Part 2: Reflections on the 2017 Cartagena Assembly for Knowledge Democracy
Action research is opening up communicative spaces for people to participate on equal terms to deal with practical problems and to liberate themselves from subjugating powers (Kemmis, 1981). Ideally, this opening up spurs reform processes and social movements towards a better society (Gustavsen, 1992). A core dimension of this development is more inclusive and democratic epistemic relations, where people with different forms of knowledge and expertise (e.g. Heron & Reason) can meet, contribute, learn and co-create knowledge on equal terms. It goes beyond prevailing elitist epistemic relations, where some individuals or groups, often people in academia, are assumed to have a privileged position in terms of knowledge and scholarship.
Such relations, determining whose expertise counts, are also fundamental for democracy. It is the knowledge democracy dimensions that in different ways are embedded as aspirations in the theories and practices of different variants of participatory and action research as well as other epistemically more “populist” and pluralistic quarters of society like in postcolonial, indigenous, feminist, popular education and open science ideologies and practices.
The 2017 Global Assembly on Knowledge Democracy was an extraordinary communicative space to open up. It was an attempt at networking between people and networks in the AR/PR/PAR domain where the vision of knowledge democracy was put forward as a possible focus for a common movement. The invitation to write an essay about the Assembly inspired me to recall and explore the meaning and significance of my experience at the event, and to reencounter some pictures I took at the one-day gathering.
What issues were raised? What did I learn from the event? What were the outcomes? What did I learn concerning knowledge democracy? Overall, I have had difficulties clarifying the meaning and the significance of the Assembly. The processes and dynamics of the assembly were decentralized to smaller groups, so most of what was emerging was beyond what I could understand and grasp. Furthermore, there were no particular outcomes or common declarations from the event. It was a meeting, an exchange and networking between people in the global action research community that took place over a few hours of exploring issues of common concern guided by the idea of knowledge democracy.
A First Challenge
The realization of the event, seen as an experiment in initiating and organizing global networking and giving traction to an epistemically conscious social movement in the context of an international action research community, was in my view unique and historically significant. At the same time, it surfaced the practical conditions and challenges for organizing assemblies seeking to bridge epistemic divides. The Assembly, and the larger ARNA conference which preceded it, was arranged at a large conference center in the center of Cartagena, requiring conference organizers to find sufficient funding for the event, including participant fees. This arrangement implied that the ability to pay conference fees, as well as to cover travel and accommodation expenses, determined inclusion and exclusion in the assembly. This raised visible protest at the conference as it meant it was “the dollar” that determined attendance (see Photo 1).
Photo 1. Protest at the conference as it meant it was “the dollar” that determined attendance
In the course of the ARNA conference the organizers were themselves under severe fiscal challenges; nevertheless, in a late decision during the conference ARNA leaders announced that they would open the First Global Assembly for Knowledge Democracy to more local participation for a fee “based on what a participant was able to pay.” This decision attempted to address the tension between the required funding model based on conference fees for organizing the assembly and the required openness and accessibility for participation implied in calling the event a democratized forum for people from different ecologies of knowledges globally to meet. The movement towards knowledge democracy is challenging!
It was a bit ironic that the keynote speaker for the Assembly and a conceptual inspiration for the event, Boaventura de Sousa Santos, pointed out that this was not a global assembly in itself because of the restriction in attendance but more of a step towards such a global assembly.
Emerging Processes within Epistemic Divides
I found the way people interacted and related at the Assembly significant and beyond what is common at conferences, also including singing and dancing. People initially sat at roundtables collaboratively trying to formulate and visualize the important future oriented issues of knowledge democratization pointed out by de Sousa Santos as well as the Assembly facilitators. Increasingly, as the event unfolded, participants also walked around the large room we occupied. I did the same, exploring what was emerging, and in search for, identifying and visualizing common grounds and developing acquaintances and social bonds as relational resources for future efforts.
It was indeed a meeting between Global North and Global South. Boaventura’s interesting research has framed the interaction in knowledge production in the context of a critique of western science, commonly linked to the Global North, with its history of subjugating epistemologies of the South (2014). But people, like me, from the Global North, also have worked in the spirit of action research critical of western science and its academic institutions that generally are marginalizing action research and confining it to smaller islands and pockets in the academic system. How can these parallel critiques be reconciled, or can they?
The real barrier for me at the assembly was the language barrier – I know English but not Spanish. The barrier was not Western science. I see myself as part of a group of (global north) cosmopolitans who were engaging in the assembly as a unique opportunity for exchange and mingling between diverse cultures also having epistemic dimensions. Enlightenment as a pluralistic process of Bildung, to use a Swedish term, emerges from such diversity in the spirit of “openness to the other” as Foucault would put it. But as a North-South meeting, the Assembly reflected the tensions of such diversity, as one issue formulated indicated (see Photo 2):
Photo 2. The Assembly reflected the tensions of diversity
As I was not part of the specific interactions reflected in this statement – I presume conducted in Spanish – it was beyond my grasp. I am left with the acknowledgement that I would have been happy to know more about the processes of dialogue which took place among Latin-American participants, and how this process might have been connected to Global North participants.
In hindsight I recognize that I largely missed the opportunity of a dialogue, and maybe living confrontation and/or development of a shared understanding, across these epistemic North-South divides also evident at the assembly. To develop some real and directly experienced insights into “epistemologies of the South” in encounter with those of the North would have been most rewarding. It is easy to believe that one is “open to the other”, but maybe my openness is still prejudiced and restricted, e.g. by assumptions from western science of the Global North, and is something to be discovered and critiqued in living dialogue with others coming from alternative local, indigenous ecologies. Perhaps the limited time frame for the assembly set a limit on engaging in such epistemically sensitive dialogue, including recognition of myself also as local and indigenous in a Swedish context meeting with and mutually recognizing others positioned in other epistemic contexts. These thoughts touch on the problem of translation between knowledge ecosystems as well as the needs of language translation within efforts to develop intellectual and socio-political relations within a Knowledge Democracy Space.
Yet overall, in hindsight the opportunity to meet with Boaventura and other scholars and activists in the striving for knowledge democracy was for me quite significant (see Photo 3).
Photo 3. Boaventura de Sousa Santos (4th from the left) is a much loved scholar among activists and scholar-activists in the Global South
I also was glad to meet with Budd Hall and Rajesh Tandon in the course of the ARNA conference and at the Assembly (see Photo 4). Hall and Tandon are activist-scholars who first picked up knowledge democracy as a name for an aspiration and movement as a continuation of the Participatory Research that they have been forefronting since the 1970s. They have pinpointed basic motivations for the concept of knowledge democracy, as (1) Recognition of multiple epistemologies, (2) Being attentive to social, creative and arts-based ways of creating knowledge, (3) Recognition of lived experience, social movements and community organizing as sources of knowledge, (4) The centrality of people’s knowledge to political and cultural change, (5) Respect of the ownership rights of Indigenous Peoples of their own cultural and linguistic knowledge, and (6) Support for free open access sharing of knowledge as a principle of open science.
Photo 4. Budd Hall (4th from the left, with this article’s author to his left) and Rajesh Tandon (last person on the Right) at the Assembly
Budd and Rajesh could connect to the Swedish and Scandinavian tradition of “Folk-Bildung” – popular education – democratic citizen learning in study circles – that they have been acquainted with for many years. For me, the interaction with Budd and Rajesh was a circling back to the foundation of the Swedish SPARC community (Swedish Participatory Action Research Community) with a focus on research circles as a way to do PAR. I also had the opportunity to meet again with Lonnie Rowell, a leading force in ARNA, the lead organizer of the Assembly, and a major contributor to the further work with knowledge democracy in ARNA and beyond (see Photo 5).
Photo 5. ARNA’s Lonnie Rowell was the Conference and Global Assembly Co-Chair and lead organizer of the Assembly
Looking Ahead: Building on the First Assembly
Knowledge democracy focuses the critique of western science on the suppression and even killing of indigenous and localized knowledge ecologies – epistemicide is the term de Sousa Santos uses – by the Global North and includes particularly the denigration of the wide range of experiential, practice-based knowing of people beyond academic systems.
What is the alternative to epistemicide? One topic and concern I was actively involved in formulating at the roundtables directly related to the critique of western science was the need for and the character of a modified or new form of science, a better science. A key element of this new form of science would be to transform research institutions and paradigms of science in order for research to be a strong force for action to solve community problems. Another proposal put forward was for academics and scholar-activists to use our ´position of relative power´ to build spaces where knowledge democracy can grow and flourish (see Photos 6 and 7).
Photos 6 and 7. Ideas that emerged at the round tables were written down on large sheets of paper
A key feature of developing new relations at the Assembly was the use of the ‘working papers’ developed at the round tables. The signing of email addresses showed that there were allies in this effort, a comforting dimension from the Assembly. The added comment on one of the sheets is revealing; the original statement was produced in a discussion among a smaller group of English-speaking participants at the Assembly. Again surfacing language barriers in communications, another participant then took on the task of translation. As localized knowledge ecosystems most often are embedded in localized language and communicative practices, for knowledge democracy to flourish requires strong translation capacities. Also needed is a capacity for mutual recognition to understand relevant structures that reveal the meaning and significance of knowledge claims in the context of cultures, identities, forms of living and diverse viewpoints.
In walking around, I noticed that the most impressive visualization of knowledge democratization interactions at the Assembly was made in Spanish. This banner-length product was completed by a graphic event recorder from Bogota, Colombia, who had been contracted with by the Assembly organizers (see Photo 8). As a non-Spanish speaker I was at the time unable to understand most of the content. In hindsight, I would have been happy if the picture could also have been described in English by someone participating in its construction!
Photo 8. The event documentation by “Dr. Pencil” of Bogota, Colombia
At present, recalling memories and looking at pictures I took from the Conference and Assembly again, I recognize that it inspired further exchange, meetings, learning and writing processes. It has inspired several conference initiatives by ARNA, CARN, ALARA and SPARC, as well as a number of publications. I also recognize that I have myself been working on the two topics I was engaged in formulating at the event, although without using the possibility of mutual engagement of people from the list of email addresses. I had at the time thought that the Assembly organizers would communicate further concerning all material produced at the Assembly. But I recognize now that I could also have used the email addresses to establish a “community of inquiry.” Maybe this initiative is still meaningful to do?
On Creating a Better Science. Ultimately, I did not get from the Assembly a clearer understanding of knowledge democracy, but have since then worked to formulate my own clarification of it and what “a better science” would mean (Lindhult & Axelsson, 2021; Lindhult, 2022). The assembly was founded on conversations, including those taking place as a part of the organizing for both the ARNA conference and the Assembly. I believe the notion of dialogic points of departure is fundamental for knowledge democracy, including action research in its many variants as an important epistemic carrier, as well as a reformed science (Eikeland, 2008; Lindhult, 2021 ). Democratic dialogue is crucial, to emphasize that multiple forms of knowing by people should be able to come together as a part of meeting, exchanging and combining ideas – on equal terms as examples of epistemic justice. Knowledge democracy means co-productive relations between people with different expertise and embeddedness in different contexts and ecologies of knowing.
There are different views on the scope of change needed, i.e. informative, reformative or transformative change of science in order to make it more democratic (Lindhult, 2022), and these differences can inform future dialogic encounters An informative view focuses on better access and wider opportunity to participate in a more open science, but in principle no fundamental change in the understanding of science itself. A reformative view assumes that more participatory and collaborative practices and methods could and should be added to make science more interactive, more inclusive and more valid. A transformative view recognizes fundamental structural issues and power distribution and calls for fundamental reshaping of science in relation to its practice, assumptions and cultural positioning.
What is the character of a more co-productive science, and what is its implication for knowledge democratization? In Lindhult (2022), I made an attempt to clarify and synthesize important dimensions of “a better science” where knowledge democracy is a fundamental ingredient (see Table 1). I hope this work will spur some further critical and creative discussions.
Logic of co-productive research approaches and its significance for knowledge democracy (Lindhult, 2022)
On Constructing Knowledge Democracies. I have also worked on the second issue together with others, i.e. “to use our ´position of relative power´ to build spaces where knowledge democracy can grow and flourish”. It is particularly the ‘position’ in the action research community that I together with colleagues have used as a platform for supporting the growth of knowledge democracy.
In the Swedish setting I have furthered discussions and co-arranged events on knowledge democracy in the context of SPARC (Swedish Participatory Action Research Community) both before and after the Cartagena assembly. This work resonates with the SPARC vision of developing a PAR educational/PhD program in “Democratic knowledge and change processes” open not only for PhD students but all professionals and citizens wanting to learn and make attempts at PAR. It means creating spaces as well as building capacities for knowledge democracy in Swedish university systems, and to widen these spaces into a ‘pluriversities and subversities’ structure (Santos, 2017) connecting to the Swedish Folk High School and Folk Bildung tradition and settings. A particular work form for PAR furthering knowledge democracy inspired by the Folk Bildung tradition is research circles, an approach that SPARC is in different ways supporting and enabling (Holmstrand, Härnsten & Löwstedt, 2008). Knowledge democracy has also been a topic at annual conferences of SPARC, for example in inviting a former Swedish minister of culture for co-reflection on the meaning and significance of knowledge democracy.
I have also taken up the issue of a second global assembly as an opportunity in Sweden or elsewhere in Scandinavia. There are difficult challenges with this issue. For example, the price level of such a gathering, including the expenses of adequate translation equipment and services, would increase the cost barrier for participating. Would an online social media approach be a way to deal with these issues? To be sure, but it also requires sufficient administrative capacity and funding and is thus a bit daunting for a small community like SPARC to take on. It requires broader international collaboration across friends of and activists for knowledge democracy.
In the international context the emergence of the Knowledge Democracy Initiative Global Group (KDIGG), originally organized by Lonnie Rowell as a follow up to the 2017 Cartagena Assembly, has for me been decisive. A prehistory was my meeting with Lonnie at the 2016 CARN conference in Lincoln, UK, where we discussed ARNA’s preliminary plans for a 2017 first global assembly of knowledge democracy to be convened In Cartagena as an historic celebration of the two earlier PAR conferences in Cartagena in 1977 and 1997 organized by Orlando Fals Borda, a leading Colombian scholar and founder of PAR.
At the 2019 CARN-ALARA conference in Split, Croatia Olav Eikeland was invited into the discussion on knowledge democracy, adding philosophical depths to the conversation through his long-term effort of recovering the extended, dialogical and practice-based epistemology of Aristotle as support of today’s action research discourse and its theory of science foundation. In May 2021 Olav and I arranged an open webinar in a SPARC course on participatory research, where Budd Hall, Olav Eikeland and Lonnie Rowell contributed. After this event the KDIGG group was reorganized, with the addition of Ruth Balogh, long term convenor and leader of CARN. The group then initiated a series of dialogues on knowledge democracy, including an extended workshop at the Online “CARNival”, on Aristotelian (Olav) and democratic (Erik) points of departure for knowledge democracy. Since then, the group has convened workshops on knowledge democracy at four conferences during 2022; The GoPar conference in April, The ARNA conference in late June, the IJAR conference in Istanbul in early October and the CARN conference in late October.
In 2022 KDIGG also added two more members: Carmen Martinez-Vargas, then in South Africa and now in the Netherlands, and Malida Mooken, originally from Mauritius and now at the University of British Colombia. They have added decolonial dimensions and global south perspectives to the group originally formed by four “Northerners.” I am glad to be part of what we have fondly referred to as a “travelling circus” of events to open up dialogues on knowledge democracy at different conferences. Enacting experiments in communicative and dialogic practices has been our current focus, with the purpose of furthering engagement with the topic of knowledge democracy among a wide range of participants as well as developing ideas and experience on the nature of knowledge democratic practices. Looking back to the Global Assembly, the suggestions for dialogue are still relevant as reminders to us (see Photo 9).
Photo 9. Dialogue Reminders at the Global Assembly
The Challenge of Time. The greatest concern in opening up dialogues on knowledge democracy has been time. There has never been enough time for the work we have undertaken, both in the sense of conveying understanding and concerns about knowledge democracy to session participants, providing space for people to express their experiences and concerns, and summarizing the experiences in the workshops. It is not only that workshops at conferences are normally not given more space than 1-1.5 hours. I think this challenge also points to the complexity of the Bildungsgeschichten, the localized learning histories of people for whom the dialogues just scratch the surface of complex issues. It takes time to find connecting points and fusion between our horizons of understanding, experience and Bildung, as Gadamer (1975) puts it. But it is only through ongoing, never-ending dialogue that our different vantage points can meet and challenge our respective preunderstandings so that our mutual processes of Bildung can then advance.
One recognition for me from the KDIGG dialogues is that coming to the area of action research is not only about learning alternative research methods and competencies but is also about the identity construction paths of researchers, including the power influences found in the work of researchers and the impact of profound critiques of prevailing assumptions on what it means to be “scientific” as conveyed by dominant academic institutions. Memories bubble up of my own long term reflective struggle to construct an action research dissertation based on my experience in working with Björn Gustavsen on the democratic dialogue approach to action research (Gustavsen, 1992; Lindhult, 2021). I liken my struggle with the infamous Baron von Münchausen´s deed of lifting himself and his horse up from a swamp by his own hair (see Photo 10).
Photo 10. Münchausen pulling himself out of the swamp by his hair[i]
For me this memory also harkens back to the issue of time at the Global Assembly in relation to the sharing of experiences to connect and create a common learning and action space for knowledge democracy. The groups at the roundtables were supposed to start the discussion guided by a set of questions (see Photo 11). I remember the second round of questions on our different ecologies of knowledge and their relations as quite complex and something that the group passed through with limited clarification, going for action possibilities instead. The time for the groups to epistemically connect was limited, and also for working out common action alternatives and committing to realizing something. We had landed, so to speak, in an epistemological swamp and were bogged down.
Photo 11. Guiding questions for roundtable discussions at the Global Assembly
The Challenge of Decolonization. I have pointed to the challenges in initiating dialogues on knowledge democracy. Another challenge is to clarify what it is. Budd Hall at the 2021 SPARC webinar contributed with a talk on “Knowledge Democracy, and the Decolonisation of knowledge,” synthesizing his developed formulation and graphic display of the concerns, ways of thinking and social movement he sees embedded in knowledge democracy. Budd’s six principles have been a point of departure for the emerging KDIGG group, something the group has sought to work further on.
First, we recognize but do not identify with the mainstream characterization of western science as Santos and Hall depict it. To be sure, Western science and academic institutions are dominant in knowledge production, and have been, and still are, suppressing and killing local knowledge ecosystems (Santos, 2014). But people working in the traditions of action research tend to be critical of the dominant, positivist, streaks of western science. Thus, we recognize its epistemic suppressions, as we join in a struggle to emancipate action research from elitist knowledge systems. At the same time western science is a plural tradition also including conceptual resources and practices such as Deweyian Pragmatism, critical theory tradition, constructivism and Aristotelianism helpful for understanding science in ways that are more supportive of knowledge democracy.
An emerging insight for me from this is that to decolonialize knowledge and science we need to decolonialize ourselves in the sense of recognizing our own nativeness, positionality, cultural natality and complex path of self-formation and Bildung. For myself I have reclaimed my nativeness as an indigenous Swede grown up in rural Sweden and its on the whole egalitarian and democratic culture, and steeped in dialogue-based democratic action research and a coproductive and collaborative type of academic culture. This is a crucial background for my engagement with knowledge democracy.
Language is the medium for clarification and reconstruction of these processes of self-formation. Words are deeds where practice gives words their meaning, as Wittgenstein said. Words are also powers of understanding, persuasion and liberation, such as in the Freirean naming of situated experience, consciousness raising and construction of identity. In the face of dominant views on western science we are in a war with words and the struggle to define their content and practices, like “knowledge”, being “scientific”, “democracy” and “epistemic justice”. Santos is distinguishing epistemologies of the South and the North, but we also should be careful with dichotomies of Northern and Southern epistemologies (Bagga-Gupta, 2020) or in identifying ourselves as ‘cosmopolitan’ and trying to go beyond our nativeness. Cosmopolitanism tends to propagate images of identity as decontextualized women and men “of the world”, and of the other as parochial, narrow-minded, unsophisticated and illiberal.
In these dangers of words and our struggle for our own Bildung, the common exploration, mutual learning, reflection and humour in the KDIGG group in the search for the meaning and significance of knowledge democracy is quite helpful, supporting the successive formulation and clarification of the different views of the participants in the group. I am looking forward to the further work and discussions of the group, successively articulated in writing as well as our own, now interrelated, Bildungsgeschichten as well as its further development as a shared movement.
Concluding reflection on the wider significance of knowledge democracy
The Cartagena Assembly was as I see it an event, an experiment in global exchange to spur networking to develop common grounds and social relations for progressing towards knowledge democracy. For me it also spurred further reflection seeking to better clarify its meaning and significance. Knowledge democracy has wider significance beyond action research, science and the status of academic communities. Knowledge democracy is pointing to epistemic rights as an important dimension of human rights; the right to have one´s expertise acknowledged, and for one’s knowledge claims to be considered and critiqued on equal terms as a basis for their place in wise decision-making and action – the collective as well as distributed phronesis of one´s community. The significance also includes recognition of the importance of research and learning systems that support different knowledge ecologies, academic as well as professional and native.
Basic in my formulation is dialogue and exchange among people on equal terms, the discussion of humankind we might say, along with Dewey (1954). Democracy is about the discussions, deliberations and the will of the people. Ideally, all these are based on sound knowledge. The connecting point is the wisdom of people collectively, where knowledge democracy is that dimension where the different knowledges are recognized, mobilized, reasonably combined and further co-created. This is often a weak spot in democratic practices, where the power – and wisdom – of the people is reduced to populism under the sway of the rhetoric of demagogues. Aristotle and the Greeks saw the danger of dialectics/dialogics reduced to rhetorics, the risk of Trumpism where persuasive stories disguised as truth are constructed from the self-interest of demagogues. It is a paradox of democracy that free speech and communication, a foundation of democracy, where science and common Bildung is progressing based on the diverse development of experience and dialogue among people, is diverted from truth saying to the power of rhetoric (Gershberg & Illing, 2022). It is ironic, but in the face of modern-day examples not strange, that democracy as articulated by Aristotle is at risk of becoming mob rule, something that must be tempered by constitutional rules as well as life and learning processes of the people, and by the virtue of both leaders and citizens, to be viable as good government.
Knowledge democracy can be recognized as part of a movement towards creative, dialogic democracy where active citizen participation in communication and inquiry becomes collaborative creativity and empowerment of individuals, publics as well as communities (Dewey, 1954; Follett, 1930; Hafting & Lindhult, 2013). Kant (1996) in his optimistic view of enlightenment assumed that freedom and the courage of people to use one’s reason in public was all that was needed for the progress of collective wisdom. Sapere aude! – dare to be wise, have courage to use your own understanding, was a motto of enlightenment. It is quite in line with the strong sense of the dialogic foundation of good government in Aristotle and Greek thought as koinopolis (Eikeland, 2008). Eikeland recognizes it as a seventh dialogical constitution, a primary co-reflective logic which as a Trojan horse operates as a potentially transcending and developing element in all forms of government, integrating us as citizens and good/moral beings (Eikeland, 2022: 263). Knowledge democracy can be a Freirean praxis force in operation to transform existing research and educational institutions and intersecting them within all spheres of life (Bacal, 2022). It means that we recognize that knowledge democracy is a critical dimension in democratic relations, governance and constitutions. In this sense, we should strive for broad global alliances for knowledge democracy that include institutions of science, democratically reformed and as a defence of basic norms of inquiry, where knowledge democracy is the just and fair recognition of the distributed expertise and knowledges of people as well as the enabling of truth saying and the critique of claims to truth on equal terms.
[i] According to Munchausen, “from time to time, a thinking person must simply pull himself out of a swamp by his hair”. See https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/lessons-from-munchausen-strategic-thinking-numbers-syndrome-dulkys-/
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To cite this work, please use the following reference:
Lindhult, E. (2023, February 4). Towards democratic epistemis relatons – reflections on the Global Assembly in Cartagena 2017 and beyond. Social Publishers Foundation. https://www.socialpublishersfoundation.org/knowledge_base/towards-democratic-epistemic-relations-reflections-on-the-global-assembly-in-cartagena-2017-and-beyond/