Knowledge Democracy at Work: Glimpses of Social Solidarity in the Pandemic

By Lonnie Rowell

    Knowledge Democracy at Work: Glimpses of Social Solidarity in the Pandemic

    About the Author

    Lonnie Rowell
    (Ret.) Professor
    Rio Rancho, NM, US
    3 Articles Published
    Lonnie Rowell

    Dr. Lonnie Rowell has been an educator for 50+ years. He is a retired professor at University of San Diego, where he directed the Counseling Program. The collaborative action research model he created for school counseling has been widely cited in school counseling literature. He has supervised and consulted on more than 120 action research projects. Working with students he established the San Diego Action Research Conference, a leading event for action researchers in North America from 2004-2012. Dr. Rowell was Program Chair (2012-2014) for the Action Research Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and co-founded the Action Research Network of the Americas (ARNA). He Co-Chaired ARNA’s 2017 1st Global Assembly for Knowledge Democracy in Cartagena, Colombia. He is an Editor for Educational Action Research and co-edited a two-part Special Issue on Knowledge Democracy. He is lead editor of the Palgrave International Handbook of Action Research (2017).

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    The beauty of photovoice[i] is that it democratizes the documenting of reality and the sharing of experiences within varying physical, cultural, and temporal contexts. Photovoice projects are organized in neighborhoods and communities to create awareness, initiate dialog about issues and concerns, and to bring real lives and local experiences into policy and practice discussions. Like most forms of participatory action research, photovoice initiatives also seek to mobilize and focus social change efforts. The Social Solidarity Project launched by ARNA’s Knowledge Democracy Initiative team is a small photovoice contribution to documenting the experiences of people during the COVID-19 pandemic.[ii]

    During a time of necessary physical distancing and frightful watches for the appearance of symptoms, we wish to document the importance of social connection and solidarity as beacons of hope during the pandemic. Our hope is that the project will highlight the need for and benefits of neighborhood, community and global solidarity as well as strengthen awareness of the varied socio-political forces at work that can keep us isolated, divided, and fearful. We also hope to contribute to national and global public health considerations of the increased risks faced by populations already at-risk of marginalization in the sweeping narratives of geo-political upheavals. While celebrities, the wealthy, and the privileged in general have greater resources for staying sheltered, fed, cared for and in contact with loved ones, others, such as refugees, the homeless, migratory immigrants, and those confined to institutionalized settings associated with criminal and juvenile justice, mental health, and elder care are not so fortunate. Their voices need to be heard as well.

    Given the grounding of this project in knowledge democratization we feel a responsibility to examine critically varied dimensions of social solidarity as they come into focus through submissions to the photovoice gallery we have established. How will the gallery be different than the moving montages shared on mainstream media in an effort to find something good in the thick of the depressing and mind-numbing data of daily postings for new cases and new deaths? What issues will make up the foregrounds and backgrounds of what is shared here? How will the gallery address knowledge production in relation to photovoice? Because we are a diverse group of practitioners, thinkers, theoreticians, engaged citizens and scholar-activists whose interests crisscross the intellectual grounds and practical applications of action research, epistemological diversity, participatory, feminist, and critical approaches to qualitative inquiry, professional development and learning, educational access and equity in migration contexts, peace building, restorative justice, and the use of dialogic approaches to conflict resolution, we have chosen to enter into this project by setting aside orthodoxies. We understand the risks of this stance but believe that we all can benefit from the shared learning that takes place as we collaborate on ‘keeping the gallery open,’ adding items, and co-constructing an analysis of what we see in the shared photos and descriptions.

    View from a Privileged Porch

    An overarching recognition accompanying this pandemic, taking place in an age of cellular and broadband connectivity on steroids (as of 2019, 49% of the world’s population is “connected[iii]), is the two-sided opportunity/challenge posed by our technologically-based connectivity. The unequal distribution of connectivity is certainly one critical issue that needs to be addressed, but it is not the only one. Another issue is the qualitative differences in how connectivity is experienced in person versus virtually. This issue was highlighted for me by a recent web-based article. Guest Writer Kelli Dunham put it this way in a March 31 HUFFPOST Personal posting, “. . . to paraphrase my Midwestern mom, we can’t work with the pandemic we’d like to have, we have to work with the pandemic we’ve got. And this becomes our everyday challenge: What does it mean to show up for the people we care about when the nature of the crisis requires us to be physically apart?”[iv] On the one hand, contemporary connectivity for so many people IS how they “show up” for those they care about. There are now around 6,000 tweets per second sent out on Twitter[v], 23 billion text messages sent daily around the world[vi], and equally staggering numbers of posts made to Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Weibo, Reddit and other social network platforms. It takes less than two days now for one billion tweets to be sent. Yet the necessity of physical isolation in this pandemic also points to the pain and sadness many people feel in being confined to virtual contact. We believe the answer to Dunham’s question, What does it mean to show up for the people we care about when the nature of the crisis requires us to be physically apart? will be revealed in the tensions between virtual connectedness and real contact. We intend to explore those tensions.

    The project is starting with an open stance towards better understanding forms of social solidarity associated with global public health as expressed in simple photographs and accompanying brief descriptions. A second dimension of the project opens up further challenges as well as opportunities for critical analysis. We are putting the project together mindful of the tensions surrounding news and information today, the intensified political propaganda, as well as the larger suspicions and efforts to discredit science. The anti-science orientation associated with right wing populism in various parts of the world, including the U.S., is rooted in suspicion and hostility directed towards educated elites and mainstream politics, media, and institutions (Zakaria, 2016). This orientation seeks to replace evidence and thoughtful analysis with bile and the group hysteria of mass rallies.

    The current U.S. president has shown himself to be a determined devotee of propaganda principles[vii], including the practice of creating the illusion of truth.[viii] In addition to showing intolerance of those who challenge his illusions, he takes no responsibility for the harmful effects of his repeated lies. At present, for example, the top U.S. medical expert on the Coronavirus pandemic faces death threats suspected to be rooted in right wing anti-science extremism.[ix]  In this context the gentle rebuke on a protester’s sign at the 2017 March for Science, “The attack on science is so . . . 12th Century,”[x] is a tiny counter-narrative in the face of the Trump reelection campaign’s intention to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on disinformation and propaganda in 2020.[xi] Knowledge democracy is challenged to address these issues. How will social solidarity distance itself from mass hysteria? Will strong evidence of support for front line health care providers and first responders in general also translate into a significant push back against the practice of the big lie? What forms of push back are most effective in a time of virtual social contact?

    To democratize knowledge is to proclaim the importance of both civic literacy and civic engagement. If citizens are reluctant to ‘believe’ what they hear from the experts, then they have a responsibility to put forth valid evidence that counters expertise. In a cyberspace context of almost unimaginable volumes of tweets, posts, and disinformation entries, the whole Jeffersonian notion of informed citizens being the bulwark of democracy needs recalibration. Author John Le Carre has declared that “America has entered one of its periods of historical madness; but this is the worst I can remember”[xii] In this period, civic literacy has been seriously wounded. In a totalitarian state, you can choose to disbelief the dictator, but doing so publicly comes at the risk of having yourself poked with a poison needle on a Moscow bridge. But in a democracy, knowledge claims can indeed be publicly challenged, but the hope has to be that the challenge is done responsibly. Thus, given what we know factually about virus spread, for California congressman Devin Nunes to encourage his constituents to head out for a burger and a beer instead of following public health proclamations to stay home is not simply foolishness but represents real potential harm to people. In the face of such irresponsibility, “it is not enough for people of conscience only to expose the falseness of the stories we are told . . . Concerned citizens also need to create alternative narratives about what the promise of democracy might be for our communities and ourselves” (Giroux, 2014, p. 21).

    Knowledge democracy is in no way a stance celebrating total relativism of viewpoints or a flippant attitude that anyone or everyone’s opinion about anything is equally valid. Sources of knowledge that are idiosyncratic, informal, and primarily based on subjective interpretations and traditions need not be dismissed or colonized, but all knowledge sources need to be challenged regarding the kinds of evidence underlying knowledge claims and the discipline and rigor used in answering questions. Yet, neither do we subscribe to a monopoly of expert knowledge or a rigid adherence to the epistemological privilege of Western science. We are more interested in exploring intercultural translations (Santos, 2014) and convergences (Fals Borda, 1991) as a way of opening up democratically-based and respectful dialogues regarding knowledge and its production.

    Concluding Thoughts

    Polarized viewpoints lead to the closing of minds and increase the fever of historical madness. As Terry Tempest Williams (2014) put it, “When minds close, democracy begins to close. Fear creeps in; silence overtakes speech” (p. 9). The current recognition being given to the scientific community by a strong majority of Americans[xiii] provides some relief from the warning by popular commentator and astrophysicist Neill deGrasse Tyson that a rejection of science in America “is the beginning of the end of an informed democracy.”[xiv] But we must not lose sight of the recognition that America is still massively polarized in relation to news and information. Recent polling, for example, reveals that “while 68 percent of Democrats believe the news media is doing either a good or excellent job in its COVID-19 response, just 37 percent of Republicans agree.”[xv] What implications will this polarization have on how the nation responds to the pandemic? And how will the varied responses impact efforts to establish meaningful social solidarity?

    So it is with this background that the Social Solidarity Project joins the fray. We understand the importance of the contributions of science to public health. We applaud the work of scientists seeking solutions to this pandemic. We also support the democratization of knowledge, that is, the recognition that correcting the “unequal relations of knowledge” (Fals Borda & Rahman, 1991, p. 31) requires supporting popular knowledges in varied forms and challenging self-serving and arrogant knowledge monopolies wherever they are found (Rowell & Hong, 2017). The little gallery we have created in is a space for the sharing of popular knowledge about what it means to express solidarity with others, to show up for those we care about, in the face of this global pandemic.

    To participate in the project, please submit an original photograph that, to you, represents social solidarity in times of social distancing, along with a short (1-5 sentences) description of meaning of the photo for you to Please post in whatever language is most relevant in your reality. We will post submissions as soon as we can after they are received.

    More information is available at:


    Fals Borda, O., & Rahman, M. A. (Eds.). (1991). Action and knowledge: Breaking the monopoly with participatory action research. New York: Apex Press.

    Giroux, H. (2014). The violence of organized forgetting: Thinking beyond America’s disimagination machine. San Francisco: City Lights Books.

    Rowell, L. (2018). A brief update from across the big pond’s troubled waters: beliefs, science, politics, and action research. Educational Action Research, 26 (1), 4-8.

    Rowell, L. L., & Hong, E. (2017). Knowledge democracy and action research: pathways for the Twenty-First century. In L. L. Rowell, C. D. Bruce, J. M. Shosh, & M. M. Riel (Eds.) The Palgrave international handbook of action research, pp. 63-83. New York: Palgrave macmillan. 

    Santos, B. d. S. (2014). Epistemologies of the South: justice against epistemicide. London: Paradigm Publishers.


    [i] For an excellent source on photovoice methodology and its links to social change see Also,

    [ii] The Action Research Network of the Americas (ARNA) is a hemispheric network of action researchers, participatory action researchers and supporters of action research in varied social domains. ARNA was established in 2012 by scholar-activists and university-based educators in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico.

    [iii] Retrieved April 1, 2020 from

    [iv] Kelli Dunham, March 31, 2020. HUFFPOST PERSONAL. Retrieved from

    [v] Retrieved April 1, 2020 from

    [vi] Retrieved April 1, 2020 from

    [vii] See, for example, Retrieved April 1, 2020.

    [viii] See, for example,


    [x] See Rowell, L. (2018). A brief update from across the big pond’s troubled waters: beliefs, science, politics, and action research. Educational Action Research, 26 (1), 4-8.

    [xi] Retrieved April 1, 2020 from

    [xii] As cited in Giroux, H. (2014). The violence of organized forgetting. San Francisco: City Lights Books

    [xiii] The latest polling, conducted by Pew near the end of March, “found that two-thirds of U.S. adults believe COVID-19 poses a major threat to the health of the U.S.” (

    [xiv] As cited in Rowell, 2018, p. 8.

    [xv] Retrieved April 1, 2020 from

    To cite this work, please use the following reference:

    Rowell, L. (2020, April 3). Knowledge democracy at work: Glimpses of social solidarity in the pandemic. Social Publishers Foundation.

    Copyrighted by Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

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