Towards knowledge democracy – Scandinavian examples

By Erik Lindhult

    Towards knowledge democracy – Scandinavian examples

    About the Author

    Erik Lindhult
    Senior Lecturer in Innovation Management and Entrepreneurship
    Västerås, SE
    2 Articles Published
    Erik Lindhult

    ERIK LINDHULT is senior lecturer in innovation management and entrepreneurship at Mälardalen University in Sweden. His main area of research is participatory, collaborative and democratic innovation and action research, as well as entrepreneurship for sustainable development of society. He is long term researcher and educator in participatory/democratic approaches to research, including in the national PAR research education program of the Swedish Participatory Action Research Society (SPARC). His dissertation was on Nordic dialogue democratic approach and tradition applied to action research in work life and regional development. Recent publications include methodological and epistemological issues in moving towards a more collaborative, democratic science, as well as systemic and social innovation. Erik is engaged in the lively Scandinavian tradition of action research in different variants and its integration with global developments in participatory approaches and democratization of knowledge and research including collaborations with networks such as ALARA, ARNA, CARN, ISA and EURAM. He is part of ongoing initiatives to further dialogues and the knowledge democracy movement. He is board member of the Swedish Participatory Action Research Society (SPARC), Swedish Interactive Research Association (SIRA), and is engaged in ISA, RC10 Participation, Organizational Democracy and Self-management, and ALARA.

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    In this essay about knowledge democracy, I delineated how Scandinavians have worked toward knowledge democracy, including Research Circles and the Scandinavian popular education tradition, the impact of dialogue conferences, and industrial democracy as process. Understandings of the power of knowledge and beliefs in democracy by Scandinavians have been at the foundation of knowledge democracy and have become a source of lasting efforts toward democratizing knowledge production and dissemination. In an American context, I discussed integrating with John Dewey´s collaborative vision of creative, dialogic democracy as a good point of departure for broad alliances in a movement towards democratization of knowledge and inquiry.

    Towards Knowledge Democracy – Scandinavian Examples

    There is a wide variety of ways of doing science in a more democratic way. It means shifts in practices and guiding ideas, as well as enabling contexts in terms of institutions and traditions. These shifts in orientation and practice are sometimes conceptualized and specified into methodology and approaches to scientific inquiry.

    From my own Scandinavian context with a deep tradition of democratizing strivings in science and research a rich tapestry of strategic orientations can be recognized (Gunnarsson, Hansen, Nielsen, & Sriskandarajah, 2015). There is a long tradition of popular education through study circles and folk high schools in democratic, self-educational forms with similarities to Freirean pedagogy, also inspiring the development of a methodology of “research circles” in the 1970s (Holmstrand, Härnsten, & Löwstedt, 2008). Further steps were taken around 2010 in building a national PhD/research education programme in “Democratic knowledge and change processes” initiated by SPARC (Swedish Participatory Action Research Community) and open for all citizens as a way to disseminate Participatory Action Research (PAR) norms and methodology. From broad national strivings to democratize working life, a dialogic tradition of doing action research based on broad participation of all concerned, with dialogue on equal terms – democratic dialogue – was developed (Eikeland, 2008; Gustavsen, 1992; Lindhult, 2021; Pålshaugen, 2014) in line with the principle of participation described by Fals-Borda and Rahman (1991). From a tradition of participatory community development a critical utopian approach to action research, for example, through citizens engaging in future workshops, was developed (Egmose et al., 2020) with similarities to the community PR approaches of Hall and Tandon (2017). In participatory design a collective resource approach to design of com­puter artifacts was developed from the 1970s – an attempt to widen the design process to include trade union activities and the explicit goal of industrial democracy in design and use as well as in democratizing design processes with marginalized social movements (Bjerknes, Ehn, & Kyng, 1987; Björgvinsson, Ehn, & Hillgren, 2012). In addition, there are strong and plural traditions of practice-based research, for example, in the form of interactive research (Svensson et al, 2007), the work of a prominent Nordic Network for Action Research in the educational domain with a point of departure in democratic values focusing on indigenous Nordic educational concepts like Bildung, folk enlightenment and dialogue (Rönnerman et al., 2016), as well as ongoing evaluation research (Brulin & Svensson, 2012). These strivings enrich the movement towards knowledge democracy.

    I will briefly describe two significant methodological developments in the Swedish and Norwegian context — Research circles and Dialogue conferences to illustrate what movement towards knowledge democracy can mean in practice. These methodologies at the same time are energized through values and ideals of knowledge production as a striving to realize the utopian content of Scandinavian democratic and egalitarian tradition (Lindhult, 2015).

    Research Circles and Scandinavian Popular Education Tradition

    Research circles and the research circle approach (RCA) as flexible methodology builds on “study circles,” a well-established education tradition with roots in the modernization of Swedish society. Already in the middle of the 19th century there were workers who arranged educational circles. From the beginning, it was a strong democratic project founded in the labor movement and with the aim of raising the level of knowledge of the citizens. Characteristic is the method of free conversation, which replaced traditional lesson teaching. The prime minister Olof Palme in the 1970s once called Sweden a ‘study circle democracy’ indicating the learning value of reasoning and learning together, institutionalized in the organization of folk-bildung (combination of the education and knowledge necessary to thrive in society, the moral and emotional maturity to both be a team player and have personal autonomy, and knowing your roots and being able to imagine the future[i]) and folk high schools providing a broad range of popular education in the study circle format. The circles are founded on two basic values. One is a belief in the power of knowledge. In the study circle, you gain knowledge and experience in dialogue. The other is a belief in democracy, in the sense that a better society can be built if everyone has a voice and is allowed to participate. The idea of research circles is based on the democratic learning tradition and norms of study circles, extending and deepening the learning processes into participatory and action oriented knowledge development typically by including a researcher. A research circle is a study circle where a researcher plays an important role as a source of knowledge, as a liaison to academic knowledge, and as an organizer. Today the research circles are an important methodology in the Swedish PAR community SPARC and its national research education program on Democratic knowledge and change processes.

    In contrast to traditional views on action research as enabling experimentation, the research circles’ justification for participation is that it improves democratic process by creating and sharing knowledge. Practitioners are assumed to participate in research circles in order to gain knowledge to be better equipped to influence the system of action they are part of, be it a business, a hospital, or a local community. The study circle approach does not make a distinction between managers and workers or between the resourceful and the disadvantaged; all can take part in the circle. This is in line with what can be called a more pragmatic, northern tradition compared to a more critical southern tradition where researchers work specifically with marginalized groups and their cultures supporting consciousness-raising as part of mobilizing, resistance and struggles against subjugating powers of elites (Brown & Tandon, 1983; Johansson & Lindhult, 2008). The more collaborative orientation may be viable in the context of a more democratic and egalitarian tradition of Scandinavia, where those in power are also influenced by shared democratic values and are thus willing to meet people on equal terms, and where there is more openness for and recognition of the advantage of mobilizing the knowledge and commitments of people on the ground.

    Crucial for the work in the circle is that it reflects democratic values that allow everyone to have a say and that the more powerful participants are not there to command but to listen, learn, and explain together with others. It is by considering and utilizing the experiences and viewpoints of every participant in the circle that we can talk about “democratic” knowledge processes. At the same time an important dimension in building constructive dialogue for change is to give voice to and equalize knowledges through respecting knowledge, experiences, and conditions that have been silenced in many contexts, and enable empowerment through challenging structures that hinder development and oppress and diminish the inherent strengths and capabilities of people and groups (Holmstrand & Härnsten, 2003). This links to a southern Freirean tradition of popular and emancipatory education and participatory research and to PAR.

    Research circles can take different shapes (Holmstrand & Härnsten, 2003), but characteristic for all of them is the collaboration between practitioners and researchers and the dialogue between the different knowledge bases these two types of participants represent (cf. Holmstrand, Lindström, Löwstedt, & Englund, 1994). Arenas where different types of knowledge and experience are blended, managed, developed, challenged, and questioned can be arenas for innovative thinking. Core values in The Research Circle Approach (RCA) (Holmstrand, et al., 2008) include equal standing of researchers and practitioners, democratic views on the development of knowledge in organizations, challenge of structures that hinder development and diminish the inherent capabilities of people and groups, and deeper understanding of relevant contexts to supply grounds for action. There is no one best way—there is a wide range of ways to approach organizational problems using the RCA.

    Research circles are often small; in larger projects research circles are organized into several coordinated circles. The expertise of the researcher is to translate conceptions of problems and ideas for solutions into research questions for a scientific investigation, where the role of the researcher is to be a liaison to academic knowledge and an organizer of the discovery process. The process recognizes that there are considerable cultural gaps between the world of researchers and the day-to-day life of practitioners and that these gaps require bridging efforts. The benefits to social science of engaging in collaborative research methods such as the RCA are above all reframed research questions, radically enlarged empirical knowledge and a contextually based understanding against which theoretical perspectives can be tested. Thus, scientific knowledge will often be challenged, modified, and developed through integration of participants’ different knowledges and with the help of the collective research of the group.

    Dialogue Conferences and Industrial Democracy as Process

    An important impetus for the action research tradition in Scandinavia was concerns and debates on industrial democracy in the 1960s. Democracy cannot stop at the factory or office door. There is a need to create and implement alternatives to hierarchy and technocracy that often subjugate people to being cogs in a machinery, although they are considered free and equal citizens in the rest of society. Based on sociotechnical principles and strategies, field experiments were instituted to realize industrial democracy as a reorganization of industry from the bottom up based on autonomous group principles. Although many successful social experiments were conducted, it was recognized that the process of developing industrial democracy needs to be democratized so that there is an openness for all concerned to participate. Democratization, although with good intentions, cannot be imposed on people, but instead requires legitimation, commitment and active participation among those to be emancipated. In a process of genuine enlightenment, there can only be participants going beyond what critical or democratization theories can achieve (Habermas, 1974).

    Moreover, the lessons of the 1960s and 1970s led to a shift towards network exchange and a broad based, participatory development and action research strategy. In such a collaborative, broad participation strategy, good communication becomes the key. Democratic dialogue thus was developed as a leading practice, concept and infrastructure for implementation. It is based on theory of participatory and dialogue democracy, expressed in a set of guidelines for operationalization of democratic dialogue in communicative practice (Gustavsen, 1992).  It is a contextual interpretation of the discourse side of democracy, seen as reasonable albeit provisional considering the cultural, institutional and legal-historical trajectory of contemporary Scandinavia (Gustavsen, 1992), and also inspired by an understanding of discursive democracy (Habermas, 1984/87) going back in Western tradition to a political understanding of Greek democracy (Eikeland, 2008; Finley, 1985). Thus it can be called a dialogue democratic approach to broad based participatory reform and action research (Lindhult, 2021).

    The idea of Dialogue conferences was developed in the 1980s as a way to mobilize people broadly in organizations and clusters of organizations in open discussion on equal terms. The aim is to create links, experience exchange and network collaboration across organizational boundaries and levels, as well as generate broad participation across internal boundaries and levels in participating enterprises. The conferences operationalize a number of criteria of democratic dialogue and are typically organized in planning steps from visions to action through group discussions that integrate rich experience exchanges among participating organizations. Organizations are often represented by broad, vertical slices of perhaps 8-10 persons, as an exchange with several other organizational development groups. The conferences are also used as a way to mobilize broadly in organizations and give everybody a chance to participate and contribute to the work of organizational development. They also provide an experience of and training in participatory and dialogic democratic practices, also already more or less recognized as living theory, values and practice in the Scandinavian tradition that can be activated and further developed in other situations. The medium is an important part of the message.

    Researchers are seen as a resource in the processes supporting design and process leadership in conferences and other communicative arrangements and meetings, and also support reorganization of discussion (Pålshaugen, 2002), providing complementary knowledge in discussions and doing complementary research on issues of processes and conditions.

    An important research focus is on generative theory, that is, theory about how to create local understanding and local theory as well as collaborative efforts to transcend and transform situations and conditions. Similar to the research circle approach it is assumed that knowledges created in democratic processes are relevant in shaping the context in which the participants are situated.

    Dialogue conferences in many different forms are also used to support development of clusters, networks and development coalitions comprised of networks of networks in achieving a broad scope of parallel processes and projects that together build transformative power, critical mass for change and enforce social movements. Knowledge democratization is inherent in the ways participants experience the conferences and competence is mobilized, exchanged and developed in the collaborative processes and through the successively generated outcomes and transformations as well as the more equalized and collaborative relation to research and researchers. As in the case of the study circle approach,  dialogue conferences can point the way towards participatory democracy as an appropriate theory of science and as a point of departure for change based on a transformed understanding of effective and more democratic research practices.

    Towards Creative Democracy – Concluding Reflection

    The purpose of this essay has been to give a glimpse of a rich Scandinavian tradition in several ways striving for democratization of research practices as part of deepening democratic tradition and making research more participatory. Democratization is advancing through involving different groups of citizens as active publics in cooperative inquiry and reform, be it under the name of action research, research circles, dialogue conferences, future workshops, interactive research or participatory design. As a point of connection and progressive integration I engage an unlikely “Scandinavian,” John Dewey, as an ally. In 1938 he envisioned the road ahead as “Creative democracy – the task before us” (Dewey, 1939). Through the experience of humankind refined through communication and cooperative inquiry into science and social intelligence and into the creative development of community, “the task of democracy is forever that of creation of a freer and more humane society in which all share and to which all contribute” (Dewey, 1939, p. 230). The experiential, dialogical, communal and cooperative dimension of democratization have direct connections to different Scandinavian strands mentioned, such as the dialogue democratic approach to action research (Lindhult, 2021) and the participatory design tradition (Dixon, 2020), as well as to Vivencia approaches in Southern PAR tradition (Fals Borda, 2006) and to epistemologies of the south (Santos, 2014). 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 community (Follett, 1930; Hafting & Lindhult, 2013). It resonates intimately in our tradition with Greek thought on a seventh dialogical constitution, a primary co-reflective logic which as a Trojan horse operates as a potentially transcending and developing element integrating us as citizens and good/moral beings (Eikeland, 2022, p. 263). Such an element becomes a force in operation to transform existing research and educational institutions and intersect them with all spheres of life (Roij, 2022).

    The task of creative democracy is still before us. Dewey proposed a broad alliance between all those citizens committed to a “scientific attitude”, from chauffeurs to engineers, to action researchers and specialized scientists, in dealing with practical problems in all walks of life. Like Dewey I am committed to the assumption that all persons have the capabilities and genetic makeup to become scientific, i.e., genuinely intelligent in their ways of thinking and acting. A movement towards knowledge democracy means recognition and fair treatment of all forms of knowledge and inquiry enabling all to share and contribute, which is a unifying and visionary focus in different forms of participatory and action research (Lindhult, 2022). The urgency of working on such a broad, global alliance seems compelling in these times where knowledge and truth, and democracy that is intimately related to truth saying, is threatened by filter bubbles, sharp polarization, epistemicide, imaginary narratives, and big lies. Hopefully the Scandinavian examples can be a resource in such an alliance. In Dewey’s words just before WWII (in a time of reconnaissance, just as we now again sense the possibility of a world war), the development of creative democracy may be “the sole ultimate alternative to prejudice, dogma, authority, and coercive force exercised in behalf of some special interest” (Dewey, 1938, p. 280).


    [i] For a useful introduction see


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    To cite this work, please use the following reference:

    Lindhult, E. (2022, March 29). Toward knowledge democracy – Scandinavian examples. Social Publishers Foundation.

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