Second Thoughts About Knowledge Democracy

By Thomas Stern

    Second Thoughts About Knowledge Democracy

    About the Author

    Thomas Stern
    Research fellow, University of Klagenfurt, Austria
    Klagenfurt am Wörthersee, AT
    1 Article Published
    Thomas Stern

    I studied theoretical physics and mathematics at Vienna University, made my PhD about neutron diffraction at the Atomic Institute of the Austrian Scientific Academy. I then worked as teacher in several high schools, wrote textbook chapters about the history of science, and was engaged in radical school reform at an experimental school before turning to educational science. My research at the University of Klagenfurt in Austria was about student understanding and interest in science, explorative learning, critical thinking, and teaching quality and assessment techniques, including self-evaluation. I collaborated with the German IPN Institute for Pedagogy of Science in a project about independent learning and self-determination. For the international PISA study I wrote a critical review of the test items and an empirical study about the mismatch between high school student interest in science and their dislike of science as a school subject. I co-developed PFL-NW, a two year university course for in-service science teachers based on investigation and reflection about their classroom activities with action research methods. I am also a team member of IMST, the nationwide educational research and development project in Austria. We enable teachers to learn to write and publish reflective papers about their work based on empirical data like interviews, observations by critical friends, video documentations, sometimes questionnaires. These activities had a high impact on the Austrian teacher community. In the last couple of years my research interests shifted to methodological foundations of action research, general epistemology and functionality of school systems and academic institutions. Recently I became more and more fascinated and interested in the concepts of Knowledge Democracy and Cognitive Justice which appreciate the visionary world views and epistemologies of the premodern tribal societies in Australia, Africa, Asia and the Americas and their potential to contribute to the solution of the massive ecological, social and cultural problems of humanity and the planet which were caused by the modern post-enlightenment societies in the global north. I was happy to be one of the facilitators of the First Global Assembly for Knowledge Democracy in Cartagena 2017.

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    Part 2: Reflections on the 2017 Cartagena Assembly for Knowledge Democracy

    This essay revisits a fascinating trip to Colombia in 2017. I traveled from my home country of Austria to Colombia to attend the 5th Annual Conference of the Action Research Network of the Americas (ARNA) and the Global Assembly for Knowledge Democracy, which took place the day after the close of the conference. I begin with a kaleidoscopic view back to 2017 and forward to the present day, starting with 2017-2022: Years of disruption, Enthusiasm, Encounters, Doubts, Successes, and ending with a Conclusion.

    2017-2022: Years of disruption

    Assaults against democracy in the USA, in many European countries, India, Myanmar, Egypt, Sudan, Belarus, Brasil, Tunesia …; then the Covid-19 pandemic with millions of victims and enormous economic damages worldwide; the climate crises; the wars in Syria, Libya, Afghanistan and Ukraine ….

    And then there was the shocking arson attack in 2019 by white supremacists on the Highlander Research and Education Center in the Appalachians, a pillar of community-based participatory research, where one of the ARNA conferences had taken place just a few years ago.

    Difficult times for social researchers, activists and grassroots movements who work for a livable future …. Can we rekindle our confidence and optimism of 2017, when the First Global Assembly for Knowledge Democracy inspired so many of us?


    The First Global Assembly for Knowledge Democracy was a mindblowing event, both intellectually and emotionally, not only for me. It turned us participants instantaneously into sentipensantes (feeling-thinkers), as Fals Borda and Moncayo (2009) would have called us. The location in Cartagena, one of the most beautiful colonial cities in America near the Caribbean coast, where pelicans and sea lions, coffeeshops and artesania stores abound, was inspiring and heart opening. The organization and program of the meeting offered lots of surprises and interactions and enabled several hundred people from all over the world with different national, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, including academics, students as well as social activists, to not only discuss but also experience common aspirations, goals, ideas and hopes towards a peaceful, enlightened, democratic future for humankind and our planet. What brought us together was the celebration of Knowledge Democracy, which is a very convincing concept at first sight with its critique of the economic, political, cultural, and military dominance of Europe and North America over the marginalized societies of the Global South. Knowledge Democracy opposes what de Sousa Santos (2007a; 2007b) describes as “monocultures of the mind” and “knowledge hierarchy” and stands for an “ecology of knowledges”, i.e. respect of alternative world views, ways of thinking and communicating as practiced by indigenous people or traditional societies, subcultures, grassroots movements of social activism and their appreciation as valuable contributions to a genuine understanding and solution of the problems facing humankind as a whole, as social, ecological, climatic and health-related challenges are growing over the head of modern science, technology and a neoliberally globalized economy. Community-based participatory research is the perfect framework for a dialogue of various mindsets aiming not only at a better understanding from different perspectives and an improvement of the situation but also an empowerment of the efforts of local people to find creative solutions to their problems (Hall & Tandon, 2016; Rowell, 2022).     


    With this backdrop of enthusiasm, I also experienced some cross-cultural encounters that have stayed with me since the Assembly. I turn now to those encounters. An example of a very interesting micro society of people who chose their independent way of life according to their very specific traditions is the village of Palenque de San Basilio, which was visited by a group of Assembly participants (Balogh, 2022). The few thousand inhabitants are descendants of cimarrones, escaped African slave laborers who in the early 17th century had built their own self-sufficient community in the forest with little contact with the outer world, living from their own field crops and domestic animals, preserving their ancestral ceremonial traditions, speaking their own Creole language Palenquero, making their inimitable kind of Pechiche-music, educating their children in remembrance of their unique liberation from slavery and solving their conflicts without judiciary or police, relying on family ties and strong feelings of solidarity. In 2005 it was declared a ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO (2008). But in the several years their autonomy has turned out to be limited as local modes of production have been increasingly threatened by economic changes and as they were drawn into the Colombian civil war by marauding armed paramilitaries who suspected them of supporting guerillas and therefore robbed and killed some villagers. Talks and exchanges of views with visiting researchers have turned out to help them reorganize and defend their traditional way of life.

    I also decided to travel to the northern most peninsula in South America and get into contact with another secluded society. The Wayuu are an indigenous people living in the arid Colombian peninsula Guajira which was never conquered by the Spanish colonialists because of the fierce resistance they met. Attempts to subdue and enslave Wayuu people failed as they stole guns and horses from the Spaniards and raided their fortifications. The Wayuu mythology revolves around the creator god Maleiwa, the female wind demon Pulowi, the male hunter demon Juya, and the evil spirit Wanülu representing illness and death. A magical spider named Walekeru is said to have shown the women how to weave and crotchet natural fibres into beautiful multicolored bags with unique iterative geometric patterns thus visualizing their beliefs about circles of life, death and rebirth (see Photos 1 and 2 below). These Mochilas have become the most famous and popular folk-art commodity in Colombia and the main income for the Wayuu clans (Lombia + Co., 2021). Besides Spanish they speak their old Arawak language.

    Wayuu baskets sold in Riohacha, Colombia

    Photo 1. Wayuu baskets sold in Riohacha, Colombia, 2017


    Wayuu baskets with unique geometric patterns

     Photo 2. Wayuu baskets with unique geometric patterns, 2017

    I was enthralled by the expectation of meeting proud people who had successfully defended their way of life and their cultural traditions against odds for centuries. The journey through the barren region on hardly recognizable desert tracks was adventurous, and our Jeep with a Wayuu driver bogged down several times in the salty sand and had to be pushed forward by us. What we saw on the way to the tip of the peninsula, where we would stay overnight in a hammock, was sobering and shocking. The small villages were just a couple of dilapidated huts, and the people were extremely poor. All they had for food was their goats, fish and seafood and the dark red fruit of iguaraya-cactus. When children as well as old men and women saw a car like ours approaching, they came running and begged for water and sweets. We later found out that the self-reliance of the Wayuu has eventually turned against them, with climate change aggravating the difficult living conditions by extended droughts and scorching heat waves. The government takes no responsibility for their inconceivable poverty and does not provide or support education and healthcare or the construction of roads and housing. The social coherence of the Wayuu clans is also endangered as when some clans are forcibly displaced by international mining companies like Glencore or when some of the younger generation move to the cities and get involved in drug trafficking. On the other hand there is a growing number of development projects by NGOs or UNESCO which aim at studying and improving the situation of the Wayuu, e.g. by producing herbal medicine based on their healing traditions or providing clean water from dirty rain water with appropriate technology manageable by the locals.

    For the Wayuu of Guajira as well as the Afro-Colombians from San Basilio de Palenque the time seems to be over for self-sufficient communal life and traditions, because climate change and the inevitable increase of contacts with the outside world affect all aspects of life. In order to save their cultures from destruction, dissolution and disappearance a cautious cooperation of local communities and researchers based on mutual respect and appreciation appears to be the only way to a multifaceted and diverse future. Knowledge democracy can be regarded as the key, because it cherishes all forms of knowledge and their underlying values. “Epistemologies of the South“ need not be regarded as merely primitive, pre-modern, underdeveloped or obsolete; such epistemologies also  may support anti-colonial, rebellious and emancipatory movements (de Sousa Santos, 2007ab).


    On the other hand I have to admit that my own scientific background and preoccupation with methodological and epistemological issues have led to reservations about alternative knowledges and epistemologies. When the US-administration under president Donald Trump decided to wage war against science and common sense by declaring the existence of “alternative facts” and realities, disputing verifications of manmade climate change, withdrawing from the Paris climate treaty, slashing the budget, personnel, research programs and data accessibility of the Environmental Protection Agency, disclaiming the threat of the Covid-19-pandemic and the use of protective measures like masks and vaccinations (Tollefson, 2020), my doubts were increasing that not all world views and epistemic narratives deserve to be treated favorably and deferentially, even if they are shared by millions of people. Conspiracy myths about the origins and the spreading of the Sars-Cov2-virus, the secret dangers of vaccinations or about the perpetrators of the 9/11-attacks prove to be immune to rational and fact-based arguments. Shall the principles of knowledge democracy – respect, appreciation, mutuality – be extended to everybody including proponents of obscure ways of thinking like occultism, racism or antisemitism? Is science not superior to all other knowledge systems because of its ethical standards, its demand to empirically prove and logically argue every assertion and its power to criticize and possibly revise its own methods and results?

    Can traditional mindsets of indigenous people always be regarded as commendable and on an equal footing with modern science (Stern, 2019)? Can we appreciate African tribal cultures in which albinos are despised as obsessed by demons and persecuted, or where homosexuals are hated as criminal insurgents against natural order and god’s law who deserve capital punishment, or where females are regarded as marriageable only after genital mutilation?

    On the other hand are atavistic practices not similar to those in countries with long standing scientific traditions? Are homosexuals and transgender people not also still disdained, threatened and discriminated against in many regions of the northern hemisphere like Russia or Poland? Are cosmetic operations on female genitals and breasts, carried out by scientifically qualified surgeons in Europe or North America, really so much different from the traditional clitoris cuttings in Africa (La Barbera, 2009)?

    Is science and its exclusive claim to rationality and universalism not the back side of the colonial project of what de Sousa Santos (2007a, 2007b) calls “epistemicide” – the subjugation and eradication of all traditional knowledges worldwide? Shiv Visvanathan (2005) criticizes the western concept of “universal human rights” as ambiguous and vague, because it is “incomplete without the equilibrating harmony of duties”; “a panopticon of guarantees rather than an invention of possibilities”; and it is unclear whether it is “individual or collective”. He advocates what he calls “cognitive justice”, because only a coexistence and dialogue of different knowledges can guarantee a survival of a plurality of cultures and the establishment of global democracy.


    The concept of knowledge democracy sounds convincing: Would not a variety of epistemologies and a respectful and critical discourse lead to a more profound understanding of the world around us? Plus, a better recognition of the cultural heritages of humankind? I have asked myself whether I could find concrete and practical examples which show the value, usefulness and perhaps the superiority of alternative knowledges over modern science (Stern, 2019).

    Complementary medicine is one of those examples. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is based on a holistic theory of five “elements” – wood, fire, earth, metal and water – the harmony of the two principles of yin-yang, and energy flows connecting inner organs, earlobes and the soles of the feet. There is debatably no empirical basis for these philosophical constructs, but diagnoses by examining the surface of the tongue or therapy by acupuncture with needles according to these notions prove to be effective in recognizing and treating all kinds of diseases and pains. Many physicians in Europe and in Asia compromise and rely on both scientific medicine and TCM or the Indian Ayurveda tradition. An intercultural combination of two different approaches seems to them a pragmatic strategy for treating maladies in spite of their apparent conceptual incompatibility.

    Ethnobotany is another example where the sciences of biology and ethnology are learning from the impressive traditional knowledge of indigenous tribes in the Amazon region. The anthropologist Mark Plotkin (1994) insists that without the native epistemologies rooted in magical beliefs and spiritual relationships to jungle plants the healing power of some of the most effective natural drugs would never have been discovered.

    Ethnomathematics is the study of geometric patterns and their algebraic representation in indigenous art as found in weavings in South America or wall pictures on buildings in South Asia or in dance rituals or juggling acrobatics on some Pacific islands. This area of study not only expands the pluralistic notion of knowledge systems, but has also inspired mathematics education in South Africa, Mozambique and Brazil (Gerdes, 1988).

    The Australian aborigines perceive the world spiritually. Their trance-like dreamtime Alcheringa conveys imaginings and myths about rocks, deserts and sources which are depicted in their unique paintings. Their epistemology is holistic. Plants, animals and the earth are seen as deeply interconnected. The humans are guardians of their cohabitation. They communicate with nature and with other humans by listening silently with open minds and are responsible for a planetary harmony. Western analytical philosophy and natural science could learn from the aborigines how to think about ecological equilibrium and ethical behaviour. Science and technology on the other hand can offer means for the Australian tribes to survive in their desperate fight against draughts and bush fires (Voigt & Drury, 1997).

    Traditional knowledge systems can thus be a true supplement and enrichment for scientific research and vice versa.  


    Research projects and social activism in countries of the Global South as well as in the Global North can collaborate in a common struggle to overcome injustice, narrow-mindedness and violence worldwide and contribute to a better mutual understanding and appreciation between different cultures.

    Jaha Dukureh, a young woman from Gambia, joined a feminist group in the USA, which encouraged her to reconsider her country’s tradition of female genital mutilation including her own traumatic experience with it. She and her comrades founded a Gambian NGO to spread information about the harmful consequences of FGM for the health, the physical integrity and the sexuality of women, to negotiate with influential Muslim clerics and local politicians, until eventually the president of Gambia declared a ban (Lyons, 2015).

    The Pakistani student activist Malala Yousafzai advocated for girls’ rights to school education, became the victim of an assassination attempt by Muslim fundamentalists and after her recovery was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for continuing her fight for education for everyone with her slogan “books not bullets”. Malala Yousafzai and Jaha Dukureh are examples of how people of the Global South can fight successfully for equal rights and emancipation against prejudices and injustice in their societies by gaining support from activists in the Global North (

    Scientists and politicians in Europe and North America on the other hand can learn from both traditional and modern societies in the southern hemisphere about natural medicine, ecological responsibility and conflict resolution. When in South Africa the racist apartheid policy was abandoned and the freedom fighters were released from prison, no revenge campaign or civil war ensued, but the newly elected government under President Nelson Mandela designed an exemplary constitution based on equal rights and social justice. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established in order to document and publicize gross human rights violations by inviting victims of violence and oppression to tell about their experiences. Perpetrators could also give testimony and if honest and remorseful were offered amnesty from prosecution. The aim was to make the crimes against humanity in the past years visible, reconcile the persons concerned and move forward to a peaceful future for all ( This model of conflict resolution has been copied in several other countries with histories of hostility, oppression and violence, e.g. Canada, Guatemala, Honduras and Sierra Leone.

    Reconciliation and convergence are common goals of humankind in the Global North and South, and Knowledge Democracy can be a main contribution towards achieving these goals, if it succeeds in generating and developing knowledge by drawing on all kinds of epistemologies, by fostering cross-cultural learning from each other and by keeping the common goal in mind – freedom, equity, justice, solidarity, respect and prosperity for all beings on a habitable planet (Rowell & Hong 2017).


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    de Sousa Santos, B. (2007a) (Ed.). Another Knowledge is Possible: Beyond Northern Epistemologies.

    de Sousa Santos, B. (2007b). Beyond Abyssal Thinking: From Global Lines to Ecologies of Knowledges. Review (Fernand Braudel Center), 45-89.

    Fals Borda, O., & Moncayo, V.M. (2009). Una Sociología Sentipensante para América Latina . Bogota: Siglo del hombre. pp. 9-19.

    Gerdes, P. (1988). On Culture, Geometrical Thinking and Mathematics Education. Educational studies in mathematics, 19(2), 137-162.

    Hall, B. & Tandon, R. (2017). Decolonization of Knowledge, Epistemicide, Participatory Research and Higher Education. Research for All, Vol 1 No 1 pp 6-19

    La Barbera, M.C. (2009). Revisiting the Anti-Female Genital Mutilation Discourse. Diritto & questioni pubbliche, 9, 485f.

    Lombia + Co. (2021). The Mythical Spider Behind Waayuu Bags (Walekeru).

    Lyons, K. (2015).  The Gambia Bans Female Genital MutilationThe Guardian, 24 Nov.2015.

    Plotkin, M.J. (1994). Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice: An Ethnobotanist Searches for New Medicines in the Rain Forest. London: Penguin.

    Rowell, L.L., & Hong, E. (2017). Knowledge Democracy and Action Research: Pathways for the Twenty-First Century. In Rowell, L.L., Bruce, C.D., Shosh, J.M., & Riel, M.M. (Eds.). The Palgrave International Handbook of Action Research, 63-83. NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Rowell, L. (2022). The 2017 Cartagena Assembly: An Introduction of SPF Series. Social Publishers Foundation.

    Stern, T. (2019). Participatory Action Research and the Challenges of Knowledge Democracy. Educational Action Research, 27(3), 435-451.

    Tollefson, J. (2020). How Trump Damaged Science—And Why It Could Take Decades to Recover. Nature, 586(7828), 190-194.

    UNESCO (2008). Cultural space of Palenque de San Basilio.

    Visvanathan, S. (2005). Knowledge, Justice and Democracy. In: Leach, M., Scoones, I. & Wynne, B. (eds.). Science and Citizens: Globalization and the Challenge of Engagement. London: Zed Books.

    Voigt, A. & Drury, N. (1997). Wisdom of the Earth: The Living Legacy of the Aboriginal Dreamtime. East Roseville, NSW, Australia: Simon & Schuster.

    To cite this work, please use the following reference:

    Stern, T. (2023, February 4). Second thoughts about knowledge democracy. . Social Publishers Foundation.

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