The New Knowers: : How Young People Subvert Socio-Epistemic Structures Through Participation in Popular Culture and Literacy Practices Online
I came home from school one day to find my father and uncle Padam sitting beside the beautifully decorated “muth” (a raised platform for the Tulasi plant in the front yard) that mom, sister and I had just built. I said “namaste” to the guest and stood on dad’s side. I had no plan to join the adults’ conversation, since that wasn’t appropriate for a mere twelve year old in a South Asian culture like ours, but when the grown-ups were completely wrong, I had to speak:
Uncle Padam: Brother, you have great artistic skills, you know. Look how beautiful that “muth” is!
Daddy: [smiles and continues smoking]
Me: No, uncle, dad didn’t build that. Mom did, and sister and I helped her decorate it.
Uncle: Hey, phuchche [little kid], don’t be a janne [knower]. Go to play.
I look at the twelve or fifteen year old kids in Nepal today and wonder what uncle Padam would say about their activities on Facebook, YouTube, online games, even blogs and other venues of popular culture and literacy practices where they can usually say what they want and not have to shut up or “go to play.” No matter what uncle Padams might say at home and in the society outside, today’s young people have access to alternatives social spaces where they can respond to, create, and share ideas in ways that defy and even subvert what I call the socio-epistemic structure of traditional societies like Nepal’s–or the structure of social relationship among individuals in terms of whose knowledge counts.
I talked a little about the issue of socio-epistemic structure in my group blog here, and there is a research project behind this thinking which Bal Sharma and I did last year. Here I want to some thoughts on how young people challenge/subvert socio-epistemic structures by creating and participating in alternative social spaces where their ideas matter, where they have much more confidence sharing the ideas, and where the same adults who limit their authority over knowledge otherwise also exchange ideas through less hierarchical relationships. Moreover, I also argue that while the socio-epistemic structures in more “advanced” societies are less hierarchical in general, the same phenomenon is at work in more places and ways that we may assume, including in institutions of formal education, in the professions, in cultural and social organizations, and so on.
In the old socio-epistemic structure, a twelve year old would have few or no choices other than to say “hawas” and stop talking–or at best share their ideas with one or two other people about how wrong uncle Padams are; that is, if the same incident happens to a twelve year old today, he or she has alternative spaces and options for responding to the adults and sharing new ideas.
But even in more “advanced” and democratic societies, socio-epistemic structures are rarely actually flat. This reminds me of Ira Shor, who in his book When Students Have Power, thus comment on the undemocratic structures in formal education in the United States: “A grand cultural canyon yawns between education and democracy, which simply represents the distance society itself has to travel to reach the democracy it claims to offer” (211). Even the most advanced societies are not really “democratic” when comes to formal education: too often, the very process of teaching and learning is shaped and designed to reproduce hierarchical socio-epistemic structures of the past. Even when schools and universities adopt, often grudgingly, alternative modes of learning or creating new knowledge, they tend to appropriate the new things in the service of the same old structures.
Of course, the relative prevalence of more democratic cultures and more egalitarian outlooks towards education in socially developed societies do allow the development of educational theories and experiments that help many educators, and sometimes institutions, subvert traditional hierarchies that give privilege over knowledge to older individuals, to richer communities, and to elite groups of all kinds. So, there is at least a difference of degree if not that of kind kind between the “underdeveloped” and “developed” societies when it comes to socio-epistemic hierarchies.
However, it is unfortunate that in the more democratic of societies, there are other kinds of hard-to-overcome forces like the all-powerful and “invisible” hands of the market which help perpetuate more often than change entrenched socio-epistemic hierarchies. Because of the same incentives, many educators are much less interesting in subverting the hierarchies than in sustaining them.
Having said that, let me turn to how in both the developing and advanced societies, the emergence of alternative spaces, especially outside of the venues of formal education, have in recent years significantly increased opportunities for young people to engage in creating and sharing new ideas, texts, and cultural practices.
In traditional societies where young people are just beginning to have access to the alternative spaces of what may be called “popular literacy” practices—for instance, writing to have fun or describe experiences, or using new media to create and share alphabetic or multimodal texts—the subversion of the traditional socio-epistemic structures is quite visible and often dramatic. To take the case of Nepal, where Bal and I conducted an online research study involving almost 400 college going students in 2010 and 2011, popular literacy practices stand in stark contrast to how young people have to communicate in the regular social or educational settings.
At home, young people see a clear hierarchy of who can be “knowers”: parents, men, and older members of the family have a clear sway over knowledge in relation to younger and female members. Similarly, in the society outside, the ideas of landlords and other rich people, older members of the community, and again men will matter clearly more than the ideas or experiences of poorer, younger, and female members. And at school, what the student knows never constitutes knowledge in front of the teacher, nor even the teacher’s ideas count before the ideas in the books written by the authorities “out there.” That is why a Nepali teacher will rarely ask her students: “What do you think about the chapter you read for class today?” Nor will a student ask his teacher: “Do you agree with what the book is saying on page 17?” It is mainly for this reason that students in the Nepali classroom will meet before having read the chapter; class discussion, if there is one at all, will be based on the teacher explaining the chapter to the students; and all that the students will typically do is to receive knowledge in the book, via the teacher, with both the book and the teacher considered as absolute. In the structure of relationship among the students, teacher, and the author who wrote the book, there is a clear and explicit hierarchy: the teacher doesn’t question the author and her students don’t question her.
But the moment a ten year old logs on to his Facebook, a college student starts blogging on a subject of her interest, an activist starts posting a video on YouTube video, or for that matter a thirty year old man blogs on political or professional subjects these people are using alternative spaces like never before. In a society that leapfrogs from word of mouth to microblogging, the bypassing itself seems to be fast becoming the culture. While the new affordances that new information technologies provide are also new in the developed societies, their impact on the socio-epistemic structure is much more blatant in in societies like Nepal.
In more democratic cultures, the popular literacy practices that young people engage in may give rise to relatively less visible or dramatic results, but they happen here as well. Here too, social organizations including institutions of formal education are forced to adopt and appropriate popular culture and literacy practices and restructure their systems and behaviors so they don’t get left behind. Here too, alternative spaces of knowledge-making and knowledge-sharing are undermining their powers as well. To use an analogy, when Microsoft Word did not release a code that was necessary for Open Office (a free alternative) to save and open its document format with MS Word, the software giant started losing tens of thousands of potential customers every month; so Microsoft yielded to the pressure of the Open Source Revolution. Sometimes, traditional structures of knowledge or power get ahead by pretending to be democratic, open, and sensitive to new demands.
Thus, the leapfrogging that is happening in the global peripheries make visible and help us understand the same phenomena that also characterize the socio-epistemic structures in more “advanced” societies.
In the case of Nepal, I can see uncle Padam reading Facebook posts by my twelve year old niece who I imagine would unhesitatingly comment something like this if uncle Padam tells her to “go to play” when she tells him the truth: “LOL. Face it, Lila, you are in love! You’re like uncle Padam who doesn’t want to hear the truth. Like the other day, I told him that our mom and not dad build the muth, and he’s like, kiddo get outa here!” I can almost hear uncle Padam groaning.
In more advanced societies, too, we have seen even the most conservative politicians (in the non-American sense of the word) turn to Facebook and Twitter to win elections–as much as they will turn to Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street protesters.
For some fun, here’s a music video parodying a US politician defining the Internet. I mean even the gentleman who said that the internet is made of a “series of tubes”!