Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1998


Cealey Harrison, W. and Hood-Williams, J. (1998) 'More Varieties than Heinz: Social Categories and Sociality in Humphries, Hammersley and Beyond'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 3, no. 1, <>

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Received: 20/10/97      Accepted: 10/3/98     Published: 31/3/98


This paper is a contribution to a long standing debate over the nature of research and the relations between knowledge and power recently instantiated in exchanges over the criticisms of Hammersley (Hammersley, 1992, 1995, 1997; Gelsthorpe, 1992; Ramazanoglu, 1992; Williams, 1993; Hammersley & Gomm, 1997a and 1997b; Romm, 1997; Temple, 1997). It takes as its starting point Beth Humphries' recent critical commentary on Hammersley and emancipatory research, and her attempt to 'go beyond ourselves' (Humphries, 1997). It argues that the logical endpoint of arguments that suggest the continuous salience of the social divisions commonly found in the current sociological lexicon is a bewildering impossibility and that they should not be taken as guidelines for research practice. It clarifies this critique in relation to 'gender'. It further argues that Humphries's position, despite her apparent sympathy for post-structuralism, retains much from earlier structuralist positions, which undermines the basis of her attempt to develop a position beyond the constraints of current emancipatory research.

Category; Emancipatory; Gender; Knowledge; Power; Research; Social Discourse


In 'From Critical Thought to Emancipatory Action: Contradictory Research Goals' (henceforth CTEA), Beth Humphries examines aspects of the debate between 'traditional' and 'emancipatory' research (Humphries, 1997). Notwithstanding a certain sympathy for emancipatory research, she argues that both sets of protagonists to this debate have presented stereotypical views of each other's positions and that they possess common characteristics which have been obscured. In particular, she examines shared appeals to a 'metanarrative of emancipation' and a 'will to power'. In considering the question 'what are legitimate goals of research?' Humphries explores a number of issues that she suggests the emancipatory research camp will need to confront, notably in relation to the work of McNay (1992), Spivak (1989) and Stanley (1990).

In engaging with this debate, we wish to take up a very specific set of issues. In particular, we wish to raise the question of the consequences of arguing for the continuous salience of the social divisions commonly found in the current sociological lexicon and referred to by both Humphries and Hammersley (Humphries, 1997, ¶2.3; Hammersley, 1995: pp. 50 - 1). One of Hammersley's objections is to what he describes as the omni-relevance of gender. Our concern is that argument about the pre-eminence of one or other of what Hammersley refers to as 'variables' or Humphries as 'sources of division' is beside the point. The logical implications of a position that seeks to accommodate complexity through some kind of combinatory of variables are ultimately unworkable. We also indicate the impact of such a position within emancipatory research, especially in some versions of standpoint epistemology, and raise some points about the prioritizing of experience. We take up Humphries' discussion of 'empowerment' and argue that her challenge to the concept of power which is to be found in the idea of empowerment does not go as far as it might, essentially because it retains elements of a conventional structural account. The retention of that structural account can only work against what are argued to be the advantages of post-structuralist initiatives. We shall therefore argue that Humphries' deployment of a post-structuralist critique to go beyond both Hammersley and the presuppositions of current emancipatory research is itself undermined by aspects of her attempt to 'go beyond ourselves'. Our argument will be for what we have described elsewhere as a radically discursive approach to these issues (Cealey Harrison & Hood-Williams, 1997). This means, in particular, a conception of the social and of 'gender' that is different from that to be found in either Hammersley or Humphries.

The Omni-Relevance of Gender

Hammersley takes issue with feminist methodology on four counts, the first of which is that gender has been given a unique importance by some feminist writers but that this primacy is poorly grounded (Hammersley, 1992, 1995). Humphries points out that 'most feminists' recognise that gender on its own should not be the basis of analysis 'and a lively debate continues about the intersection of different sources of divisions amongst women' (¶2.3). Hammersley himself refers to black feminists arguing for the significance of racism and suggests, quoting Alcoff, that 'the politics of gender or sexual difference must be replaced with a plurality of differences' (Alcoff, 1988, cited in Hammersley, 1995: p. 51). Arguably, then, they are in agreement up to that point. He goes on, however, to suggest that 'gender should not be given any general priority over other variables' (Hammersley, 1995: p. 51).

But has the existing move away from the privileging of 'gender alone' analyses and the debate about 'intersections' produced workable alternatives? We would argue that it has not. Connell writes that gender as a 'structure of social practice' (he also at different times describes it as an 'order', or a 'system') is 'unavoidably involved with other social structures' and that it has now become common to say that it 'intersects - better interacts -' with race and class, to which one can add such things as nationality or position in the world order (Connell, 1995: p. 75). Mac an Ghaill talks about the importance of the 'interplay' between 'major organising principles', 'namely, age, class, racial/ethnic, sex/gender and disability divisions' (Mac an Ghaill, 1994: p. 4). Ramazanoglu, in her reply to Hammersley (Ramazanoglu, 1992) also points to the importance of the 'intersections of gender and sexuality with "race"/ethnicity and class'. She regards these intersections as 'fundamental to a full understanding of social life' (Ramazanoglu, 1992: p. 209).

One could sympathise with representatives of any given movement, for example members of gay movements, if they were not to be regarded as equally fundamental and the number of a full list of relevant forms of social classification in the current sociological lexicon is likely to be at least six. Given that these groups themselves contain a greater number of different subject positions within them (perhaps only two for sexual orientation, perhaps as many as nine for ethnicity) and that it is possible to belong to any combination of groups, the total combinatory of positions created by intersections that are 'fundamental to a full understanding' is actually likely, at a conservative estimate, to be around 288. Depending upon the 'intersections' one defines and the variant forms of positionality within them (e.g. of class membership, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.), there is no given mathematical limit to the social divisions thus produced.

Whilst we certainly do not deny the legitimacy of the claims to social justice that is denied these groups, the methodological, a priori, injunction to include a consideration of them in research begins to appear fatuous. It is not just that it cannot be done but that it should not be assumed that it ought to be done. What is actually fundamental to an understanding of social life is that there can be no prior prescription as to the relevance of particular social categorizations beforehand and that what needs to be recognised is that such categorizations may be central or may be totally irrelevant to the study at hand. Their relevance cannot be guaranteed before the work has begun. Or, if it is, there is no point in beginning: you already have your answer before you obtain your findings.

Other writers have also recognised that talk of intersections produces difficulties but appear to recommend pressing on in the face of them rather than recognising their impossibility. Gelsthorpe observes that, 'The permutations are limitless as one adds other variables' and immediately goes on to say, 'but gender remains critical to an understanding of these variables' (Gelsthorpe, 1992: p. 213). Doubtless others would argue that 'their' variable is crucial to an understanding of all the other variables. Or is there a hierarchy supposed here? Are we back to old debates about the centrality of, say, capitalism and the secondary character of sexual oppression? The cry from Leftist groups in the 70s used to be that the problems of patriarchy would be solved with the advent of socialism. Feminists were rightly critical of such a claim and presumably many of them would not assume a priority for the analysis of women's oppression over, for example, racist oppression. And so on.

Many writers have been happy to acknowledge the difficulties of maintaining the idea of patriarchy as a general system and indeed have been prepared to abandon it (Acker, 1989; Anthias and Yuval-Davis, 1992; Pollert, 1996). But few have seen that the logical consequence of this might be the break up of the idea of gender itself, not just as a general social grouping, but as a descriptor for categories of people with sexed characteristics. As Denise Riley has pointed out, the attribution of gender is of variable distribution, occurring at given historical and social sites in discursively-specific ways (Riley, 1988). Far from being omni-relevant, it is of quite particular relevance and content, when it occurs, and can equally well be irrelevant. Gender is therefore discontinuous in its social significance and discursively-specific in content, with distinctive relations between the gendered discourse and other discourses to which it relates and which themselves change:

To put it schematically: 'women' is historically, discursively constructed, and always relatively to other categories which themselves change; 'women' is a volatile collectivity in which female persons can be very differently positioned, so that the apparent continuity of the subject of 'women' isn't to be relied on; 'women' is both synchronically and diachronically erratic as a collectivity, while for the individual, 'being a woman' is also inconstant and can't provide an ontological foundation. Yet it must be emphasised that these instabilities of the category are the sine qua non of feminism, which would otherwise be lost for an object, despoiled of a fight, and, in short, without much life. (Riley, 1988: pp. 1 - 2)

This is not to say that arguments are not made about the 'gendered effects' of a particular piece of 'neutral' discourse or 'gender-indifferent' practice, but this form of argumentation transforms, rather than merely reveals, existing terms of reference, and can itself be a double-edged sword, as Hilary Allen has argued in relation to pre-menstrual tension and the law (Allen, 1990). The point is that the specificity of references to gender and of their absence has to be attended to, rather than taking for granted a universality of reference. This is a point to which we shall return.

Let us come back to the metaphor of 'intersections', which is a strange characterisation. An intersection typically refers to a cut perhaps made by a line or a route passing through and this is a wholly inappropriate way of thinking here. The idea of intersecting completely fails to convey the effect of one principle of division upon the other. The intersection of two roads typically produces no more than the injunction to stop at the junction. In a sense, the metaphor of a cut or division is itself at fault. If you slice a melon in half you end up with two halves of melon, each half with its character intact but, for example, gender is not traversed by class with its character unchanged. The repeated idea of intersection, interplay or interaction has then the important consequence of retaining the idea of the integrity of the character of the whole - gender, for example, and all the other relevant variables - in the face of breaks and disjunctures that might otherwise suggest the radically discontinuous character of the sections thus created, whilst also suggesting the idea of the moderation of, say, gender by other variables. The metaphor of a cut or division in an integral social fabric simultaneously affirms and negates discontinuity.

The variations to 'intersection' including 'interact' (Connell, 1995: p. 75) and 'interconnect' (Mac an Ghaill, 1994 : p. 172) are equally misleading. And neither is the use of 'articulations' helpful. When tractor and trailer are articulated they remain tractor and trailer. 'Articulation' was originally a metaphor used to think about the relationship between 'base' and 'superstructure', and derived from a concern to maintain their integrity whilst indicating precise forms of linkage, in the Althusserian Marxism from which it derives. But it fails utterly to convey the specificity of what happens here. If one were using the same basic framework as Connell, Mac an Ghaill, and others, one would need perhaps to talk about transformations in order adequately to capture the distinctiveness of what one finds on the ground within each minor social sub-division, but this would be to assume that that distinctiveness or specificity could be arrived at by some loosely algebraic combinatory of the features characteristic of each variable.

Our arguments criticising contemporary assumptions about the character of gender have been presented in some detail elsewhere (Hood-Williams, 1996, 1997; Cealey Harrison & Hood-Williams, 1997; Hood-Williams & Cealey Harrison, 1998). However, what is interesting is just how tenacious the pull of earlier structuralist positions is, even amongst those ostensibly opposed to them. We shall discuss this in relation to Humphries below but it is also to be seen in other, more widely known, writings. Take, for example, the important work of Bob Connell. In an earlier book, Gender and Power, he described conventional usages of gender, like the ones we have discussed above, as a form of 'categoricalism' (Connell, 1987: pp. 58 - 61). He specifically argues against the ethnocentric assumption that instances of the subordination of women, from suttee to foot-binding to contemporary American pornography, are examples of the same underlying structure. And yet, in his later book Masculinities, in around seventeen pages, he presents in a broad historical sweep - ranging widely across different periods in history and different parts of the world, from 1450 to the present - 'the production of masculinity in the formation of the modern gender order' (Connell, 1995: pp. 186 - 203). Why this shift - from a lucid argument against categorical theory and the idea of underlying structure on which it rests, to an insistence on gender as a structure of social practice - has occurred is unclear.

In arguing against gender as a social category - however multiply divided - we are not suggesting that each instance of gendered discourse and social attribution is unique and unrepeatable, and that there is no generalizability across such instances. Discourses and practices do deal in common currencies, both conceptual and practical. If the term 'gender' is appropriate at all, it is, as Connell seems to try quite hard to suggest, to designate an area of study concerned with the positioning of human beings according to their putative role in reproduction. But Connell struggles with generality and historical variability, with the bodily and the significatory, so that his definition straddles this awkward ontological confluence:

In gender processes, the everyday conduct of life is organized in relation to a reproductive arena, defined by the bodily structures and processes of human reproduction. This arena includes sexual arousal and intercourse, childbirth and infant care, bodily sex difference and similarity.

I call this a 'reproductive arena', not a 'biological base' to emphasize the point made in Chapter 2, that we are talking about a historical process involving the body, not a fixed set of biological determinants. Gender is social practice that constantly refers to bodies and what bodies do, it is not social practice reduced to the body. (Connell, 1995: p. 71)

Although clearly, the body is at issue in some form, we would suggest a much more attenuated connection to the body than Connell supposes here (for a more detailed argument about this see Cealey Harrison & Hood-Williams, 1997). It is not strictly true that gender 'constantly refers to the body', although it may refer to 'women' and to 'men', creatures identified as different on the basis of morphological and presentational signs. To talk of generalizability sufficient to designate an area of concern is not the same as to talk of systematicity or structure. A systems or a structural account implies an a priori cohesion or coherence with instantiations and common consequences; an assumption about generalizability makes no such presumption and recognizes that discourses and practices, and the historical configurations in which they appear, need specific empirical investigation and description.

To acknowledge, as both Hammersley and Humphries seem to do, that there are a multiplicity of sources of division is insufficient to take us very far. It leaves us simply with an image of potential permutations and combinations of bewildering complexity. Abandoning the desire for the integrity of the social fabric (as would be proper to the post-structuralism espoused elsewhere in her article by Humphries), on the contrary, opens up the possibility of the recognition of specificity (Riley, 1988), but does not define that specificity as particularity. Humphries herself detects a tension between emancipatory ideals (premised on universalistic objectives for the freedom of humankind) and post-structuralism's emphasis on difference and the particular (¶4.3). But such a tension is only present if, by 'difference and the particular' one understands the local (¶4.7), ie. the small-scale within the larger whole. And it is this, arguably, that we need to jettison in our understanding of research programmes.

The Standpoint of Experience

Hammersley's second objection is to the privileging of experience over science, which he indicates is not peculiar to feminism. Again, Humphries' response gives the appearance of agreement with him: he excludes feminists who do not think this (¶2.4). This objection is related, as Hammersley observes, to the issue of 'standpoint' theory: that only particular groups can have access to the truth. Hammersley's critique of this position is well developed (for example see Hammersley, 1995: pp. 51 - 5; Hammersley & Gomm 1997a and 1997b; Hammersley, 1997) and we wish to add just three comments.

The first derives from our discussion above. It is clear that there are in fact going to be an unmanageable number of standpoints of increasing particularity and that each standpoint is altered by the existence of the others. The fundamental idea of standpoint epistemology is that the groups - women, people with disabilities and so on, or combinations thereof - are unitary groupings whose experiences will be similar by virtue of their membership of such groups:

Feminism operates within a standpoint epistemology: Human (sic) activity not only structures but sets limits on understanding. If social activity is structured in fundamentally opposing ways for different groups, one can expect that the vision of each will represent an inversion, and in systems of domination the vision available to the rulers will be both partial and perverse. (Skeggs (1992) quoted in Mac an Ghaill, 1994: pp. 175 - 6).

The fierce debates between those designated as belonging to or even constituting themselves as members of such groups show how difficult it is to assume that membership of a group leads to shared experience which leads to shared views, and it is the political problem this poses that perhaps makes the necessity to inflect variables with other variables especially pressing. We cannot assume an identification of individual respondents to the group so designated. Increasingly, work on identities has shown just how complex they are and that individuals may define themselves entirely differently from membership of the social categories to which we, as social researchers or political activists, may assign them. Marxism, of course, classically dealt with this by means of the idea of 'false consciousness'. There appears - certainly in some versions of standpoint epistemology - to be a rather crude rationalism here that assumes that subjectivity may be read off from group membership, and in Skeggs's account at least, an apparent omniscience as to the distribution of forms of knowledge.

None of these objections denies the fact that the construction of social groupings may be worked for: they may be fabricated. The difficulties in constructing such groupings are considerable and the means for doing so contentious but it may be judged politically desirable to do so (Cain and Yuval-Davis, 1990). But whether or not this has been done in any particular case at any particular time is itself a matter for investigation and not one that may be assumed or installed by theoretical or methodological dictat.

Added to this is the fact that experience itself is discursively and psychically constructed, hence the fact that 'consciousness' can be 'raised'. What is at stake here is the political transformation of experience by a process of re-signification, of re-contextualization of existing elements of experience previously signified as 'personal', and as galling or distressing, if unavoidable elements of life. The mere fact of their being experienced as such would itself relate to cultural expectations proper to liberal democracies, which are being violated by oppressive patterns of social relations. We shall develop this issue of discursivity below. The point remains, however, that not to acknowledge the diversity and the discursive and psychic specificity of experience can mean that certain social transformations cannot be effectively achieved. 'Experience' is a datum to be analyzed rather than a basis for epistemological judgement.

Furthermore, it is not at all clear that 'experience' is treated as pristine and given the status within the research that these injunctions claim for it - especially when experience does not quite fit the presumption of the continuous salience of social categories that we discussed above. For example, in his study of masculinities Mac an Ghaill writes,

At earlier stages of my research, most of the working class young women tended not to be gender-specific in discussions with me about teacher-student interaction. They identified individual teachers who were positive towards them, but gender did not appear to be a consistent salient characteristic. They directed their critique of schooling, informed by an implicit class sensibility, against the social regulatory function of teachers rather than gender differences in pedagogical style. (Mac an Ghaill, 1994: p. 175)

Ultimately, however, Mac an Ghaill was able to discover that masculinity and the sex gender regimes within which it is played out were, as he had supposed, 'fundamental organising principles within the school' (Mac an Ghaill, 1994: p. 4; p. 168 passim). Our point here is not to comment on the persuasiveness of this particular study and its findings. It may be that the school offers an initial appearance ('at earlier stages of... research') contradicted by a later, deeper reality. After all, Marx did once say that if appearance were reality there would be no need for science. But this embodies a rather different epistemology to that implied by references to the privilege of experience and the inevitability of standpoints. The contemporary entrenchment of ideas about the continuous salience of certain social divisions makes it rather difficult to recognize that what most of the working class young women 'experienced' may actually be the case. It also seems from this example as if, in the practice of doing this kind of research, experience will only be privileged providing it confirms the continuous relevance of those social categories that currently pre-occupy much sociology. Experience is routinely treated as a phenomenon to be explained in a variety of researcher traditions - even, it seems, by those who claim for it a special, originary status.

The Power to Emancipate

Hammersley has objected to the confluence of the aims of emancipation and those of research (Hammersley, 1992; 1995) and Humphries' reply also contains a pertinent discussion of the presuppositions and pitfalls of the idea of empowerment, and, in particular, of the relatively naive conception of power that is entailed in the concept. However, this discussion does not go as far as it might. Humphries points out that the whole discussion of 'empowerment' is premised upon a view of power as a commodity that can be wrested or handed over from one social group to another - something possessed rather than exercised (¶4.9). But the pitfalls that she points to, those of containment, collusion and so on, all suggest the exercise of something that one has by virtue of membership of a socially powerful group.

Here Valerie Walkerdine's discussion of the encounter between a female teacher and two nursery school children is instructive. In it, the four-year old boys effectively harass the teacher and that harassment has a markedly sexual and sexist content: 'The boys' resistance to her can be understood in terms both of their assertion of their difference and their seizing of power through constituting her as the powerless object of sexist discourse.' (Walkerdine, 1990) But this does not automatically follow from the fact that they are boys and that the teacher is female. One of the crucial things that disempowers the teacher in those circumstances is the set of pedagogical beliefs and practices within which she is working, which dictate that explicit sexual references by children are a harmless function of their emotional and psychological immaturity and that such references are best dealt with by ignoring them. Such discourses and practices inform and constitute 'progressive education', whose aim is a pedagogy that produces controlled rather than regimented individuals, with such control being seen as the developmental product of a natural maturational process (Walkerdine, 1990: pp. 6 - 7).

The importance of her argument, says Walkerdine, 'is in the way we can assert that relations of power are not invested in unitary individuals in any way which is solely or essentially derived from their material and institutional position.' (Walkerdine, 1990: p. 5) Nor, we could add, from their membership of certain social categories. An individual can become powerful or powerless depending on the terms in which his/her subjectivity is constituted. The teacher has ceased to signify as a teacher because of the way in which she is constituted in both the discursive positionings deployed by the boys and her own pedagogic principles. Thus 'both female teachers and small girls are not unitary subjects uniquely positioned, but are produced as a nexus of subjectivities, in relations of power which are constantly shifting, rendering them at one moment powerful and at another powerless.' (Walkerdine, 1990: p. 1)

Humphries' concluding remarks would seem to be indicating something similar in her description of power as 'fluid, a back and forward movement rather than binary, which is available to dominated groups; which is multi-faceted and contradictory; which recognizes both discursive and material realities; which is historically and culturally specific...' (¶4.10). But the burden of her discussion is broadly to stick to a naturalistic account of social groupings with particular attributes. These social groupings are disadvantaged by virtue of social structures that allocate subordinate social positions to them. Such social positions carry 'interests' and it is this pattern of interests that gives us the meaning and means of interpreting social research. This is a broadly structural account, rather than the post-structuralist account she seems to want to espouse. Overall, in CTEA, it is as if post-structuralism provides fluidity, movement and specificity to an otherwise traditional account of power and interests, without in any way challenging that overall framework.

'Going Beyond Ourselves'

Humphries' criticism of the way power is conceptualized in current emancipatory research argues that the notion of 'empowering' has its basis in a metaphor which positions the emancipators as senders of light and the receivers of power as passive (¶3.5). Quoting Foucault, she argues that emancipatory research cannot escape its own implication in power. But by this she simply seems to mean that researchers cannot avoid being in a superordinate position ('relations of dominance' (¶3.5)) and the researched in a subordinate position: it represents a 'contradiction' (¶3.5) of feminist research, a contradiction which is addressed by different feminists in different ways. But Foucault's own work, like that of Walkerdine which we have just discussed (Walkerdine, 1990), would suggest that the relations between discourses, practices and relations of power cannot be presupposed; they are extraordinarily complex and can only be settled empirically for given instantiations rather than in advance by epistemological fiat. Whilst discourses and research practices may not be able to be 'neutral', as Hammersley's discussion might seem to imply, neither are they inevitably dominatory. Patti Lather, who is Humphries' main reference point for a productive approach to emancipatory research, talks of feminism as 'the cultural site most disruptive of the alleged impotence of the subject' (Lather, 1991: p. 27). But who is it who alleges such impotence? Here it is perhaps necessary to take on board, not merely Foucault's rethinking of power as 'productive', but also the work of someone like Nikolas Rose, who has charted the way in which the political objectives of liberal democracies have been aligned to notions of human freedom, autonomy and well-being (Rose, 1989, 1994).

Rose argues that the last couple of decades have seen the emergence of techniques of government which he terms 'advanced liberal' and which seek to act upon the managed, educated and regulated choices of individuals for the maximization of their own welfare (Rose, 1994). This has entailed both discursive and practical shifts in political vocabulary and forms of governance, embodied in the rise of notions of 'community', the reinvigoration of a language of 'risk', the redefinition of divisions in terms of 'exclusion' and the extension of areas of individual responsibility into fields such as the economic evident in the replacement of 'the unemployed' with 'the job- seeker' (Rose, 1994). What these indicate is the emergence of forms of government that no longer seek to govern something called 'society'. These forms seek to govern through, rather than against, freedom, by endeavouring to tie individuals' maximization of their own opportunities and well-being to the forms of their governance. As forms of government, they therefore also do not open themselves up to easy political evaluation. There is no zero sum game in which what is lost by one is gained by another (Rose, 1994).

What this indicates is more profound, however. Rose argues, following Foucault, that that field of thought and action described as 'the social', with which socialism, social insurance, sociology and social policy were all closely intertwined, is undergoing what he describes as a fundamental mutation. But this fundamental mutation is not the fragmentation of a pre-existent object - the sum of the bonds and relations that hold people together - (a fragmentation which we might describe as 'post-modernity') but a loss of self-evidence. The sources of such a mutation would be complex to trace, but the crucial thing is that for Rose, as much as for Foucault, forms of thought and action, whether they purport to address something called 'society' or 'individuals', 'families' or 'communities' are never susceptible to the sociological summation into an already given sphere of human collectivity, definable as a totality and subject to laws. They represent something closer to assemblages or machines, but machines, he stresses, not in the fancy, Audi sense of machines ('Vorsprung durch technik') , but in the Heath Robinson sense, full of unexpected connections, relays that don't work, and things that work in spite of themselves (Rose, 1994).

By contrast, like many appeals to the postmodern, Lather's appears to record a fragmentation of totality and certainty, and a multiplication of liberatory and oppositional sites - both as fact and political project - rather than the conceptual dismantling of forms of analysis premised on these certainties, promised by what we can loosely term post-structuralism. A discourse that sought to transform forms of conceptualization has become one about the fragmentation of the world, and the purpose of conceptual transformation is the transformation of that pre-existent world.

This is an important if subtle shift: post-structuralism certainly carries implications as to the new forms of understanding that can be achieved by jettisoning the constraints of totality - Foucault's reformulation of power, for example, makes other things appear - and there is a fundamental challenge that issues from it to epistemological conceptions of knowledge. But all of these things are safely in place in Humphries' article. She is certainly aware that post- structuralism represents a conceptual challenge, but her reading of its implications is in terms of the particularity of struggle and the mobility and multi- facetedness of a social order organized on the basis of general principles and of knowledge whose epistemological status is given by its relation to distributions of power. Quoting McNay who argues for 'an understanding of general social dynamics', she suggests the retention of metanarratives of justice and emancipation amid a recognition of particularity. Although scientific knowledge appeals to such a metanarrative, she argues, 'the general thrust of the knowledge produced is ownership by a privileged research community in the interests of dominant groups' (¶4.6, italics in original). What she seeks, following Lather, is a 'liberatory praxis', a term that derives from the early Marx's critique of speculative philosophy, in which critique and action are conjoined as a form of political engagement. It is worth reminding ourselves at this point, however, of the complex epistemological reflections to be found in Marx's later works, such as Capital, in which, for example, the possibility of the conceptual formulation of the idea of abstract labour is linked to the social conditions of its appearance as a pattern of social relations (Marx, 1976). In spite of the broad panorama of class struggle, the epistemological status of particular concepts has to be argued for with a much higher degree of specificity than is to be found in Humphries' description of the inevitable compromise of emancipatory research by power. And, in a sense, it was not merely post- structuralism's attention to language but the implosion of attempts, via Althusserian Marxism especially, to put flesh on the bones of statements about the relation of ideas to materiality, that were responsible for the dismantling of the generalities of structure and epistemology.

It seems to us therefore that it is possible productively to go beyond both Humphries' and Hammersley's positions. In relation to their shared characterization of the importance of recognizing the multiplicity of social divisions it is vital that we do so. As we have suggested, such recommendations lay impossible and irrelevant burdens upon researchers and they should be ignored. However, in order not to continue to be bound back into forms of analysis which were fundamentally challenged by the very post-structuralism which has led to the acknowledgement of specificity and mobility, we need to jettison precisely those things that Humphries, in her concluding remarks, wishes to continue to hold onto: the a priori assumption of the existence of 'general social dynamics' (McNay, 1992: p. 7), of 'contradiction' (¶4.10), of 'permanent partiality' (¶4.8), and so on.


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