/ 6 October 2014

New ways to shift politics of knowledge production

New Ways To Shift Politics Of Knowledge Production

From January next year, Stellenbosch University will launch a new set of postgraduate degrees in transdisciplinary health and development studies. Though housed in the department of sociology and social anthropology, the proposed programme is transdisciplinary, bringing together social science scholars from the faculties of arts, social sciences, medicine and health sciences.

The programme emerged out of a growing dissatisfaction with the balkanised, overspecialised and fragmented production of knowledge on health and wellbeing, health systems and the social processes that produce ill health and suffering. By working across diverse perspectives that transcend disciplinary boundaries, we seek to develop new methods, concepts and practices to address the complex linkages between health and development in contemporary South Africa and beyond.

To grapple with the challenges of health and disease in 21st-century Africa, we must open up spaces of experimentation in the way that knowledge is produced and pedagogy practised through a collaborative, grounded and located programme of teaching and research. The new programme aims to reorient postgraduate research and training towards a more critical and engaged approach to health and development challenges in places such as post-apartheid South Africa.

As scholars and teachers, we are excited by the growing interest in thinking about health and healing from a number of perspectives. And we find that the term “transdis-ciplinary” can open up new ways of thinking about research collaborations with diverse scholars, students and nonacademic partners in collective and enduring processes of knowledge production.

However, terms such as multi-, inter- and transdisciplinarity can drag in with them particular pedagogical and political investments that might not always be immediately apparent. In our context, we wonder: How might we shift the politics of knowledge production through an explicitly critical engagement with a politics located in the Global South, in ways that work transversally across disciplines and modalities of experience and action? To what extent might “transdisciplinarity” allow for more democratic relations in teaching and research with and between partners?

Equally, though, in the move away from decidedly disciplinary orientations, is there a risk of feeding into fantasies of panopticism or profit in the context of an increasingly managerialist approach to university life?

By thinking with and against terms such as “transdisciplinarity”, we are stimulated by the resonances and dissonances that open up between and across ethnography, public health, medicine, science studies, sustainability studies, action research and community activism, to name but a few.

Relating to each other
Bringing the various disciplinary interests in “health and development” into relation with each other, whether in the spirit of an agonistic public sphere or a more straightforward faith in the promise of transdisciplinarity, allows us to explore what kind of programme in health and development studies might emerge.

One strand of transdisciplinary thinking posits three modalities of disciplinary knowledge: “explaining” – quantitatively deriving a logical or causal relationship between two variables; “understanding” – qualitatively understanding a problem through reflection and description; and “changing” – what activists and policy-makers do.

A transdisciplinary programme of teaching and learning might engage each of these distinctly and integrate them in the generation of new research questions through the modality of the specific and the local.

Another approach to thinking about health and development places the question of power at the centre of its pedagogy and practice. With questions of power, health and development challenges become intrinsically political, as Paul Farmer has argued in relation to “structural violence” in the context of Haiti.

Twenty years after South Africa’s first democratic elections, a range of social ills persist, profoundly shaping the possibilities of life for many people. At this point in South Africa’s transition, it is not sufficient merely to measure employment, income or the distribution of social goods and services, or to target individual behaviours, problems or sites.

Rather, the various ways in which health and welfare are understood, shaped and experienced require an analytical scope that takes in a range of structural, interpersonal and subjective modalities. Health and development are bound together in the South African context, and require a set of critical tools for thinking through their mutual imbrications.

The programme seeks to train students in the critical analysis of the political, ethical and conceptual stakes of such measurement, and of the effects of state and non-state interventions in the government of the living. Further, approaches to health and development challenges that are grounded in careful attention to the everyday, lived experiences of those who are structurally marginalised are able to sensitise students to the complex realities of contemporary life in South Africa.

● The programme launches next year with a postgraduate diploma and an MPhil degree (by coursework or thesis). For information, contact programme convenor Dr Thomas Cousins ([email protected]) or postgraduate studies co-ordinator Elizabeth Hector ([email protected]) or call 021 808 2420. See http://sun025.sun.ac.za/portal/page/portal/Arts/Departments/sociology/teaching/Tab1

Dr Thomas Cousins is a lecturer in the sociology and social anthropology department at the University of Stellenbosch. Dr Lindsey Reynolds is a post-doctoral fellow in the same department