Modes of Knowing

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When we speak about research we mean gathering of knowledge, either from theoretical, written or printed sources or directly from the real world or from empiria, as researchers call it. Knowledge is thus essentially a report or a description about things in empiria. A depiction of a limited phenomenon is often called a model and a set of models that together portray a large system of phenomena is called its theory.

Because most researchers have understood as their target to describe how things are (or how they have been), 'knowledge' has been understood as static, perhaps as an almost eternal truth. Since antiquity most researchers have been reluctant to study things that are in a state of change. Especially if the research project itself causes alterations in the object of study, it has been regarded as an imperfection of method. Today, however, we begin to understand that such a static notion of 'knowledge' would restrict severely the usefulness and importance of science in society. Galileo showed us how useful it is to gather knowledge of things that move and change (i.e. dynamic invariances). Today we want to go still further and gather knowledge about how we can change things. In other words, we need beside descriptive theory also normative theory of action and improvement.

Ordinary people seldom speak of "theory" but in their daily lives in homes and in work they are continually using knowledge and conceptual models. Already a small child can translate whatever he sees around him into models like "mother" and will then append to it a growing number of other concepts. Eventually these models grow to contain the rules of family and social life and important values and beliefs which are useful in conventional living. As invariance and as knowledge they are often not much inferior to scientific findings. However, their mode of presentation is different.

The method of a child which gathers knowledge is quite different from the scientific one. Marjo Räsänen (1993) thinks that when investigating a new object or problem a child typically alternates the sensory, the action related, and the conceptual viewing angles. After several iterations, the child arrives to a total and final experience of the phenomenon he is experiencing. Räsänen's diagram (on the right) illustrates primarily a study of an artistic image, but the same principle can be applied to many other processes of human learning as well.

A baby has to construct his first models of the world already before he learns to speak, and naturally such models cannot be very explicit. The same holds true for much of the tacit knowledge that the grown-up uses as the basis of his behaviour in home and in work - it is seldom expressed in exact wording.

For example, everybody knows in his nearest environment a number of products - such as food, clothes and tools, - knows how they are called, for what they are, and (approximately) how you can use them. This kind of knowledge can be called knowing by experience.

Another sort of practical tacit knowledge is the professional skill, know how.

Some characteristics of the above two types of tacit knowledge can be presented as a table. For comparison, we add a third column which characterizes the favorite mode of information in sciences, i.e. so called theoretical or conceptual knowing which is presented as precise words and so exact concepts and models as possible.

Mode of knowing: Knowing by experience Knowing how to do, "know-how" Conceptual (theoretical) knowing
Example: "The benches in this church are not comfortable." "I know how to design a good TV couch." "A suitable seat height for British grown-ups is 44 cm."
Area of validity: Pieces of knowledge are unconnected and valid only in one situation Knowledge can be applied in several instances Knowledge can be applied to all instances of the same type. It contains mainly general rules
Mode of presentation: The essential sense of "tacit" knowledge cannot be explained verbally Tradition. Exemplar. Skill of trade. Many important points of these cannot be presented verbally. The knowledge can be expressed in words and exact models, and it can be printed as a report or as a handbook
Method of teaching the knowledge: Cannot be taught. Can be learned only by own experience The master shows how the thing is done; the student imitates the master Lectures and reading of text-books

In the table above knowledge exists in two formats: it is either worded or tacit. However, these are not the only media that can contain knowledge. Many conventional human activities and procedures in home, in school or in a profession, contain knowledge, though the substance of it has seldom been written down as instructions for the activity in question.

Moreover, many tools can be used only in a predetermined way, and thus they can be said to contain knowledge about all the possible procedures when using them, again in essence equal to printed instructions for use, when these exist. This is especially manifest in such modern tools as computer programs.

Engeström (2002, 104) presents a table where several commonly used modes of human knowledge are arranged along two dimensions. The first dichotomy classifies the carrier of the knowledge, especially its temporary permanence: is it a process, i.e. something that happens in time and ends but can be repeated, or is it a structure with a more or less permanent existence either physically or in the cognition?

The second axis in the table speaks about how deep in the personal cognition resides the knowledge.

  Processes Structures
Internal Thinking Mental models and structures
| Imagining Images, symbols, visions
| Feeling, touching, moving Gestures, rituals, customs
| Speaking, reading, writing Signs, texts
External Doing Artefacts, tools

It is a misunderstanding that tacit knowledge would exist only separately for each person, hidden inside of them, continues Engeström. Especially the "external" forms of tacit knowledge can easily be transferred from man to man, from place to place, from time to another. Learning them is indispensable for people that live in a group because the skills that it contains have to be used collectively. How to live in a family and how to work in a professional work group are examples of collective tacit knowledge. The normal method to gain knowledge of such collective knowledge is to grow up in the social group where this tacit knowledge is used. Because of the wordless nature of the intelligence, the student cannot cast doubt on its reliability - it has just to be accepted ans believed. The development of the traditional tacit knowledge thus tends to be relatively slow, often too slow for the modern society.

In other respects, the content of tacit knowledge need not in principle much differ from conceptual or scientific knowledge. Indeed, the two columns in Engeström's table correspond to the two types of invariances, static and dynamic ones, that are typical of scientific knowledge.

Moreover, is can be interesting to apply to it the dichotomy of descriptive and normative knowledge. Descriptive knowledge tells us what things are: for example, most people think that a product can be either an utensil or a decoration, not both. Normative knowledge aims at assisting everyday life or a profession, and also defines the values behind these activities and whose point of view should dominate in the activity: the person herself, her family, nation, ruler or God. A usual method of expressing normative tacit knowledge is to name an exemplar to be followed.

A researcher that comes from outside of the group and wants to study the content and use of tacit knowledge, remains often badly handicapped until having learned to detect and recognize the fragments this knowledge, not to speak of understanding it completely. In order to deal with their handicap - not unlike a poor vision - researchers have devised various strategies, notably the following three:

Rejecting tacit knowledge. A few generations ago many scientists, especially in the so called positivistic school, used to think that tacit knowledge were useless in science. "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent" (Wittgenstein, 1933, § 78). One reason to this condemnation was the belief that only explicit theoretical knowledge could be effectively tested by the researcher himself and by other researchers. Testing was thought to be essential to the advancement of science because it makes possible to reject untrue information. According to this principle, most scientists until Galileo simply avoided studying practical professions and other questions where tacit knowledge seemed to play an important role. In the case that the theme of the research project nevertheless came close to such questions, most researchers simply disregarded them.

Explicating tacit knowledge. According to the positivistic doctrine it is the researcher's duty to explicate everything that he studies into plain language and disregard those things that he cannot explicate.

Explicating means translating or paraphrasing tacit knowledge into unequivocal expressions, thus transforming it into conceptual knowledge. The difficulty is that it is arduous and the results remain uncertain because the researcher often misunderstands the content of tacit knowledge, despite his best intentions.

The principal method in gathering tacit information is the interview, often in combination with observation. Usually the informants are either the users of the products or services, or the makers of these:

Gathering and using tacit knowledge in its original form. When studying professional services or industrial products you would often like to gather knowledge about the factual use of these products and services, and factors which relate to these activities. These, however, are often linked to the lives of the users in very complicated ways which the users normally manage with the help of their tacit knowledge of the situation. A researcher often finds it very difficult to extricate this knowledge, and some researchers have begun to search for approaches which would allow exploiting this tacit knowledge in its original state. Some possible approaches to this end are the following.

The above are just a few options for exploiting tacit knowledge or converting it to other formats of intelligence. You need not regard them as mutually exclusive alternatives to the standard method of explicating, on the contrary it is usually possible to use several approaches in parallel.

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August 3, 2007.
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Original location: http://www2.uiah.fi/projects/metodi