Epistemologies of possibility: social movements, knowledge production and political transformation


Urgent global problems - whether military conflicts, economic insecurities, immigration controls or mass incarceration-not only call for new modes of political action but also demand new forms of knowledge. For if knowledge frameworks both shape the horizons of social intelligibility and chart t he realms of political possibility, then epistemological interventions constitute a crucial part of social change. Social movements play a key role in this work by engaging in dissident knowledge practices that open up space for political transformation. But what are the processes and conditions through which social movements generate new ways of knowing?'What is politically at stake in the various knowledge strategies that activists use to generate social change? Despite a growing literature on the role of epistemological dimensions of protest, social movement studies tend to neglect specific questions of epistemological change. Often treating knowledge as a resource or object rather than a power relation and a social practice, social movement scholars tend to focus on content rather than production, frames rather than practices, taxonomies rather than processes. Missing is a more dynamic account of the conditions, means and power relations through which transformative knowledge practices come to be constituted and deployed. Seeking to better understand processes of epistemological transformation, this thesis explores the relationship between social movements, knowledge production and political change. Starting from an assumption that knowledge not only represents the world, but also works to constitute it, this thesis examines the role of social movement knowledge practices in shaping the conditions of political possibility. Drawing from the context of grassroots queer, transgender and feminist organizing around issues of prisons and border controls in North America, the project explores how activists generate new forms of knowledge and forge new spaces of political possibility. Working through a series of concepts-transformation, resistance, experience, co-optation, solidarity and analogy - this thesis explores different ways of understanding processes of epistemological change with in social movement contexts. It considers processes that facilitate or enable epistemological change and those that limit or prohibit such change. Bringing together a range of theoretical perspectives, including feminist, queer, critical race and post-structuralist analyses, and drawing on interviews with grassroots activists, the thesis explores what is politically at stake in the different ways we conceptualise, imagine and engage in processes of epistemological change

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