Semester Two 2014

Thursday 30 October

Keynote: Research and the politics of knowledge formation

Our textbooks tend to present research as an unproblematic, incremental addition to human knowledge. We present our thesis proposals or research grant applications as filling an identifiable “gap” in knowledge. We justify our studies by how they will improve standard theories in the field. In fast-moving areas (e.g. AIDS virology in the 1980s, and probably Ebola now) there are bitter disputes about which researcher added the key bit of information first – and will get the Nobel Prize.

In this talk I will encourage researchers to take a larger and more sophisticated view of knowledge formation. The growth of knowledge is a complex social process, involving changing forms of social practice and the interplay of many institutions. It has uncertain and often distorting economic bases, as particular areas of research are funded by wealthy corporations and power-seeking governments – epitomized by the Manhattan Project and the genocidal politics of antiretroviral drugs. Global knowledge production has a worldwide structure that reflects the violence and inequality of colonialism, and more recently neoliberal globalization - placing the world-views of imperial powers at the centre, and marginalizing other formations of knowledge. The almost total marginalization of indigenous knowledge in Australian universities is one consequence.

What are the democratic elements in knowledge production and circulation? Three are worth thinking about. First, the broad social need for knowledge, especially knowledge of society itself. Here it will be useful to think about the kinds of knowledge that would be central to the work of a school classroom if it were free of the menace of testing, competitive selection and hierarchical curricula. Second, the element of cooperation and self-management in the labour processes of knowledge production – which finds a certain expression in our familiar mechanisms of informal consultation, seminar discussion, research teamwork, peer review and intellectual apprenticeship. Third, the mechanisms of scientific publication, with knowledge in principle being available to all, and every contribution being subject to critical scrutiny, correction and improvement.

All these elements are subject to corruption, some forms of which are now very familiar – governments dictating “national priorities” in research; cults and orthodoxies in many fields of knowledge; corporate profiteering from journals, university “league tables” and managerial “performance management” of researchers. How to contest these corruptions might be a good theme to focus our discussion.

Professor Raewyn Connell held University Chair in the University of Sydney until her retirement in July 2014. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, a recipient of the American Sociological Association's award for distinguished contribution to the study of sex and gender, and of the Australian Sociological Association's award for distinguished service to sociology in Australia. Raewyn has made path-breaking contributions to research on the sociology of class, gender and power, on men and masculinities, and on the possibilities of a genuinely global social science. Across her various fields of research, Raewyn has combined an understanding of large-scale social structures with recognition of personal experience and collective agency. She has tried to make social science relevant to social justice, becoming involved with campaigns, teachers and social-movement activists to bring research to bear on public policy and strategies of social change.



  • Raewyn Connell

    Research and the politics of knowledge formation

    30 October 2014

    In this talk I will encourage researchers to take a larger and more sophisticated view of knowledge formation.


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