Knowledge is commonly thought of as something separate to and preceding action. A new study suggests that this way of thinking is limited, and stifles the abilities of researchers, practitioners and policy-makers to arrive at transformative solutions.

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Knowledge as a tool rather than an underlying requirement

New study demonstrates the benefits of developing new ideas about what knowledge and action are and how they relate to each other

Story highlights

  • Sustainability research aims to “link knowledge and action,” but the image of ‘linking’ fails to capture the complexities of knowing and doing in collaborative processes.
  • This study proposes a “practice-based approach” to understand how researchers and policymakers arrive at solutions through co-creative practice.
  • The researchers suggest that a practice-based approach offers new ways to monitor and evaluate the continuous learning processes of transdisciplinary research.

Addressing sustainability challenges demands close relations between knowledge and action. For instance, accumulating facts about the rapid loss of biodiversity and increase in environmental pollution is not enough to halt their impact on the planet. Instead, a more active practice of learning by engaging with the world is essential for creating innovative solutions.

This idea is discussed in a recent article led by centre researcher Simon West in collaboration with Lorrae van Kerkhoff from the Fenner School for Environment and Society, and Hendrik Wagenaar from King’s College London and the University of Canberra. Published in Policy Studies, the article provides a new perspective on what knowledge and action are and how they connect.

The researchers argue for a “practice-based approach,” which suggests a process of collaborating and engaging with the world as a meaningful approach to sustainability research.

By cutting across conventional distinctions between knowledge and action, a practice perspective is particularly suited to explore the hybrid transdisciplinary spaces where researchers, practitioners and policy actors meet to solve sustainability problems.

Simon West, lead author

Dissolving distinctions between knowledge and action

Knowledge is commonly thought of as something separate to and preceding action, and this idea is built into everyday language and systems of governance, the authors add. They note that this leads to the idea that knowledge must first be generated by researchers before policymakers can apply this knowledge to make change.

While this might make sense in some situations the authors suggest that this way of thinking is limited, and stifles the abilities of researchers, practitioners and policy-makers to arrive at transformative solutions.

Dissolving commonly held distinctions between knowledge and action can open up for new relationships and forms of collaborative problem solving. For instance, they argue that all knowledge is generated through active engagement in the world, and all action is informed by (often tacit) forms of knowledge.

Drawing on social theory, the researchers argue for a “practice-based approach” instead, which views both knowledge and action as produced within the shared activity of engaging with a particular problem or situation.

This approach recognizes the value of different ways of producing knowledge, and recognizes that researchers, practitioners and policy-makers each have different ways of both knowing and doing.

“Co-production.” Knowledge and action occur simultaneously and shape one another. Click on illlustration to access scientific publication.

Knowledge as a tool for transformation

In a practice-based approach, knowledge is not positioned as underlying or ‘coming before’ practice, but as a tool of practice. For example, the Future-Proofing Conservation project in Colombia, involving WWF-Colombia, government agency Parques Nacionales Naturales de Colombia, academic partners from the Australian National University, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), the Luc Hoffmann Institute and international conservation consultants, adopted an ‘evolutionary learning’ approach to explore the implications of climate change for conservation planning.

The Future-Proofing Conservation project highlights the importance of re-evaluating knowledge and adapting to complex challenges.

The authors observe that the form of practice generated within the project was “ongoing, deliberative and potentially transformative, framed by learning and dialogue rather than the application of technical solutions.”

An ongoing practice

The researchers provide three main takeaways for how a “practice-based approach” is useful for sustainability research:

1. The theoretical toolbox provided by the approach captures the unpredictability and dilemmas faced in collaborative problem-solving
2. Generating actionable knowledge is not providing knowledge that can ‘give rise to’ practice, but that can be used within practice
3. A practice-based approach helps to identify effective ways of tracking the progress and influence of transdisciplinary research in real-time

The authors conclude with a message that this new approach views the complexities and challenges of everyday experience as opportunities for “ongoing learning and transformation.”

Link to publication

Published: 2019-12-09


West, S., van Kerkhoff, L., Wagenaar, H. 2019. Beyond “linking knowledge and action”: towards a practice-based approach to transdisciplinary sustainability interventions, Policy Studies, 40:5, 534-555, DOI: 10.1080/01442872.2019.1618810

Link to publication

Simon West is a researcher exploring how people make sense of their relationships with the natural world, in an era of complex social and environmental change.


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