Research & Projects

Birthing into the margin: 'World'-Traveling, Epistemic Fluidity, and an Anti-Essentialist Standpoint Epistemology (work in progress)

Feminist standpoint epistemology is a theory that examines the relationship between one's social identity and what one can know. Standpoint epistemology posits that all of us are situated when it comes to knowledge (The Situated Knowledge Thesis) and that marginalized standpoints provide epistemic advantages in at least some contexts (Epistemic Advantage Thesis). 

In this paper, I complicate standpoint theory by analyzing specific instances of epistemic 'world '-traveling that I call ‘birthing into the margin.'   It refers to the transition or birth into a marginalized identity that is new to oneself. For example, when one has immigrated from one’s home country to the U.S. and learned what it means to be a person of color and a precarious immigrant; or, when one is birthing into disability from (temporary) able-bodiedness and has to learn how to use a cane, navigate inaccessible buildings, count one's very limited spoons, and communicate one’s access needs; or, when one comes to realize that one is trans and undergoes gender transition (either socially or medically), becoming a trans femme person and/or a trans woman. These are cases in which one births into a new and more marginalized social identity. 

I argue that while standpoint epistemology extensively discusses the relationship between knowledge and one's social identities, these discussions often assume fixed social identities. However, as my initial examples of birthing into the margin have shown, many of us experience shifts in our social identities along various axes such as race, immigration status, disability, gender, and class. We gain certain standpoints not by virtue of being born that way but through experiencing changes of the social and material world we inhabit, of our bodyminds, and of how our bodyminds interact with that social and material world. Despite the prevalence of these cases, little has been written about the fluidity of epistemic positions and how shifts in our social identities reshape us as knowers, and how it can inform an anti-essentialist standpoint epistemology. 

My exploration revolves around several questions: What does it mean to experience such an epistemic shift—what does it mean to move across communities and to be birthing into marginality? And how does one experience this evolving process of experimenting and of trying to inhabit and understand another world to which one once did not belong? And how can this understanding of the liminality and in-betweenness, of inhabiting multiple worlds and shifting among them, form a basis of an anti-essentialist standpoint epistemology? To explore these questions, I  discussed three central examples of fluidity in social identities related to diasporic experiences, trans experiences, and disabled experiences. I concluded with a passage from a classical Chinese philosophical text Zhuangzi, which beautifully captures the ways that transformations and fluidity can be a basis for an anti-essentialist feminist epistemology.