See Kirsi Pauliina Kallio's most recent contribution to Society & Space, free to access until December 2017, here: Shaping subjects in everyday encounters: Intergenerational recognition in intersubjective socialisation

This essay results from my observations concerning the relationship between empirical inquiry and theory building. As a political geographer whose work has concentrated on the everyday lives and agencies of children living in a small welfare society that offers relatively good life opportunities to everyone, I sometimes find that my research materials are considered unsuitable for building generally applicable theoretical ideas (see also Kallio, 2012). Children’s everyday lives seem to comprise "disqualified knowledges,"

naive knowledges, hierarchically inferior knowledges, knowledges that are below the required level of erudition or scientificity […] what people know (and this is by no means the same thing as common knowledge or common sense but, on the contrary, a particular knowledge, a knowledge that is local, regional, or differential, incapable of unanimity and which drives its power solely from the fact that it is different from all the knowledges that surround it) (Foucault, 2003: 7–8).

Having just published a theoretically-oriented article using "childish knowledges" in Society and Space (Kallio, 2016), I want to reflect upon this issue. Briefly, the article engages with phenomenologically-oriented political theory and the ethics and politics of recognition debate. Empirically, I drew from research with 11–15 year-old middle-class girls and boys living in a Finnish city, including an analysis of their place-based biographies. By introducing different forms of intergenerational (mis)recognition, I explored how the formation of political subjects and subjectivities takes place in the most mundane environments where children and young people lead their lives. As a place-based process, children’s subject formation enfolds through a dynamic spatial-political socialization process of intergenerational recognition. Nevertheless, important moments from my research remain "disqualified," despite their importance in understanding intergenerational (mis)recognition.

Here I work through one particular example that has informed my work on theorizing political subjectivity. Based on this excerpt, I will argue for a better recognition of the connections between various kinds of empirical findings and new theoretical ideas.

Excerpt from Otto's story

One of the eleven-year-old participants in my study, whom I call Otto, wrote a biographical story entitled ‘Other people’s opinions are not taken into account.’ He placed it under the heading ‘Unfair!’, which we offered as one possible theme for writing. He had made a specific note in the title confirming that in question was a true story. The essay portrays an occasion where Otto’s elder sister finds two of their goldfish inanimate. One of his younger brothers fetches the fish with a net and dumps them into the toilet. Right after doing this, he realizes that one of the live fish got to the basin, too. At this point Otto stands up and yells at him to scoop it back out. As the brother replies that he does not want to do this, Otto says that he will do it himself, explaining to the younger brother, ‘Would it be nice if you were that fish, just like, living a peaceful life and suddenly a net takes you and two dead fish and you get killed?’ Then, as he is just about to fish the live one out, another one of his little brothers flushes the toilet ‘purposefully, to annoy me, and did not care for the fish at all.’ Otto had been angry with his siblings for days because ‘my opinion was not taken into account and they let the fish die.’

In my reading, the episode reveals Otto’s convinced moral stance towards all living creatures. His humane relationship with fish became ever more apparent in the latter part of the essay where he describes a previous rescue operation. At that time, he had given ‘cardiac massage’ to a fish that had seemed dead, leading to ‘successful recovery.’ With this amplification, he allegedly wanted to emphasize that the story he told was not about an occasional event or a spontaneous idea but demonstrated his profound ethics. Otto found the situation unfair, first, because his basic values were diminished by his brother’s intentional opposition and, second, due to the collective ignorance that his siblings showed towards his standpoint.

Following a recognition-theoretical line of thought, it is easy to conclude that Otto found himself inadequately recognized in the situation. From Honneth’s (2014: 71) perspective, he expressed feelings of social disrespect that stemmed from morally unjust events. Less easy, however, is to pinpoint what this misrecognition was based on. The dialogical biography created in the study with Otto, covering broadly his familial life, gives little indication about his particular position. He is male but not the only boy in his family, and he is both an older and a younger brother but not the eldest or the youngest of the siblings. The children share the same household and neighborhood, they have attended the same kindergartens and schools, they all regularly attend the church and some affiliated activities with their parents, and they spend their free time with friends and in hobbies. Moreover, our discussions included profound conversations on ethical issues, which arose from his portrayal of the family’s religious convictions. Even in this context, he made no mention of any difference between himself and his siblings during the lengthy dialogue in which we particularly traced such aspects. Finally, the fish were not primarily Otto’s pets.

In Otto’s rich biography, the siblings’ familial subject positions and characteristics do not explain their actions and reactions. To shed more light on their agencies in the fish episode the events need to be contextualized and analyzed from an experiential perspective. Like all people, Otto lives in a world that "shows and reveals itself to him from only one perspective, which corresponds to his standpoint in the world and is determined by it" (Arendt, 2005: 128), and the same applies to his siblings. However similar their living environments are, their worlds are subjectively established and hence contain particular meanings. Furthermore, as unique subjects Otto and his siblings experience in distinct ways the subject positions that are offered to them in these lived worlds, which builds grounds to differing ethical stances.

Put in an Arendtian framework, the episode can be read as a struggle over coexistence and association in a lived political reality. In Otto’s world, "general right to life" is strongly politicized, which makes it a potential matter of recognition. His siblings do not seem to share this commitment and, either intentionally or less so, challenged his ethics in the situation. Otto found this disturbing because "at stake" was his deep ethical commitment. The story that he shared with us is hence less about the fish and more about himself. Through this example, he told us how he sees himself and how he wants to be seen by others. Without articulating "the inarticulable," he revealed an important facet about who he is, as a political subject (cf. Kallio, 2014a).

Moreover, the essay can be appreciated as an act of intergenerational engagement, aiming at positive recognition. Ringmar (1996: 83) calls this kind of agency self-defense "in the most basic sense of the word—in defense of the applicability of our descriptions of our selves." By sharing the fish episode with us after the interviews and placing it under the mentioned titles, he voiced that the events had not led to his submission as a political subject (cf. Baines, 2015). The significance of the discussed ethical principle had probably strengthened rather than weakened in his lived world since then, as he had become articulately aware about it (for the power of articulation, see Mitchell and Elwood, 2012). He could now communicate this ethical stance to us and by so doing seek approval for his ethical conviction. This reveals that in addition to immediate effects, the episode had had long-term influence in Otto’s political becoming.

Drawing as one form of "childish knowledge"

This piece of analysis emphasizes three aspects central to theorization on political subject formation. First, the "stakes" of recognition are defined by the subjects involved. Second, political subjectivities are not reducible to identities. Third, moments of (mis)recognition may produce immediate action but also agency that mobilizes later in life. Methodologically, it confirms that by placing analytical attention on experiences per se it is possible to include political subjectivities in empirical analysis.

Thinking with Otto and other "ordinary" kids has helped me rethink intergenerational dynamics in the politics of care (Kallio, 2014b, 2016; Kallio and Bartos, 2016), contextual yet subjective processes of citizen-subject formation (Kallio 2014c; Kallio et al., 2015) and geosociality as an integral dimension of political life (Mitchell and Kallio, 2017; Kallio and Häkli, 2017). Put together, this work contributes to relational-spatial theorization of political agency that would be sorely lacking without the empirical analysis of children’s banal worlds (Kallio and Häkli, 2011, 2017; Kallio and Mitchell, 2016; Häkli and Kallio, 2014, 2016, forthcoming). As a matter of fact—and someone could say paradoxically—ordinariness has been a particularly fruitful starting point in phenomenologically oriented political theorization: when nothing seems self-evidently political, it is easier to identify politics as experienced by people. In politicized situations, loosing from the sight people’s political experiences happens more easily (e.g. Arab Spring, see Kallio and Häkli, 2017).

Otto’s case cannot be found in any of my published work. Similarly missing or underused are many other pieces of empirical analysis that, to some scholars, may seem too banal to allow "serious theorization." To me, it seems that at least three disqualification processes are at play here:

  • Empirical disqualification: Certain life situations cannot inform theory building
  • Methodological disqualification: Certain kind of research cannot lead to theoretical outcomes
  • Geographical disqualification: Certain contexts are more relevant to theorization than others

These disqualifications parse "empirical" from "theoretical" work in publications, and yet they remain very much intertwined in the research process. Personally, I cannot see how the separateness of theory building and empirical research would advance the development of better understandings about anything. Surely, the limited space in articles is sometimes needed for making a theoretical claim and empirical analysis may have so much detail that theoretical contributions cannot be emphasized. This should however not mean that the papers seeking to do both are not given as good an opportunity to be published. In our manifold roles as publishers, editors, reviewers and authors, we can do more to make room for (dis)qualified knowledge and whose knowledges can contribute to scientific work. 


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