Pepijn Jansen: Reflexive science: no unity without discord

Development Policy27 Aug 2009Pepijn Jansen
This week The Broker is blogging from the Towards Knowledge Democracy conference in Leiden, The Netherlands. Conference Bloggers will report back from the event which invites participants to share visions and experiences on how to deal with the challenges and possibilities that occur on the interface between science, politics, society and the media.

Now two-thirds through the conference, I can partly say that I have been right in my previous blog: old wine in new bags. A lot of new phrases to say things we already knew. Or at least, some of us might have known. As an anthropologist, I am trained to work with different knowledge-systems, values, ‘truths.’ In fact, I think the entire discipline of anthropology is based on what we have learned from people all around the world. Whether we call this systems-thinking, complexity or chaos theory (or any other phrase coined to describe societal processes), it is not new. We scientists are not very innovative in our thinking about innovation.

But then again, I have not seen many anthropologists in this conference (one plus me). That’s a bit of a loss from ‘our’ side, and a big plus for this conference: they could achieve what anthropologists apparently are not so good at: draw together a lot of people from different sciences and actually have them discuss inter-/trans-/multidisciplinary. Nicely done! And above all, they are trying to find ways of dealing with real-life issues such as sustainability. Although, as Georgina already said in her blog, some of the concepts used in the conference might not be that new. These approaches have been called transdisciplinarity, multi-stakeholder process, social learning, action research, to name just a few. Of course, they are not all exactly the same, but let’s not get too much into details when trying to generalize. These processes are all about getting relevant people around the table and let them generate new knowledge and shared understanding about a common issue, and hopefully also find a way to deal with the problem.

So, when we are talking about progress towards a knowledge democracy, that would mean everybody is relevant: both knowledge and democracy are about everyone. So far, in this conference I have heard mostly scientists, a few businesspeople and one NGO woman. But I was actually hoping to bump into my neighbor, or perhaps the bus driver. This conference is a nice example of how people with more or less the same frameworks, background, knowledge and values can easily come up with a shared understanding, or at least a shared definition of the problem. Don’t get me wrong, I have heard lots of interesting ideas and insights, and some challenging questions have been posed.

However, the creation of new knowledge, the transcending of boundaries to find new ways of navigating the difficult and complex path before us, requires differing and conflicting views, as was put forward in some interesting sessions today. So I think the challenge lies not in finding a new role for science in society, which we have mainly been doing so far. We have seen that it is easy to come to terms with like-minded people. The real challenge is finding ways in dealing with people who do not share these ideas. What to do with people who, in the extreme, would rather do away with democracy and don’t care about other people’s knowledge? If we justify or validate new knowledge by the fact that it is shared by all people who have been involved in the process of creating this knowledge, do we then also justify the ousting of people who did not want to be involved? Can this be a justification for radical intervention when people do not wish to talk or exchange views?

So: no unity without discord (not my phrase, it must be said). There is little value in trying to find new knowledge with people who already share the same knowledge. Sure, we can exchange concepts and case studies and still learn a lot trough networking (by the way, this is also another phrase used for a multi-actor approach). We can talk about innovation, but we cannot be really innovative if we don’t welcome outside views. Let me get back to the anthropologist and put forward a stereotype: an anthropologist only interacts with a bunch of ‘savages’ running around in loincloths while he is trying to record an almost dead language, and forgets there are other interesting scientists who might actually also have nice ideas. A stereotype of the typical scientist: a scientist only interacts with other scientists running around in grey suits, while he tries to get his business card and latest book accepted, and forgets there are also ‘savages’ who might actually also have some interesting ideas, and perhaps are even curious about all these strange people in this old building without air-conditioning.