Lived Experience, Science and a Social Imagination

Fig. 8.1
First page of a flip-chart presentation from a group of NGO practitioners in Uganda who have been deliberating about lived experience and climate change

8.2 To What Extent Is It Desirable to Expand the Boundaries of Our Lived Experiences Beyond Prevailing Social Norms of Attention?

The main reason for expanding the boundaries of our lived experiences is to generate a broader and deeper knowledge, that is, a more complete knowledge, of the world and the great social challenges it faces, including of course the challenge of climate change. Through this broader and deeper knowledge, we may then regain the power to set public agendas (Norgaard 2011: Kindle location 1934; see also Chap. 7). Our book argues that we generate this knowledge by crossing epistemological boundaries to share and compare experiences with others who may be very different from us. It is a deeper, more complete knowledge that we generate within ourselves and share with others, thus creating a virtuous circle of knowledge generation—or so the idea runs.

The idea of sharing knowledge to generate a deeper, more complete knowledge is common to several academic disciplines. For example, economics as a discipline is far removed from the anthropology of Norgaard, but Thomas Picketty in his best selling book about economic inequality—‘Capital in the twenty-first century’—states:

Knowledge and skill diffusion is the key to overall productivity growth as well as the reduction of inequality both within and between countries. We see this at present in the advances made by a number of previously poor countries, led by China. These emergent economies are now in the process of catching up with the advanced ones. By adopting the modes of production of the rich countries and acquiring skills comparable to those found elsewhere, the less developed countries have leapt forward in productivity and increased their national incomes. The technological process may be abetted by open borders for trade, but it is fundamentally a process of the diffusion and sharing of knowledge – the public good par excellence – rather than a market mechanism. (Picketty 2014: 21).

There is no doubting the discipline in the above quotation. The language virtually ‘breathes’ economics, the ‘dismal science’ as it is often called because of its many doom-laden predictions, although not in this quotation from Picketty. On the contrary, he is extolling the virtue of open borders of knowledge that allow for diffusion and sharing. His reference point is the macro-scale of national economics, but the same message may be found at local scales. Chipika and Wilson (2006) found for example, among small-scale light engineering firms in Zimbabwe, that those whose networks extended beyond kinship ties were more innovative than those who were restricted to family.

Knowledge is well established in the discipline of economics because it is needed for innovation in response to market signals. We quoted in Chap. 5 a definition of innovation as being ‘knowledge for productive use’ (Chataway 2005). The basic logic is that market competition drives the need both to do things better (improve quality and productivity for example) and do better things (make new products or improved adaptations of existing ones) (Forbes and Wield 2002).

Moving from economics to life, and lived experience, we also expand our knowledge through sharing with others, learning from and with them. This is the dynamic core of our conceptualisation of lived experience that we created in Chap. 1. By analogy with our local economics example above of small-scale light engineering firms in Zimbabwe, however, context is important. If our networks are restricted to family or to a geographical community in which we live, social norms of attention and conversational norms limit what we may engage about. This is what Norgaard (cited above) means when she states that conversation may help people understand their relationship to the wider world, but may also obscure it. In other words, it depends with whom you engage and talk, and the subjects you talk about. We explore in Sect. 8.4 the practical possibilities for shifting the balance towards understanding one’s relationships with the wider world and away from obscurity. For the moment, we simply hypothesise that engagement with others who are not bounded by the same norms of attention as us is key to obtaining and assimilating an expanded knowledge of climate change.

What, however, do we mean by expanding our knowledge? We referred above to broadening and deepening. Broadening is essential. It refers to understanding a wider spectrum of knowledge that speaks to climate change debates. For example it might mean, inter alia, understanding more about:

  • The physical science and its complexities

  • The macro-debates concerning the impacts on the world economy and what this would mean for both poor and rich countries; likewise the differentiated social impacts

  • The social relations of transferring to a low-carbon economy, a major goal of the European Union to be reached by the year 2050 (European Commission 2011; see also Chap. 3). This means, among other things, switching from a mainly fossil-fuel-based energy industry to one based on renewables (wind, waves, photovoltaics). We do not argue with this as a goal, but there is scant literature on the process of transformation beyond stating new skills that will be needed (an EU agenda is ‘new skills and jobs’—European Commission 2010). What will happen to people who work in the current energy industry? Will they all be re-skilled and nobody made redundant? What will happen to the linkages to other areas—for example, the manufacturers of central heating systems that are based on fossil-fuel boilers? What will happen to the many small businesses that have contracts to maintain these systems and other energy appliances in buildings, especially if they become so well insulated and draught-proof that they have less need of heating? We could go on, but you surely acknowledge the message. These are not frivolous questions.

  • The political processes of reaching (or failing to reach) decisions on intervention measures, from international to nation scales.

  • The relationship between politics and markets. Do we try and generate the conditions so that capitalist markets and competition will enforce green innovation and solve the climate change problem for us, or do we attempt to govern capitalistic markets more directly?

  • Human relations with ‘nature’. For example, how do we react when land is turned over to biofuels, or when conservation of tropical forests increases the vulnerability of already vulnerable forest communities, and a renewable energy installation spoils the ‘peace and quiet’ of an affluent community in Europe and elsewhere?

  • The linkages to other pressing global issues—for example, poverty and inequality in all its facets, wars, terrorism, international development.

Deepening is qualitatively different from broadening the range of inter-related topics about which we should know. Here we examine two complementary approaches: (i) communicative action, and hermeneutic and emancipatory learning; (ii) social imagination.

8.2.1 Communicative Action and Hermeneutic and Emancipatory Learning1

When Norgaard acknowledges that conversation may help people understand their relationships to the wider world she draws explicitly on the idea of communicative action as developed by the German philosopher, Jürgen Habermas.

Habermas’ theory of communicative action resonates strongly with the idea of social learning (as outlined in Box 5.3, Chap. 5), and with knowledge sharing as implied above. He starts his journey with the simple but fundamental question: What is the primary distinguishing feature that makes us human? His answer: our capacity to reflect on what we do and learn. Habermas then argues that this fundamental capacity, which is present in all human beings, is the source of two capabilities (Edgar 2006: 62–64):

  • Our ability to ‘labour’, by which Habermas means our ability to transform our physical environment or ‘nature’ for productive use.

  • Our ability to interact and communicate with each other, not just in the sense of conveying information, but to justify our reflections in the form of discussion, debate and challenge.

Habermas is certainly not the first person to refer explicitly to the first of these capabilities. In the nineteenth century, for example, the ability to labour formed the underlying assumption in the work of Karl Marx. Habermas argues, however, that by itself our ability to labour reduces human ability for reflection and creativity to a technical interest of knowledge and communication. Important as this is, it ignores the human ability to (a) reflect on society, and interpret it through discussion, challenge and debate with others (i.e. what he calls a hermeneutic interest of knowledge); and (b) challenge and shape that society (an emancipatory interest of knowledge). Habermas’ division of knowledge into technical, hermeneutic and emancipatory interests is often the most-quoted aspect of his work (Habermas 1987a). Box 8.1 explains further, but briefly, these knowledge interests of human beings:

Box 8.1 Technical, hermeneutic and emancipatory knowledge interests

Habermas posits three interests of knowledge. These are summarised by Mohan and Wilson (2005) as:

Technical—aimed at the material reproduction of society and how one controls and manipulates one’s environment (instrumentalism). This is largely based on scientific approaches.

Hermeneutic—aimed at enhancing understanding and transforming consciousness through binding consensual norms. This is largely based on approaches whereby communication and intersubjectivity allow a greater understanding of meanings of the social worlds we inhabit.

Emancipatory—aimed at breaking free from structures which limit our options and which have hitherto been regarded as beyond human control. This involves critical self-reflection so that a person can truly recognise the source of their problems.

Hermeneutic learning by itself equates to the ways in which we might broaden our knowledge on climate change, as outlined above. The combination of hermeneutic and emancipatory learning, however, represents for us a deeper form of knowledge production.

The difficulty is that on a day-to-day basis there is a self-perpetuating tendency to privilege our technical knowledge interests that constitute exchanges of information of how to do things better in a taken-for-granted capitalist world. Habermas (1984: 143–242) has grappled with this tendency where what he calls instrumental rationality gains precedence over communicative rationality which might breed challenge to the social system (see Box 8.2 and also Borda Rodriguez 2008: 42–43). He does not, however, reject instrumental rationality as such, recognising that it is essential for societies to function. For him, and for us, the key issue is the way that instrumental rationality has a tendency to build on itself with the evolution of society, and is in danger of eclipsing communicative rationality—what he calls ‘colonisation of the lifeworld’ (Ibid.; Habermas 1987b). This does not bode well for social learning and deeper knowledge generation that is emancipatory, which comes about through discussion, debate and challenge—in short a process which he calls communicative action (Ibid.) (Box 8.2).

Box 8.2 Habermas’ forms of rationality

Instrumental rationality is summarised by Edgar (2006: 74) as the rational choice for the achievement of any given end. It is thus a rationality associated with selection of means rather than of ends. Instrumental rationality is fundamental, for example, to the application of technology, judged by its efficiency and effectiveness, as well as in social administration and in the formation of social and economic policies.

Communicative rationality and communicative action. In contrast to instrumental rationality, communicative rationality concerns the rational choice of ends, arrived at by communicative action—free and open discussion of all relevant persons without any form of coercion (Edgar 2006: 23).

Thus how and why learning and knowledge generation occur cannot be divorced by the kind of learning and the knowledge it produces, which leads to the concern below (Sect. 8.4) about how to promote deeper learning and knowledge that is connected to climate change. For Habermas, however, deeper knowledge about climate change would be linked to a wider vision—of political emancipation and social justice to be achieved through communicative action. More broadly, still he seeks to contribute towards what he terms the unfinished project of modernity, where reason prevails (Edgar 2006: 96–100).

In communicative action, one always has to give reasons for one’s statements (a rationality for seeking consensus that is challenged by Machin 2013: 80–86). In this, Habermas’ argument is similar to that of the Brazilian educationalist, Freire, and his book The pedagogy of the oppressed (1972) which sought through open discussion and debate to arrive at the roots of oppression and challenge them. It is within these wider visions that Hulme (2009, 2013) and others seek to locate climate change.

Habermas is well aware of the tension between instrumental and communicative rationality, as indicated above. There are, however, two further issues that arise, even when space is allowed for open and transparent discussion in intervention on any social challenge, including that of climate change.

Both issues stem from Habermas’ assertion of a pre-condition for communicative exchange where the participants are able to draw on assumptions that are held in common, mutually drawing on a shared lifeworld (Habermas 1984, 1987b, 1990—see Box 8.3). This he has also described, noted in Sect. 8.1, as the ‘background consensus that lies behind all narrative exchange’ (quoted in Fischer 2003: 1999). When considering intervention related to climate change, however, such a background consensus is often likely not to exist a priori between the different stakeholders and therefore communicative action cannot establish itself successfully. The first issue then becomes whether (or not) a common background consensus can be generated? Section 8.4 explores this issue more thoroughly.

Box 8.3 Lifeworld

This is the stock of competences and knowledge that people use to negotiate their way through everyday life, to interact with others, and ultimately to create and maintain social relationships (Edgar 2006: 89). Our lifeworld competences make communicative action possible (see Box 8.2). They typically are used to maintain our relationships with people we know, not only through taken-for-granted agreement, but also through challenge and negotiation. The interactions involved, however, require that we establish a basic shared view of the way the world works through establishing common meanings and common interpretations of the lifeworld. (Ibid: 90). In other words, we establish a shared lifeworld or background consensus.

The second issue concerns where a background consensus might with justification indeed be said to exist between stakeholders (for example, because they are all bound by the same norms of attention, or are all climate scientists, or all climate economists). Do not the common assumptions that form the background consensus then limit the possibilities for emancipatory/transformative learning as the participants are trapped within a shared lifeworld whose existence appears, to them, natural and therefore not open to challenge?

The two issues represent the tension for this chapter, between commonality and difference that we explore again in Sect. 8.4. Commonality between individuals and groups enables a background consensus that in turn allows for communicative exchange as a basis for shared learning and knowledge generation. In addition, commonality provides a secure base for joint organisation and action with potential for learning and innovation. In contrast, under conditions of difference, a background consensus and joint organisation and action are more difficult. It is difference, not commonality, however, that is ultimately the source of learning and deeper, new knowledge.

8.2.2 The Social Imagination

Another way of thinking about deepening knowledge about climate change through engagement with others concerns developing and assimilating a ‘social2 imagination’. This way of thinking derives from the classic work by C. Wright Mills, ‘The sociological imagination’ (Mills 1959/2000) whom we first met in Chap. 2 (Sect 2.3 and Box 2.4). He explains as follows (page numbers in brackets refer to the 2000 edition):

[What people] need, is a quality of mind that will help them to use information and to develop reason in order to achieve lucid summations of what is going on in the world and of what may be happening within themselves… The sociological imagination enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life… (5).

The sociological imagination enables us to grasp history and biography [that is, the personal story that each of us lives out] and the relations of the two within society. That is its task and promise (6)… it is by means of the sociological imagination that men3 now hope to grasp what is going on in the world, and to understand what is happening in themselves (6, 7).

Note in the above quotations, three themes that formed the subject matter of Chap. 7 and the present chapter in relation to climate change:

  • Providing more and more information is not sufficient, and may be counter-productive unless accompanied by the capacity to develop reason

  • What is needed is a transformation of information to understand the meaning of climate change in the context of the world in which we live, which corresponds to the Habermasian notions of hermeneutic and emancipatory knowledge interests as opposed to merely technical interests

  • We need to assimilate internally deeper understanding of what is going on in the world into our lived experience, to develop that ‘quality of mind’, and indeed to combine it with that lived experience.

Thus to have a social imagination with respect to climate change is not simply to have more knowledge on the topic, but to deepen our understanding of that knowledge. It means that we are prepared to engage broadly and deeply with the topic in combination with other social issues, and to connect it to and embed that greater understanding within our lived experiences. In relation to the latter, Mills points out the limitations of daily experience that become exposed by possessing a social imagination which enables its possessor to:

Take into account how individuals, in the welter of their daily experience, often become falsely conscious of their social positions… By such means the personal uneasiness of individuals is focused upon explicit troubles and the indifference of publics is transformed into involvement with public issues. The first fruit of this imagination… is the idea that the individual can understand his own experience and gauge his own fate by locating himself within his period, that he can know his chances in life only by becoming aware of those of all individuals in his circumstances. (5).

Climate change covers the globe. There is no hiding place for anyone. The main difference in terms of human intervention is that some of us have the relative ‘freedom’ (that is the resources and capabilities in Amartya Sen’s logic—see Chap. 6) to adapt and even attempt some mitigation, while many others, through their structural circumstances, have very little room for manoeuvre. The social imagination thus enables us to become internally aware of not only those in similar circumstances, but also how our daily actions affect others in near and distant places.

The social imagination then enables us, according to Mills, to appreciate the impotence of individual action because of the social structures within which we live:

Insofar as an economy is so arranged that slumps occur, the problem of unemployment becomes incapable of personal solution. Insofar as war is inherent in the nation-state system and in the uneven industrialisation of the world, the ordinary individual in his restricted milieu will be powerless… to solve the troubles this system or lack of system imposes upon him…

To be aware of the idea of social structure and to use it with sensibility is to be capable of tracing such linkages among a great variety of milieux. To be able to do that is to possess a sociological imagination. (10).

It is a straightforward matter to paraphrase the first part of this citation in relation to climate change. Thus, insofar as economic life is so arranged that crises in nature occur, the problem of climate change and other environmental states (biodiversity, pollution, etc.) become ‘incapable of personal solution’. Insofar as economic life is predicated on energy use, and that nobody or no institution is able to coordinate the anarchic arrangements of nation states, the individual is ‘powerless’ to do anything about it (11).

The words in the above paragraph that we have retained within quotation marks suggest to us, however, that Mills here is making too clean a separation between the individual and social structures. As we pointed out in our critique of some of the literature that we cited in Chap. 7, it is important to have a more dynamic, and consequently less static, view of personal action. Yes, individual action is no panacea for tackling the climate change challenge. Yes, it is limited in what it may achieve. This is not to state, however, that it achieves nothing. Neither is it to state that those who engage in individual actions are incapable of recognising their limitations, or of reflection on that recognition and so beginning to gain a ‘quality of mind’ in relation to climate change intervention. It is important to recognise that reflection and quality of mind develop potentially from practice as well as ideas.

The strength of the concept of ‘social imagination’, however, is the way it explicitly links understanding of the wider world and its problems to what we call lived experiences of people. The latter concept also helps ground Mills’ notion of ‘quality of mind’, which to us is the assimilation of our greater understanding into our lived experience rather than just linking the two. Thus, rather than ‘the failure to integrate this [wider] knowledge into everyday life or to transform it into social action’ (Norgaard 2011: Kindle location 272), Mills presents us with a scenario where such integration has become successful. Rather than ‘our mental models or habits of thought’ being ‘among the most critical barriers to change’ (Moser and Dilling 2007a: Kindle location 6454), he presents us with the same scenario where prevailing mental models and habits have been overcome. (Note that both citations in this paragraph also appear in Chap. 7).

The overlaps of the concept of ‘social imagination’ with the Habermasian notions of hermeneutic and emancipatory knowledge interests are fairly obvious. In fact for Habermas and his followers, one would develop a social imagination through the conversational style of communicative action (see above), rather than expecting social scientists in the discipline of sociology to do the job on a largely ignorant public. Norgaard (2011: Kindle location 1409) makes the link explicitly. Using Habermas as one of her reference points she states:

… when people get together and talk, a number of important things happen… Conversations can help people understand their relationships to the larger world… They can engage the sociological imagination.
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