Comment & Opinion

Creating knowledge democracy in South Africa: The role of communities of practice

Published , by Camilla Adelle

Can universities provide spaces and intellectual resources to complement and build on the enormous knowledges that exist in our communities and broader society?

widening the scope of knowledge production is an essential role that universities can play in creating knowledge democracy. Image from Pixabay

In our pursuit of a more equitable, just and sustainable society, we must examine not only who makes decisions, but also on whose evidence these decisions are made. The question of whose knowledge is to be recognised, translated and incorporated into action (Nowotny, 2003), is especially important in South Africa as universities attempt to respond to calls to decolonise the curricula.

In this Commentary, I argue that widening the scope of knowledge production is an essential role that universities can play in creating knowledge democracy. Communities of practice are presented as a way in which scientists can cultivate research partnerships with stakeholders outside of science to co-produce knowledge needed to solve society’s current complex challenges.

Defined as the ‘collaborative process of knowledge production that involves multiple disciplines and stakeholders of other sectors of society’ (Pohl et al, 2008), the co-production of knowledge should ideally be based on a dialogue on equal terms between groups of stakeholders with shared styles of thinking. However, accepting the diversity of knowledges on equal terms, and embarking on the co-production of knowledge, means letting go of assumptions about the primacy of science and recognising other ways of knowing beyond the university’s gates.

The research process can no longer be characterized as an ‘objective’ investigation of the natural (or social) world. …Instead, it has become a dialogic process, an intense (and perhaps endless) ‘conversation’ between research actors and research subjects… (Nowotny et al., 2003)

Facilitating these conversations requires creating a ‘new architecture of knowledge’12 that makes spaces to shift accepted ways of knowing and acting and embrace new knowledge partnerships as being at the heart of our universities’ contribution to nurturing a knowledge democracy and cognitive justice. So how can universities and research institutes bring about this shift towards a more pluralistic regime of knowledge? How can they provide spaces and intellectual resources to complement and build on the enormous knowledges that exist in our communities and society more broadly? What role can we as individual scientists play?

One approach that we have been piloting in our work – in the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence for Food Security , jointly hosted by the University of the Western Cape and the University of Pretoria – is to build research partnerships through communities of practice. A community of practice (CoP) is a group of people who share a common interest or concern and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis (Wenger et al., 2013). CoPs can fulfill a variety of related functions. They can connect people who might not otherwise have the opportunity to interact; provide an opportunity to share information; help people organise around purposeful action; stimulate learning through the transfer of knowledge from one member to another; and generate new shared knowledge that helps people transform their practice (Cambridge et al, 2005).

 

This is an edited version of a commentary piece published by the South African Journal of Science. Click HERE to access the full article.

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