Tag Archives knowledge production

EADI ISS Conference 2021 | Questioning development: What lies ahead?

EADI ISS Conference 2021 | Questioning development: What lies ahead?

Development Studies requires “an epistemological and ontological change”, write Elisabetta Basile and Isa Baud in the introduction to the recent EADI volume ‘Building Development Studies for a New Millennium’. The ...

17th Development Dialogue | A call to end the ‘social distancing’ of the sciences – in the COVID-19 era and beyond

17th Development Dialogue | A call to end the ‘social distancing’ of the sciences – in the COVID-19 era and beyond

The chasm that separates the different scientific disciplines remains deep as ever despite the evident need to address pressing global problems through transdisciplinary collaboration. C. Sathyamala and Peter A.G. van ...

Knowledge is the missing link in the Dutch aid and trade agenda

On the eve of the national elections set to take place on 17 March in the Netherlands, developmental issues are being debated and diverging solutions proposed by political parties running in the elections. A recent debate organized by SAIL on the role of knowledge in aid and trade relations indicated that even though not receiving much attention in pre-election debates, knowledge produced by Dutch knowledge institutes is considered vital in sustaining aid and trade relations between the Netherlands and its counterparts in the Global South, writes Linda Johnson.

On 12 February, in anticipation of the upcoming national elections, a debate was organized by SAIL, a platform for knowledge institutes such as the ISS that promotes international education and research for inclusive sustainable development in the Global South. The debate was intended to bring attention to the missing link of ‘knowledge’ in international relations and the role that knowledge institutes situated in the Netherlands wish to play in the post-election policy landscape.  SAIL feels strongly that international relations all too frequently are not sufficiently informed by knowledge produced by Dutch knowledge institutes. This means that a key source of knowledge and a wealth of connections between the Netherlands and the Global South remain largely untapped and underutilised.

Five members of parliament (MP) participated in the debate: Kirsten van den Hul (PvdA), Dennis Wiersma (VVD), Jan Paternotte (D66), Mustafa Amhaouch (CDA), and Tom van den Nieuwenhuijzen (GL). Thea Hilhorst, professor of humanitarian studies at ISS of Erasmus University Rotterdam and Marhijn Visser of the Confederation of Netherlands Industry and Employers (VNO-NCW) provided introductory and closing remarks on the theme. Over 200 participants followed the debate online. Marcia Luyten, a well-known Dutch publicist, led the discussions.

The debate was interesting because it made clear that there is a strong willingness on the part of politicians to engage with knowledge institutes with a view to shape future policy.

Partnerships that last

It is hard to overstate the case for ensuring that Dutch knowledge institutes become a key piece in the shaping and implementing of policy in relation to aid and trade with partners in the Global South. Ever since the early 1950s, the SAIL member institutes have been building and maintaining durable partnerships with countries in the Global South. Partnerships have been built at the level of individuals, many of whom were (partly) funded by the Dutch government to study toward a Master’s or a PhD degree in the Netherlands, and at the level of knowledge institutes by means of countless interventions and collaborations designed from the outset to co-create (academic) capacity in the Global South, and more recently to ensure global knowledge circulation to ensure mutual learning.

The tried and tested partnerships between knowledge institutes are key to this process. The combined expertise of staff of these institutes ensures that the specifics of the local needs are the basis for the work done. These individuals and teams know how best the needs of all parties can be met in a cost-effective and sustainable manner. Many of these partnerships date back decades. Trust has been established, friendships have flourished, and knowledge easily flows back and forth to the benefit of all participants in the process. It works so well that it seems effortless and herein lies the potential for mishap by oversight… It is indeed in many ways effortless, as it is born of years of investment in a process of mutual learning.

This is the time to make sure that the judicious investment of decades is not overlooked as policy is set and budgets allocated after the elections.  Political debates leading up to the elections have not yet shown much attention to such partnerships. However, at the SAIL debate  there was strong consensus across the political spectrum on the importance of the role of knowledge institutes as a linking pin, which led me to think that if the time was taken to explore these partnerships’ role in aid and trade relations, they would become evident to the new cabinet.

For example, at the debate, all five parliamentarians agreed that knowledge is vital for healthy trade and development. Kirsten van den Hul, for example, stated that “knowledge collaboration is essential to development.” The big problem, she said, is that “knowledge is unevenly distributed.” Dennis Wiersma: “A level playing field is important for trade”. Mustafa Amhaouch: “There is clearly nowhere near a level playing field at present […] It is a societal responsibility to share knowledge.” Jan Paternotte: ‘’The Dutch trade agenda should be linked to the knowledge agenda.”

This makes clear that the role of knowledge – and the institutes that produce it – is seen as important. But we need to take the discussion further once the elections have taken place. Two important points made during the debate were that knowledge institutes can help protect human rights in fragile states whilst also benefitting the Netherlands through strong alumni networks.

Knowledge institutes are vital in fragile states

Something that received particular attention in the debate was the role of knowledge institutes in fragile states, where the Netherlands is active. Knowledge institutes in fragile states are key in upholding a vision of a positive society and in speaking out for human rights. The Netherlands needs to keep on supporting relationships between Dutch institutes and their counterparts in fragile states. Fragility is increasing. The COVID-19 pandemic is exposing the cracks in the starkest possible way as the richer nations hoard vaccines. GL, PvdA and D66 spoke out strongly in favour of the need to finance COVAX (the WHO programme designed to ensure equitable access to COVID-19 diagnostics, treatments and vaccines) generously.

Sustaining aid relations through alumni networks

The word “alumni” also popped up frequently in the debate. The Netherlands has built up a huge network of alumni across the world, many of whom have moved into positions of influence in their home countries. All of the parties represented and the Federation of Industry and Employers concluded that these alumni were a key resource in building an equitable, sustainable, win-win agenda for Dutch aid, trade and knowledge policy in the wake of the upcoming elections.

Focusing on the alumni of knowledge institutes means moving beyond capacity building to viewing and engaging these alumni as potential change agents in their own countries. This will also benefit the Netherlands by ensuring that these warm, trust-based relationships can be the basis for both political and economic collaboration in the future.

A reason for cautious optimism?

There is much to be gained by enhancing the role of knowledge institutes in future collaboration and there is support for this approach across the political spectrum. Could this be a reason for optimism? Watch the political space and join in the debate, whether or not you have a Dutch vote to cast….

About the author:

Linda Johnson was the executive secretary of ISS, but has now retired. She is particularly interested in the societal relevance of research. In addition, she has done recent work on the safety and security of researchers and co-developed a course on literature as a lens on development.

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Revisiting ethnographic sites as an ongoing knowledge production practice

Revisiting ethnographic sites as an ongoing knowledge production practice

Is it important for ethnographers to revisit the sites where they conduct their research once their projects have been completed? Returning to the site where I conducted my fieldwork six ...

Creative Development | Art and Knowledge Production: Sense, The Senses and the Struggle for Control by Aoileann Ní Mhurchú and Cathy Wilcock

Creative Development | Art and Knowledge Production: Sense, The Senses and the Struggle for Control by Aoileann Ní Mhurchú and Cathy Wilcock

What is the relationship between art and knowledge production? Does art only contribute to the aesthetics or does it have any role to play in production and even in control ...

Children as experts: rethinking how we produce knowledge by Kristen Cheney

Most research on adolescent sexual and reproductive health and rights is adult-led and adult-centred, not only ignoring young voices but denying diversity amongst young people. But a new project co-led by Kristen Cheney of the ISS departs from the premise that young people are the experts of their own lives, giving children and adolescents the chance co-create knowledge. In this article, Cheney details the importance of youth-led participatory research and how this is done through the new project.


It is often assumed that social research is the domain of experts—and that those experts are necessarily adults. Most research on adolescent sexual and reproductive health and rights (ASRHR) is adult-led and adult-centred, not only ignoring young voices but denying diversity amongst young people. Information about young people’s sexuality therefore often remains insulated within their peer groups, preventing innovation in ASRHR programming. This too often leads to a deficit or pathological perspective on adolescence in ASRHR research and intervention.

ISS departs from this premise in our latest youth participatory research project, Adolescents’ Perceptions of Healthy Relationships. The APHR project is funded by the Oak Foundation, with the objective to inform their child abuse prevention programming through greater attention to the broader societal, structural factors that provide an enabling environment for the sexual abuse and exploitation of children. The project is led by ISS’ Kristen Cheney and involves Auma Okwany as East Africa lead researcher.

Instead of embracing prevalent adult-imposed models of adolescence, the APHR project departs from the premise that young people are the experts on their own lives. Indeed, we believe that young people are essential co-creators of knowledge, best suited to conduct research on their own thoughts and experiences. They have the best access to their peer groups where vital information is often kept locked away from adults’ gazes. So whenever possible, we conduct youth-led, participatory research. This way, young people become not mere objects of research but co-producers of knowledge about young people’s lives through greater disclosure of more authentic viewpoints.

Conducting research in Oak’s two main project areas, East Africa and Eastern Europe, ISS leads an international team consisting of partners from International Child Development Initiatives (Netherlands), Animus Association (Bulgaria), and Nascent Research and Development Organization (Tanzania). Together, they support young people in Bulgaria and Tanzania to participate in every step of the research, from designing quantitative and qualitative tools to data collection to analysis, dissemination and advocacy. This Circles of Support youth-centered approach provides training for adolescents as young as twelve years old to act as young peer researchers (YPRs), with support for research activities throughout the project—while always ensuring that young people’s considerations take precedence over adults’ opinions (Figure 1). Despite some adults’ concerns that young people might not be up to the task, we consistently find that young people are not only competent researchers, but also capable self-advocates.

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Figure 1. YPRs in Dar Es Salaam discuss important aspects to consider in research on adolescents’ perceptions of healthy relationships (2017). Their input is incorporated into the research design from the start.

Preliminary Findings

Having completed an extensive survey of nearly 2,000 adolescents aged 10-18 across Bulgaria and Tanzania, our approach has proven fruitful for getting at adolescents’ views on what constitutes healthy relationships. We are still collecting qualitative data that will both validate and deepen our understanding of the survey findings, but our preliminary observations from the survey revealed which characteristics and relationships adolescents value most in each setting.

In Bulgaria, responses indicated that adolescents generally value trust and respect most in their relationships. While they reported mostly positive relationships with family—particularly with their mothers—adolescents’ responses indicated that the more problematic relationships were those with peers and others in their school settings.

We are following up the survey to further unpack these results, in order to understand how adolescents define trust and respect, as well as to understand family and school dynamics.

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Figure 2. A YPR in Sofia, Bulgaria, shares her group’s qualitative questions with the group.

In Tanzania, adolescents also reported supportive relationships with their mothers. In addition, they found that religious leaders were important in guiding young people’s behaviour. They indicated that a large part of their understanding of being loved, in various relationships, is someone providing for their needs, both emotional and material. But preliminary survey findings also pointed to widespread abuses toward adolescents—from various people at home, school, or in the community. To some extent, their answers even pointed toward a normalisation of that violence; for example, some pointed out that there were high levels of bullying in school, yet they did not necessarily consider this a bad thing, depending on the circumstances. Some saw excessive discipline from teachers as concern for their learning, while others reported that fighting to defend a friend shows that you are loyal and is therefore ‘healthy.’ The TZ team is currently completing qualitative data collection (Figure 3), which we hope will help us further unpack these responses during analysis.

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Figure 3. A YPR in Tanzania interviews a classmate (2018).

Scholar Activism

Our research team has been providing excellent support to our phenomenal young peer researchers (YPRs). Through our Circles of Support approach, the team in each country has been able to tailor training to the YPRs’ needs and abilities. To ensure that young people’s concerns predominate, we have consulted YPRs at every stage, while constantly checking our own tendencies to want to redirect research toward ‘adult’ concerns. As a result, we are seeing exceptional personal growth as well as group cohesion amongst our YPRs.

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Boy and girl YPRs in Magu, Tanzania, come up with research questions together (2017).

For this reason, we consider our participatory approach ‘always already advocacy’. ‘Protection’ is sometimes invoked to deny young people’s participation, but participation can be inherently protective, especially in ASRHR, where knowledge is power. Our training covers basic concepts that help empower kids to know their rights and develop their ASRHR competencies—which they then disseminate to others. Participatory research also fosters more interpersonal communication by modeling healthy relationships within the research process itself (Figure 4).


Headshot 02 17About the author: 

Kristen Cheney is Associate Professor of Children and Youth Studies at ISS. She is author of Crying for Our Elders: African Orphanhood in the Age of HIV and AIDS and co-editor of the forthcoming volume, Disadvantaged Childhoods and Humanitarian Intervention: Processes of Affective Commodification.

What can social scientists know from art and how? by Cathy Wilcock

What can social scientists know from art and how? by Cathy Wilcock

A recent workshop hosted collaboratively by the University of Manchester and the ISS sought to determine what knowledge can be derived from artistic work by asking ‘what can social scientists ...

Epistemic Diversity| Understanding epistemic diversity: decoloniality as research strategy by Olivia U. Rutazibwa

Epistemic Diversity| Understanding epistemic diversity: decoloniality as research strategy by Olivia U. Rutazibwa

How do we make sure that our efforts to diversify knowledge production go beyond a window-dressing/Benetton operation? How can we move beyond merely adding some colour and other markers of ...

Epistemic Diversity | From ‘do no harm’ to making research useful: a conversation on ethics in development research by Karin Astrid Siegmann

Ethical dilemmas are part and parcel of the research processes that researchers are engaged in. This article details a recent conversation between ISS students and staff in which they tried to make sense of some of the ethical issues that researchers face. While the ‘do no harm’ principle was emphasised as an overall yardstick, the discussion went beyond that, raising broader questions about epistemic and social justice.


With thanks to Andrea Tauta Hurtado, Zhiren Ye, Kristen Cheney, Roy Huijsmans and Andrew Fischer.


Scholars in Development Studies are quick to brag about how relevant their research is for the underdogs of society. The reality is that representatives of marginalised groups rarely knock at our office doors to ask for scholarly support. In fact, development research often does harm by justifying economic and social inequalities, reproducing stereotypes and stigma, and misrepresenting or even erasing knowledge about the lives of marginalised people.

How can scholars prevent such harm from being done through their research? This question was discussed by ISS students majoring in Social Policy for Development and staff members in a workshop on “ethical, integrity, and security challenges”. The discussion aimed to prepare ISS students for their fieldwork. While in our conversation the ‘do no harm’ principle was emphasised as an overall yardstick for our research, the discussion went beyond that, raising broader questions about epistemic and social justice.

Challenges to informed consent and ensuring anonymity

Roy Huijsmans’ example from his masters’ research on Dutch school-going children’s employment experiences illustrated that research participants’ informed consent is crucial, but also complicated by the power relations structuring the research arena. Teachers in his former school had facilitated meetings with their students. Several of these students, in turn, had expressed interest in and consented to participating in Roy’s study. When conducting telephone interviews with these children, however, in some cases parents became suspicious: who is that adult male calling their child? Roy’s experience raises the issue of whether it is adequate to understand informed consent individually. If not, what role do we give to the—in this case generational—power relations wherein consent is embedded? Can ethics protocols that require consent from parents or other gatekeepers alongside children’s own answer these questions?

In my own research, class-based power relations motivate special attention to research participants’ anonymity. Referring to a recent study on working conditions in South Asian tea plantations, I flagged that if workers’ and unionists’ statements could be identified, this could lead to their dismissal or worse outcomes. Our research team addressed this concern by not providing names—neither of people, nor of research locations. Andrew Fischer challenged me: would that really prevent identification? It is likely that few people are probably willing to stick their necks out as labour leaders, making those that do more easily recognisable.

One student followed up and asked how she could protect the identity of chemsex users— people having sex while using hard drugs—whose experiences she plans to investigate. Referring to the do no harm principle, Roy encouraged her to reflect on the consequences of research participants’ names leaking out: the Dutch government tolerates illegal drug consumption. Hence, in the current scenario, enforcement agencies are unlikely to arrest users. However, such political priorities can easily change over time. Andrew therefore recommended the anonymisation of transcripts, with their key to be stored outside the computer.

The quest for epistemic justice and diversity

In recent years, I have become increasingly concerned with the responsible representation of the lives, concerns and demands of the people who participate in my research, or, put differently, with epistemic justice. For instance, how will I represent the plantation workers who generously shared their experiences in our tea study? In a way that responds to the academic pressure to publish in highly-ranked journals with specific theoretical fancies? Or do research participants’ concerns guide my writing? This relates to questions that Marina Cadaval and Rosalba Icaza raise in their earlier post on this blog: ‘who generates and distributes knowledge, for which purposes, and how?’

Other participants in the discussion shared this concern for a fair representation. The student who engages with chemsex users’ experiences was acutely aware of the role of race in her research. In exploratory interviews, she learned how race shapes the exercise of power in chemsex users’ sexual relationships and how it either enables them to get support from or bars their access to the healthcare system. How to do justice to participants’ narratives without simultaneously repeating and reinforcing the underlying stereotypes?

For me, one way to deal with this quest for epistemic justice has been to engage in processes of activist scholarship, i.e. in collaboration and joint knowledge production with people who struggle for recognition and redistribution. Activist scholarship involves moves towards epistemic diversity, challenging the widely assumed supremacy of scientific knowledge heavily produced in Northern academic institutions. For instance, I have been involved in the campaign of a Florida-based farmworker organisation for making the Dutch retailer Ahold sign on to their programme for better working conditions in US agriculture. In dialogue with that organisation, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), I have written about lessons from that campaign for how precarious workers can effectively organise. Sruti Bala points out that this implies ‘to listen to articulations radically different from the frameworks that I may be trained in, but more than good listening is required in order for those articulations and insights to translate themselves into what we might call knowledge’. These processes of listening, dialoguing and learning didn’t lead to “consensus-based writing”, though. We had disagreements and I tried to make them visible in my writing.

Besides, there may be internal power hierarchies within the movements with which we collaborate. My colleague Silke Heumann earlier warned that through our decision of who participates in our research and who doesn’t, we run the risk of reinforcing existing power relations and of legitimising an elite’s perspective of a movement.

This approach may not be feasible for a masters’ thesis. What is possible in most cases, though, is to get research participants’ feedback on, critique and validation of how they understood our conversations or my wider observations about their lives. Time is a key resource in this effort to respect their knowledge as experts on their own lives. Taking time for research participants—rather than racing from one respondent to the next—enables us to conduct research in a more responsible manner. I want to integrate this principle more and more in my research due to the belief that this not only helps to prevent harm. Over and above that, it enables me to treat my research participants and their concerns with care. The more time I plan and spend for engagement with those who participate in my research, the greater the likelihood that it will embody epistemic justice.


 

This article forms part of a series on Epistemic Diversity. You can read the other articles here and here

csm_5abd70057687ec5e3741252630d8cc66-karin-siegmann_60d4db99baAbout the author: 

Holding a PhD in Agricultural Economics, Dr Karin Astrid Siegmann works as a Senior Lecturer in Labour and Gender Economics at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) of Erasmus University Rotterdam in The Hague, the Netherlands. She is the convenor of the ISS Major in Social Policy for Development (SPD).

Epistemic Diversity | The challenge of epistemic poverty and how to think beyond what we know by Sruti Bala

Epistemic Diversity | The challenge of epistemic poverty and how to think beyond what we know by Sruti Bala

Researchers face the challenge of engaging with the topic of epistemic diversity. We know that we should consider diverse knowledges in our research, but how can this be operationalised? This ...

Epistemic Diversity | “I am where I think”: research and the task of epistemic diversity by Marina Cadaval and Rosalba Icaza

Epistemic Diversity | “I am where I think”: research and the task of epistemic diversity by Marina Cadaval and Rosalba Icaza

Epistemic diversity in research is sorely needed in the academia. But what is epistemic diversity and why is it so important? This post—the first of a series on epistemic diversity— ...