Hierarchies of knowing

Published on 26 April 2021 Go back to The ACU Review
Cramming Machine by Gaganendranath Tagore, courtesy Of Akar Prakar

Knowledge should be a common inheritance for the growth and sustainability of humanity, not a market commodity for the benefit of the few.

By Steven Ratuva, University of Canterbury, New Zealand

In universities all around the Commonwealth, regardless of culture, language or location, western knowledge systems dominate to the exclusion of all others. The universal imposition and acceptance of western ways of knowing has pushed to the margins all knowledge which falls beyond the west’s limited cultural sphere, creating a hierarchy of knowing through which deep-rooted racial, cultural, and economic inequalities are reinforced.

Described by Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist, as ‘cultural arbitrary’, knowledge inequity in many Commonwealth countries is a product of our shared history and power structures, including colonialism, endemic inequality, institutional racism, and cultural bias in the curriculum. These processes have normalised the dominance of western knowledge over that of non-western cultures and the global south generally. This, in turn, has been reinforced by the marketisation of knowledge: a system in which knowledge is framed as a commodity, and rankings, metrics, and paywall publishing are coin of the realm.

Rather than enriching knowledge for the advancement of humanity, this complex system merely makes it subservient to the dictates of the market. It is tied, inextricably, to economic inequality and the uneven distribution of power, and is exacerbated by globalisation, which has forced diverse knowledge systems to kneel to narrow market interests. So, how do we challenge these powerful forces of cultural domination? Perhaps one place to start is by teasing apart some of the assumptions and power structures that fuel knowledge inequality in our universities.

Gaganendranath Tagore (1867-1938) was an Indian satirical cartoonist and painter. This work, titled ‘Cramming machine’ was a sharp critique of colonial education. Image courtesy of Akar Prakar Cramming Machine by Gaganendranath Tagore, courtesy Of Akar Prakar (2)

The knowledge supermarket

In our increasingly neoliberalised world, knowledge has been reconfigured, repackaged, and revalued to serve the demands of the market. Universities have been reformed along corporate lines where profit and rankings overshadow research quality and the wellbeing of scholars. Courses have been refashioned to suit market demands and academics are forced into fighting over fees – euphemistically termed ‘equivalent full-time students’ or EFTS – to fulfil the requirements of performance algorithms. Students are increasingly seen as qualification-seeking ‘customers’ comparable to supermarket shoppers, rather than young minds seeking to learn.

These market-driven reforms have helped to bolster silo-based thinking among academics, who may find it more convenient to defend their narrow disciplinary spaces as they compete for students and the bottom dollar. Fuelling this competitive culture are the global university rankings, which use largely market-based indicators to rank institutions, courses, and even the validity of knowledge systems. Some courses, especially in STEM areas, are considered to be of higher value because of their assumed relevance to market variables, while arts courses are deemed to be of lesser worth. Across all subjects is an implicit assumption that indigenous knowledge – or indeed any knowledge system associated with the global south – is considered to be at the lowest level of the intellectual stratification.

This is where narrow market interests and subconscious racial and cultural prejudices intersect in often hegemonic and aggressive ways. Many journals do not publish work on indigenous knowledge as it is deemed not rigorous enough; some universities do not even accept the publication assessment of articles published in indigenous scholars’ journals. Indigenous scholars and those from the global south and minority communities are left marginalised and voiceless – not because their work lacks quality but because the way quality is defined is based on racially-framed market imperatives that denigrate non-European knowledge.

The result is that many scholars have to work extra hard in strange and often hostile intellectual environments to be seen and heard. Some have made it through their own efforts or through the patronage of some more liberal western scholars, but many more languish in the same positions for long stretches and exist in academia full of frustration. One of the consequences of this is the reinforcement of a self-denigrating stereotype and implicit acceptance that the indigenous knowledge they cherish is not only inferior but useless.      

The global gatekeepers

Inequality in academic publishing has been a major issue for years. The biggest beneficiaries of journal and book publication are the knowledge predators in the guise of global academic paywall corporations. These metricise publications, rank journals and articles, and, needless to say, make a fortune annually, often from publicly funded research.

The result is that the publication, ranking, and metrification of academic work is led not by quality but by money – a system described by the 2002 Nobel laureate, Sydney Brenner, as ‘corrupt’. Today, universities and countries are increasingly pushing back against this feudalistic and exploitative system. However, the process created a global academic caste system, the gatekeepers of which sit in Europe and north America. Under this system, western journals and knowledge are considered more relevant and thus prioritised for publication, while hundreds of academics from countries in the global south are stuck in the lower echelons of global ranking, where their research or journals are considered lacking in rigour and relevance.

Scholars from the global south who can break out of the ‘lower’ tiers of academia are often snapped up by universities in the global north. They may play the role of flag bearers for their disadvantaged cousins or, at worst, become token representatives in a Darwinian academic culture of ‘survival of the fittest’. A consequence of this is a peculiar and unequal type of ‘brain exchange’, where some of the best brains from the global south end up as great innovators for corporations, universities, and governments in the global north, while some of the most ambitious (and not necessarily the smartest) brains from the global north end up as advisers and consultants for governments, public institutions, and universities in the global south. Either way, control of funding and project agendas remains very much in the hands of the donors, governments, and other institutions of the global north.

Is the publication and ranking of academic work led by profit? | Credit: fran_kie at Shutterstock (1)

Unravelling the holy grail

Despite calls to end global poverty and address the vast economic disparities that persist across the world, there has been very little discussion on how knowledge inequity fuels these economic and other disparities. Perhaps one of the reasons why this has not been addressed head-on is because it would challenge and unravel the holy grail of western cultural dominance: intellectual supremacy.

This most sacred notion of intellectual and cultural supremacy has been used to justify some of the most shameful chapters of history, from slavery and colonialism to military conquest and political advancement. To talk about intellectual equality, then, is tantamount to a denial of the sanctity of the west as the supposed centre of modern civilisation.

A renaissance in thinking

So, where do we go from here? An important first step would be to create a more level playing field in academic publishing, using large-scale open source publishing platforms to topple restrictive and hierarchy-creating paywall regimes. Universities in the global south should not be paying the exorbitant prices of paywall publishing, and the removal of these paywalls would greatly benefit students in low income countries.

Second, there should be far greater focus on interdisciplinary research and teaching to avoid the academic civil war over EFTS, which not only reinforces academic silos but also renders courses such as indigenous studies ‘uneconomical’ and, by implication, invalid.

Third, more recognition should be given to the achievements of universities and scholars in the global south by thinking beyond the narrow, and often culturally prejudiced, boxes of the current university rankings. This means identifying alternative indicators of innovative and quality knowledge, which are socially and culturally inclusive and are tied to relevant social impact, the enhancement of human connections, social transformation, and the empowerment of people.

Finally, there should be a conscious attempt by universities and academics to revalue knowledge which falls beyond the narrow confines of market imperatives and to explore different social and cultural indicators. This can provide a sense of significance to minority disciplines, which are often considered of lesser value just because they do not tick market-driven boxes. For instance, there should be acknowledgement of different types of intelligence, such as cultural, spiritual, or emotional.

These suggestions may not be a panacea for global knowledge inequity but they are at least some practical steps that we can take towards it. In fact, we are starting to see a growing tide sweeping in this direction: the EU has put in place an open access publication policy, funders are now demanding more interdisciplinary and socially transformative research, and the World Intellectual Property Organization has laid down provisions for the protection of indigenous knowledge. These are positive moves, but more effort is needed to keep the momentum going. Our aim must be for knowledge to be seen as a common inheritance for the advancement and sustainability of humanity, and not a market commodity for the benefit of the few.

Professor Steven Ratuva is Director of the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. His forthcoming book, Epistemic siege: Neoliberalism and the commodification of knowledge will be published in 2021. Professor Ratuva is Fijian, born on the island of Kadavu.

Images (from top): 'Cramming machine’ © Gaganendranath Tagore, courtesy of Akar Prakar. Barcode illustration by fran_kie at Shutterstock