Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Consuming knowledge or constructing it?

By Emilie Wilson

Three things have recently come about in both my personal and professional life that have reconfirmed to me the value of picking up and dusting down old publications, re-reading them and seeing how their wisdom can be applied today.

I’ll begin with Duncan Green (Head of Research at Oxfam GB), whose blog I follow with enthusiasm and interest. Last week, Green decided to revisit some of his earlier and largely unread posts from 2008. Three years on, they still seem pertinent today (e.g. reflecting on the role of NGOs post-economic and financial meltdown of 2008).

Boys from Eton, an elite private school, and local boys (1936)
Secondly, I am halfway through British author George Orwell’s “The Road to Wigan Pier”. Published in 1936, it’s an astounding and graphic account of deeply engrained poverty in Britain at that time. Cue lots of reflecting for me on how rapidly Britain has changed in the last 80 years, why, and what can we take from this when looking at poverty around the world today.

Lastly, in my Communications role for the Impact and Learning team at IDS, I am breathing life back into publications from the Strategic Learning Initiative (SLI), our predecessors. And I’ve stumbled upon this gem by my former colleague Becky Wolfe, entitled Changing conceptions of intermediaries: challenging the modernist view of knowledge, communication and social change.

Originally published in 2006, Wolfe's paper “challenges modernist assumptions that knowledge is objective and communication is a linear process of transferring knowledge”. Instead, the author considers knowledge as being “socially constructed and linked to people’s values, beliefs, cultural practice and experience. Whose reality and what knowledge is regarded as legitimate are determined by epistemological, methodological and power hierarchies which combine and sideline alternative perspectives.”

Are we perpetuating "knowledge hierarchies"? 

"Knowledge”, as a consumable item derived from research which is then repackaged and presented to people we think can make change happen, is an attractive concept. We can then (attempt to) attribute (our) influence and change (that we've helped to bring about) to that item – be it an event, a publication or media story.

It’s no coincidence that information and knowledge intermediaries have proliferated across the world with the advent of quick, cheap and easy to use information and communication technologies (ICTs). This definitely plays into the hands of rapid exchange of “knowledge” as a consumable item – this time in the form of e-friendly data and information.

In fact, the multiplicity of online platforms through which we can ‘push out’ development research in a variety of formats, including social media such as Twitter, Facebook and Youtube, have the potential to fill our time and distract us from the task at hand: does this flurry of knowledge sharing activities do anything to bring about poverty reduction, increased wellbeing and improved social justice?

The danger with this enhanced ability to share and exchange information is that we perpetuate what Wolfe describes as “knowledge hierarchies”. Communicators and intermediaries can help to reinforce existing power relations by redistributing dominant ‘knowledge’, perspectives and values which benefit from substantial resources (e.g. glossy publications, international conferences, dynamic websites with RSS feeds, beautifully designed email newsletters, etc.).

Web hits v socially constructed knowledge

Having said this, we’ve seen over the last three years - from Kenya’s election violence to rioting in the streets of London - how social media and citizen activism can turn power imbalances on their head. For communicators and intermediaries, social media and new technologies offer an opportunity to nurture and curate knowledge, as a social construction.

By prising ourselves away from conceiving of knowledge as an output to be produced, disseminated and counted, to knowledge as being socially constructed, we open the field to open ownership, a wider range of  perspectives and a diversity of approaches.

In her paper, Wolfe identifies new functions for intermediaries beyond disseminating information, which takes this analysis knowledge into account:

•    A platform for multiple perspectives

•    Advocacy role

•    Facilitating interaction and stimulating dialogue

•    Assisting in process of mutual learning

Some of these functions are being reprised by IDS Knowledge Services, with whom the Impact and Learning team works closely, through projects like the development an open API to enable anyone with the technical ability to make the most of their data; Eldis Communities, a social networking site designed for development practitioners and researchers and the BRIDGE Cutting Edge Programmes which support gender advocacy, bringing together a range of researchers and activists and putting together comprehensive information packs around specific themes.

The challenge will be to measure the impact of these efforts – can they help bring about social change and reduce poverty?