Cultures, Forms of Knowledge & its Impact on Design
Is there a relationship between Cultures and Forms of Knowledge they excel in? An examination of S.N. Balagangadara’s work, ‘Comparative Anthropology & Action Sciences: An essay on knowing to act and acting to know’, helped me formulate a response to this question. There is a strong link between cultures and the form of knowledge they excel in, in a way that forms of knowledge are developed by its culture. A summary of the essay (Find the paper here: http://cscs.res.in/dataarchive/textfiles/textfile.2008-02-13.8436355091/file) will further illuminate my stance.
‘Comparative Anthropology & Action Sciences: An essay on knowing to act and acting to know’ is a 1987 scholarly work by S.N. Balagangadhara. As an attempt to render cultures to be understood as knowledge forms, the essay gives us a significant way of identifying and marking cultural differences as configurations of learning. Questioning the body of work produced by action sciences, the author brings to light the disconnect between cultures and existing action theories. He argues that instead of questioning the kind of knowledge different practices produce, action sciences look at practices as extensions of intentions and beliefs. Pointing this as falling short of the norms of the West, the author also correspondingly illuminates anthropology as a subset of the same problem. Looking into a domain of action-theory known as action-knowledge, he argues that within the Western tradition, action-knowledge is understood as knowledge about actions. The essay is an attempt to redefine action-knowledge by posing a distinction between two cultures: India and the West.
Indian tradition and practices have survived over a thousand years, as an invincible ‘system’ that withstood invasions and colonialism. These set of complex practices keep adapting itself and yet there is an absence of any theoretical knowledge about them. Anthropological studies about them have brought to life many principles to validate these practices. On the contrary, the Indian tradition is made up of a set of conjunction, dos and donts, that are not context-invariant principles. The author argues that the fact that these practices have survived over generations illuminates that there is some kind of knowledge exists and has been passed on, without an evident scientific system or institutional authority. If theoretical knowledge is not what exists, what kind of knowledge do these actions embody? The author proposes that different cultures embody forms of knowledge, that have been unrecognised due to West’s dominant approach. Ways of learning and socialising, the author wants to say, are not universal. Looking at culture as configurations of learning, he concludes that what is passed on as knowledge is the way one experiences the world. The fundamental difference between cultures and ways of learning, he argues, are the two paradigms of order: religion and ritual. While the West produced a sense of order in the form of religion: an explanatory model that translates the underlying law of the universe, the problem that occupies people of another culture (here, India) is that given that the universe is in order, how does one perform actions that better fit the order? These paradigms of order structure dominant ways of learning within a culture. In a culture like India, this leads a learning process whose main focus is to develop the ability of performing infinite actions. The knowledge the members of such a culture have is what he calls action-knowledge.
Action-knowledge is not knowledge about action or learning of practical knowledge, but a way of gaining a new knowledge, facilitated through exemplars. Stories, as units of learnings, function as partial models from which perspectives can be drawn and applied, through emulation. These stories, that are passed on through customs, folklores and narration, do not carry explicit morals that are drawn out. Yet, they are instructions for
moralistic actions. Action knowledge is thus a form of sub-intentional learning that equips one to unconsciously employ knowledge gained through stories, in various contexts and circumstances of life. This is made possible because the property of action-knowledge is that it is generative — actions give birth to new actions, in a way to create noble ideas. Additionally, unlike principles, exemplars are context-bound but generative in different contexts. The ability to perform an action without a goal/intention brings to being a stock of knowledge that equips one with the right action in a particular context and time. Action knowledge is thus not a decision-problem, like in the case of principles, as there is no question of alternatives. It is a learning-problem, that also enables us to learn from different cultures when in contact with them. Such cultures, due to emulation, conserve traditional ways and techniques of problem solving, to pass it on to the successive generations. Family thus plays an important role as the institution for socialisation, that puts one in tune with the outside world.
Typically, philosophers have only seen action as an application of principle or conception. In other words, knowing-how is a derivative of knowing-that. Drawing upon Ryle’s philosophy, the author poses that there be a distinction between knowing-that and knowing-how. That action can exist without conception. Taking a step further, the author argues that while knowing-how is practical knowledge gained through drill, practice and mimesis, what has
collapsed into its bucket is phronesis, i.e., practical wisdom in the realm of ethical knowledge. Action-knowledge, that falls under phronesis, either gets collapsed into knowing-how or blind mimicking. By reducing knowledge to only two forms — plain knowing-that or knowing-how — one loses the potential to understand the way cultures like India are shaped. Thus, by giving us an understanding of cultures as configurations of learning, the essay
opens up new ways of understanding how different cultures — such as the African, the Chinese, to name a few — experience order and the forms of knowledge they thus produce.
The main characteristic about Asian cultures is the centrality of learning that imbibes knowledge from other cultures such as the West, to accommodate it within what is already known. On the contrary, there is a tendency amongst the West to dismiss what can be learnt from other cultures, which might expand their overall knowledge across various domains apart from natural sciences. This has occurred as a result of Europeans branding the rest of
the cultures as falling short of knowledge. While in fields such as natural sciences it is essential to understand underlying principles and theories, within realms of social interaction, one cannot pose the same context-free modes of thinking. Since West’s form of dominant knowledge is to look for theories and logic, it even sees the social and ethical with the same lens as natural sciences. As a result, knowledge from other cultures are invisible,
leading to an imbalance in power dynamics between the two — where one exhibits its ways of thinking superior to the other. This has resulted in politics across various domains — one such increasing concern is in the domain of design.
Decolonisation of design, a movement that is gaining momentum amongst designers, critically reflects on the politics of design practice. It brings to light design as a discipline being dominated by the Eurocentric ways of seeing, knowing and acting, with little attention being paid to alternate, marginalized discourses. Conditioned within these dominant, Western ways of thinking, during my research in South India, I found myself easily falling prey to its politics. While applying a Scandinavian design methodology, known as participatory design, to uncover social wicked problems of rural India, my natural approach was to flatten the cultural differences. Failing to accommodate the different ways people of our culture orient themselves in their environment and learning, I could not see why a linear and logical way of thought that dominated our research was difficult for the people to engage with. At any other point, this failure would have led to some kind of
frustration, due to the non-understanding of other forms of knowledge. This got me wondering if there were context-sensitive, Indian methods of uncovering problems of rural India. A perusal of literature only uncovered more Euro-centric ways of design thinking that have been adopted by Indians to solve problems in their local contexts. Design functions as juncture between technology and culture. Therefore, to construct Indian methodologies of design that uncover its complex social problems, one must first understand the dominant way of learning, forms of knowledge and ways of thinking that occur in India. Balagangadhara give us starting points to understand the Indian context to develop new decolonized design methodologies to uncover wicked problems in India.