Pepijn Jansen: Knowledge democracy and the creation of new concepts

Development Policy24 Aug 2009Pepijn Jansen

When I first started working in the field of international development (and this is very recently), I stumbled upon all sorts of different concepts totally unknown to me. This was strange: I am a cultural/social anthropologist by training, so I thought I possessed at least some knowledge on social and societal processes. So, how come everybody was talking about social and societal learning, institutional innovation, transformative change and adaptive learning systems, to name just a few? Where did all these ideas come from, and more importantly, what do they mean? What do they contribute to our knowledge and our understanding of society? As a born researcher, and as always a bit cynical, I started digging for answers.

First question: where do these concepts come from? Answer: most of them are quite old ideas (as in a few decades old) from one of the social sciences, newly adapted by one or more scientists and management gurus, sometimes twisted into fitting with other ideas and concepts.

Second question: what do they mean? Most of these concepts have more or less the same meaning: the world is complex, human (social) behaviour is difficult to predict, people live together in a society, and society changes and adapts to internal and external factors as people interact with each other. At least that is something I can understand as an anthropologist. All the concepts explain (part of) this story, and then add a nice picture to show exactly how the world works in a schematic way. And, preferably, suggest how to influence these processes.

Third question: what do these concepts contribute to our knowledge and understanding? Well, they explain things. That’s obvious. But why so many different concepts? Because we live in a knowledge democracy. That is, knowledge cannot be claimed by science and researchers alone. Knowledge is created by everyone, everywhere, all the time. Of course, this has always been the case, but the rapid spread of new media makes these processes much faster and more complex. Scientists cannot simply flow along with one paradigm for a few decades. Everybody is creating his own paradigm, his own ‘truth’ and trying to spread it as fast as they can, because they have to keep up with others doing the same. You wouldn’t want to be outrun by a fellow scientist on the other side of the world who has just created a better concept than you, would you?

Perhaps I am being a bit too cynical, but I feel a critical view is sometimes necessary (and I was asked to be a bit controversial, to spark some conversation). To me, this is also one of the challenges in trying to integrate science, policy and practice, which this conference aims to do. As a scientist, you will probably always be trying to find flaws in current theory, policy and practice, and propose new ideas (thus new concepts). As a policy maker, you would like to have a concrete idea on what works and what does not work, instead of changing your policy every year because some scientist came up with a better idea. And as a practitioner, you need both ideas and policies to make your work possible, and not keep on changing the way you work every month (although Word has the nice ’Find and replace’ option, so you can easily adapt your project plans to the latest concepts).

I asked a good friend (a Monitoring & Evaluation advisor at Oxfam-Novib) what ‘knowledge democracy’ meant to him. He thought that knowledge democracy is the sharing and creation of knowledge in a democratic way. That is: through websites such as Wikipedia, for example, a whole new way of creating and sharing knowledge has emerged. That which before was in the hands of a small elite of scientists is now available to everybody. This is not a bad thing, of course: it provides useful ways of cooperation between science, policy and practice, as they can now easily share their ideas and experiences. The power of knowledge is being democratised, so to say. We just have to be careful not to try and find new concepts every time a new problem emerges. It would be better to try and find a solution.

So I hope, and I think, this ‘Towards Knowledge Democracy’ conference will bring me and others some clarity and deeper insights into these processes. Is the ongoing creation of new concepts and ideas just a way for people to showcase themselves? Or is it really bringing us a deeper understanding of the complex nature of society?