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From method to market: Some thoughts on the responses to "Tomayto tomahto"

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In this final post, Deval Desai and Rebecca Tapscott respond to comments by Lisa Denney and Pilar Domingo, Michael WoolcockMorten Jerven, Alex de Waal, and Holly Porter.

Paktika Youth Shura Our paper, Tomayto Tomahto, is in essence an exhortation and an ethical question. The exhortation: treat and unpack fragility research (for we limit our observations to research conducted for policy-making about fragile and conflict-affected places) as an institution of global governance, a set of complex social processes and knowledge practices that produce evidence as part of policy-making. The ethical question: all institutions contain struggles over the language and rules by which they allocate responsibility between individual actors (ethics) and structural factors (politics) for their effects—this might be law, democratic process, religious dictate. In light of the trends of saturation and professionalization that we identify (and as Jerven astutely points out in his response, a profound intensification of research), is it still sufficient to allocate responsibility for the effects of fragility research using the language and rules of method?

The five responses to our piece enthusiastically take up the exhortation. A series of positions are represented: the anthropologist (Porter), the applied development researcher (Denney and Domingo), the anthropologist/practitioner (DeWaal), the practitioner/sociologist (Woolcock), and the economist (Jerven). They unpack the profoundly socio-political nature of the relationship between research and policy from a number of different perspectives: Porter’s intimate view from the field, Jerven’s sympathetic ear in the statistics office, Woolcock and Denney and Domingo’s feel for the alchemic moments when research turns into policy at the global level, and de Waal’s distaste for the global laboratories in which those moments occur, preferring the local re-embedding of research. These all, of course, spatialize the research-policy nexus, just as we do; however, all then ask us to privilege one space over the others.

The alchemy of relationships and the production of evidence

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This post is by Holly Porter, a visiting fellow at the Department of International Development of the London School for Economics and Political Science and lead researcher for northern Uganda for the Justice and Security Research Programme.  It is a contribution to an online symposium on the changing nature of knowledge production in fragile states. Be sure to read other entries by Deval Desai and Rebecca TapscottLisa Denney and Pilar Domingo, Michael WoolcockMorten Jerven, and Alex de Waal.

People eat at a restaurant in KampalaThe piece is a welcome provocation to discussion, even if ultimately I am left with the thought: there is a rather fundamental difference between tomatoes on a supply chain and the pursuit of understanding human experience. I show that here, intentionally choosing to write from a personal perspective, rather than in more academic prose.

Two main responses spring to mind in light of my own (anthropological) work:

1) Knowledge is not an “alienable” commodity.
2) The complexity of human relationships in the research process are not best captured with reference to market forces.


The piece raises an underlying question about the production of “knowledge:” is knowledge a kind of raw material –- is it an “alienable commodity”? The idea that data is a commodity implies that it is something; that it is a thing which exists independently and apart from the intentionality of human relationships. Perhaps some information is similar to a raw material that can be extracted in crude form but the kind of “knowledge” which interests me is born of shared experiences and long-term relationships. Knowledge appears to me less of a raw material to be processed and packed, and more the stuff of human interaction.

Beyond the quest for "policy implications": Alternative options for applied development researchers

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This post, written by Michael Woolcock, is a contribution to an online symposium on the changing nature of knowledge production in fragile states. Be sure to read other entries by Deval Desai and Rebecca Tapscott and Lisa Denney and Pilar Domingo.

Indonesia fills out form on riceMy nomination for development’s ‘Most Insightful, Least Cited’ paper is Ariel Heryanto’s “The development of ‘development.'”[1] Originally written in Indonesian in the mid-1980s, Heryanto’s gem has been cited a mere 79 times (according to Google Scholar), even in its carefully-translated English incarnation. For me, this paper is so wonderful because it makes, in clear and clever ways, two key points that bear endless repetition, especially to today’s junior scholars. The first point is that inference from evidence is never self-evident: significance must always be interpreted through theory. Consider the seemingly obvious fact that the sun rises in the east every morning, he writes. What could be more universally and unambiguously true? The problem, of course, is that the sun does not rise in the east; instead, despite every piece of sensory evidence to the contrary, the earth rotates counterclockwise on its axis and revolves around a stationary sun, making it appear as ifthe sun rises in the east. But we only know this – or, more accurately, claim to know this – because today we happen to have a theory, itself based on more complex forms of observation and theory, that helps us interpret the prevailing evidence, to reconcile it with evidence from analyses of other cosmic phenomena, and thus draw broadly coherent conclusions and inferences.

Heryanto’s second key point is that we are all captives of language, of the limits of any given tongue to convey the subtleties of complex issues. From this premise he proceeds to unpack the clumsy, alluring yet powerful word that in English we call ‘development’, noting that in Indonesian there are at least two very different interpretations of its meaning, and with this, two very different words – perkembangan and pembangunan – connoting two very different teleologies and policy agendas: the former a natural, ‘organic’ process akin to flowers blooming (“software”); the latter to an overt, intentional and ‘constructed’ political project of nation building (“hardware”). When translated into English, however, both perkembangan and pembangunan are typically rendered simply as “development,” thereby collapsing into a singular popular conception what in Indonesian discourse is a distinctly pluralist one. In the opening week of my class at the Kennedy School, which typically has 50 students who between them speak around 30 languages, we begin with a lively discussion of what “development” means in Arabic, Hindi, French, Turkish, Spanish, Swahili, Swedish… It turns out to mean all sorts of things.[2]

I open this way because I think the next article we need in this “genre” – though hopefully one that quickly transcends it because it is both highly insightful and highly cited! – is something akin to what Desai and Tapscott have begun with their ‘Tomayto Tomahto’ paper. In short, echoing Heryanto, we need more development research on development research. Such scholarship, however, would go beyond providing a mere chronology of changing professional styles, methodological emphases and funding characteristics (scale, sources, time horizons, expectations) to explanations of how and why such changes have occurred. Such explanations would be grounded in analyses of the shifting historical experiences and geo-political imperatives different generations of researchers have sought to accommodate, the particular ideas these experiences and imperatives rendered normative, and the concomitant gains and losses these changes have entailed for those finding themselves managing the “trade-offs” (such as they are) between scholarly independence and public utility.

Turning the gaze on ourselves: Acknowledging the political economy of development research

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This post by Lisa Denney and Pilar Domingo is a contribution to an online symposium from Humanity Journal on the changing nature of knowledge production in fragile states. Be sure to read other entries, beginning with Deval Desai and Rebecca Tapscott's piece.

IBM Research - Africa Scientists at Riara School, NairobiWhile researchers (ourselves included) now consistently underline the importance of understanding the political economy of developing countries and donors that support them in order to achieve better aid outcomes, the research industry remains largely ambivalent about questions of our own political economy. Desai and Tapscott’s paper is therefore a refreshing attempt to start unpacking this and the ways in which ‘evidence’ is produced within the development industry.

Here, we offer reflections on three stages of this process: building evidence, translating evidence and dislodging evidence. But a word of caution is also merited upfront. The fact that we are talking about “evidence,” rather than research, is itself telling and underscores a shift in the development industry in the last ten years. Speaking about ‘evidence’ rather than about “research” suggests something much more concrete and indisputable. Evidence is taken as proof. But surely research is also debate. While there are, of course, things for which largely indisputable evidence can be found (the effects of vaccines on disease, for instance), the use of this terminology, particularly in the social sciences where little is concrete or universal, suggests that final answers are discoverable. It can, thus, be used to close down debate, as much as to encourage it. Research, on the other hand, recognizes that most findings are contributions to knowledge that helpfully allow to move us towards deeper understanding and greater awareness but do not claim to be the final word on a given topic.
 

Tomayto tomahto: The research supply chain and the ethics of knowledge production

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Pre-test of Rural Household Survey, PakistanThis post is the first in a symposium from Humanity Journal on the changing nature of knowledge production in fragile states. It was written by Deval Desai, a Research Associate at ODI, and Rebecca Tapscott, a PhD Candidate at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

Aid in the 21st century is increasingly evidence-driven. Between 2000 and 2006, the World Bank spent a total of $630 million on research. By 2011 the World Bank was spending $606 million per year, or about a quarter of its country budgets. In September of this year, by signing up to the Sustainable Development Goals, the global community enshrined a commitment to “increase significantly” a range of high-quality data over the next 15 years, to facilitate qualitative as well as quantitative understandings of growth and progress.

As the international community seeks to tackle the “hard problems” of development—fragility, conflict, endemic poverty—qualitative research is ever-more important. These problems are not amenable to best-practice solutions but must be tackled through deep contextual understanding of their drivers. Or so the policy story goes.[1] As a result, conducting qualitative research today is different from the days when Geertz set out for Bali. Gone are the intrepid individuals setting off to explore and explain an untouched environment, unaware of the demands of policymakers.[2]

We argue that while practice has changed, the ideology of qualitative research has not. Qualitative research is generally understood as the individual exercise of research methods to produce knowledge about the world, knowledge that can then be taken up by governance actors of all stripes. By contrast, we believe that today we must understand research as asystemic intervention, within the broader context of globalization and international development. Therefore, we should start with the political economy of contemporary research—an iterative, professionalized and increasingly saturated practice—to rethink the political and ethical implications of the research that we do.

As a first step to this end, we contrast two stylized frameworks for understanding qualitative research in fragile contexts: The “fragility research” framework, which we argue dominates the current debate; and the “research supply chain” framework, which we offer as a new framework and a provocation to discussion. We discuss each in turn, first considering how fragility research frames knowledge production in fragile or conflicted-affected states, identifying some assumptions the fragility research framework rests on, and critiquing some of its key conclusions. We then discuss the research supply chain as an alternative framework to explore the relationship between knowledge generation and policy. Finally, we raise some questions based on the new framework’s implications.

The Wellspring of Ideas: Tacit Knowledge

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Tacit knowledge has emerged as the “holy grail” of sorts, with many organizations (including the World Bank) seeking a way to capture and deliver it.  Tacit knowledge is a difficult concept, which I thought was worth exploring a bit.

The origin of this idea has been widely credited to Michael Polanyi, a Hungarian scientist of the 20th century. In his book, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, Polanyi examines how individuals gain knowledge and share it, arguing that knowledge is highly personal, saying “into every act of knowing there enters a passionate contribution of the person knowing what is being known.” He goes on to say that we can see personal knowledge (tacit knowledge) at work in the area of skills and connoisseurship and that some types of knowledge have limited capability for transfer – hence the difficulty of this quest for tacit knowledge. A useful analogy for this kind of knowledge transfer is the master-apprentice relationship, where the master’s knowledge is passed along to the apprentice in practical ways. What’s more, there is a wide body of evidence to show that tacit knowledge is substantially correlated with job performance. 

Book Review: Knowledge, Policy and Power in International Development: A Practical Guide

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This review appears in the Evidence and Policy journal, where it is now available free online (after I protested about the scandalous, rip-off $30 they were charging). Or you can just read it here. Note to self: in future, I will not write anything for journals that are not open access (thanks to Owen Barder for that suggestion).

In recent years, the public and policy debate over climate change, ‘climategate’, and the debacle of the Copenhagen Summit (and seemingly the wider UN negotiations) has brought home the tenuousness of the links between knowledge and public policy-making. ‘Do the research and they will come’ is clearly not a credible doctrine. Knowledge, Policy and Power, written by a group of researchers from the Overseas Development Institute, tackles some important aspects of these links, building on ODI’s strong track record on the interface between research and policy-making.

The book has good instincts – sceptical of all things linear, of researchers claiming to know more than they do, stressing the importance of values, beliefs, assumptions, taboos and other group pressures, hidden power  and in/exclusion in what are often portrayed as neutral processes of research and debate. There is ample discussion of the relative strengths and weakneses of different kinds of knowledge, whether derived from practice, ‘pure’ research or the people themselves.

Innovations for Development: 2013 Wish List

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A recent Poverty Matters blog post in the Guardian noted that mobile technologies and social media are creating cheap ways for citizens to interact with their governments and that development projects are trying to tap into these technologies. It gave a plug to the Bank’s new Open Finances mobile app that lets users find and monitor bank-funded projects near where they live, using mapping and GPS technology.

With the advent of the New Year and given the on-going work in the Bank on the open agenda, here are three things we may accomplish in 2013:

#7 from 2012: Knowledge Management is Not Mere Dissemination

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Our Top Ten Blog Posts by Readership in 2012

Originally published on April 3, 2012
 

Knowledge, or the lack of, is often associated with the success or failure of development initiatives. For decades, communication’s main role was to fill the knowledge gap between what audiences knew and what they needed to know, with the assumption that this would induce change. We now know that this is seldom the case. In the modernization paradigm, media were expected to provide needed knowledge through messages that could fill knowledge gaps, build modern attitudes, and eventually shape behaviours. After years of under-delivering on their promises, development managers and decision-makers are increasingly realizing that it is not enough to have sound technical solutions and disseminate information in order to have audiences adopt the innovations.

A Murmuration of Starlings

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Reporting from TEDGlobal on Radical Openness. I was struck by Don Tapscott’s presentation on Tuesday, which compared the opening up of our knowledge and data as the next step in the evolution of human societies and called it an "Age of Networked Intelligence."  Tapscott then went on to say that the societies of this age can be likened to a “murmuration of starlings,” a term that is used here for a flock. The murmuration moves in a complex interconnected way without a single leader and the flock works together and protects itself from predators (see picture).

What surprised me is that this flock of starlings was startlingly similar to the infographic displayed by the Vibrant Data Project during a presentation by Eric Berlow, a TED Fellow, which describes the network of connections in an “open” environment. Check it out here:

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