Self-perpetuating hierarchies and their effects on knowledge flows

By Joern Fischer

I recently had two interesting experiences, both involving colleagues from less wealthy countries. The first experience was hearing a stakeholder from an African country say that his country needed more of our knowledge and technologies, so it could move forward. The second experience was a researcher from Asia telling me that in her country, people didn’t develop theories, but rather relied on theories from the Global North. Those, in turn, were implemented, but not questioned or criticised.

It struck me that something interesting is going on here. Instead of taking pride in their systems knowledge, both of these individuals saw their country’s knowledge as somehow inferior to what is produced in wealthy countries. This may be true for some kinds of technologies — e.g. Germans build better cars than Tanzanians (sorry, guys, it was the first random African country that came to mind). But for many other kinds of things, the local knowledge is more likely to be just different, not inherently less valuable. It’s not a big secret that often, people from the Global North have gone to the Global South — and implemented “solutions” that ended up causing more harm than good.

What I find particularly interesting then, is that this pattern is being perpetuated (1) in two directions, and (2) beyond the initial observation that I highlighted above.

First, the duality of “knowledge provider” versus “knowledge recipient” is perceived by many individuals in the Global South, as I outlined above. But this doesn’t come out of nowhere, but rather, is being reinforced through science from the Global North routinely telling people what they ought to do — assuming that such science knows best. Science from the Global North might, for example, tell people where to intensify their land, how to irrigate, or which improved varieties to grow. If this suits local people may be considered, but often as an afterthought.

Second, a general attitude of dividing the world into “providers” versus “recipients” of knowledge is self-perpetuating beyond its origin. That is, the same academic from the Global South who accepts his role as “recipient” of better science coming from the North, is likely to also assume a role of “provider” of science to local people in this country. That is, a top-down extension model that is common in the Global South is in itself the same pattern of one-way knowledge transfer that can be observed between the Global North and the Global South. This gets a little bit ironic then when people from the Global North start to highlight that governance structures in the Global South (for example) do not take local people into account adequately!

So, what to do? Dualistic understandings of one-way knowledge flows need to be treated with great caution. Of course, sometimes one person primarily “provides” and the other primarily “receives” knowledge. But very often, mutual learning is possible and would arguably lead to better insights on both sides: Academics in the Global North can learn from those in the Global South. Scientists in the Global South can learn from smallholder farmers in their countries. Recognising that knowledge flows can go both ways breaks down traditional hierarchies that prevent innovative and holistic thinking.

I singled out this pattern with respect to the Global North and Global South, and with respect to academics versus on-ground stakeholders. That’s because this is the anecdote that made me think of it. But self-perpetuating hierarchies like this exist in many realms of life. To truly learn and generate insight, I argue that we will do best to break down such hierarchies much of the time.

6 thoughts on “Self-perpetuating hierarchies and their effects on knowledge flows

  1. Your anecdote and subsequent thoughts are interesting, Joern. Thanks for sharing.
    As a researcher in South Africa, the challenge of the primacy of ‘western science’ vs. local/other/African (etc.) knowledge is something I am often confronted with. Even local people (e.g. in the ‘Global South’), as in your anecdote, recognise this and seek to legitimise their knowledge, actions etc. through western science/knowledge. As much as we try, in our work, to enable and foster mutual learning processes, western knowledge is still a very dominant ‘currency’ with which information is measured and exchanged. So yes: let’s work to break down the knowledge hierachies, and try to enable mutual learning – but let’s not be naive about how powerful western knowledge still is.

  2. Interesting observation indeed, Prof Joern.

    I think there are other more stronger forces towards the perpetuation of this giver and recipient of knowledge dichotomy. Just recently I read an interesting article on African Academics, and how they have to ‘unlearn’ their ‘natural or local’ knowledge to make themselves acceptable to the international arena of sciences. If you are an African academic and you want to join the ranks of international scientists, you need to publish on high impact peer reviewed international journals. These journals require you to think, analyze and write in a standard that is set by an ‘Eurocentric’ or western sciences. You will think and write not in the way that you learned from the African bushes and soils, but will work on beautiful and complex quantitative formulas that build castles in the sky with no relevance to the life of the herder or farmer that you grew up with. My point is, once you accept that knowledge is what is acceptable to the western-set standard (not by choice), then it is only logical that as an African you would always put yourself in the receiving end.

    The link to the article I mentioned-

    • Hi Mulubrhan — you understood perfectly what I meant, and yes, I agree with you that there is a certain hegemony of Western knowledge in science. All the more important then that — even if we are Western academics — while using our methods, we re-learn to also listen to other ways of understanding the world! Thanks also for the link — Joern

  3. The most pervasive and insidious self-perpetuating hierarchy is that erected by the academic community itself! Over a long career spent learning from supposedly ‘backward’ communities, I have repeatedly observed the derision with which concepts held by members of such communities are treated by the officials of their own governments – “Do not talk to those people, Mr. Cross – they have no education, they know nothing!” is a repeated mantra. Such intermediaries are perfect examples of those quasi-educated individuals with the ‘recipient’ mind-set, whilst the real ‘providers’- the people in the fields and villages who have learned to exist there – are marginalized and their knowledge-bases ignored..

    The problem is that these officials themselves have adopted the Global North mind-set, and regard any other – even that of their own culture – as entirely inferior. Yet when one makes the effort to understand the cultural context of what these supposedly ignorant people are telling us, many profoundly important insights into the natural world emerge.

    The move towards automating the analysis of consensual beliefs within science, as exemplified by Google’s program to award ‘points’ to web sites on which scientific content complies with arbitrarily-defined ‘consensuses’, suggests how quickly we shall loose the insights of people who have to live with reality, instead of relying on the abstract models of it constructed by academics and their sycophantic followers.

    The real problem escalates when the scientists of the Global South disregard the store-house of real knowledge preserved within their own communities but which is familiar to only those at the bottom of the prestige ladder. They reject what is under their very noses, in order to appear ‘educated’ in the eyes of their role-models in the Global North.

    I have been privileged to learn much from such communities, and to have been able to pass this knowledge on to others where it has been of value. This ‘under-cover’ means of knowledge transfer remains the last mechanism whereby such knowledge can be preserved and disseminated without degradation and the assaults of abstract academic opposition and dismissal, although for how long is becoming ever more difficult to predict.

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