“Knowledge is Power” or Power is knowledge?

One of the most perplexing ideas presented to me during my time as college student has been the conflict of “objective” versus “subjective”. Now I realize that these terms can be attached to a never ending amount of ideas but think of them in a philosophical sense. As did I for the first time, in a philosophy class, truly explore what these terms mean. In the world of science, subjective and objective mean a great deal in what is accepted as Truth with a capital T. In hard science there is a meticulous process that is used to verify scientific inquiries. In this way hypotheses that are tested which yield results that can be recreated repeatedly with minimal change in data, are eventually accepted as objective truths.

In contrast most scientific “truths” are anything but solidified in objective reality. For example, the theory of gravity is just that– a theory. Scientific experiments can yield replicable data to support the idea that gravity is a universal force which acts upon objects of mass.  Though it would be impossible to prove that gravity is a force that acts the same everywhere in the universe. Part of this explanation is made through Einstein’s theory of relativity. Gravity and its affect on the passage or perception of time are relative to the position and speed of the mass of which it’s acting upon. What does gravity, theories, and Einstein’s theory of relativity have to do with anthropology though?

Michel Focault presented the idea that knowledge is the means by which an individual or group achieve power over others. Not to say that attaining more knowledge will give this power, but rather controlling what is considered “knowledge” gives the power. There are many ways in which we are blind to the ways we are encultured and molded by what we are taught to be truths. Now how can we say what we know is not just the molded recreation of knowledge made by those who only wish to stay in positions of power? It is one of the main goals or responsibilities of anthropologists to practice cultural relativism and accept a cultures knowledge as valid within it’s own context. Which brings us back to the matter between subjective and objective truths. For example, societies that rely on farming or some type of gathering from the land rely on key knowledge passed down through generations, giving them key techniques to yield a sufficient amount of food. It is an objective truth that plants need sunlight and water to grow, yet the methods of how these needs are distributed, mainly water, are of subjective knowledge. A western or capitalist view of farming is of no use to people who have lived with their knowledge of how to grow their food. Though one cannot be better than one or the other because in their context they work.

To continue on the notion of controlling knowledge to gain power; It is not a new idea that “the winners write the history books.” The things we are taught from a very early age are but subjective interpretations of actual events from history. The only objective reality within those events are made by those who lived it. In sociology there are definitions for how we perceive ourselves as opposed to how others perceive us. Each of us exists in different ways defined by someone’s subjective experience of the world. This idea pervades in all aspects of life including anthropology. The Sapir-Wharf hypothesis, in simple terms, that the language one speaks directly affects their perception of the world. Knowledge is no less subjective than the way we view ourselves and our world through the lens of culture.

So then how can anything we “know” truly be knowledge? Despite the notion that objectivity is unachievable it is important to understand that each interpretation of a fact or recount of an event holds validity within it’s context. In the search of knowledge the only Truth is that there is no Truth at all. Everything must be examined with open eyes and an open mind and will be interpreted through the context in which it is learned.


2 thoughts on ““Knowledge is Power” or Power is knowledge?

  1. rorylarson says:

    I love Foucault’s theory because it really makes you think about what is “real” in an almost Matrix-like way. Our world is really designed around our culture to such an extent it may as well be a computer simulation. It is created, after all. Subjective and objective realities are thought-provoking. I think from an anthropological standpoint it is very important to keep these terms in mind when studying. So often we hear people talk about “if they just did it our way” without thinking twice about the context of why people do what they do. Trying to force change on other’s lives while claiming your knowledge is the objective truth is practically like trying to reprogram a whole simulation. And the funniest part is people are always surprised when they run into problems and glitches.

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