One of my intellectual side projects is to more fully develop sociological conceptions of knowledge practices. This inquiry builds on some of the analysis of prospective knowledge practices presented in my PhD thesis and will hopefully also inform other current work (e.g. work on the roles and effects of knowledge practices in transition processes).
Below I briefly present some lines of inquiry I’m exploring and would welcome dialogue on:
Constructionist perspectives and their contribution to theorising and conceptualising knowledge practices
One line of inquiry draws on constructionist studies of social problems. As Best and Loseke (2018) outline, these studies typically examine questions about key themes like:
- Claim consumption and evaluation: that is, how do audiences evaluate the believability and importance of particular claims? Best and Loseke (2018) pose questions like: “What are the social/political/organizational characteristics of people who consume/evaluate particular claims and how do these influence their evaluations of claim believability and importance?
- Claim circulation: Which claims circulate most widely, why, and where do they circulate? Best and Loseke (2018) pose questions like: “What are the characteristics of claims that circulate most widely?” “What are the relationships between where, when and how claims circulate and their ability to persuade audience members”?
- Meaning production: Who makes meaning, and when and where is it authored (e.g. through the use of particular knowledge practices)?
- Claim processes: Best and Loseke (2018) emphasise inquiry into “the organizational and political foundations and the practical activities involved in producing and disseminating claims”.
For example, the above themes could be usefully fleshed out for anticipatory knowledge (or other kinds of knowledge). Few studies have examined how actors evaluate and ‘consume’ future-oriented knowledge claims (also see my thesis on this issue).
Related constructivist work often takes an agnostic stance when seeking to “understand understandings” (see Ibara & Adorjan, 2018). This form of constructionist analysis often doesn’t compare or evaluate claims in terms of their truth value. The core objective is to understand how and why actors develop or produce particular understandings.
These lines of inquiry point to a theoretical approach focussed on underlying social processes, where “knowledge practices” are hypothesised to be activities that are strongly subject to social processes. Whilst my doctoral work emphasised group processes (such as in participatory research exercises) and the influence of political and organisational contexts on knowledge practices, there’s potential to undertake much more analysis.
Theorisation of the ’embeddedness’ and consequences of knowledge practice creation and use
Inquiry could also seek to develop explanations of why actors create or adopt particular knowledge practices, giving particular attention to embeddedness of actors and their choices/activities in socio-cultural, historical and personal contexts. Social research could also probe the consequences of these choices/activities.
Such lines of inquiry are suggested by consideration of sociological theories of human behaviour such as research on the concept of the “embedded actor”. For example, as Down and Dobbin (1997) note, “economic sociologists stress that economic actors are embedded in a sociohistorical context that shapes and constrains activity” (link).
An additional source of inspiration is the book Think Again: How to Reason and Argue by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong. In Think Again Sinnott-Armstrong makes a slightly polemical argument for the existence of a “cultural rut” in which our ability to cooperate and solve problems is impaired by low quality discourse and a lack mutual understanding.
He points to new social norms impairing mutual understanding, including: (i) the tendency to disparage one’s opponents (e.g. in debates) as being “deeply confused or misinformed or even crazy” (p.7); (ii) a related tendency to not seriously consider opposing position(s), nor look for the strongest reasons for holding such views; (iii) inadequately giving reasons for our positions; and (iv) when people give and are given reasons he argues people often “do so in a biased and uncritical way, so they fail to understand the reasons on each side of the issue” (p.7).
Whilst we can debate the extent to which this is an issue – for instance I doubt that the position of anti-vaccination activists should be taken as seriously as is implied by Sinnott-Armstrong’s argument – I recognise the issue he is pointing to in many debates.
Indeed, Think Again resonates with aspects of my doctoral research. I noted that conflict during participatory “foresight” exercises often creates complex problems for facilitators and can impair the outcomes of such exercises. The available case evidence raised questions about whether participants in these exercises took others’ positions seriously. Whereas I tended to point to facilitation limitations, Sinnott-Armstrong’s argument suggests that such issues may reflect a cultural moment in which people take opposing positions less seriously and, related to this, have diminished capacity to reach mutual understanding.
I find this very, very interesting. It also resonates with much of my own life experience.
It points to a theoretical approach in which the concept of “knowledge practices” refers to culturally-embedded practices that reflect social and personal contexts.
Moreover, it calls for theoretical approaches which can frame and guide critical examination of knowledge practice creation and use. For instance, if many forms of action that actors consider to be rational are social in nature and culturally embedded (Down & Dobbin, 1997) – e.g. the various practices that are criticised by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong in Think Again – then interventions cannot simply have the goal of enhancing rationality and/or enabling rational action. Things suddenly become much more complex but perhaps also point to potential new sources of mutual understanding and change.
Considering “pragmatist” moves: knowledge-making, appraisal and use as socially situated problem-solving
Thirdly, in my doctoral research I noted the ways that sociologists have mobilised pragmatist philosophy to propose theories of human actors and related action processes. I drew on the work of Neil Gross who asserts that “the pragmatists argued that in anthropological terms, humans are problem solvers and the function of thought is to guide action in the service of solving practical problems that arise in the course of life” (Gross, 2009, p.366). This led me to suggests that a core goal of prospective knowledge practices is “to guide or enable action in the problem situations actors are facing” (McGrail, 2017, p.296).
This perspective emphasises the work that actors do “to puzzle out, or “solve,” practical situations” (McDonnell et al 2017, p.3) as they encounter and navigate such problem situations and feel the need to act.
Gross (2009, p.366) adds to this perspective two “pragmatist” claims about human action: (i) the idea that all human action involves “alternation between habit and creativity”; and (ii) the claim that human beings try to solve their problems by “enacting habits”. In doing so he suggests that the habitual dimensions of human action and cognition are underappreciated.
Although I explored some other aspects of pragmatist philosophy in my thesis, I mostly used the above perspective as an interpretive frame when seeking to deepen some analysis of the focal case. A key benefit was that it helped me to examine the potential importance of taken-for-granted routines and the value of enabling reflection on these routines.
Such inquiry point to a theoretical approach where the concept of “knowledge practices” refers to socially learned habits which are deployed, modified and occasionally creatively “recombined” when facing problem situations encountered in daily life.
How could (or should) such lines of inquiry be advanced?
Clearly answers to such a question will differ depending on the research objectives. Scholars who centrally seek to “understand undertandings” and what shapes them (Ibara & Adorjan, 2018) will tend to favour lines of inquiry that adopt an agnostic constructivism style approach. Others will have different objectives such as those oriented towards the technical adequacy of particular knowledge practices and their relative accuracy.
Further work to elaborate or use sociological conceptions of knowledge practices could occur in work solely focussed on these practices or in broader case study research in which (among other factors) the production, appraisal and/or use of knowledge is an important factor or issue. The latter approach is one I intend to initially explore.
Beyond this a key consideration is the various sites that could be the focus of studies. Management scientists have pioneered interesting forms of research in which they’re embedded in senior management teams (in an organisation), as well as large-n style studies that have been used to assess the efficacy of knowledge practices. Evaluators have pioneered forms of intervention research that could be used – where a specific project or initiative is the focus of research – as well as interesting types of impact evaluation. It might be possible to use social science methodologies to track the circulation of claims across different locations and sites over-time and then analyse this process.
Finally, a major issue for those seeking to modify knowledge practices is their cultural dimensions. This points to the need for cultural change and considering what this may require. The pragmatist view of action suggests looking for situations where actors are facing unfamiliar problems in which there may be openness to change. Such situations may lend themselves to action research and ethnographic research approaches.
Best, J. & Loseke, D.R. 2018, ‘Prospects for the Sociological Study of Social Problems’, in A.J. Treviño (ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of Social Problems (Vol. 1), Cambridge University Press.
Dowd, T. & Dobbin, F. 1997, ‘The Embedded Actor and the Invention of Natural Economic Law: Policy Change and Railroader Response in Early America’, American Behavioral Scientist, Vol. 40, no. 4, pp. 478-489.
Gross, N. 2009, ‘A Pragmatist Theory of Social Mechanisms’, American Sociological Review, vol. 74, no. 3, pp. 358-79.
Ibarra, P.R., & Adorjan, M. 2018, ‘Social Constructionism’, in A.J. Treviño (ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of Social Problems (Vol. 1), Cambridge University Press.
McDonnell, T.E., Bail, C.A. & Tavory, I. 2017, ‘A Theory of Resonance’, Sociological Theory, vol. 35, no. 1, pp. 1-14.
McGrail, S. 2017, ‘The role and uses of prospective knowledge practices in sustainability-related transitions: a realist evaluation and pragmatist synthesis’, PhD Thesis, UTS, Sydney, Australia.