“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.


The Kula and reciprocity in the rest of the world in a functionalist lens

kula ring

It would appear that the large span of geographic and social connections of the people of South pacific Asian island regions play a part in a larger social functionality and system. Unknowingly we too contribute and participate in systems like this daily. The Kula ring represents a system of trade, societal, and geographic connection between communities and cultures spanning hundreds of miles. These connections support a system of both economic and social traits. Not only is the system of trade of economic but it is critical to social connections and building relationships between kinships. 

In many ways this way of trade and social economic system in not much different in modern American culture. In contrast to the expansive networks peoples living in the Kula ring, we have those within our culture and kinship systems in which we practice a similar system of economic reciprocity. Friends and those we consider to be part of our own kin are usually the beneficiaries  of such a system. For example, the way in which we give more freely to people we consider close to us. This comes in the forms of large offerings such as an 18th or 21st birthday or a graduation party. The gifts given, often times money is expected to be reciprocated at some point for the children of the gifters family.

Even in smaller more insignificant settings the idea of sharing and providing services or gifting things to others bonds us together and grows kinship even among friends. These examples can be seen through gestures such as paying for ones food if you were to go out to eat with them. In most cases this gesture will be reciprocated equally if not more in the future as your relationship with that person grows.  In the same way that the Kula do not place the value of the gift in the item but in the gesture made by giving it. Buying someone lunch or a drink when you are out with them in our society could be comparable to that of the trade in the Kula Ring yet on a much smaller scale. It goes to show that reciprocation of favors is truly a bonding and essential part of social relationships.

Through these connections and relationships we can make an abstraction on the system in place that supports the trade between the Kula ring. Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski described functionalism in a way that came in a fatal contradiction with conflict and competition. In the Kula system the main competition is the ability to reciprocate what is being gifted. If one is unable to gift back something of equal value the debt will be held until the next time the two participants meet. In this specific system of trade functionalism seems to fit a plausible way of explaining how the system continues to work.




Wealth Distribution, the rich and everyone else.

The theories written by Marx and Durkheim discussed in Moberg, connected most closely to my experience of the world. I have worked in the service industry since I turned 14 years old and began my first job as a bus boy. Working in restaurants and bar settings gives one the opportunity to observe people from all different walks of life and “social class”. The way Marx and Durkheim strive to explain social order in each of their respective ways can be witnessed on a micro societal level.

Marx explained that “contradictions” in a capitalistic society would eventually cause a revolution from what he defined the proletariat against the bourgeoisie.  The proletariat being the working class and the bourgeoisie being the owners of the raw materials and owners of companies. Durkheim argues that this divide between classes would lead to a deeper “solidarity” between those of the same group. The working class will form a comradery through their shared experience and struggle. In the same way the rich will further consummate their networks and relations amongst each other.

I am able to see very clearly to kind of solidarity formed between members of a disillusioned “middle” class. In a restaurant, it often seems that those with less tend to give more. In my personal experience I have noticed that those who would appear to or would like to make it appear as though they have more money than most tend to be the most selfish with said money. Either they lack the understanding of the true value working hard for very little or rather do not care to understand. There are those that live in poverty and then those who afford to live just above bare means- those that would make it appear as though they have more than most within their class. Unfortunately the divide in wealth between the impoverished and the “middle” class is minute in comparison to the divide between the richest 1% and the rest of the population. A truly perplexing and all too common perspective is that the poor are simply lazy and do not wish to succeed, when most are much closer to being “poor” then they ever will be to being “rich”.

In a way both Marx and Durkheim predicted truths in today’s capitalistic society such as the way we are divided between the richest and the rest of us and the way in which the groups on either side of that divide find solidarity among each other. It is easy for the elite to convince the people with a little more wealth, that the “poor “are the ones responsible for such a gap in wealth. It would seem that everyone is very quick to blame those with less but never question the authority of those with the most. In this modern economy and state of wealth distribution there is no “poor” and “middle” class, there are those with almost everything and then the rest of us.

Moberg, Mark. Engaging Anthropological Theory: a Social and Political History. Routledge, 2013