Knowledge-power, ignorance and dialogue

Is knowledge-power dead in our new populist world? Are we perhaps moving to a world of ‘Ignorance-Power’? Or is there a scope for constructive dialogue?

Knowledge-power is a term coined by Michel Foucault for the way in which public bureaucracy or professions can exercise power through the choice and exercise of disciplinary or technical knowledge.

Knowledge-power is typified by a technocratic disregard for local or cultural knowledge or sensitivities. It uses a rationality bounded and limited by the chosen discipline or topic area: one which is unable to take wider impacts or understandings into account.

Working on place-based co-production of ideas and actions with communities revealed how significant a barrier knowledge-power can be:

  • When shown images of places, people from different administrative disciplines identified very different things, not just different issues or concerns. They simply could not see some of the objects in the shot because of their own focus.
  • When encouraged to practice dialogue with communities, administrators quickly fell back on stating their own professional authority rather than seeking to explore and listen.
  • When considering how to use knowledge gained from communities and the places in which they lived and worked, the practitioners could not see how to use this because of their requirement for numerical and technical appraisal of proposals.

The recent rise of ‘anti-science’ is one push back against such technocratic decision-making. This could be considered a healthy rebalancing, a recognition of the value of local, indigenous and cultural knowledge and understandings. In the echo chamber of social media and populist politics, however, such push back against technocracy falls into the self-same trap of exercising an unlistening power rather than building new understandings.

Co-production of actions and ideas by working with communities and giving greater support for local dialogue and decision-making is a powerful response to counter both administrative knowledge-power and populist rhetoric. In my experience, place-based dialogue can connect people with each other and with their experience of the intimate links between the social, economic and environmental conditions of an area.

And you don’t need to take my word for it. Hannah Arendt talked of the importance of dialogue as a means to enlarge one’s mentality – seeing the world differently by engaging with ‘different others’. She also saw the roots of extremism and evil as its opposite – unthinkingness and an inability to self-reflect, shown in the parroting of banal dogma. Simone Weil wrote of the importance of sense of place and saw the loss of roots as the basis for modern malaise, a world where everything is disconnected and viewed as an end in itself, an uprootedness which breeds idolatry.

Genuine co-production in place is time consuming for everyone involved – it is far from the simple formal consultation exercise or single town hall meeting. It needs to be a central part of the armory of civic bureaucracy if public administration is to play its part both in re-connecting people to sustain the republic and reconnecting us all with the land on which we ultimately rely. The alternative is continuing to seek an increasingly illusory sense of control.

Matthew Quinn

PS: as if in ironic confirmation of Arendt’s views on extremism (and the echo chamber that is social media), my analytics have been encouraging me to increase the sense of negativity and emotion in my post to boost readership…

For a link to a practical guidance on co-production in place, which I co-edited as part of the EU SUSPLACE training program, click here.

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