Friday, July 10, 2009

beginning the journey

Sequences in theory building and policymaking in development: Chicken and egg.

Good policy can come out of knowledge generated from careful research. But theory builders and policy makers define terms such as scale, sustainability, development etc differently; they understand different things about the same issues. The question of what does each know, and what don’t they know, and where they overlap, becomes important. Sometimes we make assumptions regarding causality between variables that may not be causal. There is always a need to make a case for different kinds and forms of knowing the ‘same’ thing. This helps these different set of people share knowledge, and actively understand processes of policymaking and theory building as dynamic and not static.

Some questions:

• Where is the global south?

We as theory builders or policy makers agree that there are vulnerable people who need support and help from the more privileged; but it has been traditionally a voluntary activity or a normative choice to provide such support. It is also true that through time some groups of people have been consistently marginalized, by others. When we seek to redress this balance in a more generic problem solving way, this is a question that is almost naïve. Who are these people, in this era of globalization? Can we even spot their vulnerability, or define the elusive location of the global south?

• Are the ‘poor’ a problem? If so, to who? How do we solve the problem? What are consequences of being ‘poor’? Who bears these consequences?

Sometimes, in articulating the problem the ‘poor’ are a problem more to the policy makers, who have to bear the moral responsibility of their poverty. But there are consequences to ‘being’ poor, that can be a lack of self reliance, short term thinking, constantly being under resourced in solving their own problems. The set of consequences of poverty, for a society, and for an individual are experienced differently, and by different people. Are we cognizant of this difference in consequence?

• How has the nature of under development changed over the last fifty years?

‘Development’ as defined by a nation state, and by the market seem to be converging. But we see that the role and perspective of each towards the ‘under developed’ is very different. What does that do to the definition of under developed? Is it possible to see how that has changed in the last fifty years? When we encounter multiple framings of ‘development’, it becomes imperative to specify which definition we use, and how that conceptual understanding of each changes. If on the one hand development is seen as technological advancement, by the nation state, and as capital optimizing by the market, the ‘poor’ feature only as passive receivers of charity or welfare benefits. The violence engendered by the exclusive nature of certain technologies and institutions in fact spawn other institutions that endeavor to counter these effects, through ‘inclusion’ in the benefits, either through citizenship, or social benefits. Do these really address the core of the inequity that exists in othering the vulnerable? Could we learn better about the benefits and returns on our investment as a society in science and technology and what has worked and what has not? How can countries or a people ‘catch up’? What are they catching up with, if not advances in technology as framed by ‘developed’ countries?

How do we ‘organise’ transformation? Should we organize it?

Transformation has a sense of scale of impact, which includes in it a sense of participation of the ‘transformed’; in contrast to ‘development’ which is more supervisory in its practice. Transformation speaks of a systemic change, rather than incremental improvements in a system or an institution. Can such a change be ‘organised’; even supposing that it can be ‘organised’, should it be? And if so, by who?

Are we monetizing the human condition by categorizing people as ‘poor’?

In the discussion around the selection and innovations around hybrid rice, we make a distinction between the scientific principle and its social context. The innovations studied have been categorized around economic adversity; and the scientific principle appears to travel in and out of those categories, independent of its social context. It is true that we build value for the knowledge and practices of the ‘poor’ farmer, which are born out of adversity. But where do we build value? Amongst scientists and policy makers? How will that lead to a ‘social’ movement, which includes the ‘poor’ farmer?
In recognizing the value of the knowledge of the ‘poor’, do we segregate knowledge further? Is the science of cross breeding in the lab really the same as the science of widows who ‘select’ cross breeding because of their poverty? How can ‘food security’ be an aspiration or a choice for people? Isn’t it a right, to be assured by the state, or of interest to policy makers who think solving it is their problem?

Knowledge hierarchies: Bill Gates doesn’t listen.

As a society, today we recognize that knowledge carries power. We as knowledge brokers therefore speak from a position of privilege. In choosing to create knowledge about and for the marginalized and vulnerable amongst us, we make a normative choice. But we need the kind of practices that make knowledge powerful and useful. Probably the normative values of development studies are important in this process, and the practices of STS, which are reflexive, are important too. The dialogue between practitioners of development, ‘beneficiaries’ and theory builders and researchers in development has to be strengthened; talking ‘about’ the ‘poor’ is not real; the ‘poor’ is a category that is not about people, but about how much money they have.

We know that poverty can create innovations. And that prosperity can create conditions for innovations too. But to students of science technology and society, economic categorization of conditions for innovation is only one aspect of the story. In the discussion around categorizing technology, it is then surprising that economic categories seemed to play an important role. Technologies of the rich, technologies for the ‘poor’, market technologies, which are evaluated based on productivity, efficiency and returns; and social technologies that deliver benefits. Using these categories to understand the problem is acceptable, but to define the problem within these boundaries forces us to find solutions within these categories. This is already the trap of Development studies; does Science studies want to fall into it?

Some questions:

But how can we define problems so that they are not limited by the solutions that we can offer?

In understanding a problem, there is a latent period where one understands the context, before thinking of ‘a’ solution; never mind a solution that can be offered by the person who studies the problem. When the problem is defined within a designated intervention framework,[DS] it is constrained by the pressures of having to solve it, locating the problem within what is in the knowledge of the framework, and can be controlled. When a theory builder is talking about the situation in the abstract, the knowledge that emerges may be absolutely not applicable.{STS} There are sets of skills of negotiation and learning, which become critical, if one is not to fall into one or the other of these traps.

What makes problems chronic?

From the discussion, we understood that one understanding of a problem is that ‘a’ solution is possible. But a ‘tinkering’ approach, which is more iterative may actually move us into a process of learning, rather than solving, which is more productive. But constant tinkering can produce chronic problems. Does the tinkering approach differentiate between stages of maturity, so that we don’t keep stirring the cooking pot, but invest in a solution that brews over time?

What kind of knowledge does each type of framework [DS/STS] generate?

I see the sts methodology as participative in its practice of research. The STS scholar generates knowledge, for better understanding, and becomes normative only in choosing the site of its investigation. In presenting the vulnerability not just of ‘a group’ but the vulnerability that exists in the system, the researcher points to interventions that can strengthen the system as a whole, rather than a single point intervention that may or not cause systemic change. But there is not a real mechanism for converting this understanding into an intervention, or knowledge that is applicable for the good of a particular group.

In contrast, the DS scholar, while very aware of the power hierarchies, and with a clear normative stand on what he or she serves, still takes an institutional ‘interventionist’ approach to the ‘problem’; in a sense taking agency away from the very people whose purpose they serve. These are not theoretical problems, but real contradictions in the practice of each. One talks about development in the active sense, in order to ‘develop’ someone else, for the other it is used in a more passive sense, to understand what it means to different actors, and maybe extend it in focus, on those who ‘develop’. For STS to lose reflexivity, and prescribe solutions may be fatal to its credibility as a mirror; for DS to endlessly present diverging viewpoints may lead to a lack of accountability to its constituency. In combining the two we have to ask ourselves, what constitutes theory and practice for each of these? Who are they accountable to? Who listens to them? Who do they talk to? Finally, what vocabulary exists, for them to talk to each other? What forums and bridges can be built for productive engagement between the two?

1 comment:

  1. Partly what you are identifying is the problem of language - in the ways that different disciplines and sub-disciplines develop terms and concept in through theory-building and through interactions with specific groups of practitioners.

    In turn these terms and concepts go back and forth in practitioner spaces and recirculate - and shift in contexts.

    If DS, STS and practitioners must engage in common projects - the language must shift to context-centric theory-building that then must be translated once again to policy makers and to academic outlets.

    This has been my struggle in working within interdisciplinary and cross-context settings - including when I write with you or Shyama or try to write with my more recent collaborators with whom I went to the field this June.

    The issue of "dialogic" production of theory is important for the integrity of the knowledge produced - not just for the sake of inclusion and "voice"...

    I like your articulations here. More later.