Category Archives: PhD Musings

Blogging as a Phd journey: an experiment…

The focus of this blog is an ongoing questioning of how we know what we know and how we change ourselves and the world with what we know. In other words how knowing does or does not emancipate, transform and liberate. Blogging potentially creates the opportunity to make more academic knowledge accessible and use the Phd and other scholarly work as a platform for dialoguing with others. Whether blogging does indeed create this oppportunity remains to be seen…

Do cognitive justice movements need to infiltrate ‘Western’ knowledges spaces or just ignore them?

This image is of an activist that has been attending the ‘Changing Practice’ social learning course. He presented a poster of  his case study at a conference. His comment about the conference and the experience of sharing his work there was ‘It made me feel lonely.”  

So I’m frustrated today. Yesterday I was not frustrated and very happy to have more time for my Phd. My hard working supervisor has managed to find some money to support the PhD process this year and I’ve also been able to source some money elsewhere. I’ve enjoyed this past week thinking and planning and even beginning to work on the very first chapter of the Phd. I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed reading more of de Sousa Santos. I was so inspired that I even wrote to him. The thing is the inspiration that drove me to write to him is also part of my frustration which comes down to this…

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De-humanising the truth

Image: Dr Leigh Price and Dr Charles Chikunda

This week’s piece is an email conversation between myself and my supervisor, Dr Leigh Price.

I am working on the methodology for the historical review I am doing on trans-disciplinarity and emancipation in the earth sciences. I’ve been swinging backwards and forwards between a hardcore Fairclough discourse analysis of key trans-disciplinary papers to a more historically based genealogy as used by Foucault. Doing a geneology has always seemed more in line with what I’m trying to achieve and when I read Foucault’s geneological works I do find them inspiring. What I struggle with is that it is hard to move forward from a historical analysis of what makes the world the way it is when all the truths are seen as subjective fictions. It seems somehow, although I struggled to place how, that we loose our collective agency.

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A New Year’s browsing of last year’s flotsam and jetsam

A new year begins and the task of doing (and possibly finishing) a PhD continues. Phd students (me being one of them) dwell on the ‘finishing’ of our product. The pressures of everyday life leave little room to engage fully with a PhD as a intellectual project that is centrally positioned. Maybe I should not generalise my struggles so much. Let me say I struggle with this. Maybe it is just me that finds the mind space which the PhD occupies is often thrust to the edges by an overly responsible and anxious mind that prioritises ‘work’  as more urgent (as if the Phd is not also a work). What is it that individualises the PhD project and so makes it seem so selfish? Is it the fact that only I get recognition at the end or that only I stand to be judged at the end as worthy of the ritual that will have me wondering around in an academy gown and hat that is a rip off of the original medieval attire that monks probably wore when education and religion were one and the same thing?

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Are we just styling?

I wrote this piece over two months ago. I meant to post it but a very busy work period took over and I forgot. A lot of my ideas have changed since I wrote this paper particularly about the work of Santos. I found his work instantly fascinating once I read a paper by him.  I’m going to post the piece anyway as it captures a particular moment when I was in the midst of a crazy-timeframed evaluation and found myself wondering what is this all about, where is all this going, are we caught up in our own intellectual trends? How do we know if we are and how can we see through them if we are? As intellectuals as change-agents how do we keep ourselves honest?  I’ve finished the evaluation now and I do think it was a useful process. It gave me insight into people more than about whether the project we were evaluating was showing early signs of success or not. More than anything I come away from it with the sense that we need more time to pause, reflect, take stock and notice how our interactions with others are spaces that can keep us honest if we have an ear to the ground and the spaces within ourselves to listen. Listening to the stories people tell us of our own actions can be a catalyst for this honesty which makes me a little hesitant about my project thesis. In my first case study I’m working with my own work. It is going to be an interesting practice to listen out for the stories people tell me of my practice and to tell these stories to myself.. 

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“We are not trained like dogs. We are educated.”

This image is of December Ndhlovu and Patricia Mdluli, water activists in the Bushbuckridge area. They are deeply concerned about the eucalyptus plantations that cover the Moholoholo Mountain. Here they are right on the top of the mountain which is the only part of the mountain free from Eucalyptus trees

..”since learning is human, then every academic discipline…has an implicit theory of learning”(Jarvis, 2009)

I recently set myself a task of revisiting my fascination with the work of Paulo Freire and critically articulating what his emancipatory learning theory has to offer trans-disciplinary research and practice. My interest was in articulating what an emancipatory approach to education means and how this intention of emancipation directs knowledge generation and learning. This includes understanding how learning happens if learning is to be emancipatory. I have two reasons for giving myself this task 1) to clearly articulate emancipatory educational approaches and 2) to suggest what this means for knowledge generation and learning for trans-disciplinary research and practice that has emancipatory aspirations.

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Considering the emancipatory researcher: Part 2

Three stories of emancipation

All the comments you have made relate to the theory I’m going to share with you now. I’m going to try and keep this presentation brief and please stop me if you have any questions. I’ll try not to get too involved in all the jargon as well. Please remind me because I’m deeply immersed in my Phd as you are probably deeply immersed in all your studies and the jargon tends to fall out of my mouth sometimes without me realising I’m doing it.

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Considering the emancipatory researcher: Part 1

A few months ago I was asked to hold a workshop for the Trans-disciplinary group at Rhodes University. This group was started by the Institute of Water Research, Environmental Science and the Environmental Learning Research centre under a trans-disciplinary project on water security. The group has grown to include other Departments at the University. It is also attended by members of a community-based organisation called ‘Water for Dignity’.

As I was exploring what emancipation meant in learning and research I decided to present the little I knew and start a discussion about what it would mean to do emancipatory research. It was a fascinating engagement and I learnt a lot. I’ve decided to blog this interaction as it shows two things: how students and community members are thinking through these issues and, how, as novice researchers, it isn’t easy facing the fact that we live in a world defined by inequality. As researchers we and students we have a choice to make about our position in relation to our own lives and the life we want to live as active citizens and scientists in the world. I’ve not included people’s names except my own in the transcript.

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Dreaming is an act of emancipation

The featured image of this post is a picture taken in the Vaal.  The two women, Nomasomi Mjacu (Eastern Cape) and Patricia Mdluli (Mpumalanga) are water activist participants on the Changing Practice short course. They are renaming the world through their investigations into water security for food security (Nomasomi) and the effects of plantations on the practice of traditional healers (Patricia).  Although they live kilometres apart they have formed a strong friendship and solidarity. 

I haven’t written my blog for a while because I’ve been waiting for some big ah-ha moment when all the meandering thought processes that are circulating through my life come together and make sense. I’ve had a lot of input over the last month. I presented to the trans-disciplinary group at Rhodes University on emancipation which was fascinating. I spent a week at the Education Department at Rhodes University where Phd students from Rhodes interacted with PhD students from Sweden. I also was lucky enough to have my friend and one of my PhD supervisors, Leigh Price, come and stay with me for a while. I have also been reading a lot of Paulo Friere (Freire and Freire, 2004; Freire, 2000; Czank, 2012) which has led me to reading Peter McClaren’s (McLaren, 2001, 2003) work which has led me back to Marx. Although I have always respected Marx’s writings I have not really engaged with his work directly. Now I feel that there is a need to return to him just as I am returning to Freire. What is more and more clear to me through all these interactions and reading is that emancipation and an end to environmental destruction will not come to fruition while our institutions and social structures (and that includes our institutions of learning) are caught within the immoral, social relations of neo-liberal capitalism.

I have also returned to the idea of hope through reading Freire and works around Freire (Freire and Freire, 2004). In my early twenties I was filled with this hope and then a deep seated cynicism set in. A feeling of defeat. My work turned to critique of the present and the past (and in some ways is still caught here) and I forgot how to dream of a better future. There are a complicated mix of reasons around this loss of dream. Definitely personal life circumstances lead to a desire (and I use this word intentionally) not to dream or hope for a future better than this one we have. All the literature talks of how a loss of hope or a(n) aversion to aspire to a future is a common result of a tramatic event and yet I do not think this is the only thing that prevents me. I have a bit of a bulldog attitude to life so the personal traumatic events would have not been enough to stop the dreaming of a better world.

I sometimes wonder if being a South African has something to do with it. South Africans all live with trauma. Mass, national trauma puts our whole nation in a position of defeat. It is hard to imagine and dream of a better world when we are still reeling from the trauma of our past. White South Africans also live with guilt. Come on let’s face it. How can white South Africans not live with, if not guilt, then regret? This is my confession. I was 21 when Nelson Mandela become president. It was the first time I could vote and I was very proud to vote in a ‘new’ South Africa. I wanted to be part (o)f this new space. I didn’t want to be associated with the apartheid that I had been brought up in. Becoming an adult meant for me that I no longer needed to associate myself with (the) racially unjust country I had grown up in. But one cannot just shrug off one’s ’whiteness’ and I don’t mean ’whiteness’ in terms of colour I mean whiteness in terms of the privilege that comes with being born into, or having ancestors who were born into an imperialist country. I also mean the ’whiteness’ of the previously oppressed that adopt the behaviour of oppressors and perpetuate this suffering. My Grandparents were working class British stock. They did not have much. My father’s generation was the first to break through into the middle class. He was the first of our family to get a degree. I am the first and only member of my family to have a Masters degree. I have never had to understand lack or poverty. (M)y parents, as children, have had to understand and live with both. So one could argue then that being ’white’ does not necessarily mean privilege. Many people in Britain and America suffer many hardships regardless of what colour they are, but regardless of the hardships my family faced within their own country, their country is a powerful, global power aligned with other very powerful global powers. These global powers have pillaged the world and these governments have aligned themselves, not with democracy, but with Capital. At this global scale, no matter how you look at it, ’whiteness’ is synonymous with oppression.

As a young twenty year old my desparate attempts to shed this whiteness lead me to read Paulo Freire and Marx and to attempt to live into their approaches. It also lead me to participatory methodologies. The naive desire behind my adoption of participatory methodologies was to develop platforms for those who have been oppressed to speak. A possibly unrecognised motive was white guilt. I’m not saying that the motivations of all white people are suspicious. What I’m saying is that if one looks at the rise of participatory methodologies carefully it is without a doubt that they arose out of sudden realisation by white people and white nations that ’we don’t know what is best for ’those’ people after all.’ It was that shocking self-realisation that the solutions we are imposing are causing more problems and may not be the right solutions after all.   The way forward was more foreign investment, more schools, hospitals, good roads and economic growth and yet it didn’t work. For example, plantations were planted on mountain slopes which turned to mud baths during monsoons flooding out villages and killing countless people. Faced with disenfranchised, colonised countries Western Governments and organisations had but one solution.  The one  that worked for them.  More often than not  the solution was Capital – and so a deeper colonisation began. Waking up from this delusion happened in some corners of the West and led to the rise in Participatory approaches and Critical theory and the ’novel’ idea of involving people in their own development became a full on methodology. Of course this idea of involving people who had not been involved appealed to the twenty year old me looking to shed her whiteness. The problem is that involving people is not the only answer to oppression. Oppression is oppression because something has been taken away from people. We can’t remedy this by adding something even if this something is a platform to participate on. The remedy lies deeper than this. It lies in removing the very thing that inhibited people from being who they are and living the lives they wished to live in a way that is not harmful to others. This can’t be rectified only by those who have oppressed because their way of being in the world is as an oppressor. Their way of seeing the world is as an oppressor and now I will change that pronoun to MY way of seeing and naming the world is as the offspring of an oppressive nation and as a member of a group of people who oppressed the majority of people in South Africa. I cannot remove my ’whiteness’ because I cannot take away the context into which I was born.  I cannot whitewash my history.

This does not mean that I must then sit back and lick my privileged guilty wounds. No! This is where my re-reading of Friere and those who write about him is once again inspiring me to dream. I have been born into the culture of the oppressor but I have also been oppressed as have all of us. As a woman I know what is is like to be excluded, abused and undermined. I have been born into a world where what is male is what is normal and male dominance is the discourse that is sold to us so completely that it is taken as common sense. I have less economic power in this world simply because I have been born a woman. I have less political power in this world for the same reason. When I was younger some men did not even respect my body as my own. It was seen as an object, a possession to be grabbed as a male right.

Paulo Friere himself was born into a middle class family. He writes in his book ”Pedagogy of Hope” (Freire and Freire, 2004) that he never wanted for anything. His world was very different from the world of the people who had to take on the inequalities of society into their very bodies, and yet he speaks of a moment when he too felt oppression. He had left his country to do a lecture tour in America. At breakfast one morning, Friere and his wife sat in a restaurant waiting to be served. No matter what they did, no matter how they asked they were systematically ignored simply because of who they were. They did not fit into what was the right kind of person here. They were not worthy of attention. Even worse they were made to know this completely.

If (these are) the many shades of oppression then what is my position as a white South African female? My role is not to rename the world for others as my predecessors have done, nor is my role to remain silent. This would be a form of self-oppression and just another form of guilty behaviour. The answer then is simply what Freire has been demanding, to side with the oppressed. To bring my privilege of years of education, of a well-fed body and a nutured mind into service. I cannot abdicate my ’whiteness’ because I cannot remove myself from my history, but I can dream a new future and this is where my ’whiteness’ can be laid to rest. It can be dreamed away by those that have been oppressed by it and I can join in that dream and add my voice to it. This may be what it means to name a new world together and I think this is what Freire means when he says to fight against oppression is an act of love because those that are fighting their oppression are offering those of us who have been born into a history of being an oppressor our freedom too. We are being given the opportunity to be renamed. Why we all don’t embrace this opportunity with all of our being is the sadness. An understandable sadness because before we can be renamed we have to name where we have come from and into what moment in history we were born. To name our histories is not the confessional of the guilt-ridden. It is a step towards what Freire calls ’critical consciousness’ Czank (2012). Critical consciousness requires a rigourous reading of the world in order to understand how things have come to be through history and how this history has produced the material an symbolic layers of human life. This is how we can name our ’whiteness’ and so move beyond it.

I suppose the crux of my learnings over the last few weeks is that the naming of the world is not a moment of despair, it is the moment when we open the spaces up into which we can begin to dream again. I have realised that to not dream is to side with the oppressors, to give up hope is to side with the oppressors.

A few days ago it was the anniversary of Chris Hani’s assassination. He dreamt a great dream and renamed a world without whiteness.  ”What we need in South Africa is for egos to be suppressed in favour of peace. We need to create a new breed of South Africans who love their country and love everybody, irrespective of their colour.” – Chris Hani

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Exploring Emancipation: A brief interaction between Bhaskar and Freire

I was first introduced to Paulo Freire by Eureta Rosenberg. She also introduced all her Masters students to the idea of education being a process of emancipation and transformation. Thanks Eureta, you are an educator that emancipates.

The first steps towards investigating the concept of emancipation -digging up Freire.

One of the weaknesses of my Phd proposal was the lack of attention that I gave to unraveling the concept of emancipation. This is surprising as it is a word that I often use to describe the purpose of my work. Imagine my slight embarressment that I had failed to engage, with intellectual rigour, with an idea that has so much meaning and importance to me. It is almost as if I stopped engaging with emancipation as a concept after I read Freire’s work in 1998 [12]. Then I realised that I may not be the only one with this ’blind spot’. All trans- disciplinary theories and approaches aim to bring about some form of change for the better. The motivation for change is often driven by a recognition of the importance of morals and values when it comes to deciding what this change is. Early probings into the concept of emancipation in relation to trans-disciplinary approaches shows that it requires further conceptual  work as the idea of change and emancipation carriy diverse meanings. This gap has lead to a determination to revisit the concept of emancipation with some depth before continuing on with this study. I have just begun this mini-project within the PhD. Below I document a few emerging contemplations.

My initial engagement with the idea of emancipation was through Freire’s work. Freire, an educator from the critical school, believed that the ultimate pedagogical aim is liberation. He understood this to be the liberation of the self, a quest for human completion [12]. For Freire, this liberation was a freedom from a false consciousness. Freires concept of false consciousness has been critiqued in terms of who decides what false consciousness is. In fact I critiqued it in one of the final papers I wrote for my Master’s degree way back in 1999. The critical stance I took of Freire’s work followed on from the conviction of the Critical Theorists that knowledge is constructed and therefore can be falsely constructed to form a false and oppressed view of the self. Although the view of the self was seen as constructed there was a sense that disempowerment and ’power over another’ was a real, thing and, I argued, viewed as a fixed object. The problem then, for Critical Theoriests was that disempowered people were not able to see that they were living into a false and diminished sense of their humanity and that they had adopted this view of themselves through the powerful influence, and this includes the influence of education, of the ruling elite. The disjuncture for me, at the time, was that Critical Theorists saw this construction of meaning as false and yet saw disempowerment as a reality. I argued that by judging a group of people as ’disempowered’ through a false consciousness automatically assumed that the group making this judgement was empowered thus refusing to accept that power is not a fixed object but the knowledge structures within which we exist construct these power relations and that it is through our langauge that we use that we view ourselves as empowered or disempowered.

I argued that false consciousness cannot be imposed upon people and be seen as the reason for oppression, rather it is coming to realise that all that we are, all our meaning is made up of our construction of ourselves through the power structures in which we function. Through challenging these power structures we come to realise the flexibility of power and our relationship to it.

Fifteen years down the line I realise this was rather a naive intepretation of Freire’s work and that my argument is potentially dangerous as the relativist nature of the argument could indeed deconstruct away the very real oppression in the world.

Reinstating a dialogue with Freire: That ’sorry I think I misunderstood you,  Did you mean this?’ phase

What then was Freire saying about emancipation and the path to freedom? Critical Realism and the work of Roy Bhaskar have helped me begin to re-evaluate Freire’s work. This is an ongoing process and these preliminary comtemplations are made tentatively as I have only just begun this mini-project within the PhD project. I am also not claiming that Freire was a critical realist. Rather the conceptual tools of critical realism are helping me understand mistakes in my own critiques which have opened up new spaces for viewing Freire’s work.

The basis of my mistake was to view the way in which we know about the world (epistemology) as the way the world is (ontology). My argument followed that if knowledge is constructed then it is through this deconstruction and reconstruction of ideas, thought and language that the world changes and is understood to be. There is a conflation of epistemology and ontology in my critique of Freire. I critique him for saying that the path to liberation is through realising the false image we have of ourselves is a constructed imposition of the ruling class and that this power is very, very real. My discomfort was, how can false consciousness be a construction but the disempowerment of individuals not be. How can a view of oneself be seen as constructed and thus relative but the powerful structures that impose this false view be seen as real and material? I also struggled with the idea of the power to change being in reach of the individual and all that was needed was a shift in consciousness and a realisation of oppression to bring about change. In my work experience, understanding that one was oppressed did not necessarily lead to liberation.

On a re-reading of Freire’s work I have come to understand his theory of false consciousness to be much broader than individual consciousness. Freire spoke of false and critical consciousness. To understand false consciousness one needs to first understand what is meant by critical consciousness and why Freire saw this as so important for emancipation. Freire’s ideas of critical consciousness are linked to his theory of agency. For Freire consiousness went beyond the personal. It is something ’both in and with the world’ [5]. To be a critcal agent in the world means to relate to the world in a meaningful way and add to the world in an authentic way. Critical consciousness is an analysis or a rigourous reading of the world. [5]. This reading of the world is necessary to understand how things have come to be through the history of individuals and structures and how these histories have produced the ’material and symbolic layers of human life.” [5]. Engagement is crucial aspect of critical consciousness. This means that an authentic reading of the world does not happen in isolation but through a critical engagement in and with the world in dialogue with others.

”Authentic thinking, thinking that is concerned about reality, does not take place in ivory tower isolation, but only in communication. If it is true that thought has meaning only when generated by action upon the world, the sub- ordination of students to teachers becomes impossible.” [12, p. ̃75]

From this quote one can see that Freire’s critique is aimed at the power struc- tures within the education system and the teacher, student relationship but it also shows that he sees knowledge of the world as integrally linked with action. Knowing and agency cannot be separated out from each other. In fact Freire de- scribes a valid investigation of the world as a ’dialectic play between ourselves and the world’ where critical consciousness means having a ’true grasping of causality which is realised through an experience of and with the world.” [5]. Being denied agency in Freire’s terms means being denied to both the access and production of knowledge AND to the collective process of knowing and learning through a relationship with the world.

This links both learning and agency to an experience of and with context and a dialogic process between people and between people and the world.  This then explains and sheds light on Freire’s idea of false consciousness which can be a suffering of anyone regardless of class or position. Freire describes false consciousness in two ways:

  1. Magical consciousness which is a failure to recognise agency because we do not question the injustices opposed on us by a superior force. Magical consciousness is also a view of human awareness as an empty vessel to be filled with neutral content.
  2. Naive consciousness is the belief that you are superior to reality and in control of it and so are free to understand it as you please. ”It is the belief that one can superimose oneself upon the world, instead of understiand oneself as part of it.[5, p. ̃707]”.

Naive consciousness is not only present in the elite classes. It can also exist in the middle classes. An example being the belief that if you have positive thoughts you will be able to manipulate your reality to fit into these thoughts. The fact that 90% of the population still live in abject poverty regardless of whether they are having negative or positive thoughts is disregarded. This is a prime example of how people believe themselves to be superior to reality. So the reality which tells us that more than two thirds of the world struggle to find their next meal can be easily ignored and superimposed with a false reality in which the elite see themselves as removed from the world and not as part of it. A way out of this false consciousness is agency – an experience of and with the world.

What this tentative re-reading of Freire has done is open up a few points about agency and learning.

  • knowing of the world and acting in it are inextricably linked
  • critical consciousness can only be realised through dialogue based on ex-perience and action
  • causality is understood both through experience in and knowledge of the world.
  • collaborative meaning making is interdependent with the ability to act authentically.
  • Agency is the ability to interpret the world based on a critical conscious- ness

Starting to dialogue with Bhaskar and Freire: That ’getting to know each other’ phase.

What I initially struggled with when I first encountered Freire was a conflation of how we make meaning of the world and act in it and how the world is. Freire often talks of reality and that a false reality is the adoption of a false consciousness.

This seems to assume a reality which is true and that can be known through what Freire calls critical consciousness. Is this a value statement or is this a statement about the the way the world truly is? The reason this question is important to consider is because of the debate in science about whether a value can be a statement about the world. This debate is linked to whether a value, such as a value of freedom, can be linked to a fact. It also brings into question the debates around values – whose values count for example.

Critical Realism take on the concept of emancipation by looking at the eman- cipatory ambition of science and social science. Science and social science are the names we give to a knowledge system or a set of knowledge systems. These knowledge systems consist of information about the world but they also consist of approaches (rules and logic) about how to investigate and know the world. Freeing up ’truth’ is the motivation behind a set of procedures and rules for investigation, discovery and knowledge generation.

How does this link to Freire? Freire argues that a critical consciousness is a rigourous reading of the world. When I first read this I considered agency to simply be the ability to act on the world but it is also the ability to know the world. This is the emancipatory battle that lies at the core of science.

The rules and traditions of the science we know today emerged out of Hume’s critique of the control of the church and how the church perpetuated this control by entrenching a way of knowing the world which Hume labeled as superstitious. In response he developed a linear causality to avoid any possibility of the truth being clouded by opinion or value. If Freire had been around during Hume’s time he may have called this behaviour of the church as a false consciousness where the church saw itself as more powerful than reality and superimposed its understanding of reality and on the masses.

The difference between Hume and Freire is that Hume saw the problem being the method that was used to know the world. Freire would have seen it as a false understanding of reality and that we are somehow seperate from the world and can thus can force our will upon it. For him our being in the world is the root of our ability to know it. He adds that this knowing of the world is bought into being through dialogue and collaborative meaning making. The process of meaning making is a process of adding value or interpreting what we know of the world and our place in it. This is the process of emancipation.

When the meaning making is imposed or presented as fact when it is actually an interpretation of fact and thus a value. This is oppression. Hume on the other hand, at times, said that there is no connection. The fact that we perceive something to be connected to something else and caused by something else is nothing more than a habit of the mind (pers comm, Price, 2015.02.28).

Bhaskar seems to agree with Freire but how exactly Bhaskar’s theories enhance Freire’s views of a critical consciousness is still not completely clear to me. Bhaskar’s philosophy validates a lot of the work of the social sciences whose emancipatory objective is directed (as it was with Freire) against structures, because social structures provide the conditions for our actions and can be either enabling or constraining of social justice or the good life for all. For Freire the ability to critique these structures would be to have a critical consciousness. He sees this as a form of dialogic learning, of participating in the world. Bhaskar adds another layer, the ability to work with facts and the validity of a transition from fact to value which includes, what Bhaskar calls, an explanatory critique. Danermark et al.[6] say for example that we can hardly explain racist actions without considering conceptions about races and their characteristics and in the explanation there is a critique of these conceptions.

To unearth these generative mechanisms Bhaskar uses the idea of an ontological stratification that describes three overlapping reality domains: the real, the actual and the empirical: where the domain of the empirical are the sense experiences and constructed concepts, the actual being the events and experiences and the real being the mechanisms, events and experiences of a given phenomena (Hartwig, 2007, pg. 401). The three domains are dependent on each other with mechanisms possessing causal powers that may or may not produce events which again many or may not be experienced as a sense experience in the domain of the empirical [1].

And this is where I stop. I can see that Bhaskar’s position is opening up my reading of Freire’s theoris of emancipation but I’ve reached the limit of a clear understanding of Bhaskar to sum up or carefully place where Freire and Bhaskar meet. There is still much to understand about how Bhaskar explains the transition from fact to value and indeed his own theories of transformation.

There is also a lack of clarity about how critical realism would envisage an emancipatory movement. This is probably because I have not done enough reading. The interpretation of fact may be the point of freedom but it could also be the point of control. There are also questions of what mechanisms allow for the democratic interpretation of fact and, whether a democratic interpretation can be synonymous with a just interpretation. For example the majority of South Africans would interpret the fact that the country has such high murder rates as a result of the punishment for murder not being fierce enough. Most South Africans would call for the re-instatemnt of the death penalty to deal with rising crime.

Shall we meet again?

The idea that reality can be viewed as stratified and that the interpretation of fact into value is valid process of knowing the world has relieved my earlier misgivings of Freire’s work and yet I’m still not completely clear what this tells us about emancipation and action in the world. There is a feeling that Freire and Bhaskar have a lot more to say to each other but I am still too ignorant of both of these great minds to facilitate a more engaged and rigourous conversation.

This is a very clumsy expression of Freire meeting Bhaskar. On re-reading it I am unclear whether this has been a comfortable conversation with two like minded theories or an awkward and forced engagement which, now that I’ve reached the end of this paper/report, I’m glad to get away from. This first meeting has sparked a curiosity though that tells me that this is not a first, once of meeting but rather the usual kind of tentative meeting between strangers. Look I don’t think Freire and Bhaskar have hit it off from the start but a few more meetings may lead to a better acquaintance if not a long, lasting friendship. Only time and a lot more reading, will tell. There are also some great stories to tell by Visvanathan [22] and his ideas of ’cognitive justice.’. . . . until next time.


  1. [1]  Roy Bhaskar. A Realist Theory of Science. Routledge, 2008.
  2. [2]  Roy Bhaskar, C. Frank, K.G Hoyer, P. Naess, and J. Parker. Interdisci-plinarity and climate change. Routledge, 2010.
  3. [3]  B.Nicolescu. Futures of transdisciplinarity, april 199.
  4. [4]  W. Carr and S. Kemmis. Becoming critical: Knowing through action re- search. Deakin University, 1983.
  5. [5]  James M Czank. The critical epistemology of paulo freire. 2012.
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Jane Burt March 1, 2015 10

[24] Ken Wilber. Introduction to integral theory and practice. Integral Naked, 2004, 2003.

Searching for an emancipatory science: The emergence of Trans-disciplinarity in the Earth Sciences.

The emergence of Trans-disciplinarity in the Earth Sciences

A useful exercise is to step back and understand how the need for Trans- disciplinarity arose in the Earth Sciences. What was going on that caused the great minds of the world to question their way of doing things. Below I outline a few critical moments that emerged from practices in the Earth Sciences. This is not a comprehensive analysis but a first sifting review of the emergence of trans-disciplinarity in the Earth Sciences.

 From a planet of plenty to a planet under pressure

Our perception of the world changes all the time and is influenced by all sorts of things. For example, the first picture of the world from outer space had a great impact on the psyche of humanity. It was a haunting image of beauty and vulnerability.

Our planet has not always been spoken about as a place where resources are being depleted and poisoned. The earth, in mythology, song, stories and poetry was seen as a planet of plenty. Wordsworth’s poems are an example of how the beauty and abundance of the natural world was a muse and a teacher for him. He starts his poem ’It was an April morning, fresh and clear’ by describing a river as a young and strong man.

It was an April morning: fresh and clear

The Rivulet, delighting in its strength,

Ran with a young man’s speed;

It was an April morning, fresh and clear by W. Wordsworth [27]

Even during the time of the industrial revolution planet Earth was still seen as a plentiful place although the depletion of the great forests of Europe and Britain to feed the growing navy was well on the way. Although people today still write pretty poems about nature, as Wordsworth did in his day, there are more poems about a planet under pressure and the consequences of this for humanity.

Compare the image in Wordsworth’s poem to these two images that are excerpts from two South African poems written in the late 20th century.

The wind asks

who will care for the people

when our economies have turned into casinos

when our ecologies have turned into zoos

                                                          The Return by Robert Berold [5]

uproot the class

from the cosmetics

of its colour romance

luxury flights to fantasy land

this lands balanced on a bubble

one prick and were f***ed obsolete/extinct

                                              The cry of disillusionment by Lesego Ramapolokeng [19]

Over the years the human perception of earth has changed drastically. Earth was viewed as a planet of plenty now one is more likely to hear about a planet under pressure. The conference title, a planet under pressure, was used to describe ’the largest gathering of global change scientists leading up to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development’ [2], a conference dedicated to how the earth sciences can deal with a human society at risk because of human activity.

Policy briefs prepared for this conference highlighted trans-disciplinarity as nec- essary to understand the links between human well-being, ecological systems, socioeconomic systems and pathways towards sustainability [11] where the aim of trans-disciplinarity is to identify knowledge gaps. These statements highlight two things: firstly, that the way in which research has been done is not sufficient in this new context of a planet under pressure and secondly, it is an acknowl- edgement of the inseparability of the social-ecological. These policy briefs also capture a global frustration at the many messy problems we face in the world today and how research is falling short of addressing these problems [21].

The International Council of Science (ICSU) Earth Systems Science for Global Sustainability Programme highlights grand challenges and research priorities that are expressed differently to earlier reports. State of the Environment re- ports by international institutions focused on research questions based on dif- ferent environmental issues [21]. In the global challenge report the challenges are arranged around social-ecological processes rather than key ecological issues for example, responding is one of five grand challenges [21, p. ̃9]. The research objective linked to this challenge is to determine what institutional, economic and behavioural changes can enable effective steps toward global sustainability [21, p. ̃9].

This shows that research scientists in the earth sciences are reviewing the role of research which includes how we understand the challenges we face. There is an acknowledgement that multiple knowledges are needed to comprehend and respond to these challenges.

 The challenges with managing natural resources.

”, managing the planet has a nice ring to it. It appeals to our fascination with digital readouts, computers, buttons and dials. But the complexity of the earth and its life systems can never be safely managed. What might be managed, however, is us: human desires, economies, politics and communities.” [18, p. ̃8].

Berkes and Folke [4] attribute the failure of traditional resource management to two things: human greed and short-sightedness; and that resource management science is flawed as a system of thought and practice.

One of the flaws has been that ecosystems are managed as if they are separate from society. This approach ignores the huge impact human activity (both political and economic) has on the biophysical world and has been one cause of the devastating and massive changes in natural systems [4], [13] such as the fires that overran the Yellowstone National park in the United States in 1998 [9, p. ̃6]. Another example is how water was allocated in South Africa during apartheid. The political regime of the time prioritised the allocation of water to land owners who were large-scale, white farmers. This was known as having riperian rights in the National Water Act of 1956 [1]. The focus of water management was on building infrastructure to ensure that water was available for economic use. This example from South Africa shows how the management of resources are shaped by powerful political and economic regimes that have a huge impact on how resources are managed, shared and used.

The second flaw is that our understanding of ecosystems and thus the knowl- edge we draw on to manage these ecosystems is often only based on the western scientific knowledge tradition. An acknowledgement of this flaw, according to Berkes and Folke [4], has led to a renewed interest in local and indigenous practices, as many that have been successful at balanced ecosystem manage- ment, have been undermined, ignored or replaced. Globalisation has also led to the homogenisation of options for societies and individuals because traditional, local economies are infiltrated by commercialisation, privatisation and industri- alisation leading to a loss of local structures which are usually based on social relationships generated over decades and even generations [11].

Acknowledging and understanding what encourages sustainable living is partic- ularly pertinent given that there has never been an age on this planet where human action has become a powerful natural force in its own right [28]. The challenges resulting from this powerful human force are beyond one disciplines knowledge (and indeed beyond the ability of academically generated knowledge) and skill to understand and this demands collective reflection and action with all sectors of society [24, ?].

Knowledge production, representation and application

”It is widely assumed that environmental problems will be solved by technology of one sort or another. Better technology can certainly help, but the crisis is not first and foremost one of technology. Rather it is a crisis within the minds that develop technology. The disordering of ecological systems and of the great biogeochemical cycles of the earth reflect a prior disorder in the thought, percep- tion, imagination, intellectual priorities and loyalties inherent in the industrial mind. Ultimately then, the ecological crisis concerns how we think and the institutions that purport to shape and refine the capacity to think” [18, p. ̃2].

Orr’s quote draws our attention to human’s and how human’s know about them- selves and the world. You could almost say that Orr helps us to think about how we verbalise the current challenges we face as a species. We tend to say we are facing an ’environmental crisis’. Orr’s quote forces us to rethink these words and maybe admit that the crisis we face is a ’a crisis of human beings’ and I use the words ’beings’ with intent for the crisis of our being is a crisis of what we do, how we know and how we are as human’s in a interdependent world. To say it another way it is a crisis of how we produce, represent and apply knowledge; our ability to act with this knowledge and an ethical understanding that guides the way in which we act.

Below are a few practical examples of how this crisis of the human being has manifested in the world with a particular emphasis on the Earth Sciences. Oth- ers will be explored as I move through the PhD.

 Scientific and professional knowledge is compartmentalised.

One of the failures of environmental management has been a narrow under- standing of how valid and valuable knowledge is produced and how this can be applied in practice. Lawrence and Desprs,[17] argue that our incapacity to deal with complex environmental problems is due partly to the compartmen- talisation of scientific and professional knowledge, to the sectoral division of responsibilities in contemporary society, and to the increasingly diverse nature of the societal contexts in which people live. [17, p. ̃388]. They call this the applicability gap [17, p. ̃388] which is not only linked to a lack of economic and political commitment but the narrow vision of so called experts who do not ad- dress fundamental issues but only topics isolated from their societal context[17, p. ̃388]. To address this they point to four obstacles that need to be overcome:

  1. ontological frameworks that do not embrace the complexity of the natural and human made environment;
  2. epistemological positions that value rational and utilitarian approaches to the management of human and natural ecosystems;
  3. the specialisation and bureaucratisation of knowledge and expertise; and
  4. the lack of communication between professionals, politicians, interest groupsand the public [17, p. ̃399].

The production and application of knowledge has been separated from culture and context.

Human rights researcher Shiv Visvanathan critiques traditional science by chal- lenging the idea that the production of knowledge can be separated from culture and context [25]. His critique goes to the heart of the politics of knowledge pro- duction. He questions whether science led to the development of India or to its demise and poses the question that the grass-roots science movement had to face, whether the crises (one being the Bhopal gas tragedy) was because of bad science, bad politics and bad technology or was the problem also inherent in the logic of science and technology? [25, p. ̃2]. He argues for a more democratic framework for science that challenges the view of the citizen as a consumer and not an inventor of knowledge[25, p. ̃3]. He summarises the critique of science as voiced by grass-roots movements as the following:

1. a human rights issue because development projects marginalised or canna- balised the cultures of local people;

2. a need for a science that sees nature as more than an object, an experiment or a resource but as a way of life and where nature is more than a mode of production but a mode of thought. [25, p. ̃3]

Protesters linked to these development movements in India realised that they were not just protesting against development projects, such as the building of a dam, but against the narratives and epistemologies of science. How do non-violent movements search for a non-violent science? is the question that Visvanathan asks us to consider [25, p. ̃4].

 Trans-disciplinary researchers rethink science, knowledge production, representation and ap- plication

Trans-disciplinary researchers and practictioners are faced with a great chal- lenge. They not only have to consider the fact that the disciplinary boundaries that have been set up around knowledge production are inhibiting the possi- bility of change, but that the narrow Western view of science may also be an inhibiting factor. Hume, the father of our current philosophical understanding of science, developed this philosophical position in response to the way in which the church of the day controlled the way in which people could know the world through superstition particularly that natural phenomena were explained as a miracle. His intention was to emancipate the way we know from the controlling influence of the church. Today we are having to do the same thing. We are having to consider how we have entrapped ourselves through our epistemologies (our theories of how we know our world).

Cornell [23] redefines science as any form of knowledge about the world that we live in and the systematic process of inquiry that pursues further understanding of the planet. In this definition science is not just a set of rules and practices organised to understand the world, science becomes part of a chain of reasoning and action within knowledge systems rather than within a narrow view of one knowledge system. [23, p. ̃61].

The problem that sparks this redefining is that the practice of science is the only way of knowing the world. Cornell is arguing that science is a way of reasoning that exists within a much broader process of knowing which includes systems of knowledge and not just one system of knowledge production.

Luks et al.[12] define trans-disciplinarity as a process whereby non-scientific actors are included in knowledge generation and implementation. Scientists are not the advisors to policy makers who then make the decisions, rather there is a mingling of the creation of knowledge and decision making [12, p. ̃419]. This is nothing new to practitioners of action research where the generation of research knowledge is inseparable from action and the participation of those who act [16], and it is not surprising that action research features strongly in trans-disciplinary approaches to research [14].

Luks is addressing the problematic belief that knowledge is transferred from the scientist into the world where it is applied. He argues that the boundaries between knowledge production and knowledge application are not so clear cut. Knowledge is produced through acting in the world. Knowledge is not trans- ferred it is collaboratively produced through a process of meaning making in the world.

The definition of what constitutes scientific would then also refer to knowledge production that emerges out of everyday practice and knowledge that is not bounded by a discipline or educational institution [23]. This raises questions of how knowledge is validated and produced. Cundill et al.[10] faced this chal- lenge when involved with the global millennium ecosystems assessment. One of the main challenges they faced with what they called the democratisation of knowledge (by adopting participatory approaches to gathering evidence), was how to validate the data produced from both scientific studies and interactions with local communities (that produced knowledge based on peoples long term engagement with a local context and landscape sometimes referred to as indige- nous knowledge) and, the transaction costs of working outside a purely scientific system. Often in these cases local or indigenous knowledge is validated by com- paring it to scientific knowledge. If the two knowledges concur this gives validity to the claims made by local people for the scientists. Local people probably do not need science to validate their cultural knowledge. It is also politically astute for scientists to get scientific knowledge validated by a broad range of stakehold- ers as then scientists can make the claim that their knowledge has been accepted by multi-stakeholder groups thus increasing its status and validity. There is a danger that this form of participatory research becomes a disguised version of extractive research in a participatory wrapping with scientists gathering validity, to ensure that studies are accepted as democratically generated. These tensions will need to be carefully explored in trans-disciplinary work.

Visvanathan does not see what he calls the externalist idea of community in- volvement and participation as enough. He sees the challenge as one of cognitive representation [25, p. ̃8]. What is needed is an engagement with people with the understanding that knowledge and the discourse of knowledge is inseparable from peoples activities and the landscape within which these activities take place. Knowledge that exists in context cannot be translated into another discourse. Acknowledging this and working at this level is what Visvanathan calls cognitive justice, a constitutional right for different systems of knowledge to exist as part of dialogue and debate [25, p. ̃8]. This is not a blend of ex- pert knowledge and ethnoscience but a recognition of plural knowledge systems where knowledge exists in relation to livelihoods [25].

”The idea of cognitive justice suggests that there is a link between survival and forms of knowledge. It not only includes the rights of dissenting scientists within a dominant paradigm, but also the rights of alternative epistemologies and alternative sciences” [25, p. ̃8].

Cornell et al.[23] add to this debate by separating out knowledge from knowl- edge systems. Scientific or research knowledge then becomes just one form of knowledge that informs and produces knowledge in a much broader knowledge system. Knowledge systems are described as a network of actors connected by social relations that dynamically combine knowing, doing and learning to bring about specific actions for sustainable development and that it is these relation- ships that shape the flow of knowledge [23, p. ̃61]. For Cornell et al.[23] the biggest challenge is not so much the different knowledge systems but bridging the gap between knowledge and action. Addressing this gap means engaging in open-ended social learning processes and by viewing learning both tempo- rally and spatially. They also argue that there are many challenges to this kind of trans-disciplinary research both because it challenges traditional knowledges (traditional knowledge does not refer to indigenous knowledge but to traditional science) and because most trans-disciplinary projects are not learning from the experiences of previous projects [23].

This suggests that the synthesis of knowledge implied in the inter/trans-disciplinary task does not mean conflating all knowledge systems into one discourse. It means, as Visvanathan [25] argues, the right for different knowledge systems
to exist without trying to conflate or reinterpret these systems in the language

of science or a dominant logic of the way the world works, for example, the discourse of economic growth, capitalism, or even for that matter, a dominant view of democracy or the environment. This will result in knowledge systems being literally displaced and removed from the history out of which they have emerged and the place or landscape within which agents enact these knowl- edge systems. This displacement is equally possible if inter/trans-disciplinary research teams, whose aim is to synthesis knowledge from diverse disciplines, do so without paying attention to the history out of which different theoretical frameworks have emerged and are being used in response to a particular under- standing of how the world works (one of the aims of this PhD project is to add to this understanding).

Learning as an emancipatory activity: moving from knowledge to action (A conclusion of sorts)

In the literature on trans-disciplinary research there is a strong emphasis on the importance of learning. Learning is viewed as vital to:

1. build trans-disciplinary teams so that synthetic research is possible [22]; 2. support transformative action with multi-stakeholder groups [?] and,
3. support reflexive practice and evaluation [22].

Cornell et al. [23] redefine environmental sustainability as an an open-ended process of social learning in which a new balance is continually being sought between multiple social, economic and environmental challenges and goals[23, p. ̃62]. In this case learning is not only seen as the transformative element in research but as a process for ensuring sustainability.

Many academics identify the narrow, specialised and siloed approach to higher education as a key reason for why we cant deal with the challenges of a changing world [?]. Nicolescu [7], a trans-disciplinary theorist, argues for an even broader role for education and learning than the ones mentioned above. He embraces the idea that education is more than a process of assimilating information but rather a process of being able to synthesise knowledge as well as apply it in new, creative and adaptive ways. He argues that the issues with education the world over have to do with a system of education that is founded on the values of the previous century and the disharmony that exists between the values and the realities of a planetary life in the process of change [7]. According to Nicolescu learning is not just a mental activity nor is it only about transformative action in the real world, it is about transforming the way in which we understand the world to be and our relationship with it. It is an ontological transformation [7].

For Nicolescu and others [6, 14, 26, 15] this means relooking at how we educate within our schools, universities and the role of learning in civil society. It also means questioning the principles and purposes of education. This had lead to social learning and change-oriented learning where the purpose of learning is the transformation of social practices [?, ?, 3, 20]. This type of learning requires more than facts, it involves engagement with practice: how people learn from each other as they participate in practices can transform the way that knowledge is thought about. This is because the focus of these theories is on not only providing information, but also on collectively transforming practice [8].

Understanding how learning leads to transformation is a key research question for trans-disciplinary research. The role of knowledge and knowledge systems, how knowledge is generated and how knowledge enhances the ability to act and transform also become key research concerns. I would like to tentatively argue that transformative learning is trans-disciplinary and that the trans-disicplinary project is impossible to engage in without engaging in the questions of what we know and how we know it, and, more importantly, how we change. Learning can be emancipatory but it is not automatically so. Learning can also perpetuate the status quo. This is why research into, and the practice of change-oriented learning is a core trans-disciplinary practice.


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