Knowledge in the social sciences
Issues of knowledge in the social sciences are widely canvassed in every discussion of meta-theory. It is often supposed that Foucault has established that there can be no one truth about reality since every ‘truth’ is defined within a particular socially constructed ‘regime of truth’. This kind of perspective is sometimes referred to as ‘relativism’ because all perspectives are relative to the position of the speaker. According to this use of Foucault, in every society a ‘regime of truth’ operates to declare certain things true and to define a range of acceptable methods to discover the truth – and these regimes of truth always operate to back up social power. Social science does not escape this general account. Foucault’s suggestion is that, in modern societies, knowledge of society is produced to gain power – there is no knowledge without power and vice versa. Consequently we should be looking at the way power constrains us to find the truth and act according to the truth we uncover. According to Foucault, uncovering the truth is not always a radical strategy. Foucault repudiates Marx’s idea that true knowledge is always on the side of the oppressed – while oppressors hide the truth in ideology. There is some of this that is very salutary, especially in terms of political strategy. While it may be good politics, writers can draw implications for metatheory that are a problem. Before I go on to discuss this, I want to present a radically different view of the acquisition of knowledge from that which is common sense in social science writing. This view takes it that there is no essential difference between our everyday perceptions and the knowledge we get from these and our social science, with its array of abstracted theoretical concepts. In so far as there is any difference at all, it is in our degree of certainty, the extent to which we feel confident that we are really getting at the truth. It is not that we are dealing with a radically different way of knowing, appropriate to a radically different set of objects – social objects. Nor is it the case that in the social sciences we are dealing with a radically different kind of knowing because of the social factors that impact on our knowledge creation. It is just not true that in the social sciences our knowledge is influenced by social context or socially created theoretical constructions – and in our everyday perceptions and the natural sciences we are not so influenced. Nor does the fact of this social influence and theoretical context make it a vain exercise to attempt to uncover ‘the truth’ about society, or about anything else for that matter.