Ryan  Burns, phd
January 27, 2012

on facts part 1

I haven’t been able to write lately, having been under some pretty serious deadlines that require nothing less than days of busywork. How is it that the NSF DDRI Grant requires all that paperwork and then only gives $12k (that’s in contrast with the SSRC IDRF, which requires only a 10-page statement and gives on average $19k)?

Anyhow, I found myself engaged in an online discussion the other day in which I relied on a very taken-for-granted concept: the idea of the “fact”. In everyday conversation a fact refers to some incontrovertible truth, something that lies outside the realm of critical questioning. Facts happen, just are, and anybody from any perspective will see the same thing.

Borrowing from feminist theory, Science & Technology Studies, and critical geographic theory, I want to take two blog posts to briefly argue the opposite. Motivated by Adorno’s claim that “there is nothing radical about common sense” (Butler 2006, xix), I want to argue two things. In this first post, I argue that “facts” are effective discursive devices precisely because they veil the sociospatial contexts in which they find their meaning. In the second, I argue that upon critical investigation, facts become quite unstable and may manifest differently in different contexts. To properly flesh out these ideas would easily take an entire book, and indeed, many scholars have written entire books deconstructing only particular instances of “facts” (e.g., Foucault 1972; Latour & Woolgar 1986; Spivak 1999; Butler 2006). So my post cannot come fully to grips with these arguments, but this is an effort to at least destabilize “facts” as a stable reference point. In so doing, I risk devolving into the problem identified by Latour (2004), where facts become meaningless and critique thus loses its own impetus. Thus, I’ve developed the specific lines of inquiry above, which maintain the “meaning” of “facts”, but opens a critical inquiry into their nature and relationality. In other words, facts are very meaningful and are only worth exploring because of that fact; what’s of interest here is what they mean other than what they claim to mean.

Let me take one example to begin my first argument. In Urban Geography until roughly the ’60s-70s it was popular to refer to Burgess’s (1925) model of the spatial organization of cities. In a nutshell (for those unfamiliar), it’s the idea that in most cities one can expect to find a central business district in the center, surrounded by manufacturing and business, surrounded by residences. (Naive sentence warning) The notorious graph of these concentric circles was highly influential because it’s largely a fact: if you look at most cities, the graph is highly descriptive of what’s on the ground. (Critical sentence warning) Harvey (1973) took this fact and turned it on its head by saying this graph, rather than representing the end-point of analysis, is actually the beginning point for analysis. In other words, it helps us arrive at the problem rather than ending the problem. So, Harvey’s goal is to ask why cities have a particular spatial organization - what are the underlying engines driving this organization?


Since Harvey’s questioning, others have pointed out that the graph/model/theory itself, while accepted as highly descriptive of cities, was active in constructing the normative city: what cities should look like. Upon a closer look, for instance, one sees that the graph is representative of Western cities of the global North, to the rhetorical exclusion - rather, Other-ization - of non-Western cities, particularly of the global South. In this way, the facts represented a particular context and subjugated non-conforming contexts.

To take a modern example, it’s a relatively simple matter to point to the fact that the impoverished in America have more physical amenities at their disposal than the impoverished in many other countries. One could use this fact as the end-point of their analysis and conclude that poverty in America is not a “bad thing”. In fact, that someone might do this is not such a far-fetched idea: the Heritage Foundation did just this in a recent report. In a previous post I made explicit the problems with the HF’s report (I’d like to think I actually decimated it, but hey, maybe not. ha!). The main ideas in my counter-argument are that:

http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2011/07/what-is-poverty http://students.washington.edu/rlburns/2011/11/inequality-geoweb-2/ http://students.washington.edu/rlburns/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/poverty.png

  1. “Ownership” as a fact does not account for means of acquisition (did a family member buy the X-Box for the kids?), duration of possession (sure, X-Box, but we’ve had it since 2007 when I had a job), or even cultural differences in ownership (does the family “own” the X-Box or is it understood to be a collective resource shared among many close relatives?).
  2. If impoverished Americans have more amenities at their disposal, this could compellingly be attributed to the very welfare measures attacked by the HF (yes, I bought this X-Box for my kids with my unemployment check; thankfully my kids can stay entertained while I’m job searching).
  3. It still does not account for the processes that produce poverty, or what causes poverty (this is a sociospatial problem).

Again, to reiterate my original argument, “facts” here have obfuscated multiple knowledges and sociospatial contexts.

One can point to thousands of examples. Our knowledge of outer space is symptomatic of the Cold War race to the moon, the scientific method originated from Enlightenment-era philosophers from Francis Bacon early on through Kant to Hume etc., Latour has shown how scientific facts are socially mediated and interdependent, technology reflects social relations, on and on and on.

How, then, can we rely on “facts” at all? On the contrary, what I’m arguing is not that they are meaningless or unreliable. Otherwise, how could we have gotten to the moon (for example)? What I’m arguing is that facts veil the sociospatial contexts in which they emerged and find their meaning. Facts are very reliable - for some people for some purposes. They always reflect social relations in particular ways. They are the beginning point for critical thought, not the end point.

This has “practical” implications in addition to the above theoretical implications. For instance, in this election season in the US I think it’s particularly important to consider what’s being obfuscated when “facts” are evoked. If a fact is given, why is that a fact? What kinds of power relations are involved in establishing and maintaining that fact? What are the meanings evoked by the terms of the fact? Who is marginalized by the facts? Facts should raise more questions than they answer. In my next post I will argue that when presented with these questions, facts are destabilized and may appear very differently when perceived by different kinds of people.

Until then…


Burgess, E. W. 1925. The Growth of the City: An Introduction to a Research Project. In The City: Suggestions for Investigation of Human Behavior in the Urban Environment, eds. R. E. Park and E. W. Burgess, 47-62. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Butler, J. 2006. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge Classics Edition. New York: Routledge.

Foucault, M. 1972. The Archaeology of Knowledge. New York: Pantheon Books.

Harvey, D. 1973. Social Justice and the City. London: Edward Arnold.

Latour, B. 2004. Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern. Critical inquiry 30 (2):225-248.

Latour, B., and S. Woolgar. 1986. Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. Princeton University Press.

Spivak, G. 1999. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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