Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Globalization and the planetary knowledge business

It is a commonplace that modern social and economic systems are intensely knowledge-based, and that the centers of knowledge production are no longer exclusively located in the industrialized north and west. Further, anyone who follows a Twitter feed knows that knowledge centers around the world are connected at the speed of light (more or less), with reactions to new blog posts or journal articles coming from Dhaka, Mumbai, and Beijing about as rapidly as from London and Boston. (There seems to be more interest in the writings of Marx in Mumbai than Cambridge, at the moment!)

How do these modern realities of knowledge production and diffusion work out when it comes to the structure of inequalities that have historically existed between North and South and East and West? Who are the producers and consumers of knowledge today? How does the interest currently expressed by many universities to "internationalize" their curricula contribute to (or possibly impede) a globalizing system of knowledge? And through what mechanisms and networks of conduction do knowledge systems move across the planet?

Michael Kennedy's Globalizing Knowledge: Intellectuals, Universities, and Publics in Transformation seeks to answer some of these questions. He begins with an important observation: information and knowledge are not the same. Information, like the price of grain on the Chicago Commodities Exchange, is available globally and instantly. An understanding of the factors that influence the price of grain -- theories of agricultural markets, transportation bottlenecks, corporate interests, and other obscure causal factors is more difficult to create and more difficult to share. The creation of this kind of knowledge is primarily the work of universities, and the diffusion and transmission of this knowledge depends on expertise and educational sophistication in other parts of the world as well.

Kennedy frames his goal in this book in these terms:
I hope to stimulate an approach and methodology with which intellectuals and their institutions and networks can rearticulate a culture of critical discourse around global public responsibility. (xv)
One complication for the task is grammatical: are we interested in one knowledge or multiple knowledges? How do the mental frameworks and knowledge systems of different communities relate to each other? Is there a characteristically Indian form of economic science that distinguishes it from parallel work by English or American economists (Sen versus Arrow)? (See an earlier discussion of Gabriel Abend's treatment of "global sociology" and the differences that exist between North American and Mexican sociology; link.)

Here are the key challenges that Kennedy identifies for a legitimate sociology of "globalizing knowledge":
First, the sociology of globalizing knowledge demands that we explain how globalizers recognize learning offered by other times and places.... Second, sociologists should explain how globalizers fuse horizons, building on those distant recognitions. They should explore how a new common sensibility across planes of difference is cultivated. Finally, as translation occurs across multiple dyads simultaneously, if unequally, synthetic elaborations develop. These articulations are often implicit, but they can become explicit and thus subject to more rational critical discussion. (9-10)
Experts and the creators of knowledge represent one pole of Kennedy's analysis -- scholars, researchers, theorists, creators, intellectuals, critics. But to identify expertise is itself a sociologically loaded task. Expertise is socially constructed.
Recognizing intellectuality works at many levels. We might try to decide who is, and who is not, an intellectual based on the quality and autonomy of his work. We might also figure the relationship between the intellectual and her judges, to see whether their assessment reflects an audience sufficiently intellectual to judge. (44)
(See Michelle Lamont (How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment) and Marion Fourcade (Economists and Societies: Discipline and Profession in the United States, Britain, and France, 1890s to 1990s) on the sociology of expertise; linklink.)

The other major pole of Kennedy's work is the idea of a public -- a national public and a global public. A public is by definition not a group of experts. But in Kennedy's view a public is not just a set of disconnected consumers of information either. It is "a secondary association formed by the communicative practices that constitute it, not derived from anything preformed. ... Publics are above all social relations made through communications" (25). Publics are dynamic, not passive. One implication of this approach is fairly radical; it implies that we can create new publics through new communicative practices. (Is this what we find in the viewership of Fox News and associated web resources?) And so the creation of a democratic and tolerant public in a nation or region is itself a large challenge in social construction. In part this is the task of "public sociology" -- to articulate values and factual frameworks that can bring together an extended population of individuals into a "public" with commitments to values like fairness and tolerance of difference.

Universities play a critical role in both the creation and the dissemination of knowledge. Universities are home to experts, and they are also the place where large numbers of the "public" gain the tools necessary to understand and deploy the findings of expert knowledge. But universities are not outside of society or immune from social and economic pressures. Recent coverage of the pressures that have been exerted against geophysicists who criticize the geological assumptions of the fracking industry is a case in point. Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway's Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming demonstrates how conservative and industry think tanks (e.g. the George C. Marshall Institute) have worked very hard to discredit the scientific credentials of scientists whose work threatens their interests.

Kennedy has an interesting notion that seems to help with his broad task, the idea of "engaged ethnography". He describes this idea in these terms:
... research that seeks through its study and elaboration of vernaculars [local knowledge] greater clarity of the ways in which power relations work so as to facilitate greater claims to justice and normative goods among those engaged as well as among those informed by those actions and its study. (18)
This is an important clarification, because it shows that Kennedy recognizes that there are some kinds of knowledge that are substantively different (perhaps epistemically sounder) when framed at the local level. And this in turn suggests that we should think as well of James Scott's arguments on this subject in Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed; (link).

Kennedy seeks in this book to contribute to a new kind of sociology of knowledge -- what is intended specifically to be a sociology of globalizing knowledge. This requires more than just noting that ideas and findings circulate through the cities, universities, and media more rapidly and more fully than in earlier decades. Kennedy attempts to go beyond the commonsensical ideas we all have of "globalizing knowledge" by focusing on several dynamic activities: flows, network influences, and processes of framing. These are some of the mechanisms and plumbing through which globalizing knowledge is shaped. And he also seeks to identify some of the social influences of privilege and power that shape both the mechanisms and the content of knowledge.

Kennedy is a participant-observer on this set of topics, having served as director of major centers for international studies at several universities and having participated in processes of rapid expert-directed change in Eastern Europe. His efforts to make sense of the ways in which interconnectivity and cultural difference are affecting the creation and diffusion of knowledge world-wide provide an innovative contribution to the debate.

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