Reading Group: Thoughts on Knowledge Hierarchy and Collaborations

Lizzy Baddeley, Public Engagement Coordinator for SLASH and the IOE at UCL summarises the conversations from the latest PEN reading group

For the second London PEN reading group we chose to look at articles published in the most recent Research for All  edition. Research for All is a new open-access journal focusing on research that involves universities and communities, services or industries working together – and so it seemed a perfect fit.

PEN_pen paper coffeeWe did initially choose two articles from the ‘Creativity when working together’ section:

The first article, however, by Bevan Jones et al, did not provoke much discussion in the group. It is an account of a sci-art project run by Cardiff University which was generally agreed upon as a good example of practice, but there was nothing that made the learning stand out from other projects that members of the group had been involved in.

Rasool’s article made for much more conversation. An account of her experiences as part of the AHRC/ESRC Connected Communities  funded project, ‘The social, historical, cultural and democratic context of civic engagement: Imagining different communities and making things happen’, brought up a number of questions about hierarchies of knowledge, colonised research practices and differences between disciplines.

The project itself aimed to explore the cultural lives of communities and to imagine and make better communities. The article did not explore what the actual results were but rather focused on the process.

Is all knowledge equal?

We kicked off the conversation with a discussion raised by Rasool in her article about hierarchies of knowledge. In opposition to the traditional hierarchy that puts university knowledge at the top, she claims that ‘we need to respect the knowledge they [communities] possess already and put value on that knowledge, rather than pushing it aside because it does not fit with the knowledge favoured by educational institutions’ (p. 314).

The group generally agreed with her sentiment, but argued that the key thing is to acknowledge not just the knowledge, but also how it was generated and what it stems from. No knowledge is completely equal, but neither should a value judgement be made. This is something very important within collaborative public engagement as it means that all partners are able to contribute in an equal manner.

There was also some discussion around the experiences, interests and personal feelings of researchers impacting upon the research. While this ideas is fully accepted in certain disciplines (Anthropology being a notable example) there is often still the perception of academic knowledge being somehow impersonal and objective. How does this then fit into the segmentation of academic and non academic knowledge production?

Perhaps, as the group eventually seemed to agree, the act of challenging the top down hierarchy and monopoly on knowledge is more important than actually having the answers. Perhaps there is no answer.

Creating expectations

One interesting point raised in the article was around how to manage expectations for a collaborative project. The idea of different expectations was raised, and there was some discussion from the artist in a long quote at the end about how they did not really understand what was expected of them. The group found it frustrating that this was raised but not really addressed all that well, as expectations are a major issue in all collaborations.

“Rape Research”

The group moved on to think about Rasool’s ideas for best practice collaboration and her discussion of “rape research” (a term coined by Patti Lather in 1986). The practice of researchers going into a community, taking what they want, and giving nothing back is something that the group all agreed that we work hard to avoid. All of us who advise researchers on engagement see collaborative practices like those in this project as a way to mitigate this issue.

However, we were not sure if Rasool is actually giving an answer to these problems. The legacy given for the research project here was minimal, and the quote from the artist actually implied that she felt a little used by the researchers and wouldn’t participate again.

It would have been helpful to know how things like how the money flowed in the project, who was paid and who volunteered, to know if the project really did happen on an equal basis.

Are the ideas applicable more widely?

We moved on to talk about whether the best practice espoused here was actually something that could be applied more generally within research practice. The key idea of breaking down knowledge hierarchies becomes possibly more difficult in disciplines where the form of knowledge production within the academy is highly complex and difficult to understand to those outside. In cases like these, is the highly complex, evidence based, peer reviewed knowledge somehow innately more valuable? Or again, is the answer more about being honest about the methods of creation (however confusing)?

Similarly, there were discussions around whether it was easier to get research funding for this kind of project in AHSS than STEM subjects. While all funders value the idea of collaboration in research projects right from the start, timelines often make it impossible except for within specific schemes that build in funding for the development phase, like the AHRC/ESRC Connected Communities scheme that paid for this project. The group agreed that there would need to be a major shift of priorities for funders to practice what they preach more often and allow more of these equitable projects to happen.


The key conversations all kept coming back to the production and hierarchy of knowledge, and we ended by talking about how even this idea took for granted that everyone considered academic knowledge to be the apex of the hierarchy. Is this coming from us existing inside the academy? Why would a community we work with automatically assume that ‘our’ form of knowledge is better than theirs?

Is the end goal of public engagement to bring all these different forms of knowledge production together? Perhaps, although no one could completely decide. Indeed, the question ‘what is the eventual goal of public engagement’ was asked in discussion and none of us had an answer!

To conclude we decided that as public engagement professionals we need to engage more with ideas around theories of knowledge production. This would hopefully enable us to help the academics we work with better acknowledge and engage with other forms of knowledge and so form truly equitable collaboration.

So next reading group we are going to read some theory. Watch this space.

(Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash)

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