A simple model of knowledge production

Peter Chekcland: Knowledge production

The flux of everyday life — both physical and mental — surrounds and subsumes us. Amidst this flux we find ourselves immersed in life’s situations.

Some situations are satisfying, others less so. These less-satisfying situations are perceived as areas of concern or opportunity.

Perceiving an area of concern or opportunity, and developing a theory for learning about or effecting change in this focus area is the beginning of the process of knowledge production.

This process might be take the form of research, inquiry, and/or engagement; and this process — based on theories, embodied in practices, and applied to an area of concern or opportunity — yields learning about all three: the theories, practices, and focus area.

That’s my basic re-telling of Peter Checkland’s “learning for action” narrative.

The simple model above is adapted from Checkland’s 1985 paper, “From Optimizing to Learning: A Development of Systems Thinking for the 1990s.” It’s also given prominence at the beginning of Michael Jackson’s 2000 book, Systems Approaches to Management — and used to good effect, for it communicates much in its simplicity.

Whereas Checkland used the model to describe a shift in practice or methods, from hard to soft, from “optimizing to learning,” Jackson took a broader view. He used it to describe shifts in the the nature of science itself: from knowledge production in-service-to-theory to knowledge production in-service-to-action.

These days, such approaches are often called transdisciplinarity or action research.

From the introduction to 2008′s The SAGE Handbook of Action Research: Participative Inquiry and Practice:

[T]he primary purpose of action research is not to produce academic theories based on action; nor is it to produce theories about action; nor is it to produce theoretical or empirical knowledge that can be applied in action; it is to liberate the human body, mind and spirit in the search for a better, freer world.

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