The Politics of Knowledge Mobilization

Lego figures working
Yes, we’re ‘mobilizing’ knowledge but what are we really building here?

When I hear calls for knowledge mobilization, I imagine little Lego pieces of knowledge lining up with Lego guns in hand eager to win the war of ignorance. A couple questions emerge for me: who is on team knowledge and who is on team ignorance? And how do the teams get chosen?

Michelle L. Stack
Michelle L. Stack
I began to wonder how the university sector decides what knowledge to share on its websites. Websites I examined for my upcoming book told many stories of research that helped marginalized people, but less common were stories about research that examined why some people are marginalized in the first place i.e. structural factors that require major changes such as income redistribution, yet this research is also done in universities.

I examined websites from top-ranked research-intensive universities. What I found was also similar to Kem Saichaie’s dissertation research, which suggests that US university websites most often portrayed white males as knowledge leaders. Websites in Canada and the UK most often show people of color as beneficiaries of knowledge mobilization and white people – predominately male – as the mobilizers. The reasons for this are multiple, but here I will focus on two. First, longstanding narratives that implicitly accept racism, sexism, ableism and homophobia are reproduced throughout society – and universities are part of society.

The second is perhaps less obvious. The universities I examined are focused on maintaining top status with the big three rankers – QS, Times Higher Education World University Rankings, and Academic Ranking of World Universities. To be highly ranked is to be seen to mobilize entrepreneurial knowledge and to obtain increasingly more dollars from industry given the decline in public funding.

When universities fixate on ranking the reward structure for academics is based on maximizing peer review and knowledge mobilization that increases industry dollars and ranking. As a number of public affairs directors at research intensive Canadian universities explained to me, they didn’t tell academics not to talk to media, but they were sensitive to the funding context. Some explained if an academic was about to be publicly critical of a major industry or government funder they would provide a heads up to the funder.

Public affairs directors also explained that science and technology stories were usually of more interest to media. Studies about discourses of ableism and racism and heteronormativity are harder to sell because they challenge formulaic episodic stories that naturalize systemic oppression.

Knowledge mobilization efforts that naturalize the dynamic of benevolent problem solver can be dangerous to the well-being of the “helpee.” A number of studies, for example, concerning medical research show that increasingly research is funded by pharma companies that call the shots – including refusing to publish studies with negative results.

Universities are perfect laboratories for analyzing the disconnect between research and practice and questioning the power relations that make this disconnect seem logical.

To be credible universities need to look at their own dissonance and institutional politics: accepting corporatization (including celebration of rankings) while simultaneously speaking a language of equity, sustainability, community responsibility and global citizenship.

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Michelle L. Stack

Michelle Stack is associate professor in the Department of Educational Studies at the University of British Columbia, Canada. Her research centers on the role of media and market logics in the transformation of education; media education; and media-academic communication aimed at expanding public debate about what a good education is. Prior to becoming an academic Michelle was a communications director and policy consultant.

Michelle can also be found on twitter at @MichelleLStack

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