What is Knowledge Democracy?

“Respecting the knowledge of the people for me is a political attitude consistent with the political choice of the educator if he or she thinks about a different kind of society. In other words, I cannot fight for a freer society if at the same time I don’t respect the knowledge of the people.” (Paolo Freire, as cited in Bell et al., 1990, p. 101)

“Knowledge democracy refers to an interrelationship of phenomena. First, it acknowledges the importance of the existence of multiple epistemologies or ways of knowing such as organic, spiritual and land-based systems, frameworks arising from our social movements, and the knowledge of the marginalized or excluded everywhere, or what is sometimes referred to as subaltern knowledge. Secondly it affirms that knowledge is both created and represented in multiple forms including text, image, numbers, story, music, drama, poetry, ceremony, meditation and more. Third, and fundamental to our thinking about knowledge democracy is understanding that knowledge is a powerful tool for taking action to deepen democracy and to struggle for a fairer and healthier world. Knowledge democracy is about intentionally linking values of democracy and action to the process of using knowledge.” Budd Hall and Rajesh Tandon (Retrieved Aug. 8, 2016, from http://www.politicsofevidence.ca/349/)

Orlando Fals Borda asserted that PAR in Latin America and other parts of the global South offered a way to correct the “unequal relations of knowledge” through “stimulating popular knowledges” (1998, p. 31). Whether coming from South America (Fals Borda, 1979), Africa (Hall, 1992; Swantz, 1996), or India (Tandon, 1982), calls for breaking the knowledge monopoly of the global North were strongly connected with recognition of the value of participatory forms of action research in the global South.

Among PAR pioneers, knowledge democracy was an effort to break the hold of “intellectual colonialism” (Fals Borda & Mora-Osejo, 2003, p. 35) rooted in the monopolizing effects of the dominant research paradigm of positivism (Tandon, 1982). According to Hall (1992), mobilizing disenfranchised and oppressed peoples required demystifying the social science approach to knowledge production: “We have created an illusion and we have come to believe in it—namely, that only those with sophisticated techniques can create knowledge” (p. 25). Similarly, Fals Borda and Rahman (1991) described support for “knowledge existing as local or indigenous science and wisdom to be advanced by the people’s self-inquiry” (p. 31) as a basis for achieving equality and democracy.

Many scholars and activists in the Northern hemisphere saw parallels between what critics such as Fals Borda (1979) and Tandon (1982) were describing in the global South and their own struggles for social justice. Gaventa (1991) outlined three strategies for North American PAR: (1) the reappropriation of knowledge; (2) developing the people’s knowledge; and (3) popular participation in the social production of knowledge (p. 122). He discussed these strategies in the context of grassroots groups gaining control over “knowledge and skills normally considered to be the monopoly of the experts” (p. 124). The similarity between “Third World” and “First World” participatory research initiatives was rooted in the recognition that groups in both worlds shared “characteristics of domination by the knowledge system” (Gaventa, p. 122).

(Note: The three paragraphs above are from Rowell & Hong, Knowledge Democracy and Action Research: Pathways for the 21st Century, (In Press). International Handbook of Action Research.)