[How Do We “Know” the World Series] Part I: How can we “know” the world – and reflect on it academically?

by Lata Narayanaswamy

This post is the start of a series of reflections on critical scholarship contributed by participants of the workshop “How do we know the world” . The workshop is co-organised by Lata Narayanaswamy and Julia Schöneberg.

How do we ‘know’ the world? It is so vast a question that it feels, perhaps ironically, almost unknowable. Yet this question is not a call to take an inventory of specific facts or perspectives, but is asked in order to help frame a more critical and reflexive approach to the assumptions that underpin academic perceptions of WHAT counts as knowledge, HOW we capture and communicate that knowledge and WHO gets to both shape and present ideas as academic (read: expert) knowledge. Taken together, these reflections can, we believe, be very revealing. Whilst this should be a question we ask ourselves across all disciplines, our focus here is specifically on how this set of questions has begun to creep into the mainstream of the broader social sciences.

One important lens from which our workshop draws inspiration and through which these questions are being framed centres on the ideas of postcolonial theorists. The essential premise of scholars working in this tradition, themselves embedded variously in politics, culture, philosophy and economics, is quite simply that we will never understand the state of the world today if we do not take account of its extensive and sustained colonial past, enterprises that originated largely (though not exclusively) in Europe and touched almost every corner of the Globe over 500 years. Central to their preoccupations are how colonialism has shaped power relations that in turn create enduring perceptions of, for instance, progress, or the primacy of the West as ‘civilised’ or ‘advanced’ against a ‘backward’ or ‘poor’ developing world. And in reality, it should come as little surprise that we ‘know’ the world through the eyes of history’s winners.

In the last few years we have witnessed a ‘postcolonial turn’ in relation to questions about the historical bases for how we approach issues of knowledge (co-)production, expertise and representation and which have gained significant momentum in academic discussions. Whilst debates about ‘whose knowledge counts’ have and continue to rage in areas such as Development or Gender Studies (which in themselves are diverse academic fields rather than homogenous disciplines), questions about prevailing power and knowledge divides, represented by their respective ‘canons’, have only recently come to the fore in the wider social sciences. Disciplines such as International Relations, Cultural and Regional Studies and Politics are being challenged by movements such as ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ to confront rather than overlook colonial genealogies of contemporary politics, society and economy and thus acknowledge the way hegemonic discourses create only particular types of knowledge.

This blog series underpins discussions that will take place in our one-day workshop, aiming to bridge academic “silos” and connect scholars from diverse fields in the social sciences struggling with any, some or all of the following questions:

  • What does a truly transformative agenda on producing knowledge for a more just world look like?
  • How do we tackle epistemic asymmetries and practice alternative models of conducting reserach/conceptualising teaching/building collaborations?
  • What are the liberations and/or limitations in our efforts to decolonise the curriculum? How do we address limitations in practice?
  • What are the roles of representation and identity within knowledge production, creation and/or sharing?
  • What are the implications of a culture and politics of expertise?

For us, however, this is the start of a much larger and more important conversation about not just how we ‘know’ the world’, but why, both personally and professionally, reflecting on this question matters if we are to tackle the most urgent global development challenges, including climate change, prolonged conflict and widening global inequality.

Stay tuned in the following weeks for reflections on these issues from a broad range of disciplines and perspectives!

Lata Narayanaswamy is lecturer in international development at the School of Politics and International Studies at the University of Leeds. In her work she critically scrutinzes how  knowledge is actualised as a driver of development in both discourse and practice.

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