Postmodernism and the local turn

One might usefully see the development of the view that scientific accounts of the world are expressive of metanarratives as one part of the postmodern turn in social theory.1 And, in fact, if metanarrative operated at and attempted to take over the level previously occupied by metathe-ory, at the lower level of theory and knowledge acquisition there was a parallel development.

Here, as the appeal to the idea of metanarrative developed, one very important metaphor came to the fore. Led by anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1983), many geographers began to claim that all knowledge is local, i.e. it reflects the people and the specific context out of which it emerges. This idea of local knowledge was in fact articulated in various versions. From what might be termed a weak perspective, knowledge consists strictly of ideas. On that view, it is possible to argue that all knowledge is local, but that one can translate from one locality's knowledge to that of another. This way of looking at science leaves intact the earlier relationship between the world, knowledge, and disciplines.

But a strong version of local knowledge has more radical consequences. Drawing upon earlier work in the history and sociology of science, including parts of Kuhn's (1970, original 1962) work that were little noticed, it sees science as consisting not simply of ideas, but also of local practices, in part what Michael Polanyi (1958) had termed 'tacit knowledge', and institutions. As some would put it, these practices 'go all the way down'; there is nothing underneath, no more universal 'stuff' supporting or underpinning them. Knowledge, there, is irredeemably local. Metatheories are in the end just slicker versions of stories told around a campfire.

In both its strong and weak forms, the idea of local knowledge has suggested that all knowledge is in some sense relative, relative perhaps to where one is, to who one is, to one's gender, ethnicity, or social class (see Chapter 9 in this volume by Hannah). But on the weak form, where knowledge consists merely of ideas, different local knowledges are commensurable, and hence one may be translated into another. In contrast, on the strong view there are a great many ways to core a tree, for example, and the similarities between the ways used by members of two groups are at best simply the result of both groups having been trained within the same times and places, in the same institutions, using the same tools. On this view one need not - and cannot - suppose that those individuals 'share' or have 'the same' ideas of what they are doing; it is neither possible nor necessary that there be agreement about the particular objects used, say, in a laboratory. As Star and others have noted in appealing to the concept of a 'boundary object', objects within a laboratory can be used within a team by a variety of individuals who in fact have very different understandings of the nature of the object; they need only to be able to articulate their uses of the objects in question (Star and Griesemer, 1989; Fujimura, 1992).

The idea that knowledge is local has had a long history in geography, but against the background of these theoretical developments it developed a new life. In the history of cartography, for example, Harley (1988; 1989) showed that far from being neutral representations of the world, maps embody multiple sets of power relations, and that, in fact, they embody diverse narratives, of the process of human habitation, of the naturalness of certain physical or biological processes, or of the undesir-ability of other processes. These claims have since been adumbrated in a wide range of works on cartography (Black, 1997) and on scientific representation more generally (Hankins and Silverman, 1995).

So, under the sway of the same forces that have supported the move from metatheory to metanarrative, some have begun to insist that just as what were thought to be timeless metatheories have turned out to be metanarratives, always told at particular times and places by particular individuals and groups, what we had thought were timeless theories themselves, on inspection, turn out to be merely local. We are all, in the end, engaged in work that will pass away, created by people who will pass away, in places that will pass away. What remains will be taken up by those who follow us, but almost certainly in ways that we would find strange and even implausible. If we had a dream of 'theory', we will when all is said and done, have only 'theories'.

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