Thursday, 8 September 2011

Consuming knowledge or constructing it: a response

By Catherine Fisher

In my colleague Sunder’s blog earlier this week entitled Consuming knowledge or constructing it: evidence from the field , he described the resistance that some of the civil servants that he had met in India felt towards engaging with research knowledge. 

Reading the post, I felt that the reasons given by the civil servants he met for not wanting to engage with research knowledge are extremely valid and justified, based on their understanding of research and  “research uptake” or “evidence based policy” agendas.  
The  reasons given for not engaging with research  reveal a set of assumptions about the nature of research knowledge and knowledge more broadly that stem from modernist ideas about knowledge that are explored in the paper  that my colleague Emilie discussed in the first of this series of blogs.

Entitled Changing conceptions of intermediaries: challenging the modernist view of knowledge, communication and social change, one section of the paper explores four key modernist assumptions about knowledge which it goes onto critique:  that there exists an objective reality, that the scientific method of enquiry is neutral, that knowledge can be stored, managed and transferred, and that communication is a linear process.   These seemed to chime with me when I thought about the assumptions that seemed to inform the responses of the civil servants Sunder interviewed.   While these ideas have been widely critiqued, lots of the assumptions remain, both for people involved in the world of research uptake, and on Sunder’s evidence,  in the minds of the people whom they are trying to influence.  

I think the civil servants seemed to be rejecting a set of assumptions about research and its role in decision making, which I paraphrase as:

1. Research knowledge is the only knowledge that is important

This idea has been championed since the enlightenment and contains ideas about how legitimate knowledge is produced: it privileges knowledge produced through certain scientific processes and marginalises other sources of knowledge eg that generated through experience, or from less powerful actors.  While the underlying tenets have merit and underpin movements such as “evidence based policy”,  few proponents of greater use of evidence in decision making would argue that decisions should be solely based on research based evidence with no regard of other kinds of knowledge or social, economic or political contexts.   However maybe this is what is conveyed!

2.  Research provides a pre-determined right answer
There are very few policy contexts in which there is a clear cut right answer, particularly in relation to social, economic and political issues, and so social science research is very rarely going to be able to provide a right answer.  As intermediaries, we are concerned with engagement with a multiple range of sources from which an answer can be constructed.  And again I doubt many people involved in research uptake would see that one piece of research will provide a policy answer

However, as Carol Weiss in the introduction to Fred Carden’s recent book “Knowledge to Policy: Making the most of Development Research  observes, for many policy makers in developing countries, their experience of research is that which accompanies policy prescriptions handed out by funding institutions, thus the idea that research promotes a correct one-size fits all approach could well have been reinforced by this experience.

3. Knowledge can be communicated in a linear way and consumed passively

Personally, I believe that knowledge can only be constructed in someone’s head, knowledge requires a “knower” and is the sense someone make of information when they analyse and understand it according to their previous experience, belief systems and even what mood they are in today.  Thus I would argue with the title of the post but its been pointed out that my position may be a little extreme and not necessarily shared by many in the industry in which I work!  However I think that everyone who works in the knowledge industry needs to dispel the myth that knowledge can be transferred or passively consumed in ways that bear no reference to the consumer – people have knowledge and this shapes how they interpret new knowledge (research knowledge or otherwise)  and what they do as a result. 

So I would conclude that resistance to use of evidence in decision making is entirely reasonable if you have a modernist understanding of research knowledge.  Or indeed if you have been subject to such ideas from others/ believe that the person you are talking to shares those ideas!  

For me 2 areas emerge:

To what extent are the people who promote research uptake/evidence based policy etc propagating ideas about research and its role in change that are not useful?   Do those of us involved in promoting greater use of research in decision making need to be clearer with ourselves how we see the role of research vis a vis other knowledge and in the context of political realities and consider what messages we are sending. 

I am increasingly thinking it would be valuable if people generally (including me) were more aware of their own decision making processes - a kind of meta-cognition that allows them to be more aware of the how they process information and ideas, accepting, rejecting and interpreting  and applying them in line with their previous experiences, knowledge and beliefs.  In keeping line with the work of IDS colleagues in the Participation Power and Social Change Team, I suspect that this can be encouraged through greater reflective practice .   Another angle on this issue is idea of “evidence literacy” I am working with INASP to explore this through its PERii: Evidence-Informed Policy Making programme and will be posting updates to this blog. Watch this space.