Redefining Reality:
Epiphany as a Standard of Postmodern Truth

Timothy McGettigan Department of Sociology Wake Forest University

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In this article, I propose a solution to the paradox of emancipation (i.e., a theoretical impasse that results from the twin problems of relativity and coercion that one must confront when explicating the third dimension of power) by suggesting that individuals have the capacity to redefine reality. This solution has implications for a number of debates concerning the nature of “truth” and science in the postmodern world. As is evidenced in the three faces of power debate, conventional approaches to sociological science employ methods that are designed to suit a constrained definition of sociological subject matter. I argue that to successfully observe the third face of power one must expand the definition of good science to better accommodate the multi-dimensional nature of empirical reality.


In this article, I reexamine the ”three faces of power“ (Lukes, 1974) debate. My purpose in doing so is to emphasize the manner in which the disagreements that underlie opposing definitions of power mirror a variety of important, ongoing debates (Collins, 1997; Denzin, 1997; Lather, 1995; Smith, 1996) relative to the philosophy and practice of (post)modern science. Commitments to differing definitions of ”good science“ (Dahl, 1957; Denzin, 1994a) have the consequence of making various dimensions of power and sociological subject matter ”visible.“ Due to the empirical restrictions that are required for the definition of the first two faces of power, I argue that ”good science“ must be oriented to a recognition of the third face of power. However, there are unique challenges involved in developing such a version of ”good science.“

Although Lukes (1974) makes a strong case for acknowledging the importance of the third face of power, he demurs on the issue of identifying a model of ”radical“ power for reasons that are very similar to concerns that have been voiced by postmodernists (Clough, 1992, 1994; Denzin, 1994, 1995a, 1995b, 1996a, 1996b; Kincheloe and McLaren, 1994; Lather, 1991, 1993, 1995; Lemert, 1991, 1993; Lyotard, 1984; Richardson, 1991, 1994, 1995, 1996; Seidman, 1991; Tierney, 1997). Postmodernists have argued that due to a variety of inherent biases in the standards by which ”valid“ (Kvale, 1995; Lather, 1993, 1995) knowledge has been evaluated, instead of achieving the Enlightenment goals of Truth, Justice, Equality, Democracy, etc., modernist science has tended to reproduce ideological justifications for the perpetuation of long-standing forms of inequality. Thus, it is the strategy of postmodern science — much as that of Lukes (1974) — to identify and, thereby, attack the ”deceiving“ power of universalizing scientific epistemologies.

Critics have assailed both postmodernists (Maines, 1996; Prus, 1996; Schwalbe, 1995, 1996) and Lukes (Benton, 1981; Bradshaw, 1976; Clegg, 1989) for endorsing what they perceive as a relativistic and inadequate version of science. That is, critics have asserted that the inevitable effect of denouncing universalizing standards is the abandonment of meaningful knowledge production (The frameworks of this long- standing argument are characterized well by Collins [1991, p. 235] and Denzin [1997, p. 70]). Thus, the ”inclusive“ epistemology of postmodernism is often perceived by critics as a disaster for science (Maines, 1996; Prus, 1996; Schwalbe, 1995, 1996).

Further, Smith (1996) argues that, by suggesting that reality is an inescapable product of discourse, postmodernists abandon both the ”claim to speak the Truth“ (1996, p. 175) as well as ”a subject who can know the world independently of the language or discourse in which it is written“ (1996, p. 177). Smith suggests that these assertions preempt inquiry and precipitate a ”circularity“ of reasoning that ”repudiates the very possibility of discovering what is not already posited“ (Smith, 1996, p. 176, emphasis in original). In response, Smith advances a theory of knowledge that is associated with Mead‘s and Bakhtin‘s conceptions of self and mind. As such, Smith constructs a ”social, dialogic“ version of truth that is constructed in association with ”the local achievements of people whose coordinated and coordinating activities bring about the connectedness of statements about the world and the world they index during that time, in that place, and among those who participate in the social act, whether present to one another or not“ (Smith, 1996, p. 193).

I agree that ”good science“ must be associated with a definition of truth that emerges from the social activities of real people in the real world. However, I do not think that this version of truth or science is necessarily incompatible with postmodernism. Certainly, the recognition among postmodernists of the manner in which experience is mediated through discourse has stimulated a broad-based theoretical reorientation towards semiotics. Still, the semiotic analysis of social experience does not in itself preclude an evaluation of the situated activities of inventive social agents.

Wiley (1994) notes that there are multiple versions of semiotics. In particular, Wiley suggests that there tends to be some divergence between semiotic analyses by Europeans and Americans. Wiley argues that, generally speaking, there is an American, ”triadic“ version of semiotics that evaluates the relationships between signs, interpretants and objects, and there is a ”dyadic,“ European semiotics that involves a consideration of the signifier and signified. It is also Wiley‘s belief that ”American semiotics recognizes an autonomous self and European semiotics does not“ (1994, p. viii). Thus, what Wiley refers to as the ”American,“ or what might be more broadly conceived of as the ”pragmatic,“ version of semiotics is more compatible with Smith‘s (1996) view of the social experience of inventive social agents. In addition, while this version of semiotics enables a fuller consideration of the life experiences of inventive social actors in ”real“ social spaces, this version of semiotics also provides a foundation for the development of a standard of truth that cuts across the boundaries of particular social contexts.

While Denzin is a staunch advocate of postmodernism, he still characterizes social actors as people — though they may be molded extensively by the third face of power via postmodern textual-media influences (Denzin, 1989, 1992, 1995a) — who are capable not only of inquiry, but also of transcendent insight. Denzin argues that ”minded“ (Herman and Reynolds, 1994) individuals interact with signs, objects and other individuals in such a way that they sometimes experience ”epiphanies“ (Denzin, 1989, 1992, 1994a). Epiphanies are moments of mind-blowing insight that are produced through the active, inventive efforts of situated individuals who have ”redefined reality.“ Epiphany is distinguishable from other forms of transformational insight production, such as ”reflexivity“ because, whereas reflexivity involves a ”self conscious examination“ of the biases and standpoints that implicitly frame knowledge and understanding (Olesen, 1994, p. 165), epiphany involves a radical departure from and reconstruction of theories and structures of understanding.1 I argue that the conceptual process involved in the redefinition of reality offers a solution to the puzzle of the ”paradox of emancipation“ (Benton, 1981), while it also creates a basis for a post-pragmatist (Denzin, 1996a) version of ”good science“ that is organized around a coherent standard of truth.

Therefore, I believe that it is worthwhile to reexamine the ”three faces of power“ debate in order to advance a solution to the ”paradox“ (Benton, 1981) at which Lukes (1974) arrived. While Lukes was unable to specify a consistent means with which to identify the third face of power, I argue that the process of redefining reality produces a ”real world“ solution to the problem of defining radical power and truth in the postmodern world.

Multi-Dimensional Operationalizations of Power

According to Lukes (1974) there are three dimensions of power. The one- dimensional view is tied to an ”ocular epistemology“ (Denzin, 1997) that defines power as something that is expressed in observable relationships: the visible influences of one individual upon another. The two-dimensional view criticizes ”ocular“ power theories for overlooking the degree to which power may operate invisibly to impede potential power contests. The three-dimensional view of power suggests that power is even more insidious. This perspective asserts that actors‘ conscious interests are shaped by power structures. Thus, this perspective implies that power often hoodwinks people into doing the bidding of others, even while presuming to serve their own self interests.

The pluralistic, or one-dimensional view of power maintains that power in a democratic system is distributed among competing groups (e.g., political parties, special interest groups, etc.). Dahl‘s stress on studying ”concrete, observable behavior “ (Lukes 1974, p.12, emphasis in original) had a dual purpose. First, Dahl‘s (1961) work was a reaction to elitist studies of power (Mills 1956). Elite power theorists claim that instead of being distributed pluralistically, power is possessed by a limited number of ”elites.“ Thus, Dahl‘s study of the political environment of New Haven, Connecticut was intended to demonstrate that many groups, not just elites, won key decisions and therefore possessed power. Second, Dahl had a scientific motive: he wanted to practice ”good science,“ which, for Dahl, implies a break with conceptual, philosophical issues in favor of studying observable behavior that is subject to conventional scientific analysis.2

Early critics of Dahl, proponents of what Lukes calls the two-dimensional view of power (Bachrach and Baratz 1970), argue that pluralist restrictions on the operationalization of power discounted a very important facet of power: the mobilization of bias. The mobilization of bias is a ”bias in favour of the exploitation of some kinds of conflict and the suppression of others“ (Lukes 1974, p.16). Bachrach and Baratz (1963) claim that those who are in power control access to organizational decision-making. Thus, issues that conflict with the interests of agenda-setters may, therefore, be suppressed simply by failing to allocate time for their consideration. For example, leaders of political parties may enhance the appearance of party unity by denying spokespersons of ”radical“ factions the opportunity to speak at conventions. In this way, power may be exercised effectively without creating any visible signs of conflict.

However, the nature of the second face of power creates a problem for the practice of ”good science“ according to Dahl‘s definition. That is, Bachrach and Baratz point out that there are a variety of ”invisible“ issues and social dynamics that have direct influences upon the visible shape of social reality. Therefore, without a conceptual understanding of such dynamics one‘s observations of empirical reality will be incomplete at best.

Lukes suggests that the ”invisible“ conflict to which Bachrach and Baratz refer ”is between the interests of those engaged in nondecision-making and the interests of those they exclude from a hearing within the political system“ (Lukes 1974, p. 20, emphasis in original). While, according to Lukes, this is a broader view of interests than that which is subscribed to by many pluralists, it remains limited to what may be identified as ”subjective interests“ or those interests that ”are consciously articulated and observable“ (1974, p. 20). But this, Lukes contends, still sustains too narrow a view of interests. Thus, Lukes (1974, pp. 24-25) proposes that power relationships may be comprised by latent conflict, or what he describes as ”a contradiction between the interests of those exercising power and the real interests of those they exclude.“ Real interests are those things actors ”would want and prefer, were they able to make the choice“ (Lukes 1974, p. 34).

Under most circumstances, Lukes suggests, actors are not able to make the choices they would prefer because their conscious, subjective interests have been corrupted by an invisible source of power. Thus, the third face of power can instill a ”false consciousness“ (Marx cited in Tucker 1978) in social actors such that individuals will be ”encouraged“ to engage consensually in social projects that may be antagonistic to their real interests (Foucault, 1977, 1980). 3 According to this view of power, consensus, or the absence of observable conflict, is evidence of the workings of the most coercive face of power (Gaventa, 1980). Therefore, Lukes suggests that one cannot analyze power or observable social reality capably without taking into account the dimensions of power that serve to structure events prior to their enactment in empirical reality. Yet, although Lukes argues that it is essential to have a thorough grasp of power in order to analyze the basic dynamics of social reality, he also maintains that there are dilemmas that prevent general agreement upon the definition of power. Lukes (1974, p. 26) states that power is ”one of those concepts that is ineradicably value-dependent.“ Indeed, the value-dependency of the three-dimensional view of power has precipitated an acute and as yet unsolved problem with the identification of real interests: the paradox of emancipation.

The Paradox of Emancipation

To recognize an exercise of power in any of its dimensions, one must first be able to identify a relevant ”counterfactual.“ A counterfactual is a referent through which one may detect the interruption of an actor‘s interests by the imposition of another set of interests. For example, supporters of one and two-dimensional views of power consider observable conflict — individuals visibly imposing their will upon others — to be a relevant counterfactual. According to this definition, power relationships exist only when people compel others, in an observable fashion, to adjust their behavior (e.g., police directing traffic). However, in the case of the three-dimensional view of power identifying a counterfactual is a bit more complicated. The definition of the third face of power implies that events in empirical reality, as well as the perception of those events by observers, are distorted by social power. Consequently, the ”empirical“ basis upon which the third face of power may be identified is problematized.

Lukes argues that, rather than basing the identification of power in ”observable“ conflict, one must search for the effects of the third face of power by examining dislocations between subjective and ”real“ interests. For Lukes, the way to ”see“ power at work is to ascertain a conflict between individuals‘ real interests and a source of influence that corrupts their subjective interests. However, despite the importance of this concept, Lukes does not explain how to identify real interests.

It is likely that Lukes did not propose a specific method for identifying real interests because attempting to do so precipitates a forbidding theoretical dilemma (Benton, 1981). Benton argues that in order for people to understand what their ”real interests“ happen to be, they need to become ”emancipated“ from the coercive influences of the third face of power. The reason for this is that, (as defined by Lukes) while under the influences of radical power, one‘s consciousness is distorted in such a way that one will be unable to recognize one‘s ”real“ interests. However, before one can become ”emancipated“ from radical power, one needs to become aware of its influences. Thus, herein lies one of the components of Benton‘s paradox: if one needs to be free from the influences of the third face of power before one can recognize one‘s real interests, then the influences of radical power would seem to precludes one‘s ability to recognize and challenge — much less achieve ”emancipation“ — from radical power.

In addition, Benton argues that, while individuals cannot achieve ”emancipation“ through their own efforts, neither can they be emancipated collectively. According to Benton, just as individuals are incapable of appealing to the kind of ”standard“ (i.e., an undistorted conception of real interests) that would facilitate their ”emancipation,“ so too are groups incapable of developing an adequate collective standard. Benton contends that in transferring the prerogative of defining real interests to a collective body, individuals simply become subject to another source of power that systematically distorts and manipulates their interests (e.g., 20th century ”socialist“ regimes). Thus, Benton maintains that individuals can neither emancipate themselves, nor can they be emancipated through the help of others. As such, due to the seemingly paradoxical difficulties of identifying real interests, Benton implies that the systematic analysis of the third face of power is impossible.

This dilemma is very similar to the difficulties that have been encountered by postmodernists in their endeavor to critique the universalizing logic of modernist science. Postmodernists (Clough, 1992, 1994; Denzin, 1994a, 1996a; Lather, 1993, 1995; Lemert, 1991, 1993; Richardson, 1991; Seidman, 1991; Tierney, 1997) have argued that, in the interest of developing universalizing themes, modernist scientists overlooked the degree to which such ”universal“ themes were rooted in cultural biases. In an effort to overcome the coercive power that is inherent to universalizing standards — and that is responsible for the marginalization and distortion of knowledge — postmodernists have argued that it is essential to critique and ”deconstruct“ (Denzin, 1994b) such standards. However, due to their thoroughgoing disenchantment with universalizing standards, it has been a challenge for postmodernists to develop epistemologies that avoid both relativism as well as the reproduction of the errors of modernist science.

While Benton (1981) does a competent job of characterizing the difficulties that Lukes encountered in specifying a model of real interests, I argue that there is, nevertheless, a solution to this seeming paradox. As the ”paradox of emancipation“ is characterized by Benton, ”total“ emancipation cannot be achieved due to the pervasive influences of the third face of power. However, I believe that individuals may become ”partially“ emancipated through the process of ”redefining reality.“ The process of redefining reality is a means through which individuals may experience moments of autonomy such that they can challenge the influences of the third face of power sufficiently to define and act upon their ”real“ interests.

Redefining Reality as a Vehicle of ”Partial“ Emancipation

I believe that the conundrum identified by Benton is widely perceived to be a ”paradox“ mainly due to an uncharitable characterization of ”agents‘“ capabilities. The logic of the paradox of emancipation is based upon the link between two assumptions that appear to deny the potential for individuals to act as agents. The first assumption that underpins the paradox of emancipation is that in the presence of radical power the consciousnesses of individuals will be corrupted — a perfectly reasonable assumption given that radical power is defined as a force that dislocates individuals from an awareness of their real interests. Working from this assumption, Benton asserts that unless individuals are in an environment that is utterly devoid of radical power they will not be able to obtain an awareness of their real interests. Of course, Benton argues that this is impossible due to the fact that the pervasive presence of radical power denies people the opportunity to ascertain interests other than those that have been imposed upon them. While the logic of this argument is impressive, Benton‘s characterization overlooks one crucial possibility: what if individuals are able to alter the conditions under which they think and act?

The third face of power is exercised through the manipulation of individuals‘ conscious interests. As such, the third face of power constructs a bounded reality for people by limiting their cognitive field of interests to the pursuit of those things that contribute to the reproduction of existing power structures. Once again, radical power instills ”tastes“ (Bourdieu, 1984) in people for activities and commodities (e.g., automobiles, televisions, McDonald‘s hamburgers, etc.) that enlist their enthusiastic participation in the reconstruction of hegemonic regimes. However, as extensive as ”ideological“ (Lemert, 1991) controls may be, they do not exercise total control over the minds of individuals.

Despite the extensive control that ideological systems exert over the minds of people, there are occasions when ideological explanatory schemes become inadequate. In some instances, the reality that is defined by an ideological system is confronted with phenomena that are not well explained — and that may be directly contradictory to — the principle assumptions of that ideology (e.g., the threat to the Catholic Church posed by Galileo‘s observation that objects orbited around heavenly bodies other than earth). While people may be ”encouraged“ (Foucault, 1977, 1980) in a variety of overt and subtle ways to maintain their faith in the reality that is propagated by established structures of power, it remains within the capacity of individuals to do otherwise.

Whereas many people might remain untroubled by ”anomalies“ that are not well explained by established belief systems — indeed, some might be encouraged by such challenges to redouble their allegiances to established paradigms (Kuhn, 1970) — occasionally some individuals are stimulated to re-evaluate the disjuncture between their expectations versus their perceptions of reality. That is, it sometimes occurs that when individuals are confronted by ”anomalies“ in their perception of reality (e.g., layers of fossils that retreat further back into time than the Biblical Creation story can account for) they are stimulated to ”redefine reality.“ In other words, the limitations of established accounts of anomalous phenomena sometimes compel individuals to transcend and replace those inadequate explanatory schemes with more satisfactory accounts (e.g., rather than being ”Created,“ Darwin argued that species emerged out of very long term struggles for survival — struggles that had also precipitated the routine extinction of species).

Thus, redefining reality is a process through which individuals challenge and negate some of the influences that the third face of power exercises over their consciousness. In the process of attempting to ”make sense“ of anomalies individuals tend to ”deconstruct“ (Denzin, 1994) the conceptual frameworks that limit their ability to comprehend mysterious phenomena. As individuals re-evaluate their beliefs with respect to their inability to comprehend anomalies, the features of their belief systems that do not stand up under scrutiny tend to erode — thus, producing ”paradigm crises“ (Kuhn, 1970). As the assumptions that harnessed the imaginations of individuals are eliminated progressively, the ability of individuals to consider anomalous phenomena beyond the boundaries of established beliefs is increased. If individuals are persistent enough, they may reach a point at which the critical mass of their contemplations overwhelms the remaining shackles of their former beliefs and, thus, they may experience a ”moment of truth.“

A ”moment of truth“ is very similar in nature to an ”epiphany“ (Denzin, 1989, 1992, 1994a) in that it is constituted of a blinding flash of transformational insight. A ”moment of truth“ is an experience wherein individuals are transported from an inadequate definition of reality to a more satisfactory version. Epiphanies may be considered relatively ”truthful“ moments of insight in that they are generated through a process that involves the negation of ideological controls over an individual‘s definition of reality. This is not to say the redefined system of beliefs at which one arrives after experiencing an epiphany is, therefore, ”truth.“ Far from that, I argue that, in keeping with the definition of the third face of power, all established belief systems exert their own forms of radical power over the construction of knowledge. Thus, to experience an epiphany does not transport one to an ”ideal“ realm wherein truth reigns unchallenged — as opposed to the assertions of Habermas (1970, 1972, 1981). Instead, I am merely suggesting that the process of redefining reality enables individuals to negate some of the influences of radical power and, thereby, ”negotiate“ with the pervasive, consciousness- distorting influences of radical power. While individuals are not capable of generating completely ”emancipated“ social environments, nevertheless, the capacity for individuals to redefine reality and, thereby, ascertain ”moments of truth“ implies that it is possible for individuals to obtain an awareness of their real interests. Therefore, I argue that the process of redefining reality provides the basis for a solution to the paradox of emancipation.

A Resolution to the Paradox of Emancipation

Employing ”autonomy“ (i.e., the conscious liberation of one‘s mind from the distorting effects of radical power via the conceptual process of ”redefining reality“) as a model of real interests resolves the first snare of the paradox of emancipation by maintaining that definitions of real interests may not be imposed upon individuals. Consequently, by using autonomy as a counterfactual one may characterize all forms of influence that limit, constrain and impose interests upon individuals as exercises of radical power. Thus, the concept of ”autonomy“ may be employed as a model of real interests that does not simultaneously assert the corruption of those interests. However, this solution appears to fall victim to the second snare of the paradox of emancipation: relativity.

If the identification of a non-tyrannical counterfactual requires that everyone must decide for themselves what their real interests are, then the limitless variation in human interpretation would seem to preclude any consistent, or ”standardized,“ identification of radical power. In addition, the point has already been made that the definition of radical power asserts that the minds of individuals are corrupted by power such that they tend to mistake their corrupted subjective interests for their ideal real interests. This is why Benton (1981) asserted that if the identification of real interests were to be left up to individuals whose consciousness have been corrupted by radical power, then those individuals will not be able to ”see“ or become emancipated from radical power because the reference point with which they were identifying radical power (i.e., conscious definition of interests) would have been manipulated by that power. Nevertheless, I argue that because of the manner in which the redefinition of reality negates the coercive and distorting effects of power over knowledge, rather than providing an arbitrary basis upon which to evaluate knowledge, employing autonomy as a model of real interests enables individuals to evaluate knowledge relative to the ultimate standard: truth.

Indeed, I maintain that the standard of truth that is generated through the process of redefining reality is an ”emergent“ standard that compliments the postmodern critique of modernist science. Thus, it is with reference to a standard of ”emergent truth“ that it is possible for postmodernists to develop a coherent alternative to the modernist version of ”good science.“

A Post-Pragmatist Approach to ”Good Science“

Dahl (1957) advanced a constrained definition of power in order to avoid debates about the nature and practice of social science that broadened definitions of power can incite. While broader definitions of power have added to the proliferation of disciplinary debates, one cannot justify the artificial constraint of the definition of sociological subject matter purely for the sake of advancing more convenient approaches to science. Despite the difficulties that it creates for the definition and practice of social science, a comprehensive description of social power obliges the incorporation of empirical subject matter that lie outside conventional boundaries of the observable (Mills, 1959).

Dahl maintained that it was necessary to rely upon observable empirical events as referents for verification and evaluation of knowledge. In other words, Dahl argued that the relative ”truthfulness,“ and thus the scientific merit, of knowledge could be evaluated most effectively by conforming to a relatively fixed, ”ocular“ (Denzin, 1997) standard. Abstracting from observable empirical events makes it possible to incorporate a wider range of influences into the definition of social power, however, such abstraction has also served to complicate the production of scientific knowledge.

By arguing that there are additional ”invisible“ dimensions of power, Lukes proposed that Dahl‘s ”fixed“ points of evaluation were themselves embedded within environmental structures that served to bias the ”truthful“ evaluations they were intended to render. A realization of the biases that are inherent in standards is also a fundamental component of the postmodern critique of ”modernist“ science (Clough, 1992, 1994; Denzin, 1994, 1995a, 1995b, 1996a, 1996b; Lather, 1991, 1993, 1995; Lemert, 1991, 1993; Lyotard, 1984; Richardson, 1991, 1994, 1995, 1996; Seidman, 1991; Tierney, 1997). Postmodern theorists suggest that within the very structure of unitary standards there operates a dynamic that corrupts ”truth“ in simultaneity with its definition.

”Truth“ is a standard that must be consistent at all times and places; it must offer a ”fixed point“ to which knowledge may be brought for uniform and meaningful evaluation. However, the act of establishing a ”fixed point“ to which all other knowledge is compared produces the result of, prior even to the moment of evaluation, privileging certain types of knowledge and marginalizing others. Therefore, rather than enhancing the production and accumulation of more ”truthful“ knowledge, fixed standards generally serve to legitimate the arbitrary biases that reproduce systems of cultural inequality (Smith 1990; Collins 1991).

While the postmodern critique highlights a serious contradiction within the philosophy of modernist science, at the same time postmodernism suffers from a seemingly paradoxical contradiction of its own. The postmodernist contradiction is very similar to the paradox that Lukes encountered in positing the existence of the third face of power: due to the exercise of coercive power that seemed to be implied in standardizing the definition of real interests, he was unable to propose a consistent means with which to identify radical power. In turn, postmodern theorists have argued that modernist science subverts the pursuit of truth, but, due to their contention that standards invariably legitimate cultural biases, postmodernists have been unable to avoid the contention that, epistemologically-speaking, theirs is little more than a nihilistic critique (Denzin, 1996b; Prus, 1996).

As a compromise, a number of theorists have advanced alternative epistemologies that are based upon efforts to uplift marginalized, ”situated“ and ”subjugated“ knowledges (Collins 1991, 1997; Denzin, 1997; Seidman 1991; Smith, 1990, 1992). However, the problem that these alternatives confront is precisely the same as the dilemma Lukes encountered when he suggested that pervasive, radical power could only be identified situationally. As Smith (1996) points out, even though one may acknowledge that power is exercised through the imposition of universal standards, it is not tenable epistemologically to abandon universal knowledge claims. To sustain the claim that radical power is pervasive, one must be able to identify a universal standard with which to recognize its effects consistently. The deeper issue that advocates of ”standpoint“ (Collins, 1991, 1997; Denzin, 1997; Smith, 1990, 1992, 1996) epistemologies must contend with is: how is it possible to identify a standard of truth that can identify exercises of radical power — and, thereby, a coherent alternative to conventional ”good science“ — but that also avoids being corrupted by such power? Here again, a solution may be derived from the definition of autonomy.

Defining exercises of radical power in terms of autonomy implies that truth can only emerge when the distortions of coercive power are negated — when one ”momentarily“ challenges and negates the influences of power through the redefinition of reality. Thus, the concept of autonomy offers a standard of truth that avoids the inherent biases of other ”fixed points.“ Rather than imposing a homogenizing standard of uniformity, autonomy implies that it is only through particularized efforts to challenge such coercion that increasingly undistorted forms of knowledge can be achieved.

Therefore, the type of ”emergent truth“ that is generated through the process of redefining reality can help resolve the dilemmas that are faced by advocates of epistemological alternatives to conventional, or modernist science by offering a ”fixed point“ that promotes, rather than disqualifies, a consideration of the localized experiences of social actors (i.e., it is individuals who are situated within particular social environments who are sometimes faced by ”anomalous“ phenomena and who must challenge the existing structure of knowledge in order to explain such phenomena in relation to an ”emergent“ standard of truth). An ”emergent“ definition of truth also implies that, although individual social actors may be inextricably submersed in and dependent upon complex social environments, individuals can recognize, and in a limited way, challenge the imposition of social constraints. Indeed, ”emergent truth“ is dependent upon the capacity that social actors‘ have to transform their view of reality independently of, and even in opposition to, the influences of their social environments. Therefore, an ”emergent“ view of truth implies that for anyone — including social scientists — to understand the nature of social reality, they must exercise their capacity as situated social agents to challenge and perceive more clearly the invisible influences that interact with individuals in the process of reproducing the structure of society. In this way, the definition of ”good science“ can be broadened to assert that, rather than constraining the scope of social subject matter, more truthful knowledge can only be obtained through the active efforts of situated social actors to overcome the limitations that confine their understanding of empirical social reality.


The goal of ”good“ scientists was to transform the sociology of philosophical debate into one of sound, conventional science. However, whether one wishes to engage in philosophical debates or not, there are philosophical implications attached to every definition of science. The pluralistic definition of ”good science“ is tied to an overly simplistic definition of power and social subject matter. A post-pragmatic approach to ”good science“ can conceptualize additional dimensions of power: recognizing the influence that power has over the behavior of social actors, the minds of ”objective“ observers and the substance of empirical reality.

Additionally, adopting a post-pragmatic orientation to truth enables researchers to conceptualize the almost paradoxical relationship between actors, agency and social structure. While autonomy and agency are defined in terms of ”negating“ the effects of social structural coercion, there is still a need to define these concepts in such a way that they are not mutually exclusive. By respecting, and attempting to produce knowledge in terms of the perspectives of social actors, it becomes possible to better appreciate the ways that power affects knowledge and the process through which actors may simultaneously experience the generation of agency and thoroughly understand the fabrication of society.

Finally, an ”emergent“ standard of truth unites the concerns of Smith (1996) with postmodernists who are attempting to develop a coherent version of ”good science“ that does not institute regimes of truth. Consequently, not only does such a standard of truth offer the potential to develop an alternative version of ”good science,“ but this version of science also serves to highlight and attack the forms of power that were rendered invisible by the modernist version of ”good science.“ As such, an ”emergent“ standard of truth may be employed by postmodernists to develop an alternative version of ”good science“ that is oriented to a coherent standard of truth — indeed, a standard that is better able to expose the forms of power and coercion that have undermined the modernist goal of creating a more free, fair and equal society.


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1. As I explain later in this article, epiphany is the process whereby one is transported from an established, unsatisfactory knowledge framework, or ”paradigm“ (Kuhn, 1970), to a newer and more adequate explanatory orientation for the purposes of explicating ”anomalous“ phenomena. While the epiphanic process generally involves reflexive analysis (i.e., the cognitive search and struggle to overcome paradigm crises), epiphany is distinguishable from reflexivity in that epiphanies describe the moments of stunning euphoria that are associated with the transcendence of epistemological crises: conceptual ”revolutions“ that permit the transition from inadequate to newly constituted paradigms.

2. This tradition in social science is closely related to what is often referred to as ”positivism.“ Turner (1987) describes positivism as ”the use of theory to interpret empirical events and, conversely, the reliance on observation to assess the plausibility of theory“ (1987, pp. 156-157). Although positivism has been criticized, reviled and renamed — Isaac (1987) pronounced positivism dead at the hands of Popper (1959) and refers to its descendant as ”empiricism“ — it is still an influential, if not the dominant, paradigm in sociology.

3. Foucault (1980) notes that an important defining moment in his understanding of power was when he realized its ”positive“ effects.

What makes power hold good, what makes it accepted, is simply the fact that it doesn‘t only weigh on us as a force that says no, but that it traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse. It needs to be considered as a productive network which runs through the whole social body, much more than as a negative instance whose function is repression (1980, p. 119).

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