Knowledge, Power, Accountability & Action

Bog 1: 8th Nov 2023

Introduction

This is my first independent blog, since closing the doors of Ladders4Action in Oct 2023. I established Ladders4Action for many reasons, but at its core was always a commitment to the potential of combining knowledge and action. Whilst my situation has changed, and I want to focus more on family and my new life in Scotland, I feel the need to have an outlet for my thoughts and research. So I will continue to write.

In this blog, I will introduce three key themes which I will continue to explore. 

Knowledge

Definitions and debates about the nature of knowledge are incredibly complex. Whether explicit or not all of others hold a belief system about what knowledge is or is not. My theory of knowledge is based on classical pragmatism (In particular the work of John Dewey). I understand that others see the world differently, but I personally believe that true knowledge comes from action. Action and interaction with the human, physical and environmental world and reflection on that action. So I learn, I take action, I reflect and I start again.  In its most basic terms, I believe that to know, we have to do, and then reflect upon what we have done. 

In this world view, I can only gain knowledge from action and reflection. It is important that I learn from other people’s knowledge and experience and that my actions are informed by the knowledge of others. But I won’t truly know if the knowledge is useful or valid for me in my context, at my time until I put it into action. 

What distinguishes action from knowledge is the process of reflection. This can be undertaken individually or collectively. A scientist creates knowledge by taking action in the form of experimentation. Experiments don’t always work as expected but by reflecting upon the action taken, the scientist learns and creates knowledge for others to utilise. A  carpenter becomes a master of their trade by taking action. Arguably, there is a limit to how much you can learn from a book, you must learn by doing, you must act and practice your craft in order to acquire the knowledge to become a master craftsperson. 

Because I believe that knowledge is created through action, I believe there are different types of knowledge. 

  • Expert knowledge: Knowledge acquired through the action of subject learning and study
  • Professional knowledge: Knowledge acquired through the action of the practice of a trade or profession 
  • Lived Experience: Knowledge acquired through the action of experience

I believe that it is possible to acquire knowledge through many forms of action, but action and experience only transform into knowledge when there is also active reflection. A student who merely memorises textbooks without reflection has information not knowledge. A teacher who never adapts approach, who never considers their practice, isn’t generating new knowledge; they are just going through the motions. An individual who encounters discrimination but who does not reflect on what happens or why has valuable experience but not knowledge about the nature or causality of discrimination. 

All of my work has been about creating real-world change, I am obsessed by this. I try to learn how to help people, and how to create positive social change. I have gained knowledge in lots of different ways. I’ve gained knowledge through my lived experience as a mixed-heritage, British, disabled, working -class woman living in Scotland. I have gained knowledge by my professional experience as an engineer, humanitarian aid worker, youth worker, teacher, social worker and researcher. I have gained expert knowledge through my undergraduate, masters and doctoral degrees. Whilst I have gained a lot of knowledge I am still learning. 

Power 

I don’t know who first coined the term “knowledge is power” but I believe it. For me the two things are inextricably linked. Whilst often pitched in a simplistic way, as an encouragement to get yourself educated, I consider this term more in relation to how schooling, education, universities and research have been integrally involved to who holds power and who does not. I believe in the positive potential of knowledge, but I also believe that great harm can caused by the manipulation and misuse of knowledge. 

One of the greatest challenges we face in creating a more inclusive world is the inequitable distribution of knowledge. Certain groups face barriers to accessing and contributing to knowledge creation. This knowledge gap perpetuates inequalities and hinders progress in many different arenas.

Accountability 

Accountability is a widely contested and ambiguous term. It can mean many things to many individuals.  When mentioned, financial accountability or accounting is often the first thing that springs to mind. But we can be held to account for anything from how we treat staff members to our espoused actions. 

Accountability broadly refers to “how you ensure and demonstrate responsible action” (Adelaine, 2016). When considering accountability, it is crucial to consider – 

  • Who is held to account by whom and how are they held to account?
  • Who gets to decide what responsible action is? 
  • How is responsible action monitored and evaluated? 
  • What happens if actions are deemed as not responsible?

Commonly we focus on ex-poste accountability. This is holding individuals and organisations to account after the fact, deciding whether action was responsible after the action has happened. 

However, ex-ante accountability (this is the consideration of how individuals will be held to account before action taken), is far more powerful. By creating accountability mechanisms, such as standards and accountability frameworks,  it is possible to give all individuals involved the chance to discuss, reflect and debate what is responsible action and how it will be measured. It is unlikely that all the individuals involved will agree with each other completely. But at least when the discussion is had in advance, all parties are clear about the terms of engagement and how they will be held to account for their actions. 

Through my advocacy work, such as the open letter to UKRI, I strive to hold institutions and decision-makers accountable for promoting equity in higher education and the research sector research.

Action 

John Dewey argued that we are in this world and of this world, which means that the physical world and those in it shape who are are, how we live, what we believe in and think. But as actors in the world we also shape who others are, how others live, what others believe in and think and our natural and physical environment. The relationship is two-directional, rarely-balanced, ever-changing and complex. 

Whilst I have had a role in youth work, social work, the aid sector and a few other areas of interest, I wish to explore the relationship between politics, social action and knowledge creation. 

In the past few years my action has been an attempt to connect action and knowledge, to create positive social change. I have tried to highlight and shift the inequity I found in the research and higher education sector. That was my action, I now need time to reflect and to consider whether there was any merit to anything I did and what I should do next. 

I believe creating a more inclusive and accountable world requires collaborative knowledge, inclusive research practices, and a commitment to knowledge equity.

In my future blogs, I will be looking at 

  • Who has access to the knowledge creation process
  • If and how the knowledge we create is utilised in political and social action 
  • Whether political and social action influences or informs knowledge creation  
  • How knowledge creators are held to account 
  • Who decides what responsible action is for knowledge creators 

Conclusion 

This blog is a thought dump. I will reference where possible and try to maintain good academic practice. As you read, please bear in mind that I am still in the process of reflecting and working things out for myself. Your are welcome to follow but keep in mind what this is and what it is not.