Subjugated Knowledge in Academic Libraries pt. 1

[Excerpted and adapted with the editor’s permission from my article “Knowledge Ill-Inhabited: The Subjugation of Post-Stratfordian Scholarship in Academic Libraries.” The Oxfordian XVII (2015). Available for purchase on Amazon. ].

French philosopher Michel Foucault, in a series of lectures and interviews gathered in the book Knowledge/Power, observed that certain bodies of knowledge can become subjugated by more powerful actors:

By ‘subjugated knowledges’ I mean two things. On the one hand, I am referring to historical contents that have been buried and disguised in a functional coherence or formal systemization.[…] By ‘subjugated knowledges’ one should understand something else…namely a whole set of knowledges that have been disqualified as inadequate to the task or insufficiently elaborated;  naive knowledges, located low down on the hierarchy, beneath the required level of cognition or scientificity. I also believe that it is through the re-emergence of these low-ranking knowledges, these unqualified, even directly disqualified knowledges…a differential knowledge incapable of unanimity and which owes its force solely to the harshness with which it is opposed by everything surrounding it — that criticism performs its work (1980, 81-2).

In employing the terms naïve and below the required level of scientificity, Foucault was not himself being pejorative, only situating in general terms the ways in which certain discourses are routinely disqualified by dominant ones, his examples being the voices of front-line health care practitioners and those with the lived experience of being institutionalized. While Foucault did not develop or elaborate this theory further himself, the notion of subjugated knowledge has been applied to repressed knowledge domains in a number of diverse professional disciplines, including those of oppressed peoples in social work (Hartman); preventative, social and feminist approaches to health in nursing (Gilbert); experiential learning in adult education (Brookfield); and local, grassroots knowledge of practitioners from the global South in the use of sports in international development (Nicholls et al.).

Richard Jackson’s systematic analysis within his field of terrorism studies (2012) offers what is in my view perhaps a near-ideal model for situating subjugated knowledge. According to Jackson, the field of terrorism studies is dominated by an elite body of “experts”, many affiliated with think tanks situated within the political power structure, whose narrowly-defined conception of their field – that only non-state actors commit terrorism, thus ignoring the actions of states, while aggressively resisting the search for structural, root causes of radicalism in poverty and repression — accords conveniently with the interests of those in power. The dissenting views of those with alternative, lived experiences of terrorism – peacemakers, journalists, victims of conflict and former terrorists themselves – are actively shut out of mainstream discourse and are rarely called upon by the media “and thereby subjugated – for lacking in scholarly ‘objectivity’ or displaying the necessary standards of social science scholarship” (16). These alternative perspectives, while known to the experts, remain “unknowable” because of the exclusive manner in which discourse is constructed:

An important initial step towards understanding knowledge subjugation [he writes] is to consider how the field is constituted and functions as a discourse. That is, every discourse ‘allows certain things to be said and impedes or prevents other things from being said’ (Purvis and Hunt 1993, p. 485), in large part, because ‘discourses, by way of hegemonic closures, fix meanings in particular ways and, thus, exclude all other meaning potentials’ (Jorgensen and Phillips 2002, p. 186). From this perspective, the subjugated knowledge described above represents the unsayable within the dominant…discourse; these subjugated knowledges represent those alternative meaning potentials which have been closed off by the closures inherent to the discourse…In other words, it is an internal functional necessity that a discourse and its authorized ‘experts’ will suppress and exclude knowledge and meaning which would challenge the proper objects, boundaries and authorised speakers of the field (16).

Following the work of Reid (1993), Jackson describes this elite as an “invisible college” working within a “closed, circular and static system of information and investigation, which tends to accept dominant myths” as given, often without any empirical evidence (17). Particular energy is devoted to what he calls “taboo-enforcing practices” against certain research directions as a means of maintaining ontological enclosure (18-19), the ritual invocation of which becomes internalized, such that scholars practice not just self-governance, but self-subjugation.

What particularly concerns Jackson is that when a discipline is dominated in this way, and its admissible research domains so strictly prescribed, the field itself is destabilized as certain knowledges are simultaneously ‘known’ and ‘unknown’ leading inevitably to ontological contradictions” which are nonetheless tolerated, while “periodic eruptions of subjugated knowledge that destabilises the discourse” are not, requiring “meanings [to be] re-sutured and the discourse re-stabilised” (20):

I employ the term ‘unknown’ to mean that certain knowledge claims rooted in theoretical or empirical research remain unacknowledged in the scholarship or texts of the field. Such work is neither mentioned nor systematically engaged with, and if it is mentioned, it is dismissed as inappropriate, naïve, or irrelevant. By contrast, what is ‘known’ is acknowledged, engaged with and referenced, and therefore, legitimized (25).

Significantly, Jackson finds the major locus of this knowledge subjugation in the academy, in determining what is taught, in what contexts and with which texts, and in ensuring that only those within the approved epistemic community are invited to conferences and publish in the discipline’s key journals (17-18). As such, the production, availability, and pedagogical use of monographs and journal literature in a given field becomes essential in setting and enforcing these ontological enclosures, thereby ensuring their reproduction in the next generation of scholars.

Unstated but implied in Jackson’s analysis is the essential but underappreciated role of academic libraries in acquiring and organizing the literature required to support and facilitate sanctioned curricula and scholarship — and, in the process, institutionalizing this knowledge-subjugating function through biased collection development and cataloging, which, as will be shown in a subsequent post, have surely contributed to marginalizing certain voices, arguments and perspectives — and, indeed, entire paradigms.


Works Cited

Brookfield, Stephen. “Unmasking power: Foucault and adult learning.” Canadian Journal for the Study of Adult Education 15.1 (2001): 1-23.

Foucault, Michel, and Colin Gordon. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980. Print.

Gilbert, Tony. “Nursing: Empowerment and the Problem of Power.” Journal of Advanced Nursing 21.5 (1995): 865-871.

Hartman, Ann. “In Search of Subjugated Knowledge.” Journal of Feminist Family Therapy 11.4 (2000): 19-23.

Jackson, Richard. “Unknown Knowns: The Subjugated Knowledge of Terrorism Studies.” Critical Studies on Terrorism 5.1 (2012): 11-29.

Jorgensen, M. and Phillips, L., Discourse Analysis as Theory and Method. London: Sage, 2002.

Nicholls, Sara, Audrey R. Giles, and Christabelle Sethna. “Perpetuating the ‘Lack of Evidence’ Discourse in Sport for Development: Privileged Voices, Unheard Stories and Subjugated Knowledge.” International Review for the Sociology of Sport. 46.3 (2010): 249-264.

Purvis, T. and Hunt, A., 1993. “Discourse, Ideology, Discourse, Ideology, Discourse, Ideology . . . .”  The British Journal of Sociology, 44 (3), 473–499.

Reid, E., 1993. “Terrorism Research and the Diffusion of Ideas.” Knowledge and Policy, 6 (1), 17–37.




One thought on “Subjugated Knowledge in Academic Libraries pt. 1

  1. Pingback: Subjugated Knowledge in Academic Libraries pt. 2 | The Decolonized Librarian

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