Three Knowledge Mobilization Strategies for Social Change

Colin Anderson News

How can we engage in effective knowledge mobilization in wider processes of change working towards greater social justice and sustainability? To what extent can researchers play a role in co-producing and mobilizing knowledge in these processes of change with social movements and communities?

These are questions I’ve been pondering for a decade as I’ve engaged in collaborative work and experimentation with action, participatory, transdisciplinary and activist research. Recently, we have been discussing research in the context of ‘theories of change‘, what food sovereignty research looks like (see: People, Power, Change), and in debates on decolonizing knowledge.

This blog post discusses ideas published in: Anderson, C. R., & McLachlan, S. M. (2016) Transformative research as knowledge mobilization: Transmedia, bridges, and layers. Action Research, 14(3), 295-317.

In these discussions and in our ongoing knowledge work, I frequently draw from an article we wrote that presented three knowledge mobilization strategies used as a part of a participatory action research project in the Canadian Prairies. I often think the ideas in this article has much practical relevance, but has maybe been hidden behind the many barriers that an academic publication throws up.

In the spirit of sharing, and inviting debate and for others to “riff off” of our provisional ideas, the following provides an introduction to these three strategies. These strategies aren’t ‘new’. Many of you have surely been using different versions of these in your own work – but I would contend that it is useful as a reflexive tool (thinking through how you are mobilizing knowledge in relation to each of these three strategies) and also a useful planning tool (how might you use them in the future).

Using transmedia for Knowledge Mobilization

This approach recognises that various knowledge creators/users will be more or less engaged when knowledge is communicated in different forms and media. A transmedia approach involves telling stories across multiple media where different mediums are used strategically because each have advantages and disadvantages. Transgressing any one medium presents new opportunities to mobilize knowledge. Here, knowledge (perhaps ‘research findings’) then becomes not only communicated in textual form, but also through film, theatre, poetry, dialogue, story-telling.

Effective communication in the age of ‘new media’ allows and maybe even demands the strategic combination of multiple forms of expression. This compels us to combine media – both unidirectional (to send) and interactive (to engage) forms – in transmedia approaches. This will allow us to mobilize knowledge with actors in ways that would have been impossible if exclusively using only they typical Knowledge Transfer strategies (‘expert knowledge’ transmitted to ‘non-expert’ users).

This project on agroecology uses video, reports, academic articles and workshops/dialogues to mobilise knowledge for food system transformation.

Where possible, communication should be cross- or hyper- linked, for example, by directing viewers of a video to a website, then screening videos at events pointing people back to a website. Further, the video can be embedded in multi-media texts and an academic article, which are also posted on social media and finally where the ideas are used in popular education processes (e.g. using theatre of the oppressed). See here for examples from our work on food justice and food sovereignty)

Mobilising knowledge across media transgresses boundaries (i.e. trans media) and helps to engage with a wider audience. Further, non-textual media such as video or theatre provides a vehicle for co-researchers to assert their voice and disrupt the power of the academic ‘expert’ in collaborative research.

Using layers for Knowledge Mobilization

This approach recognises that the complexity, length and technical language of most academic writing – or technical research/writing in general – excludes many knowledge users and potential beneficiaries of research.

In this project, we first wrote a short report for the Nyeleni Europe meeting in Cluj (Romania) on agroecology training in Europe (which was used to inform a workshop), then produced a brief on the importance of “learning as a social movement strategy” with the European Coordination of Via Campesina and then wrote an academic article (i.e. three ‘layers’). Each of these were used as outputs and inputs in different cycles of action research.

Layering involves strategically determining the level of detail, complexity and language required to effectively communicate ideas and arguments with different types of actors (e.g. professional academics, farmers, civil society, policy-makers, or the general public).

Using this approach, outcomes of research are then not only  communicated in technical reports, but also in the form of research briefs, fact sheets, opinion editorials, short videos and blog posts. These can be far more effective to mobilise knowledge than the more detailed, jargon laden and lengthy pieces. Yet, by cross-linking these different communication layers (e.g. between a short graphical and plain language research brief and a research report), this can also provide opportunities for actors to move back and forth among these layers to access and make use of a wider diversity of information.

Building bridges for Knowledge Mobilization

The International Forum on Agroecology held in Mali in 2015 brought together farmers, fisherfolk, pastoralists, indigenous peoples using the bridge of “agroecology” to discuss their common vision in a movement within the wider framework of food sovereignty. In the “A People’s Food Policy” project in England, we drew together different actors who may not necessarily work together by using the bridge of building a “People’s Food Policy”. Both of these examples are discussed in another short article here on “Policy from Below”.

This approach recognises that different stakeholders are separated by epistemological, discursive and disciplinary divides. In order to work across these boundaries, it is necessary to employ key words, examples, metaphors, objects and discourses that resonate with a wide range of politics, sensibilities and interests.

Using a bridge can draw individuals together into communicative and collaborative spaces and create new productive edges between groups and individuals that share an interest, for example, in agroecology, but may not otherwise exchange ideas.

In this space, new opportunities arise for participants to explore more holistic and subtle layers of understanding, opening up new opportunities for learning, knowledge creation, networking and transformation. Like ‘boundary objects’ these bridges can draw together actors from different social worlds to prompt new insight, innovation, knowledge and products.

Bridges do, however, need to be approached with care as this is potentially where the co-optation of radical discourses and practices can occur. For example, using a bridge to draw people together around the idea of “local food” rather than a more radical concept like “food sovereignty” or even further “decolonizing food sovereignty” can lead to powerful actors de-politicising the debates in subtle or less subtle ways. Ideas for food system transformation within the context of “local food” might become about economic development of local food systems (e.g. starting farmers markets). This would mean avoiding the deeper questions about the structural issues that prevent food system transformation (e.g. corporate concentration, institutional racism, patriarchy).

Wrapping up and thinking more deeply

Almost five years after writing about these 3 strategies for knowledge mobilization, I feel like they remain relevant and can be useful in helping us think through how to effectively contribute in processes of social change.

The article that this framework is based on draws from a reflection on our own situated practice in what we offered as a contested and partial process that is always-undermined by the hostile institutional and cultural structures in science and universities that promote a linear knowledge transfer paradigm. This environment for knowledge work (research, teaching)  supports the monopoly of knowledge held by experts and marginalizes other knowledge holders and ways of knowing.

Thinking carefully about how to engage in these knowledge mobilization strategies can help to help us be more effective contributors in these wider processes of social change, led by social movements working from the margins.  But, there is also a need for a deeper, more critical, debate about how/if academia and academia-positioned knowledge-workers can be relevant in these struggles for a more just and resilient society.

Indeed, my own understanding of this dynamic and tension has also moved on from when I co-wrote this article, and I have had the benefit of more deeply engaging with colleagues/friends who approach knowledge-work from anti-racist, feminist, indigenous and decolonial worldviews. One issue in particular that is vital to knowledge mobilization, but that was absent from the original article that this post is based on is the idea of “language justice“:

“The transformation of the food system relies on the effective organising of locally rooted movements and struggles around the world. This work is impossible without challenging approaches rooted in the dominance of colonial languages (in particular English, French and Spanish) and without structures and platforms that ensure and facilitate for everyone’s voices and languages to be heard.”

The issue of translation is a vital component of building bridges.