Subverting hierarchical Knowledge Systems: Not because it is good, but because it is the correct thing to do!

By Pradeep Narayanan

Participation Pays.jpg

The book, Participation Pays- Pathways for Post 2015 (www.frontline.i…icle7809369.ece), presents a number of examples where Community Participation was intended to subvert some mainstreamed hierarchical processes. Originally, it wasto be titled “Subverting for good”. However, owing to the pressure to promote readership of the book, the current name was chosen.

Nevertheless, what we need for now in the global knowledge arrangement, is subversion. Primarily, not to challenge the existing power relationships but to provide a demonstrated solution in the form of a subverted relationship which mainstreams the voices from the margins – the kind of knowledge that does not even get acknowledged as ‘knowledge’ in the current system.

The key areas of knowledge-based hierarchies, which have been sufficiently detailed out in a number of resistance literature includes:

A. Dominance of North over South. There comes a point in time when there is no evidence required to prove the dominance of the North in creating knowledge as well as certifying the knowledge. It is not that the knowledge gets created in the North – the knowledge is created everywhere, but collated and interpreted in the North or by the North. The flow of investments also is exponentially high in the North when compared to the South.

It is always seen that the North produces the ‘best’ of literature, progressive as well as regressive, even about the South. This is of course being challenged and there are efforts of South-South collaborations with Southern countries researching issues pertaining to them. I think the most significant ‘subverting’ step would be to promote Southern researchers studying issues pertaining to North, from the lens of the South.

Of course, the North and South need to be defined keeping in mind the power relationships.

B. Knowledge Creation function shifting from Universities of Higher Learning to various policy think tanks and even companies, both public and private. It is interesting to note from the Open University discussion paper, that increasingly ‘influential’ knowledge is getting created at spaces, which are not necessarily the conventional universities of higher learning. With universities losing out on public education funds, their time-use on creating literature for learning is getting de-prioritised. A lot of these functions are getting transferred. University faculty are probably as burdened with raising funds as any NGO. The NGOisation of universities and productisation of university research probably takes away the independent agenda setting ability of universities. The problem is ‘who sets the agenda’ in these spaces of knowledge creation. Universities which had discretionary and untied public funds have had greater potential to create literature which could be of more pluralist agendas than such funded institutions or policy think tanks, which could often get tied to the agenda of the funders.

The ‘subversion’ here would be to ensure funds being diverted in an un-tied way to such universities of higher-learning; and thereby promoting the ‘independence’ of knowledge-creating spaces- independence but from market forces as well as State-led influential players.

C. Knowledge-Creation is becoming a specialist job, wherein there is homogenization of a knowledge-infrastructure that not only creates but also certifies the knowledge as knowledge. The growing academic control over knowledge as well as presence of “dominating” journals, which certify certain methodologies as the appropriate methodology, is leading to exclusion. The local knowledge, especially community knowledge, is unable to find a place in plethora of academic literature, because their ideas do not get the ‘form’ needed to be accepted.

The struggle even from progressive academics is to provide ‘form’ to ideas from the ground, and most often as publications in their own names, rather than as community knowledge. The skills of ‘scientific writing’ dominate the very ‘source of creation of ideas’ and thereby the writer becomes the author, whereas the person whose idea finds ‘form’ through the skills of writers is just a respondent. It is important that certain rules of knowledge infrastructure get subverted. Authorship needs to be redefined- to encourage local ideas and not just to encourage good writing.

In other words, the core issue here is to find forms for community voices, wherein participatory methods are promoted in such a way that communities are involved in ‘analysis’ and ‘inference making’, rather than just data collection. It is important that such methodologies are promoted and also ensured that literature acknowledges community participants as authors! The researchers need to be empowered to be a facilitator of research rather than a controller of the knowledge creation process.

D. Research Ethics are being developed as mechanisms that protect ‘institutions’ and ‘researchers’ from future controversies, rather than with the intention of ‘protecting’ community respondents’. The latter is an incidental outcome. Ethics are not an elitist concept. It needs to be dethroned from the pedestal it is occupying.

The subversion here is to facilitate a large number of community-led ethical review processes, wherein the community representatives become integral to define the ethics of a research process. Such a review process would surely focus on the interest of the community; and in fact, prevent a scenario, where research ethics are often ‘misused’ by the research so as not to deal with certain contemporary political issues.

E. Subverting Post-truth politics: It is important to see what part of the knowledge structure and system that is existing today is not able to engage with the post-truth politics, wherein the truth is ignored and counter ‘truths’ are manufactured.

That ‘truths become irrelevant’ to a mainstreamed narrative is probably a product of the existing knowledge dissemination systems, which align with the interests of the powerful. It is necessary to subvert the existing process of knowledge-dissemination systems, so that the truths, especially from the ground, find a visible space in the policy discourse

Knowledge creation is a political process, and is characterised by inequity. It is an instrument for the powerful as well as an outcome of use and misuse of power. If we want to address inequity, subversion of our knowledge system in favour of those at the margins is a natural pathway for social transformation.

Will it really transform society? Maybe not. But we need to do engage in the process because that is what “knowledge creation” is about. It is about searching for hidden and invisible knowledge in the margins and mainstreaming it. It is to be done because it is the correct thing to do.

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