Local Knowledge and Professional Social Science Research Knowledge of Action Research

In AR, professional social researchers and insider community, organization, or network members are cosubjects and coresearchers in the research process. Both contribute many kinds ofknowledge and actions to their joint enterprise. The conventional social sciences have no difficulty with the idea of expert social researchers, but they generally reject the idea that local people, untrained in the theories and methods of conventional social science, can make valuable contributions to both the form and the substance of a social research process. AR is based on the affirmation that all human beings have detailed, complex, and valuable knowledge about their lives, environments, and goals. This knowledge is different from scholarly knowledge because everyday knowledge is embodied in people’s actions, long histories in particular positions, and the way they reflect on them. This kind of knowing is different from much con­ventional scientific knowledge because practical wisdom, practical reasoning, and tacit knowledge are its central characteristics (Carr & Kemmis, 1985; Schwandt, 1997b).

AR centers on a cogeneratively structured encounter between the worlds of practical reasoning and those of scientifically constructed knowledge. We do not assert the superiority of either type of knowledge, but we do believe in the inherent superiority of combining these kinds of knowledge in the study and resolution of complex problems. That is what we have termed as the “dialecti­cal relationship” between local knowledge and professional knowledge. AR processes bridge these knowledge worlds by integrating practitioners and pro­fessionals in the same knowledge generation process that we call “cogenerativc learning.” Through these collaborative processes, the quality of the research can be enhanced because the insiders are able to contribute crucial local knowledge and analysis to the research, and can comment effectively on exter­nal interpretive frameworks as weU. The practical reasoning guiding the insiders’ actions can be enhanced and reformulated through accessing and transforming scientific knowledge for use in dealing with everyday problems.

We do not see any fundamental difference between local knowledge and scientific knowledge in the sense that they both are social constructions but warranted under different “regimes.” A local theory is context bound and makes sense in the context of years of local processes matching interpretations with concrete experiences. These processes are thoroughly described in Berger and Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality ( 1966). The authors make it clear that social construction processes create understanding on various levels, from rudimentary everyday theories to formal scientific understandings. These models of knowledge are differentiated by the structure and content of the social processes shaping the conditions under which they are constructed.

In AR, the central intent is to generate knowledge that bridges these two “knowledge worlds.” This is a position that accords fully with Dewey’s argu­ment that there is no significant difference between how laypeople approach knowledge generation through active manipulation to solve pertinent prob­lems and how scientists solve their scientific problems.

We believe that local people often act skillfully on the basis of appropriate valid knowledge, that local knowledge systems are complex, differentiated, and dynamic, and that, without formal training, it is possible for people to develop warrants for action based on good analyses. Therefore, local stakeholders are essential partners in any social research activity. Obviously, we reject the notion that valid knowledge can be produced only by “objective” outsiders using for­mal methods that supposedly eliminate bias and error.

It should not be necessary to point out that when local stakeholders take action, they prefer to produce their desired outcomes skillfully. To think of everyone but trained social scientists as amateur social actors is an unaccept­able academic conceit. Precisely because local stakeholders take action in their own environments, the consequences of errors are both significant to them and often rapidly apparent. Conventional social researchers, who have severed the connection between research and action, rarely know whether they are right or not, as their findings seldom are acted upon and the practical results from their research rarely have direct consequences for them.

Despite the importance of local knowledge, the AR literature does not offer many clear statements about it. Some action researchers repeat the term “local knowledge” like a mantra rather than evaluating it critically. For these action researchers, local knowledge is “true knowledge” in opposition to the false and class-interested knowledge imposed by hegemonic outsiders. Others among us treat local knowledge as a mixed bag of analyses and information, some useful, some not, some helpful, some perhaps even dangerously wrong. The view taken on local knowledge depends partly on the action researcher’s system of beliefs and views ofhuman nature and the human condition generally exist prior to any AR activity. It also partly depends on the action researcher’s experience in the field where she or he has experienced local knowledge in action and the conse­quences of its deployment in change processes.

For some action researchers, local knowledge simply means insider knowledge, the knowledge that people in the community or organization have. For others, local knowledge is understood to be detailed and complexly orga­nized knowledge of local situations. In the second view, local knowledge belongs mainly to insiders, but outsiders can also develop varieties of local knowledge through ethnographic research based on local engagement over the long term. Each of these views has very different consequences, both ideologi­cally and methodologically.

Our own understanding of local knowledge centers on viewing it as prac­tical reasoning in action and local reflections by participants on their actions. This conception of knowledge can be traced back to Aristotle’s concept of phronesis: “the ability to spot the action called for in any situation” (Toulmin, 1996, p. 207). As Eikeland (1992) and Schwandt (1997b) point out, this is a different type of knowledge from that used in recent generations to develop social scientific theories. Part of the aim of AR is to create a research process that reveals and values the local combinations of practical reasoning and socially constructed meaning (Berger & Luckmann, 1966). AR then bridges local knowledge and scientific knowledge through cogenerative learning in a process that creates both new local knowledge and new scientific understandings.

No matter which view of local knowledge an action researcher has, it is dear that local knowledge in AR is generally understood differently from knowledge in conventional social science. Despite a number of recent moves toward social constructivism and forms of discourse analysis and a stronger emphasis on qualitative research approaches, the dominant conventional social science practices generally reserve to the researcher the right and power to cre­ate the structures into which knowledge is put. Most conventional researchers do not question their ability or right to create separable units of “objective” knowledge that can be intercorrelated, subjected to formal manipulations and comparison, hypothesized, synthesized, and theorized outside of the local context. Even when the conventional social scientist isnot a logical positivist of this sort, he or she generally reserves the right to formulate and express what the subjects think, how they think, and what import their thinking has without checking these conceptions against the local knowledge of the relevant stake­holders. ^that is valid, interesting, important, and trivial is treated as the pro­fessional researcher’s decision, not to be second-guessed by amateurs.

This conception of the generation of social research knowledge makes social science research production and local knowledge production antithetical to each other because local knowledge is built in and conveyed through a wide variety of context-bound formats and often is rendered in extended narrative structures. From ethnographic fieldwork and from AR experiences, we know that the nar­rative structures of local knowledge are often key components in the way it is constructed, learned, and appiled. Because AR privileges local knowledge, AR necessarily works with the role of narrative in the research process, as well as in the writing up of the results. For most logical positivists and those using formal qualitative techniques, the strong presence of narratives is taken to show that AR is hopelessly “unscientific” and incapable of producing valid knowledge.

We have already discussed the validity question in Chapter 4. Here we want to emphasize that the validity question generates some of the most unproductive debates between conventional social researchers and action researchers. Many conventional social scientists equate local knowledge with invalid or at least subjective information. They want to believe that untrained people cannot produce valid knowledge because they lack the methods, train­ing, and commitment to transcend bias and self-interest in their interpretive processes. By contrast, some action researchers appear to equate local knowl­edge with valid information and to believe that only those natives uncontami­nated by the capitalist system are able to see things clearly. Neither position is persuasive. If one believes that local people are always right or never right, there is no need for theories, methods, or much else—a clear sign of a polem­ical position rather than a concern with doing social research.

We will leave these polemics aside and focus on the extent and ways local knowledge is historically constructed and how it can be mobilized, relied on, acted on, and interpreted, and to learn how research results based in part on local knowledge can be communicated and contextualized effectively beyond the local situations where it was generated. New knowledge is created in debat­ing the fracture lines between local knowledge and professional knowledge.

Source: Greenwood Davydd J., Levin Morten (2006), Introduction to Action Research: Social Research for Social Change, SAGE Publications, Inc; 2nd edition.

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