Perspectives on Knowledge II

Defining knowledge by absences

This is a guest post by Dr Emanuela Spanò, a post-doc researcher at the University of Cagliari, Italy. Together with our Irish co-researcher, we have formed a writing group scoping literatures on European Higher Education to identify ecologies of knowledge. This project began in July 2019 following our attendence at SUSEES (Summer School in European Education Studies).

Knowledge is an analytical concept ridden with confusion and conceptual controversies. Simply put, the essential problem is that every thought can in some way be conceptualised as knowledge and the distinction between knowledge and action is not always clear cut (Hochschild, 2006). A key step in defining this concept is thus to constrain and circumscribe what we consider as “knowledge”.

As opposed to the standard commodified view of knowledge – whereby knowledge is understood as a product produced and transferred similarly to physical objects – we firstly see knowledge as embedded, produced and reproduced by particular fields (Bourdieu, 1984; 1989; 1993) such as academic disciplines, practitioner communities, or expert groups. In addition to explicit knowledge, we argue that tacit knowledge (including professional knowledge) can play a crucial role in governance and knowledge transfer. But one of our main aims is to focus on the absence of knowledge or of some types of knowledge. In our view, it can reveal, by contrast, the dominant forms of knowledge produced and reproduced within a specific field of practice. For this reason, we will try to map the specific forms of knowledge which emerge (or lack) in the specific field of educational research educational research, paying special attention to the presence/absence of resistant voices or counter-narratives that try to “decolonize” the field and find new research attitudes and new research methods.

Kitchen Stories (2003) – On the paradoxes of sociological knowledge

Boaventura de Sousa Santos calls “abyssal line” the frontier produced by capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy, which separates what happens in metropolitan society from what happens in the suburbs, just as before it separated what happened in the metropolis from what happened in the colonies. The latter conceived no longer as territorial colonies, but as social colonies, epistemic colonies. Our hypothesis is that “metropolitan knowledges” can creates the conditions for carrying out the “epistemicide” of other forms of knowledge not included in the scientific winner paradigms. In his view, we need an epistemological break in order to change mentality, methodologies, theories, and even university as institution that rules organize the social production of scientific knowledge.

First of all, the Eurocentric thought – which is obviously a thought of great wealth – must begin to dialogue with other knowledge in the world, in what de Sousa Santos calls ecology of knowledge. The proposal for ecology invites us to think that our knowledge, no matter how rigorous, is not the only one. It is a proposal that does not go against science, but against the monopoly of rigor on the part of science. There are other forms of rigour with which we will have to measure ourselves in order to arrive at integration between scientific knowledge and other forms of knowledge, other knowledges. The objective is to articulate scientific thought and popular thought, without ever believing that scientific thought is the only valid one (de Sousa Santos, 2018).

Today we must pay more attention to the different forms of knowledge that there are in the world, to the cognitive diversity of the world. We must begin another type of dialogue with the world, through an epistemological break. Many types of knowledge circulate in the world: artisan, vernacular, popular; the knowledge of women, men, natives, and peasants. All of this knowledge – says de Sousa Santos – is contained in the struggles, circulates and is forged in the struggles. The “epistemologies of the South”, according to de Sousa Santos, consist of procedures to validate knowledge produced by the efforts of those who fight against the systemic injustices of colonialism, capitalism and patriarchy.

These exhortations apply particularly to those of us who are involved in social sciences. So, de-colonizing our social science and our university (Mbembe, 2016), also means bringing out the forms or knowledge considered as “legitim” or “not-legitim” in a specific moment, and in a specific context. However, to approach other knowledge in the belief that there is only one valid form of knowledge, and that other knowledge is worthless, is to behave as an “epistemic extractivist”. Already Paulin Hountondji, philosopher of Benin, had approached the question in the 1997. In the book Endogenous Knowledge, Hountondji (1997) speaks of a global division of scientific work, born under colonialism but which persists in the post-colonial world, for which data collection and data collection and data analysis and practical applications of knowledge can occur in the periphery, but concepts, methods, equipment, training and recognition of research are formed predominantly in the metropolis.

Instead – according to de Sousa Santos – one can get to know “with” the people, while at the same time one gets to know a given social reality. It is possible to know by creating subjects, instead of establishing a subject-object relationship. As Orlando Fals Borda already said in 1995:

Do not monopolise your knowledge nor impose arrogantly your technique, but respect and combine your skills with the knowledge of the researched or /grassroots communities, taking them as full partners and co-researchers. Do not trust elitist versions of history and science which respond to dominant interests but be receptive to counter-narratives and try to recapture them. Do not depend solely on your culture to interpret facts, but recover local values, traits, beliefs, and arts for action by and with the research organisations. Do not impose your own ponderous scientific style for communicating results, but diffuse and share what you have learned together with the people, in a manner that is wholly understandable and even literary and pleasant, for science should not be necessarily a mystery nor a monopoly of experts and intellectuals” (Orlando Fals-Borda (1995, April). Research for social justice: Some North-South convergences. Plenary address at the Southern Sociological Society Meeting, Atlanta, GA. Retrieved from

All in all, in our article we will try to be conscious of the “epistemic abyssal line” which separates it from the social and epistemic “colonies”. In this way, practicing and mapping the “ecologies of knowledge” which emerge in the specific field of higher education research, for bringing out the “epistemologies of the South”, that try to “decolonize” the field and the academia, more in general.

Emanuela Spanò is a post-doc researcher at the University of Cagliari, Italy. Her work mainly focuses on gender, evaluation policies, lifelong learning, narrative research and the construction and representation of space in education. She is on (ò) and on Facebook ( Mail contact: