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Overcoming False Representation – Nurturing shared understandings of concepts and opening up knowledge in cross-disciplinary research.

Hangout Recap by Kersti Ruth Wissenbach


Jaiksana Soro – Platform Africa & Stephen Kovats – r0g_agency
Picture credits CC-BY-SA Pawel Ngei

On September 15, GIG hosted the 4th out of 5 hangouts, addressing pressing issues to enable inclusive, bottom-up Citizen Social Science practices in the most diverse contexts. The topics have been identified throughout a series of conversation formats with makers, citizen [social] scientists and activists worldwide. As we are co-creating a publication aiming to capture the critical understanding and gloCal perspective of inclusion in engaged research between civil society researchers and academic researchers, these hangouts also provide a space for questions and discussion for everyone wishing to share their experiences in this publication.

This time we discussed practices to overcome false representation in participatory processes with a small but disciplinary diverse group of participants. We wanted to unpack the question of what is required to fully open the black box of participation and overcome the common practice of false representation.

Although very few participants joined the hangout, the discussion was quite representative of the dynamics the project seeks to unpack, and it is very worth sharing.

Usually, we seek to bring together people from diverse contexts to reflect on our questions from as many different perspectives and experiences as possible. And the hangouts are usually attended by civil society actors. Academic representatives have shown less interest in the conversation.

It was different this time…

The flyers for our hangouts always feature a quote from one of the members of the Global Innovation Gathering, a global community of makers, innovators, and activist shapers from around the world. The sections stem from an in-depth discussion we had around the topic of decolonisation and inclusion in one of our annual community gatherings. The photos feature one or more GIG members and introduce their local makerspaces or communities. For this hangout, it was the co-founder and CEO of Ethiopia’s first innovation hub and tech startup incubator, established in 2011. The flyer featured the quote: ´participation is like a BlackBox if people on the ground do not have access to the real knowledge of the project´.

Our discussion departed from one participant's concern about the text announcing this week´s topic alongside the chosen picture accompanying the announcement. It emerged from the hangout that the associations of terminology and imagery trigger entirely different associations. In the specific case of one participant, a female white academic researcher with a computer science background, it led to colossal irritation and the impression of unbalanced, if not racist, connotations. For Social Scientists and activist researchers, those working in international socio-political change contexts or affiliated with movement studies and related schools of thought, the chosen terminology relates to commonly defined concepts. It seeks to hold empowering and inclusive connotations. This showed us once more, and perhaps we tend to forget, that the standard terminology of one community can be perceived as biased by others.

A critical concern was also addressed regarding the terminology which people from social science backgrounds are all too familiar with. One of the participants noted that, as a Social Scientist, she always had difficulty handling deeply complex situations through specific terminology in the discipline. Reference was made to the notion of ´people from the ground´, typically associated with local communities, locally embedded action, context-sensitive activities, etc. She has experienced somewhat elitist attitudes with leftist, progressing, ad action-oriented civil society groups struggling to get their participatory methods acknowledged by Social Science disciplines, participating with rather arrogant, protectionist attitudes.

So what are the lessons to take away from this unexpected encounter?

Working in coalitions that cut across different communities and disciplines demonstrated the crucial need to prioritize an inclusive approach to a language and use concepts that everyone can identify with as a precondition for collaboration. As a minimum requirement, cross-disciplinary collaborations should practice a sensitive negotiation of speech and create awareness about the standard terminology in each context. In addition, an inclusive Citizen Social Science approach should consider making the opening up of research a precondition. This relates to several practices, including opening up methods, research instruments, data, and results in everyday practice. Advocating for and supporting the vibrant open knowledge community should be a helpful practice, especially for academia, to catch up with all already out there!

This hangout has shown that listening and shaping common understandings when striving for diversity within collaborations is vital. It has also shown that diversity is critical so that more communities engage in cross-disciplinary collaborations that trigger knowledge exchange and learning, escaping each of a kind BlackBox that hinders more inclusive processes.