equal participation in domestic work would free up time for women to participate in politics on a much more regular basis, and create routes to sustainable leadership in the process. Shared, physical acts of caring, compromise and negotiation could fashion a different set of skills for use on the broader political stage. And the same combination of empathy, strength and flexibility that is honed in the tasks of nurturing healthy human relationships might enable protagonists to argue through their political differences rather than embedding them permanently in the polity. Social activists call this ‘straight back, soft front’ – the ability to hold fast to your long-term vision and values while pursuing them in lots of different ways, some of which may even contradict your own short-term interests.
This article highlight with Case studies about the Know-How and Know-What
two answers to this question, and they lead in different directions. The first is to recognize that technical knowledge invariably declines into technocracy unless we also invest in the knowledge-making and interpretive capacities of the broadest range possible of the population, especially those of disadvantaged or excluded groups, so that there are enough counterweights in society to provide more accountability and feedback, challenge accepted notions of what is needed or effective, and bring non-mainstream ideas to the table. We are co-creators of knowledge, not practitioners of detached scholarship in a world divided between producers and consumers. Our aim is not to strengthen pockets of knowledge connected to decision-making elites, but to help build know-how throughout society in order to underpin democratic processes of problem-solving and public policy formulation. Knowledge has a social purpose in animating the public sphere – it isn’t just a private activity that produces insights, increasingly on a commercial basis, for others in academia, or the sponsors of research in government and business. We know that active social learning writ large is the only basis for democratic governance through deliberation, consensus-building and accountability, so that – like rocks in a stream – the sharp edges of people’s differences can be softened over time as they knock against each-other in the rough-and-tumble of debate, where ‘know-what’ meets ‘know-how’ in conditions of equality and freedom.
But – and here’s the second part of my answer, ‘know what’ remains very important to social change, because not all forms of knowledge can or should be democratically-created and controlled, either because the processes involved are too slow, or too subject to interest-group manipulation even among well-intentioned individuals and agencies, or because there really are questions that have answers which are not simply matters of opinion. I’ve changed my mind on this issue over the years as a result of hard experience, and now I’m convinced that the traditional virtues of academic rigour and independence are essential to the success of any knowledge venture, especially in highly-politicised environments.
Rigour – the painstaking parsing out of problems and solutions; the interrogation of all the evidence about costs and benefits, winners and losers; the ability to identify both the individual pieces of a puzzle and put them back together again into an accurate and coherent picture; the skills of presenting and comparing different theories of change; the depth of understanding built up by studying the same phenomena over long periods of time; the potential for accountability that results from a deliberate distancing of oneself from a pre-determined position; and the freedom to stand apart and shout from the rooftops “no, I don’t agree, this emperor has no clothes” – all these are crucial elements of the knowledge-making we need, though it is also true that rigor is not the exclusive property of universities. Distributing the capacity for rigor throughout civil society is a key task for the next many years.
In an age when wealth and power present a more diffuse and benign face to the world, the soft authority of knowledge is ever more important as a force for social change. That’s why the politics of knowledge – how ideas are created, used and disseminated – represents a key issue for the social change community. I’ve argued that the best way to improve the politics of knowledge is to re-combine ‘know-what’ and ‘know-how’ in a variety of ways which challenge existing institutions and approaches. And that involves a tremendous amount of work. But rather than worrying about the difficulties involved or obsessing about the perfect way to address them, my advice is simply to enjoy the ride, because this is exciting and important work that could change the rules of the game forever. When we are dead and buried in Highgate Cemetery or wherever else, and some spotty and underfed PHD student or NGO activist comes visiting our grave for inspiration, let’s hope that they’ll be able to read a different inscription on our headstones that speaks of the work we did to interpret and change the world together as one messy, conjoined and transformative process. I’d be very happy to leave a legacy like that, and I hope you would too.