Decolonizing Knowledge Production in the Academy

The default model of knowledge production in academia is inherently extractive. We observe people, communities and phenomena, we learn something about them, we generalize and test the resulting theories, and then we share the results with other academics to advance our own careers. Even when we have “impact”, it is usually top-down. We start companies, or try to influence policy with “our” hard-earned knowledge, but we don’t often think about how that knowledge was created, including the many sources of it, and how those people or organizations may benefit or engage in discussions about these ideas or theories, or the implications thereof.

What if we dramatically re-oriented the focus of the academy to support “ordinary” people in creating and sharing their knowledge and ideas? I was introduced to this possibility through the Honey Bee Network, by one of my mentors, Professor Anil Gupta at IIM-Ahmedabad. Prof. Gupta began to question the self-serving nature of academia early in his career, and as a result of this introspection he profoundly re-oriented his work towards recognizing and supporting people’s (in this case, small farmers and rural artisans) own knowledge. By identifying “grassroots innovators”, and providing these innovators with opportunities to document, share, commercialize and protect knowledge on their own terms, the Honeybee Network is a knowledge system that is inherently service-oriented — an ecosystem that serves the sources of that knowledge, rather than the academic and professional careers of those that might otherwise extract and benefit from it.

In agriculture, as in other fields, we are living in a time of “expert failure”. All of our expert knowledge (however begotten), and the social institutions that create and use it, have not saved us from a range of impending calamities —from the environmental, to the economic, to the social and political. While academic and other kinds of “formal” knowledge continue to become more specialized, public discourse withers into the intellectual backwaters of pride, prejudice, hearsay and innuendo. The creation of knowledge is arguably one of the most personal and identity-defining acts that a human being can engage in. If everyday people and communities are not involved in creating new knowledge, they have no reason to be invested in the result, which is seen as yet another form of oppression and dominance by the elites of the world. If we don’t see ourselves in knowledge, we will seek other outlets that reflect our perspectives and identity, that speak “our language”, no matter how biased and inaccurate they are, or whose interests they serve. We see this phenomena all around us, ranging from climate change denialists, to flat-earthers and anti-vaxxers, to fascists and their apologists. The result is the fragmented, skewed and downright dangerous knowledge environment that we see all around us.

The options that everyday people have for creating and sharing knowledge, or learning how to do so, are profoundly limited. This is largely because we have not invested in developing robust knowledge systems that are accessible to people outside of the academy. Most educational institutions (especially at the primary and secondary level) are still designed for knowledge dissemination, and not for involving people in producing and sharing their own knowledge. Same with libraries — while there are certainly some exciting initiatives underway, most people still think of a library as a place to access knowledge, not to create or share it. Most of our media is also for disseminating knowledge from experts to people, and not about people creating and sharing knowledge on their own terms. Even “social” media has become yet another channel for vested commercial or political interests to spread their message. While many organizations would like to support local knowledge production and sharing, the fact is that there are few resources available to support them in doing so, for example in domains like local news.

Knowledge systems are also about more than media and communications. Just like graduate students, everyday people need structure and support to reflect on and synthesize their varied experiences, and to use this to develop their own ideas and theories. I am reminded of Paulo Freire, whose work on critical pedagogy provides an accessible and empowering framework for people (especially the marginalized and dispossessed) to make sense of their lives in the context of broader social, political and economic forces. Freire’s views were radical in that he theorized that all people were capable of developing sophisticated and rigorous social analyses of their own circumstances, and to use this knowledge to develop a more critical consciousness about the world and their position within it.

The one place where this kind of knowledge production still occurs is in the academy. Unfortunately, very few top-tier academic research institutions realize the accessibility of the Freirean ideal. Becoming a full participant in within academic hierarchies requires overcoming numerous social, cultural and economic obstacles. If you are not wealthy and/or a citizen of a dominant country, it is difficult to become a professor in anything other than STEM. While STEM realms provide opportunities for immigrants and the less affluent, it is only to contribute their technical (i.e. decultured, deindividualized) skill. In other fields (e..g “area studies”), minorities can become commodified, token representatives of a specific and situated set of experiences and knowledge that can later be “generalized” to other contexts, presumably by a white European researcher. You can only become an academic after rigorous conditioning in a particular “discipline” — i.e. learning about those historical ideas and voices (often those of privileged white males) that are deemed to “count” (again, mostly white Europeans), and internalizing the idea that their own contributions are only worthy in the sense that they are somehow related to these deified perspectives.

There are also the arbitrary and pernicious distinctions between “R1” research institutions, liberal arts colleges, undergraduate-focused “teaching” institutions, and “community colleges”, where the majority of people go for “higher” education. The latter institutions are not designed or equipped to be knowledge generation hubs like R1 programs — lacking Ph.D. programs, fully-stocked libraries with access to the latest research journals, which are also locked up behind walls of language and restricted institutional access. Put simply, most people aren’t deemed worthy of participating in the ivory tower of academia, even as casual onlookers of the knowledge production process. As a result, they have no opportunity to contribute to the “grand theories” and “meta-narratives” that organize and shape human social institutions, or their values, goals and metrics. Our knowledge systems dovetail with similar trends in culture, technology, politics and economics-centralized and unequal, fulcrums of power and influence that consume ideas, perspectives and experiences in the construction of totalizing narratives that serve to reinforce existing patterns of power and influence.

How can we resist these powerful forces? More to the point, how can universities become a force to disrupt the prevailing political economy of knowledge, rather than reinforcing it? Academic research communities specialize in incentivizing, building capacity for and deliberating about the validity, relevance and impact of knowledge contributions from a range of participants. Should these systems’ primary goal be the production and dissemination of “expert” knowledge? Or, should we be creating systems and infrastructure that support all elements of society (whether inside our outside our walls) in becoming active knowledge producers? These are questions that have long been asked by anthropologists, geographers and other scholars serving remote and marginalized populations, including tribal and indigenous communities. It is about time that researchers from other disciplines start asking these questions, and that we see them as relevant not only for these “special” populations, but for the rank and file of humankind, who are often just as marginalized in terms of knowledge production.

I believe that Computer and Information Scientists also have an important role to play in addressing these gaps — given their interest in information infrastructures, decentralized protocols, filtering and curation, and in participatory and user-centered design. Over my career, I’ve worked on developing participatory knowledge infrastructures in a variety of domains — including in agriculture, where we studied how small farmers could share knowledge their own knowledge and experiences with one another using basic mobile phones, and in education — where we studied how participatory mapping could help young people can bring their experiences and knowledge to inform discussions about science, urban planning and civics. However, most of this work focused on the design, implementation and evaluation of new technology platforms, and not on supporting participatory knowledge production as an important end goal in and of itself.

Picture of Roosevelt Island from a 1940s postcard

Most recently, with my collaborators J. Khadijah Abdurahman and Nkozi Tiewul, I have been working on Word2RI — a socio-technical infrastructure for knowledge production and experience sharing for our local community of Roosevelt Island. Developing this infrastructure will require the creation of new technologies, as well as new activity structures and organizational forms that can bring together diverse voices on varied topics. Initially, we are building an oral history archive and supporting tools to document people’s experiences on Roosevelt Island with issues like race, disability, gentrification, immigration and technology. We are also hosting events on specific themes that include both traditional academic voices, as well as outsiders and community members, and explore alternative discursive norms in terms of language, tone and medium. Finally, we work closely with like-minded local partners like the public library, senior center, garden club, and Open Doors, an artists’ collective of gun violence survivors and poets living in the long-term care facility on the island. Through these relationships, our collective goal is to build a robust infrastructure for sharing experience and knowledge on Roosevelt Island, that spans traditional divides of race, gender, income, ability and academic credentials.