November 28: Reflections

“Reflections on the Performativity of Knowledge

and the Changing Urban Landscape”


  • Browne, Chapter 11 in Moss & Falconer Al-Hindi (pp. 140-148)
  • Roelvink (2011) Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and the imagining of diverse economic possibilities, Progress in Human Geography, 35, pp. 125-127
  • Houston, McLean, Hyndman & Jamal (2010) Still methodologically becoming: collaboration, feminist politics and ‘Team Ismaili’, Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography, 17, pp. 61-79
  • Modlich (2012) Women Plan Toronto (1985 – 2000) and Toronto Women’s City Alliance (2004 – and struggling on): Experiences and lessons, Universitas Forum, 3

For those who would like to write a Reading Response for Nov 28, here are four questions that you may consider to prompt your writing:

  1. Kath Browne’s critical engagement with feminist geography aims to draw attention to the ways that power and privilege function even within a sub-discipline that is self-consciously focused on destabilizing dominant relations of power. Her comments remind us that manifestations of power can be obvious and oblique, and that even (especially?) those who are committed to social justice work must constantly interrogate their own complicity and ability to reproduce hegemonic power relations. (See also de Leeuw, Cameron & Greenwood’s work on the “good intentions” within community-based research with Indigenous peoples.) How do you interpret Browne’s critique in relation to other material(s) we have read this semester? Put another way, does this critique resonate, or does it demonstrate gaps in other text(s)?
  2. Houston et al offer a rare look into the mechanisms of collaborative research, which provide insights into the ways that power is reproduced and challenged through the on-the-ground research practices (eg, who is responsible for interviewing? Who “owns” or has access to the data?). What does this reflection tell you about the way that knowledge is produced through the practice of research?
  3. In Roelvink’s contribution to the forum on Eve Sedgwick’s work, she focuses on Sedgwick’s argument that knowledge is performative (and the effect this argument has had on research into diverse economies). In short, “knowledge as performative” means that the analyses we produce (and the ways we bring research into being) have an affective result, one which “limits and/or facilitates possibility” (p. 127). Reflect on your experience of university education as it relates to Roelvink’s commentary. How has the knowledge you’ve acquired had performative effects?
  4. What lessons from Modlich’s description of WPT/TWCA are applicable to our semester-long discussion about social inclusion in cities and attempts to craft feminist urban futures?

Lecture overview.

We began the semester by exploring feminist geographies, both as a field of inquiry and as a framework to examine urban social inclusion. In this meeting, our last of the course, we reflect on what this field/ framework has offered, or how it has enabled a particular mode for considering feminist urban futures.

As a field of inquiry, feminist geographies offer the space to engage a cross-disciplinary set of questions about social justice and social inclusion in cities. From considerations of housing policy to discussions of embodied memories and attachments to place, feminist geographies allow us to bring together seemingly disparate conversations about urban change. In turn, this newly unified set of stories can be brought to bear on what it means to negotiate and craft a life in the city.

Because this field began out of a desire to attend to the experiences of women and marginalized groups and to dismantle dominant power relations, feminist geographies ask us to foreground questions of power. This means interrogating how power is reproduced in mundane and exceptional ways and examining how power and challenges to power are contingent on multiple, intersecting factors (from the ways that economic trends are translated into policy to the ways that fear is perpetuated through discourses of social difference). As Kath Browne’s chapter reminds us, however, feminist geographies need to check themselves for their own (unintentional) boundary setting practices that exclude certain topics/ bodies/ forms of analysis. While some may perceive this demand for critical reflexive practice as a challenge to a field that is itself on the margins of disciplinary geography, Browne frames this demand in a generative way, noting that recognizing privilege can “enable possibilities for productive exchanges, questioning contemporary orthodoxies, and contesting specific relations of power” (p 147).

In fact, this quote (and Browne’s chapter generally) gets to the essence of the field itself and thus provides an important reminder to feminist geographers to critically reflect on the knowledge they produce, the research/ analytical practices they employ to produce that knowledge, and their very mundane workplace practices. Browne’s comment on workplace practices is significant in terms of producing inclusive spaces. As many of you have noted in class, seemingly innocent questions (about identity, for example) eat away at feelings of safety and belonging. Many of you have talked about the ways that the questions, “Where are you from? But where are you really from?”, serve to produce palpable boundaries between an in-group and a group of “others”. Such questions bring into being both the boundaries and the groups (real and imagined though they are).

Interrogating power and privilege within our own work is akin to making the invisible visible: it requires us to refuse the logics that stabilize power. It demands that we see and tease apart the ways that privilege operates and is produced as “common sense”. Rebecca Solnit’s writing ranks among my favourite in her ability to do this work. [This is just one of so many examples.]

Yet, there is also something to be said for how we conduct and represent our analyses. This is the focus of Gerda Roelvink’s essay about the ways Eve Sedgwick’s work has been taken up by economic geographers. Roelvink demonstrates the influence that Sedgwick’s theorisations about the performativity of knowledge have had on those, like JK Gibson-Graham, who try to re-think and intervene in uneven development. Sedgwick compels us to consider the work that our scholarship and activism does in the world: do we critique for the sake of criticism, or is our critique productive? Does our critique reproduce the very problems that we seek to dismantle? Again, these questions demand that feminist geographies -and feminist activism- are reflexive about the very ways they are brought into being.

Houston et al’s article about ‘Team Ismaili’ offers a similar but distinct window on questions of reflexive research practice. This text is an example of a rare behind-the-scenes discussion about the mundane logistics, ethical considerations, intellectual collaborations, and interpersonal relationships that are all part of the research process. For me, its focus on practicalities and honest reflections about what succeeded and what failed miserably exemplifies what I have come to love about feminist research: that it teaches not just through the expounding and application of theory but also by exploring, without hesitation, lessons (wins and losses) from the field. This is the kind of scholarship that can only improve our efforts to be ethical and reflexive in our work (and it foreshadows the kind of conversation that will occur next semester in my Qualitative Methods course!)

Finally, the Modlich text grounds our discussion in another example of social activism aimed at the creation of feminist urban futures. On the one hand, this text provides ample evidence of how women can affect social change in small and large ways. Women Plan Toronto’s workshops and publications had effects both on the people involved and on a wider audience of planners, policymakers, Toronto Star readers, etc., and their work continues to serve as a model for feminist urban activism being conducted across Canada and elsewhere. On the other hand, this text signals (albeit unintentionally) its pitfalls through its very representation. By locating women’s activism within the familiar narratives of consciousness raising and Betty Friedan, Modlich tells a particular version of which women’s lives were foregrounded in the efforts to include women’s voices in planning and designing the city. While the more recent iteration, TWCA, is said to “reflect far more accurately the full range of diverse women and girls living in Toronto” ( end of p. 5), the framing of its history remains a concern because it implies a narrow,  unconsciously racialised framework that facilitates a certain kind of activism while ignoring how power and privilege operate within its own structures. As the other readings for today suggest, attending to this gap is fundamental to any effort to produce progressive social change.

3 thoughts on “November 28: Reflections

  1. Kath Brown discusses some of the intradisciplanary challenges of feminist geographers attempting to break into male dominated roles and reproducing masculinist hierarchies; what other disciplines or movements have we seen this in?

  2. Pre-meeting Qs from students for the Nov 28 class meeting

    On Modlich, Women Plan Toronto (1985 – 2000) and Toronto Women’s City Alliance (2004 – and struggling on)

    In the Modlich article we touch on the disconnect between urban planning practices and the needs of women. Does this apply to Vancouver? Who is favoured during urban planning practices? What are some actions that can be made to avoid this issue?

    In Modlich’s article, a woman who had recently immigrated to Canada gave this quote: “I do like to be asked about what we are looking for. Who would ever ask us any other time in our life? It is difficult to get into that frame of mind to be able to speak freely. And after this I have to go back into that other world again and I have to go back and forget about all I have dreamed today.” How does this reflect the current immigrant status in our country?

    Based on any intersectionalities or conflicts (perhaps already discussed in class) that you, or anyone you know faces as a woman living in Greater Vancouver, what would your “wouldn’t it be nice” be, if you were asked to take part in a similar participatory research project like the immigrant women in Toronto participated in?

    After reading Modlich, I correlated much of what we have learnt this past semester regarding women in geographies, accessibility and sense of place. For instance, while reading Modlich, I got a hint of the semester’s topic on “An Embodied Sense of Place”. The misfits between women in transportation, housing design etc are brought up in this course numerous times, but when does the equality of genders come forth?

    On Houston, et al, Still methodologically becoming: collaboration, feminist politics and ‘Team Ismaili’
    To what extent is epistemological and ontological unity among researchers engaged in collaborative research necessary? How might tensions affect the outcomes of the research? Should more research be transparent in regards to the power dynamics among the researchers involved in the process?

    In the still methodologically becoming article we learn about a collaboration of feminist politics. What are some examples of feminist politic collaborations in Vancouver? Are there examples in which challenge and reconfirm assumed hierarchies?

    On Browne, Power and Privilege

    Browne takes a risk by criticizing feminist geography’s heteronormativity; however, she states that she also does “not seek to… point to a right way of doing feminist geographies”, for fear of producing a hegemony of her own. In this postmodern context, how can we present anything as a “feminist” way of doing things, without running the risk of creating power structures that dictate inclusion? Is there a way of doing feminist geography, for example, that we could point to as the best choice, or will we always run into the issue that Browne wanted to avoid?

    I enjoyed reading the analysis and “[…] critical examination of the relations of privilege and power […]” that Kath Browne provides in this chapter (p. 140). I appreciated the fact that Browne presents us with a very optimistic/hopeful outlook on the conflicts and problems she raises, for on page 146 she states that: “[…] we could seek to understand diversity and difference sensitively and positively engage with this in our writings and our interactions with each other.” I really liked this statement because it appears that Browne genuinely supports, and is advocating for individuals to utilize an intersectional lens when dealing with (and dismantling) “[…] power relations between feminist geographers” (p. 140). I think that this reading serves as a great source for the conclusion of this course/semester, because it addresses and reinforces some important issues that we have also been learning about over the last three months.

    Looking at Browne’s critique of power and privilege in institutions and the academy, how does this apply to other careers, or even other aspects of life? What are some ways we can then account for this problem and attempt to correct it, or create more equality here?

    Kath Browne’s chapter makes me stop and think about what happens when feminism gains acceptance: when we make progress and establish space, how do we practice our politics? Feminism focuses such a great deal on the process and the fight sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of what happens when you get there. Browne forces the reader to analyze feminist politics, power dynamics, privilege and behavior based on assumptions. [break] In the context of Feminist Geography, Browne notes that feminism as an academic and social movement has a long history of working for recognition within traditional disciplines, in this case geography. Browne notes that feminism can offer much need insight and dynamic perspective to this field but there are steps that need to be taken in order to do that. Feminists must critique their own political dynamics and structure of knowledge recognition and disrupt normative discourses and privileged assumptions in order to add authenticity, value and justice to academia. [break] This made me question our own academic practices: do we sometimes get so caught up in the process of acquiring knowledge and privileged validity on an individual basis that we lose sight of our own power dynamics and hierarchies within feminism? How does this affect the way we see our environment and subsequently contribute to it? In regard to feminism and feminist geography do we experience sociopolitical trends within the movement that grant value and legitimacy to certain knowledge and individuals over others? Does the concept of post feminism encourage greater knowledge inclusivity versus wave feminism?

  3. An additional student question (on Browne): As the readings this week have shown, I believe that in order to encourage more feminist geographers to be open to internal self-critique it is important to acknowledge how the discipline can be exclusive and oppressively silencing to alternate voices that are not imbued with as much power and privilege. However, I think it is equally important and necessary to ask ourselves how the inclusion of these voices benefits and empowers the departments, discipline, and research of feminist geographies? And who else outside of the department may also be empowered and benefit from their contribution to the discipline?

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