Review of Marja-Liisa Swantz (2015) In Search of Living Knowledge

The review is an excerpt Professor Goran Hyden’s Foreword

Marja-Liisa Swantz
In Search of Living Knowledge

Publisher Mkuki na Nyota Dar es Salaam 2015.

“I am pleased to see the ideas and thoughts of Marja-Liisa Swantz published in a single volume that does justice to the breadth and depth with which she throughout her life has approached the challenges of knowledge formation in and about Africa. She is truly a portal figure in the study of development whose insights have yet to be fully acknowledged and appreciated because as a person and professional she has always adopted a low profile position. Yet as this book clearly shows, she has been a pioneer in promoting what she refers to as “”cognitive justice”, i.e. an approach that recognizes the contribution to knowledge that those who we typically label “research objects” make. Theoretical knowledge is important but theory is and should not always be King. Such a situation creates an unequal relation between the researcher and those who are studied. It limits the extent to which the voice is heard of those for whom the research matters most.

Living knowledge, according to Swantz, is one that always evolves in relations between people. Citing the work of Steve Feierman in the Usambara Mountains, northeast Tanzania, she argues that there is a process of knowledge formation even in contexts where mainstream social science is least likely to look for it. The peasantry has its own intellectuals and rationality is not confined to modernity only. It exists in its own way also in societies where symbols rule the minds and understanding them is crucial for how these entities are governed. There are at least three good reasons why the ideas presented in this volume are important.

The first is how these ideas reveal the limits associated with the type of knowledge formation that is useful for governments and donors. It prioritizes systematization of knowledge in relation to specific goals or objectives, be they formulated at project, program, government or international level. It is formulated in ends-means relations and little else is of interest outside the specific parameters of these activities. Development is a captive of the global policy community and as such treated in a way that limits the opportunity for others to engage in creative thinking, which may result in progressive outcomes. Even international NGOs that typically have a close relation with local populations operate on the assumption that their mission is to make these people embrace a Western outlook and epistemology. They cannot fathom development without rationality and reflexivity as conceived in a Western enlightenment episteme and therefore easily turn into secular missionaries of a creed that with the exception of small minority of educated people is alien in the African context.

The problem with both the MDGs and the SDGs is that they do not go halfway to meet the actors for whom development is most valuable. This artificial rush to progress leaves the population in Africa without a chance to learn on terms that are congenial to their own circumstances.

The second reason is to emphasize that the type of participatory research, which she pioneered in her research in Tanzania in the 1960s and 1970s and has continued to advocate over the years, is quite different from the quasi-participatory approaches that have mushroomed as part of efforts to bring people into forms of conventional development design and evaluation. — They do not promote understanding of local people and their knowledge systems but integrate such ideas and insights into models or theories of change that are driven from the outside.

The third reason is that the participatory research that she developed alone as well as in collaboration with others …. evolved in the shadow of the neo-Marxist wave that struck the academic scene in Tanzania in the 1970s. As a result it never received its immediate recognition as a true intellectual revolution. ……

She is the pioneer that placed Tanzania on the map of development research by highlighting the important role indigenous ideas and insights play in knowledge formation. She shares a rightful place in knowledge formation. She shares a rightful place on the prestigious podium of “alternative development thinkers” …

Let me finally add that although the book is written as an intellectual life story, it contains more insights than one can usually gather in a regular textbook. Any one with interest in how greater justice and equality can be achieved in development should read this book and it is my hope, therefore, that it gets to be read widely by students and practitioners of development, be they Tanzanians or from other countries around the world.”