Academia likes to see itself as a producer of knowledge, and that’s difficult to argue with. But most of the time its self-conception goes further than this. We are the knowledge experts, think the academics. We are better at developing knowledge than other people. It’s what we’re paid for. Years of post-modernism has, curiously, failed to make much of a dent in this attitude.

I work in social science and this is where the problems of knowledge become most evident. Knowledge about the social world is famously tricksy. Social science sees itself as expert in knowledge about the social. Yet even in its specialisms social science often falls down. As an example, while researching learning in social movements recently – a topic that many people have written about – I looked in vain for a building of knowledge over the decades. Some of the stuff written in the 1970s was better than that written in the 2010s. Academics were writing about learning in social movements all right, they just didn’t seem to be learning much themselves. There was a lot of conceptual to and fro but not much emerging from that. Concepts are a type of knowledge of course, but they are the knowledge you use to get at further knowledge, not the end in themselves. I sometimes feel there’s a certain amount of dodging the muckiness of knowledge that goes on in academia. Easier to hone our analytic frameworks than, like, do the analysis with them.

But the problem is worse than shoddily constructed or little used knowledge apparatuses. To understand the depth of the problem we need to distinguish between ‘knowledge about the social’ and ‘social knowledge’. The latter refers to what people know/understand about the world between themselves, which is always specific to particular groups and societies. Academics are dimly aware that this exists but largely see themselves far removed from questions of how to improve social knowledge. They are the experts in knowledge about the social.

One way social knowledge can be addressed directly in academia is through Participatory Action Research (PAR), a method of developing knowledge within a given group. However a few things are notable about how this is practiced in the UK academy: firstly, researchers are often explicitly warned away from it on the basis that they may get no interesting results (ordinary people after all don’t know much of interest). Secondly in the field where it is most practiced – health policy – it is largely conducted in a rather extractive way. The knowledge developed, it is implied, is not valuable in itself, it is valuably only so far as it can be sucked up into academia or policy processes. Something similar can be said of much feminist standpoint theory or the idea of ‘situated knowledges’: the ideas are great, the execution often creates knowledge in the academy that mostly leans on prior literature, levering in just a grain of ‘outsider’ knowledge through discussion of the researcher’s position or a couple of anecdotes about research subjects (with honourable exceptions – I am a fan of Gibson-Grahame for example).

As noted above, academia does sometimes feed into policy processes. This, some academics might claim is the engagement with social knowledge that I’m looking for. Knowledge is fed back out to circulate in the real world. See? Academia has impact! Let’s think more about policy though. It is the field of another sort of knowledge expert – in fact two types of knowledge experts: policy geeks and politicians. So knowledge developed in academia by knowledge professionals is then passed on to other trustworthy knowledge professionals. As for the general population, their knowledge is considered important only very tangentially. An academic might write a popular social science book, and a few do, but it’s rather deviant behaviour, not at all the sort of thing one would do to gain respect among one’s peers.

This type of popular social science book (The Spirit Level, say) is about transferring some of the knowledge developed by knowledge professionals out into the big wide world. What is almost never of interest is the notion of academia helping to develop social knowledge within social settings – as PAR in its genuine form might do. (As an aside, one of the reasons for this, I fear, is that one cannot play clever categorisation games when dealing with non-academics. Most people want something understandable and new to be linked to the new category or they’ll shut you down. An academic would never be so disrespectful to their colleague.) Even where PAR is practiced in a reasonably genuine way, the focus for academia is on what can be reported back in academia. No real value is attached to what is left behind. No doubt neo-liberalisation processes requiring endless papers to be written have contributed to this attitude, but I think the basis of it is the simple Enlightenment assumption that the knowledge that matters is what knowledge experts know.

Perhaps you might read this and see no problem, but I put it to you that this way of envisaging knowledge is profoundly undemocratic. New knowledge exists, apparently, to be circulated among sets of knowledge professionals. The messy business of engaging with social knowledge is entirely peripheral. Seeing this I have some sympathy with right wing claims about liberal elites. Academia is elitist, in both a general sense and in the strictest sense of the term: it develops a knowledge elite, it creates competition within that knowledge elite that follows rules entirely constructed within the elite. To win in the academia game one does not have to do anything useful for ordinary people, one only has to please those above you in the elite hierarchy. This brings us to the argument over ‘impact’, which I’ll pass over here except to leave this reference for those interested: Pain, R., Kesby, M. and Askins, K. (2011) ‘Geographies of impact: power, participation and potential’, Area, 43(2), pp. 183–188. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-4762.2010.00978.x.

The point I want to make is that for the most part academia only sees itself engaging with other knowledge professionals. But social knowledge is what determines, to a large degree, the direction of society. If academics are not only cut off from this, but disparaging of it, then they are largely cutting off the possibility of being involved in democratic development of knowledge in society.

I know someone who works in health policy who would at this point give me a long argument about why it is necessary to have specialist knowledge and the corresponding knowledge specialists in a complex policy area. And that’s not entirely wrong, but firstly I think those policy experts often do construct a bubble for themselves in which those they are deciding for don’t figure as often as they should. Secondly much of what social science is concerned about is not complex technical areas of policy but the everyday of how we live and why society works as it does. If this knowledge is developed in a specialist environment cut off from everday life then it is elite knowledge and academics are the elite that they are sometimes denounced as. And the gulf between elites and the rest is not only real but policed by academics themselves. The fact that your writing itself might be ‘Marxist’ doesn’t change your position as part of this elite. If your interest is only in what you and a handful of your colleagues know rather than what social bodies know then you are perpetuating an elite.

Before I finish I’ll raise the one beautiful corner of academia that has fully developed the idea that knowledge might develop autonomously from academia yet still be worthy of respect: de-colonial social science specifically addressing indigenous knowledge and the importance of defending its relative autonomy. However I don’t think this excellent exception can be offered as a defence of the rest of academia. Rather we should ask: why is it only indigenous peoples who develop knowledge we can respect outside of an academic context? Why can’t other social groups to be respected for their worldviews, or at least engaged with as equals? One small corner of academia that has finally given up its elitism does not redeem the rest of academia that has no interest in social knowledge except as something to extract.

It’s difficult to think of genuine partnerships between academia and other social groups in which each has respect for each other’s knowledge, because academics, whatever they might say, rarely do respect other people’s knowledge, and they respect their own too much (even when it’s little more than a constant re-working of categories). That might sound offensive, but I write this addressed to myself as much as others. It is difficult to work on building social knowledge because other people are frustrating and it is very slow work without much glory. But if you are researching social movements, as I am, is there any other task as worth committing yourself to?

A social movement is to a significant degree a movement to change how we view the world. It is the task many academics see themselves as performing, but in a social movement it is applied to society as a whole rather than a knowledge elite. It would be good to see more academics involved in this messy business that social movements are involved in: attempting to change social knowledge. I would add that to engage as an academic in the development of social knowledge would place us naturally within social movements. Though of course it is often the other way round: people in social movements go into academia in the hope of doing something useful. I wish they weren’t so often distracted into the Enlightenment path of developing knowledge about the social. It’s not that nothing good can ever come of that, it’s just that little has so far, and the task of developing social knowledge is so much more useful and interesting.