Situated: Rhetorical Techne, Local Knowledge and Challenges

Local knowledge involves the situated knowledge – the understandings unique to a particular place, time and orientation which can be vital for solving problems of complexity. From reading Elenore Long’s work on ‘Rhetorical Techne, Local Knowledge and Challenges’, I found her work resonant with my experience and so developed a derivative digest of it.

[Page 13 Elenore Long; Rhetorical Techne, Local Knowledge and Challenges; Rhetorics, Literacies, and Narratives of Sustainability, Peter N. Goggin (Editor); Routledge (June 8 2009) Publication Date: June 8 2009; ISBN-10: 0415800412]

Rhetoric, Literacies and Narrative of Sustainability


The rhetoric of environmentalism and urban community action speak to the field’s growing interest in activism and public engagement.  They are struggling with a shared couple of questions: how to elicit and validate local knowledge alongside and as a part of discourses – whether discourses of policy, science or bureaucracy – that tend to dismiss it, and how to combine local knowledge with impact that is at once transformative and sustainable.


A host of methods and theories have been developed in order to interpret, refine, and respond to the call of communicative action that Jurgen Habermas distinguishes from the instrumental actions of industry, commerce and the state in order for citizens to reason together about shared concerns regarding the environment and the fate of the planet. “I take as my fundamental starting point the fundamental distinction between work and interaction” – Jurgen Habermas, Toward a Rational Society


Here, in this derivative digest, I extend these notions into cultural environment, individual and citizen in society.  Within the rhetoric of environmentalism, commitment to local knowledge is a corrective to top-down environmental initiatives that have earned big business, government and industry reputations for being ‘insensitive’, ‘disempowering’, and ‘reductive’.

[George, Susse and Alan Irwine “Re-interpreting Local-Global Partnerships” Partnerships and Leadership: Building Alliances for a Sustainable Future Ed. Theo J. N. M deBruijn and Arnold Tukker.  61 – 76 Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publications, 2002]


“Sustainable development has become a central perspective in environmental strategies around the world.  In order to reach for sustainable development fundamental changes are needed in current production and consumption structures.  It is clear that governments nor businesses have the capacity to engage society in such a transformational process on their own.  Therefore, collaboration has emeerged as a central concept in many strategies.  At the same time it is obvious that someone has to take the lead in the development towards sutainability.  Thus, partnership and leadership are strongly related concepts.”

[Page 5, T.J.N.M. de Bruijn and A. Tukker (eds.), Partnership and Leadership, 5-20 Copyright 2002 Kluwer Academic Publishers]


In the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development’s Brundtland Report, attention to local knowledge signals respect of the “local expertise” and “local concerns” of ‘local people’.  A study of the ‘ecological village’ of Baarlarna, Sweden, initiated by a “local municipal housing society” demonstrated how local knowledge was affiliated with environmental practices that give “people a voice in their destiny” and honour the “right” for people to “empower themselves”.


In this instance, local knowledge about daily life which residents contributed to the work of the architect, biologists, and engineers resulted in innovations for the village’s houses – from windows to furnaces to toilets – which was branded “imaginative, resourceful and adaptive”.  How local knowledge operates to make such a contribution has remained largely “in a black box”.


The expert-layperson binary teleology is unhelpful in promoting a transmissive dynamic to the expense of dialogical processes which are vital to tapping into an expanded understanding of complex issues.  Only through communitive process may we examine and compare situational knowledge; this requires respect, trust and a social agora.


Urban community action in the focus of community literacy. Here, local knowledge serves as a primary resource for intercultural inquiries into culturally loaded, locally situated social issues such as respect, responsibility, work and welfare.  Local knowledge signals the perspectival and partial nature of knowing.  An understanding of situational knowledge is a useful juxtaposition here which underlines the necessity for local knowledge in any inquiry.


A primer to describe situational knowledge is the anecdote of the mushroom pickers:

“Situated knowledge is knowledge specific to a particular situation. Imagine two very similar breeds of mushroom, which grow on either side of a mountain, one nutritious, one poisonous. Relying on knowledge from one side of an ecological boundary, after crossing to the other, may lead to starving rather than eating perfectly healthy food near at hand, or to poisoning oneself by mistake.


Some methods of generating knowledge, such as trial and error, or learning from experience, tend to create highly situational knowledge. One of the main benefits of the scientific method is that the theories it generates are much less situational than knowledge gained by other methods. Situational knowledge is often embedded in language, culture, or traditions. Critics of cultural imperialism argue that the rise of a global monoculture causes a loss of local knowledge.”

(Excerpt taken from Wikipedia 11.11.2013:


The situated fund of local knowledge is a rich, experientially based resource for interpreting and problematizing familiar abstractions and stock solutions to problems that have not yet been fully understood.  Lorraine Higgins, Linda Flower, and Elenore Long explain the use of local knowledge in this context:


‘Different stakeholders’ situated knowledge can help groups construct and assess the unique situations and “complex social contexts” that lie behind problems.  When diverse stakeholders put their situated knowledge into play, the process helps all stakeholders at the table see their own situated knowledge in terms of the larger landscape – to recognize that the starting points from which others join the conversation are different from one’s own, accessing the situated knowledge of others helps stakeholders critically assess and expand their own knowledge of a problem in ways that can have important consequences.


Once tapped, local knowledge can illuminate the unspoken motives, values, and assumptions that people use to interpret complex situations.  Elicited and shared, local knowledge informs participants’ realistic representations of complex social issues.


Any action in rhetoric requires the narrator to position, and at times subordinate, their situated understandings of an issue in relation to a more formal knowledge in order to contribute to public discussion – that is, participation requires that they “do their own science”.


The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce’s mission expressed in the founding charter was to “embolden enterprise, enlarge science, refine art, improve our manufacturers and extend our commerce”, but also of the need to alleviate poverty and secure full employment. On its website, the RSA characterises itself as “an enlightenment organisation committed to finding innovative practical solutions to today’s social challenges”. During the RSA Scotland 2013 Conference, citizen science was highlighted as an important part of positive and lasting change in need of support.


In the annual Angus Millar Lecture at the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh, material scientist Mark Miodownik argues that where libraries solved a need of 19th century, the requirements of the 21st century have pushed ‘makespaces’ and ‘hackspaces’ above them in necessity. The enablement of vernacular skills and knowledge in the landscape is a vital requisite for functioning healthy communities and societies



Simmons and Jeffrey argue that “The spaces in which public deliberation most often takes place are institutionally, technologically, and scientifically complex. In order to participate, citizens must be able to invent valued knowledge. This invention requires using complex information technologies to access, assemble, and analyze information in order to produce the professional and technical performances expected in contemporary civic forums. We argue for a civic rhetoric that expands to research the complicated nature of interface technologies, the inventional practices of citizens as they use these technologies, and the pedagogical approaches to encourage the type of collaborative and coordinated work these invention strategies require.”

[Simmons, W. Michele, and Jeffrey T Grabill “Toward a Civic Rhetoric for Technologically and Scientifically Complex Places – Invention, Performance and Participation” College Composition and Communication 58.3 (2007): 419-48]


Community Literacy’s field often comprises insights regarding gaps between the intent of medical, scientific, or bureaucratic discourses and how these discourses’ policies and practices are experienced in the lives of ordinary people that local knowledge serves to illuminate within gate keeping encounters and intercultural dialogues.


[Cushman, Ellen; Page 34; The Stuggle and the Tools: Oral and Literate Strategies in an Inner City Community; New York: SUNY P 1998]

[Young, Amanda and Linda Flower; Page 79; “Patients as Partners: Patients as Problem-solvers” Health Communication 14.1 (20010: 68-97]

[Higgins, Lorraine and Theresa Chalich, eds.; Page 2; Getting to know You: A Dialogue for Community Health, Pittsburgh, PA: Community Literacy Centre and Rainbow Health Centre 1996]


Concern for local knowledge in public discourse is neither new nor unique. In 1989 Beverly Sauer published her analysis of a coal mine disaster in December of 1981.  Prior to the accident, the wives of mines know something was amiss at the time.  How did they know? From doing their own science: observing for instance, “the amount of rock dust in their wash cycles”. But they had no public forum to take their insights to whilst their husbands were still alive, and their experiential knowledge lacked evidentiary status at the hearings following the disaster.


Sauer interprets the disjuncture this way: “the conventions of public discourse privilege the rational objective (male) voice and silence human suffering…. the notion of expertise excludes the women’s experiential knowledge”.


Over several decades, scholars in literacy studies (Cushman Sturggle: Harris, Karnhi, Pollock), rhetoric (Fleming), technical communications (sauer Rhetoric), and sustainability studies (Ukaga and Maser) have highlighted missed opportunities for knowledge building within public deliberation when residents’ local knowledge is ignored or when the very design of technology undercuts citizens’ efforts to draw on what they already know in order to conduct research that could contribute to the discussion at hand (Grabill Writing; Simmons and Grabill).


The subject of digital literacies is a modern one which involves important discussions about technocratic ‘magical thinking’ such as Professor Virginia Eubank describe in her book Digital Deadends.  Approaches are clearly in need of careful sociological thinking. In her participation in and development of community resources at the YWCA, she has brought together an insightful examination of the way in which technologies are applied exploring myths about the rhetoric of the ‘digital divide’.


Citizen rhetoric asks what can be done to improve the quality and consequences of public deliberation.  Elenore Long poses a key question in “what would it take to configure an alternative public discourse where everyday people and their local knowledge have a place at the table?”


Experience of having one’s (or one’s group’s) knowledge shut out, ignored, or disregarded is not encountered according to our academic divisions, but rather in terms of the politics of daily life and institutional decisions that thwart the everyday struggle for resources, respect and sometimes for life itself – in whatever domain.


The art of invention and intervention, techne is as old as rhetoric itself. Through characterizations,  Atwill portrays techne as a special class of productive knowledge that is “stable enough to be taught and transferred but flexible enough to be adapted to particular situations and purposes”.


The debate over the use of techne in local public life is hotly contested.  The debate over the use of techne in local public life is rooted in scholars’ deep commitments to respond morally to the differences in time and resources that stack outreach in favour of university interests when scholars move from library to the street.


Here, as an interjection, often it is the administrations of the organisation or institution, which stand as a barrier where academics are highly responsive to community engagement.  The bureaucratic and policy systems introduce the necessary amounts of entropy into the time-cost analysis that achieving things in inefficient systems serves as a deadweight cost. Thus a disproportion of scale creates a power dynamic where the individual working within the institutional framework part takes on the resources, power and decision cycle of the institution with which the community counterpart cannot match, or which limits the action of the professional to connect or align with the community reality.  This inequality has a tendency to remove agency/capacity to co-function within the negotiational context, and contribute to the discussion in a way which is not prescribed by the institution.


As social creatures we aspire to share ideas, spaces, resources, futures, understanding and our perspectives through being a part of communities and societies.


We are seeing geometic expansions of the range of our previous life reaches – the extent and impact of our actions are increasing with the technologies that move our local contexts to that of global.  ‘Superstructures’ – management systems over a certain size of administrative staff; (30,000) – now touch all our lives and are often institutions originally set up to facilitate healthy and productive lives.


These  superstructures, like the infrastructure of a city, are constantly having to evolve to continue to serve the purposes they were set up to – for example law, or refuse collection; in practice; the necessary knowledge of the landscape must be used to conceptualise and practically implement the institutionalised/regulated activity; e.g. the law must reflect the needs of the people, in the same way that other civil servants are working to keep the life of the city running, such as refuse collection and city sanitation.


For this to effectively happen, the expression and voice of the ‘local techne’ – or local knowledge – requires being reappraised as having a great deal more value and agency than it currently holds.  An important question to be asked is ‘How do we create equally enfranchised platforms, scaffoldings and marketplaces for the support of the individual and informal community ‘mucro’-perspective ?’…


by Alex Dunedin