- Communities of Epistemic Resistance:Patricia Hill Collins and the Power of Naming Community
in her 2010 paper, "the new politics of community," Dr. Collins's argument on community as conceptually and practically a political construct provides a vital connection to the American philosophical tradition, particularly the work of W. E. B. Du Bois and John Dewey. In my response to her paper, I combine components of her argument with her earlier work in black feminist epistemology. I tie these insights to Du Bois's and Dewey's arguments regarding how communities develop. These are then connected to the work by transnational feminist Chandra Mohanty and political scientist Benedict Anderson on imagined communities. I use these to develop a framework for thinking of some communities as communities of epistemic resistance, an insight that I take to be endemic to Collins's range of work. I finish with a discussion of a community that I take to be representative of a community of epistemic resistance, the Mothers Committee of Bayview Hunters Point.
Community as Construct and Constructed
Collins argues that communities should be theoretically and practically understood as a political construct because not only does recognizing the political construction of community provide a more accurate description, but it also allows for understanding the "intersecting systems of power" that operate to form communities, helping to recognize the "organization, dynamics, and social processes associated with contemporary social inequalities" (Collins, "New Politics" 10). Thus, the concept of community is one that is socially and politically mediated, and the formation of communities is constructed through sets of social practices that differentially privilege and disadvantage groups along frequently predictable lines. [End Page 74]
Collins points to some thematic elements in the formation of communities, with agency and oppression being two of these. She argues that there is frequently a level of intentionality or agency in the framing of community, recognizing that this thematic element allows for "examin[ing] community as a dynamic dimension of lived experience, rather than a simple taxonomic category" (Collins, "New Politics" 13). Collins also points "to how the construct of community is used to respond to specific political challenges associated with intersecting power relations, especially where issues of social justice are part of the terrain" ("New Politics" 13). These thematic elements, along with community as a responsive and elastic concept that is part of everyday politically engaged knowledge, are not only formative of the concept of community but also of communities themselves. Thus, as Collins's detailed examples in her piece point out, lived communities are formed around conceptions of communities.
Just as the concept of community and actual communities are politically mediated in ways that are socially meaningful, and that involve agency, engage everyday knowledge, and are responsive to intersecting systems of power, so is the epistemic stance that Collins develops in her 1990/2000 book Black Feminist Thought and in her 1998 book Fighting Words. In these texts, she makes clear the critical connections between epistemology and community. This connection rides through much of her work, including her 2010 article "The New Politics of Community."
Collins argues that critical, transformative knowledge arises from collective experiences, not isolated knowers (Fighting Words). Thus, although individuals gain this critical epistemic stance, it is obtained in, with, and through communities. Collins and other theorists recognize that oppression plays a formative role in developing critical epistemic perspectives. However, she argues that communities do not acquire such an epistemic view only as the result of oppression, but, instead, it is an achievement that develops as a result of collective critical inquiry and dialogue that raises questions about institutions, social systems, and their practices (Collins, Fighting Words). In other words, a community's critical epistemic perspective is a result of agency, intentionality, and responsiveness on an individual and collective level.
Collins also describes this agency and intentionality on the part of oppressed communities as a pragmatic move focused on long-term social change and justice, arguing that in order to resist oppression, black women employ "visionary pragmatism" as an epistemic and practical strategy (Collins, Fighting Words 189). Visionary pragmatism emphasizes the importance of [End Page 75] "struggling for an ethical end" over "arriving at a predetermined...