Monday, April 04, 2011

Loci of Knowledge

While rummaging around through all of human knowledge for shiny bits that I could stick into the paper (now submitted, yay), I came across lots of interesting material that just wouldn't fit, and occasionally things that were gateways into whole subfields of learning I had no idea existed. here's one such out-take: The Knowledge-Based View, Nested Heterogeneity, and New Value Creation: Philosophical Considerations on the Locus of Knowledge, by Teppo Felin and William S. Hesterly, Academy of Management Review 2007, Vol. 32, No. 1, 195-218.

The major point of this article is somewhat "reactionary", in that it's a reaction against a trend in management and sociology to think about organizational learning, cultures of learning, and things like that. Apparently that's gone too far, and the authors are reasserting the more common-sense view that it is people that know things, not groups. Well, I can easily imagine an intellectual trend overreaching itself, but since I'm not a sociologist or (god help me) a professor of management, I still find the idea of social learning much more interesting. I tend to like things that challenge or modify the standard model of individuality.

The authors acknowledge that they are running heading into some pretty deep and fundamental issues:
Our analysis has limitations of course. First, in many ways, we have raised some age-old philosophical questions regarding the fundamental origins of knowledge, which have yet to be completely resolved. ... future empirical work sorting out individual and collective effects remains to be done.
I'm not sure what empirical work they have in mind, since there's the fundamental problem that individuals are never encountered outside of a social grouping (and even if they are lone inventors in a basement, they bring along the social basis of their training with them). They cite all sorts of stuff, including Chomsky's battle with Skinner over innate vs environmental factors of intelligence, which seems to be confusing a separate hard question -- the innateness (or not) of language doesn't really say much about where knowledge about, say, drug design lives (they use the biopharma industry for some example)

The topic of this paper strikes me as a very interesting issue (that is, the relation between individuals and their groupings and how knowledge is managed at the various levels) but a very dumb question (that is, are individuals or collectives the chief locus of knowledge?). This kind of either/or thinking drives me crazy. Obviously everything interesting in knowing involves both social and individual factors. They even have a picture:

Obviously, the right model is to have the arrows running in both directions. So I wonder why this simple, obvious truth is not mentioned? I often have this reaction to academic papers, and sometimes I wonder if they create these battles of oppositions because they truly believe it has to be one or the other; or instead they do it because conflict gets dialog going, it gives you an excuse to publish a whole series of papers arguing over big-endian vs. little-endian egg-cracking, you get invited to panels. I've noticed the same phenomenon in pop-technology books, which all seem to be marketed either as tech-is-the-greatest-thing-evar or omg-tech-is-slowly-sapping-our-humanity. One might hope that academics would be better, but I suspect that the dynamic that makes such conflicts profitable is a universal.

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