By Zoë Sofoulis
Would a focus on ‘knowledge ecology’ provide a useful alternative to ‘knowledge integration’ in inter- and trans-disciplinary research?
My experience in bringing perspectives from the humanities, arts and social sciences (HASS) to projects led by researchers from science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) has led me to agree with Sharp and colleagues (2011) that ‘knowledge integration’ is essentially a positivist concept, dependent on the idealist model of a unified field of scientific knowledge to which every bit of science contributed.
Many partners and co-researchers from STEM backgrounds, it seems, cannot recognise other knowledge paradigms and can only ‘integrate’ knowledge in the form of quantitative data. HASS research is excluded or disqualified as merely ‘anecdotal’ or ‘subjective’. Like racial or cultural assimilation, knowledge integration seems to require non-dominant knowledges to disguise or erase their unique differentiating features in order to blend with the dominant positivist paradigm. To use an ecosystems metaphor, positivist science behaves like an apex predator committing “epistemicide” (De Sousa Santos 2009, 116) gobbling up other knowledges and creating an epistemological monoculture.
The idea of a ‘knowledge ecology’ or a ‘knowledge ecosystem’ comes from management theory that draws on ecosystem sciences and new media theory to talk about non-hierarchical ways to facilitate productive knowledge flows in an information-based economy. It resonates with humanities-based epistemological pluralism, which understands that each knowledge framework illuminates, as well as conceals, different aspects of reality.
The idea of ‘knowledge ecology’ implies groups of diverse players of different sizes and roles, each finding their niche in a system of knowledge flows.
Beyond celebrating epistemological diversity, I wondered if the analogy could be pushed to work harder as a framework for describing some of the challenges encountered in the complex dynamics of transdisciplinary and cross-sectoral projects.
I started with a generic template for describing an ecosystem and translated the components into knowledge system terms, as follows:
Biotic factors – translated into the diversity of knowers and knowledges of different modalities that are involved in a particular project (or knowledge ecosystem). This includes the subjects of social research.
Abiotic factors – equivalents of non-living ecosystem components (water, temperature, gases, nutrients) are the political-economic factors that favour certain kinds of knowledges and knowers: the political climate, research priorities and funding policies, research facilities, equipment, and other knowledge infrastructures.
Interaction of biotic and abiotic factors – how differential access to research resources constrains and enables interactions between different knowers and knowledges of an ecosystem in a particular political-economic context.
Interaction among biotic factors – knowledge equivalents of ‘food chains’, predator/prey (“integration”) and other kinds of relationships between knowledges and knowers, including symbioses, cooperation, synergy, etc.
Inside and outside system boundaries – consideration of boundaries between disciplines or special knowledges, and flows across boundaries that operate within a knowledge ecosystem and between it and other ecosystems; questions of knowledge transfer and translation.
Evolution – factors producing new or altered knowledge ecologies, and changes brought about though successful translations and collaborations.
These are summarised in the table below, where the first column contains the ecosystems science concepts, and the second and third summarise their knowledge ecology equivalents.
An additional column can be added to either describe a particular case study or to help participants in a new study “get to know each other” and identify their “niche” in the knowledge ecosystem.
|1. Biotic factors (organisms)||Knowers and Actors
Knowledges and Modalities
|* Different kinds of knowers and knowledges brought to bear on a problem or project.
* Research modes, methods, evidence standards.
|2. Abiotic factors (climate, geography, etc)||Policy Settings and Resources||* General policy climate and knowledge landscape.
* Resources: research funding and infrastructure, centres and networks.
|3. Interaction of biotic with abiotic factors||Knowledge/
|* Conditions of knowledge production.
* Distribution of research resources.
* Interactions between different researchers and fields enabled or constrained by access to resources.
|4. Interaction among biotic factors (organisms)||Relations between knowers, knowledges; knowledge practices||* Interactions on multi disciplinary teams, and with communities.
* Knowledge ‘food chains’, parasitism, predation, symbioses, etc.
* ‘Charismatic mega-fauna’ (Big Names). Endangered knowledges, monocultures.
|5. Inside and outside system boundaries||Boundaries, Translation,
|* Drawing, defending, transgressing boundaries around disciplines and expertise.
* Knowledge transfer, translation, brokering.
* Site specific and untranslatable knowledges.
|6. Evolution||Evolution of new or altered knowledge ecologies||* New kinds of knowers and knowledges and how they are emerging.
* Successful pathways for knowledge transfer, translation and collaboration.
The model has proven to be a useful heuristic for organising ideas and discussion about the multiple people and organisations, as well as epistemological and contextual factors, that are in play in collaborative projects that bring together different kinds of knowledges, knowers and modes of knowledge production. The elision of knowers and knowledges proves handy as one can talk about challenges for creating knowledges in the team without getting personal.
What do you think? Do any of these ideas resonate with your experience? Can you see applications in either analysing project experiences after the fact or at the scoping stage of proposals to help all parties better understand the proposed project in context and their niche in it?
De Sousa Santos, B. (2009). A Non-Occidentalist West? Learned ignorance and ecology of knowledge. Theory Culture Society, 26, 7-8: 103-125.
Sharp, L., McDonald, A., Sim, P., Knamiller, K., Sefton, C. and Wong, S. (2011). Positivism, post-positivism and domestic water demand: Interrelating science across the paradigmatic divide. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 36: 501-515.
To find out more about this framework and its applications, see:
Fam, D. and Sofoulis, Z. (2017, forthcoming). Trouble at the disciplinary divide: A Knowledge Ecologies analysis of a co-design project with native Alaskan communities. In, D. Fam, J. Palmer, C. Riedy and C. Mitchell (Eds.). Transdisciplinary Research and Practice for Sustainability Outcomes. Routledge/Earthscan: London, United Kingdom. https://www.routledge.com/Transdisciplinary-Research-and-Practice-for-Sustainability-Outcomes/Fam-Palmer-Mitchell-Riedy/p/book/9781138119703
Sofoulis, Z. (2015). A Knowledge Ecology of Urban Australian Household Water Consumption. ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 14, 3: 765-785. Online: http://ojs.unbc.ca/index.php/acme/article/view/1232
Sofoulis, Z., Hugman, S., Collin, P. and Third, A. (2012). Coming to Terms with knowledge brokering and translation: Background paper. Knowledge Ecologies Workshop, 28 November 2012, Institute for Culture and Society, University of Western Sydney, Parramatta. Online: http://www.uws.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0020/405650/Coming_to_Terms_Background_Paper.pdf
Biography: Zoë Sofoulis is an Adjunct Fellow at the Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University. Her long term fascination with the irrational and mythic dimensions of high technology in western culture has converged with concerns about integration and implementation in relation to research on the social and cultural aspects of urban water management.