What is required is research which 'brings to voice' excluded and marginalised groups as subjects rather than objects of research, and which attempts to understand the world in order to change it. Critical, feminist, participatory and anti-racist approaches to research all have this explicit purpose as a fundamental and legitimate premise. Lather says:

Rather than the illusory 'value-free' knowledge of the positivists, praxis- oriented inquirers see emancipatory knowledge ... [which] increases awareness of the contradictions distorted or hidden by everyday understandings, and in doing so it directs attention to the possibilities for social transformation (Lather, 1991: p. 52)

What Lather attempts to do in her book is to bring together three 'discourses of emancipation' in order to draw out an approach to research which is genuinely liberatory. These perspectives are feminism, neo-marxism and post-structuralism. In engaging with them she argues that the focus needs to shift from a search for formal structures and universal values to how we are constituted as subjects of our own knowledge. This she claims is neither 'for' nor 'against' the Enlightenment, but rather is against that which presents itself as finished and authoritarian and for that which is indispensable for the constitution of ourselves as autonomous subjects - a permanent critique of ourselves 'always in the position of beginning again' (p. 38). In her view the 'courage to think and act within an uncertain framework emerges as the hallmark of liberatory praxis in a time marked by the dissolution of authoritative foundations of knowledge' (p. 13).

Out of the crisis of marxism, where claims to totality and certainty have been undercut, the binaries that structure liberatory struggle implode from 'us versus them' and 'liberation' versus 'oppression' to a multi- centred discourse with differential access to power. In the resultant decentering of marxism as the dominant explanatory system of the Left, Lather argues, comes a repositioning of marxism as one among many modes of analysis. She posits feminism as 'the site where the theory/praxis nexus is being most creatively interrogated ... the cultural site most disruptive of the alleged impotence of the subject...'(p. 27)

Lather argues that the Enlightenment project via reason has deteriorated into social engineering and rationalist planning - the technologies of normalization which domesticates and analytically fixes and mobilizes pro and anti positions. She argues for a strategy of displacement, ie. deconstruction, rather than strategies of confrontation, in order to multiply the levels of knowing and doing upon which resistance can act, and which does not negate a discourse of emancipation. Such deconstruction she argues (following Grosz, 1989) can be broken down into three steps: (i) identify the binaries, the oppositions that structure an argument; (ii) reverse/displace the dependent term from its negative position to a place that locates it as the very condition of the positive term; and (iii) create a more fluid and less coercive conceptual organization of terms which transcends a binary logic by simultaneously being both and neither of the binary terms (p. 13).

Lather of course represents one of a number of feminist positions. Other feminists, whilst agreeing on a goal of social transformation, are reluctant to throw out the baby of science with the bathwater. Haraway for example asks 'Would a feminist epistemology informing scientific inquiry be a family member to existing theories of representation and philosophical realism? Or should feminists adopt a radical form of epistemology that denies the possibility of access to a real world and an objective standpoint?' (Haraway, 1981: p. 470). And Harding (1986) asks, 'Does our recognition of the fact that science has always been a social product - that its projects and claims to knowledge bear the fingerprints of its human producers - require the exaltation of relativist subjectivity on the part of feminism?' (p. 137). Hilary Rose envisions a distinctive feminist science and epistemology, fusing subjective and objective knowledge (i.e. the personal, the social and the biological) to make new knowledge (1983: p. 88). In a postmodern world where boundaries amongst animal, human and machine are being challenged (Haraway, 1991), it may be no longer appropriate to conceive of research paradigms in polarized ways. All claims to truth are historical and cultural constructs and all need to be examined in that light. At the same time, the feminist approaches referred to above rest on an assumption that the distortions of patriarchal science will be corrected through the inclusion of feminist insights, and thus more objective, more true. But this raises other issues. For example, Is the Enlightenment vision of progressive and cumulative knowledge an appropriate one? If feminist perspectives enhance knowledge, which feminists and which perspectives?

Some Issues

Those briefly are the protagonists. They are presented as at different poles, and employ 'discourses of derision' to vilify each other. But their relationship is more complex. It seems to me appropriate to rethink some of the issues raised, and in particular to remind us of what they have in common, so that we are clear as to the differences.

Appeals to a Metanarrative of Emancipation

For example, we forget that both appeal to a metanarrative of emancipation. The production and dissemination of scientific knowledge is legitimated on the grounds that it represents the disinterested pursuit of truth, the pursuit of which will contribute to progress and to the ultimate general good of humanity. As Lyotard notes, although there have been wars and disputes over the name of the subject we are to help to become emancipated, 'all the parties concurred that enterprises, discoveries and institutions are legitimate only insofar as they contribute to the emancipation of mankind' (Lyotard, 1993: p. 172). Alternative approaches on the other hand, embrace more particular emancipatory goals and claim empowerment for specific oppressed groups. And although we need to acknowledge a range of critical positions and feminisms, the knowledge assumptions which underpin them are similar to those of scientific knowledge, rooted in the ideals of the Enlightenment - that is a view of the subject as powerful and self-consciously political: a belief in reason and rationality; and a belief in social and economic progress through grand schemes of change (Barrett and Phillips, 1992: p. 5). Where they have diverged is in the exposure by feminists, critical theorists and anti-racists of capitalist and male- centred interest at the root of claims to 'neutrality' in the construction of scientific knowledge. Further, feminism developed a critique of critical and participatory perspectives (Maguire, 1996) for their failure to take account of gender in any serious way. In its turn white feminist theory and research has had its universalist and imperialist assumptions challenged by black and third world feminists, by lesbian feminists and by disabled feminists. In these ways, although the nature of knowledge is hotly contested (who can be a knower and what kinds of knowledge are legitimate as 'truth'), the debate is premised on a tacitly agreed set of rules within a metanarrative of the liberation of humankind.

The shift to post-structuralist thinking has had an influence on the development of feminist thinking in particular. Post- structuralism has displaced the subject as conscious, rational and coherent, pointing to a variety of different subjectivities and realities. It has challenged the materialist, determinist and structuralist mode of explanation for social phenomena and emphasized representation, symbols and language. In place of the development of societies as an onward movement of progress, post-structuralism focuses on the specifics of time and space and localized struggle. In the consideration of post-structuralism's contribution to feminism, there has been recognition of its conflict with emancipatory ideals in its concern to emphasize difference and the particular.

So to summarize, scientific research and alternative research approaches both appeal to a metanarrative of emancipation and have their roots in Enlightenment ideals. Post-structuralism challenges these roots and dismisses a metanarrative of justice as an organising concept. I shall return to this presently.

The Will to Power

Emancipatory research approaches identify traditional research as deeply implicated in power, and set as their goals the equalizing of power between researcher and research subjects and the changing of oppressive relations of power. However both approaches are implicated in power. The very act of engaging in an activity implicates us in power, so that our efforts to liberate perpetuate the relations of dominance. The concept to 'empower' is a metaphor similar to Derrida's definition of 'to enlighten', which he describes as a light-based metaphor which positions the emancipators as senders of light and receivers as passive. Foucault (1993) argues that there may be projects whose aim is to modify some constraints, 'to loosen, or even to break them, but none of these projects can simply, by its nature, assure that people will have liberty ... Liberty is a practice' (p. 162). Emancipation cannot be conferred on one group by another. Martin's (1994, 1996) descriptions of experiences of feminist participatory research return again and again to this contradiction. In her attempts to share power as a researcher, she is inevitably implicated in power in the process.

The issue of the will to power has been less overt in traditional approaches to research, largely because where power issues are acknowledged, they are seen as a problem to be solved through greater reliability of the research instruments or through the application of ethical standards. It is in critiques of traditional methods that the relations of power are foregrounded (in for example Oakley, 1981, Reinharz, 1992), and in the debates which are central to alternative discourses. For example Williams (1993) points out the differences amongst feminists in the debate on power. Oakley (1974, 1981) and McRobbie, 1982) for example, both recognize the complex dynamics of researcher-researched relationships but:

...while the former sees close kinship between women researchers and women subjects of research, the latter is concerned that women's willingness to talk to researchers is an index of their powerlessness. Finch (1984) taking yet another view, writes that women as a group are powerless, whether they are researchers or subjects of research, and it is precisely this which underlines kinship. (Williams, 1993, p. 581)

Other research in the emancipatory tradition such as Critical approaches (Harvey, 1990) and participatory approaches (Tandon, 1996) are pre-occupied with issues of power in traditional research, and in the implications of power in the research process in which they are engaged.

The uncovering of power as intrinsic to all social research demonstrates that instead of a scientific community which is autonomous and free from political interest, we now know that an intimate relationship exists between the projects of science and other intellectual and political interests in the cultures where science is practised.

Going Beyond Ourselves

The identification of these commonalities between scientific and emancipatory research - appeals to a metanarrative of emancipation and the will to power - leads me to ask a number of questions:

If both appeal to a metanarrative of emancipation are we then simply talking about different approaches of equal status which have the same ends in their sights?

What are we to make of the post- structuralist challenge to emancipatory ideals, and its concern to emphasize difference and the particular?

What does emancipatory research mean if researchers are inevitably implicated in power, so that our efforts to liberate perpetuate the very relations of dominance?

In the light of my arguments here, it would not be appropriate to offer a recipe for resolving these tensions. Instead I shall point up a number of areas which emancipatory researchers will need to confront, if their efforts are not to perpetuate relations of dominance. First, we need to remind ourselves that the status of scientific knowledge has been privileged over other forms of knowledge. It has been sanctioned by the state, which spends a lot of money in the production of knowledge to obtain public consent to its decisions. Further the dominance of such a discourse is predicated upon the authority of a research community concerned about the truth of claims to knowledge. Hammersley depends on such a community and appeals to a set of rules and ideas about the construction of knowledge which have been the orthodoxy in social research. Such authority is invested with the force of exclusion and enforcement. Edwards and Usher say:

...the logic of modern scientific knowledge and its assumptions of its own legitimacy as a discourse of truth about the world results in the exclusion of other ... forms of knowledge and a denial of their legitimacy. (Edwards and Usher, 1994: p. 158)

Such 'Other' knowledge belongs to a different mentality - 'savage, primitive, underdeveloped, backward...' (Lyotard, 1984: p. 27). Writers such as Hammersley (1995) exercise that exclusion by declaring feminist, anti-racist, critical and emancipatory 'truths' outside the norms of legitimate research. By a discourse of derision they are dismissed as prejudiced, ignorant and ideological. In doing so the threat to notions of knowledge and to sources of income, is diverted. We are not talking about different kinds of knowledge of equal status. Stanley (1990: p. 5) describes how, within the 'academic mode of production' official and unofficial gatekeepers use myriad ways of controlling academic inputs and outputs. At the centre of these is a notion of scientism, grounded in Cartesian dualisms as to who can be a knower and what can be known, and concerned with producing knowledge through the observation of the real - those objects which exist independently of our beliefs about them. It explicitly excludes knowledge produced through alternative research approaches. It is therefore of crucial importance to claim the legitimacy of low status knowledge, of subjugated knowledge, of the knowledge of the Other which has been silenced and excluded, and to continue the deconstructive process of thinking about 'the danger of what is powerful and useful' (Spivak, 1989: p. 135). Although scientific knowledge appeals to a metanarrative of the liberation of all, the general thrust of the knowledge produced is ownership by a privileged research community in the interests of dominant groups. The claim to a metanarrative of emancipation in both scientific and alternative research should not be a source of discomfort to emancipatory researchers. Both have to be interrogated as to the basis for such claims, and both may be found wanting.

The challenges of post-structuralism lead us to ask: Can we appeal to a metanarrative of emancipation whilst retaining a concern with the particular and the local? McNay, from a feminist perspective, has grappled with this, and she concludes:

...feminists cannot afford to relinquish either a general theoretical perspective, or an appeal to a metanarrative to justice. I contend that gender issues cannot be fully comprehended without an understanding of general social dynamics, nor can gender oppression be overcome without some appeal to a metanarrative of justice. (McNay, 1992: p. 7)

Surely it is possible to recognize the particularities of struggle without abandoning metanarratives of emancipation and justice. There can be no universalizing in the sense that struggles have to be open and contingent on changing conditions. Both Lather and Harding, from different starting points, argue that the greatest resource for would-be knowers is our 'non-essential, nonnaturalizable, fragmented identities and the refusal of the delusion of a return to "original unity"' (Harding, 1986: p. 193). Here is a basis for continuing the struggle to throw off the regulating 'regimes of truth', whatever form they take - an acceptance of the permanent partiality of the point of view of those of us seeking to construct emancipatory research.

The issue of power has been treated (by feminists as well as others) in terms of a commodity which can be handed over from one person to another, or wrested from one group by another - possessed rather than exercised. Equally empowerment has been used in simplistic and reductionist ways which treat it as just a matter of will, either on the part of those who are disempowered, or on the part of those in a position to empower. People who do emancipatory research are as much at risk of depoliticizing their activities as others who use the concept of empowerment. Elsewhere I have written about the culture of empowerment (Humphries, 1996) identifying themes in the discourse. These include containment - where the demands of oppressed groups are incorporated or accommodated without a radical reordering of social structures. Related to this is a theme of collusion - where subordinate groups accept unequal terms and in turn obtain resources in competition with other oppressed groups. Moreover, a discourse of empowerment is located largely within existing socially powerful groups - it is not the oppositional agency of the poor and disenfranchized, but the enforcement of the concerns of hegemonic groups. Finally, a theme of empowering nihilism (Grossberg, 1988) leads to the identity of the Other being appropriated by marginalized groups to form a clear, strong identity and sense of power. At the same time this identity is disrupted by a confirmation of the characteristics displayed by them as of the essence of their alien nature, therefore requiring containment. Is this what is meant by emancipatory action?

Any notion of emancipatory research needs to recognize these contradictions, and must refuse a naive and self- deluding approach. It will acknowledge the practice of liberty - it is not something which can be conferred; it is not something gained once and for all, but has a view of power as fluid, a back and forward movement rather than binary; which is available to dominated groups; which is multifaceted and contradictory; which recognizes both discursive and material realities; which is historically and culturally specific; and which is grounded in the struggle for survival of the most disadvantaged and the poorest, not in the privileging of the researcher or other groups as the norm or referent (Humphries, 1994). As researchers, commitment to self-reflexivity is fundamental, although this can deteriorate into a self- indulgence which places the researcher as the norm. An emancipatory intent is no guarantee of an emancipatory outcome (Acker et al, 1983: p. 431). A self-critical account that situates the researcher at the centre of the text can perpetuate the dominance our emancipatory intentions hope to fight. Our own frameworks need to be interrogated as we look for the tensions and contradictions in our research practice, paradoxically aware of our own complicity in what we critique. Said talks about 'writing turning back on itself to consider, questioningly, its beginning validity and principles' (Said, 1975: p. 335). This I think, lays the groundwork for praxis-oriented research which can open up new possibilities for emancipatory action.


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