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The politics of knowledge production

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The politics of knowledge production

12th February 2021

By: Saliem Fakir

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It has been an interest of mine for a long time – this question concerning the production of knowledge systems. The part that I will not focus on is the epistemological process of knowledge production – this question of how we know what we know.

Epistemological inquiries also cover the distinction between absolute truth, contingent truth (truth that holds until evidence proves otherwise) and creative speculation, which comprises statements about the world that we cannot tell whether they are true or not because we simply do not know.

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All this awareness of how we produce knowledge is not unfamiliar territory. There is a healthy sceptical tradition in philosophy. There is enough in this regard in the works of philosophers of science like Imre Lakatos, Thomas Kuhn, Karl Popper and Paul Feyeraband.

Their inquiries touched on knowledge as a process of objectification within the womb of a social process – the institutionalisation of knowledge by communities of science as social actors in science.

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Indeed, objectification has a certain politics to it that often masks the subjectivity of what is inquired and what is done with the outcomes of the process of inquiry. The most extreme forms of this were Nazi evolutionary science, eugenics, Soviet-era Lysenkoism and colonial anthropology.

These days, scientific authority is not subjected to such ideological extremism but we should be aware of the subtleties behind the objectives of reason and arranging of scientific data, privileging Western science as the primordial basis for objectivity and knowledge production. Science, understood in a particular way, has an in-built civilisational prejudice.

We have long moved from the lone genius who makes major breakthroughs in scientific inquiry that set human knowledge on the path of new endeavours of conception of the world. Scientists like Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein come to mind. They are not regarded as figures embedded in established institutions, although Darwin and Newton belonged to the Royal Society. These individuals were not strictly embedded in institutions but they were part of a network of the thinkers they corresponded with – a community.

We know a lot about Darwin because he is said to have had good promoters, among whom were Thomas Huxley and Ludwig Boltzmann. Such name recognition did not go the way of Alfred Russell Wallace – Darwin’s contemporary – who happened to develop a similar hypothesis of evolution to Darwin's to explain the origins of species. Interestingly, Wallace had a much wider range of interests, encompassing issues related to indigenous rights, anthropology and land right.

Wallace is not in the foreground of the debate because he did not win the public relations game, as Darwin did. As Albert-Laszlo Barabasi notes in his book on success, the social networks that one is part of are key to the spread of ideas and infamy – not just the work itself.

Knowledge production is far more institutionalised as ‘factories’ of production at universities, scientific bodies and think-tanks. These institutions can be arranged independently to solve a common set of problems, often with a dominant paradigm governing the field of inquiry.

Once settled into this mode, the dominant paradigm establishes itself quickly as a status quo within key institutions and exerts its influence as a network phenomenon across a set of institutions that anchor the disciplinary inquiry.

For example, theories of market preferences in economics begin to dominate the type of questions being asked and which cannot be asked, not simply as objective forms of inquiry but rather through processes of internal and external influence and power that work together in establishing the preferred forms of inquiry. For instance, if government has a preference for market ideology, its sway will influence the flow of research funds to public institutions.

These institutions will hire the best practitioners who have done highly regarded work among their peers on the role of markets and, over time, their intellectual leadership, following and future recruits become the circle of inquirers who have bought into the status quo paradigm.

Other sources of external incentives – funding from private philanthropists, like-minded institutions outside the prevailing institutions and the system of accolades (as symbolic or material incentives) – legitimise the field of inquiry.

The force of gravity that is asserted has a number of effects: the paradigm becomes an authority and power over types of knowledge production; it disincentivises unorthodox views that share a radically different disposition; it creates a hierarchy of authority within the field of practitioners, which effectively serves as the hidden mechanism of policing who can enter the circle and who is kept out; and, finally, even if its work is done on an objective basis, it can legitimise particular political and policy decisions that reinforce a cohort of policy actors who may not want other tendencies to gain a foothold.

We cannot say that any form of knowledge production – socialist or capitalist – is not free from this hidden system, but at least we should be aware of this to ensure that knowledge production becomes healthier in that this allows fair competition between different sets of inquiries and paradigms, and ensures that, at least, public funds – which have the power to set the tone – increasingly democratise the patronage of fields of inquiry.

Truth is not reserved for one paradigm and field, but the blossoming of a constellation of inquiries, each contesting the other. This is the true essence of democratic knowledge production and tolerance for diverse ideas, even in what we call liberal society today.

Finally, we have not even ventured into included forms of knowledge – knowledge that comes from experience and is described by Michael Polanyi as tacit knowledge. This knowledge has to be given considerable weight, as it contains both the gems of experience – trial and error – and practical judgment (wisdom), which is why, often, academic knowledge that is useful for acquiring academic accolades is not always useful for getting things done in the real world.

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