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Fachsprache 3–4 / 2011 Peter Kastberg
Articles / Aufsätze
Knowledge Asymmetries –
Beyond “To Have and Have Not”
Peter Kastberg
Abstract In this article I begin by presenting what may count as examples of intuitively accepted
notions of knowledge asymmetries from a wide variety of research disciplines. I go on to state
that knowledge asymmetries are prototypically seen as unwanted aspects of human interaction.
Responding to that stance, I propose to look at knowledge asymmetry from the viewpoint of
another and less confrontationally oriented ideology in the hope that another perspective may
lead to other insights and hopefully new avenues of research within LSP, Public Understanding
of Science, Science Communication and related disciplines. In this article I therefore aim at opening a discussion of how knowledge asymmetry may be understood conceptually and how this
understanding may be evaluated and applied within a wider framework of Knowledge Communication research. In order to do so, I (re-)conceptualize knowledge asymmetry from the viewpoint of three perspectives: asymmetry, knowledge and communication. In their synthesis, i. e. as
communicatively salient knowledge asymmetry, the three perspectives are then discussed and
elaborated upon and theoretical implications are drawn.
Keywords knowledge asymmetry, asymmetric relation, knowledge, communication
1 Introduction
In this paper the object of study is knowledge asymmetry; and analogous to the laconic
stipulation in Luhmann’s seminal work on systems theory (1995 [1984]: 2), that “there are
systems”, it is quite obvious that “there are knowledge asymmetries”. From the examples
below it is equally obvious that knowledge asymmetry is a term used to cover and evaluate
phenomena ranging from geo-politics to communicative practices and Knowledge Management.
From the point of view of Knowledge Management, Eppler (2006: 195) focuses on the
knowledge asymmetry between domain expert and decision maker and sees it as a hindrance for optimal knowledge transfer inside the organization. When it comes to the field
of Knowledge Management the success of knowledge transfer is often depicted as a function of to what extent knowledge asymmetry or knowledge symmetry may be said to exist
between the “source” and the “recipient” of knowledge (Sun 2009). Apart from the specific
field of Knowledge Management, which in many ways has emerged as an organizational
answer to knowledge asymmetries, knowledge asymmetries are also much debated within
the larger field of organizational studies. According to Coff and Lee (2007: 72) it is a truism
that “[k]nowledge asymmetries are at the root of many organizational dilemmas”. In a study
by Rönkko and Mäkelä (undated) knowledge asymmetry is defined as a “condition that is
created when different people or different organizational units possess different stocks of
knowledge”. They detected such knowledge asymmetries between the engineering and the
marketing division of a software development company. In this particular case there was an
asymmetry in terms of an understanding of what could be produced (represented by the engineers) and what could be sold (represented by marketing). Inter-departmental knowledge
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asymmetries of this kind potentially pose problems for organizations in as much as they may
give rise to misunderstandings, increased communication costs, hinder coordination efforts,
etc. (op. cit.). Within organizational studies and Knowledge Management, it seems to be
generally accepted that the size of the knowledge asymmetry between crucial organizational
units, functions or personnel is understood to be inversely proportional to how profitable a
company may expect it to be. Knowledge asymmetries are, however, also to be found outside
of the organization proper. For instance in international business where knowledge asymmetry may be talked about as “structural holes” (Oliver/Garrigós/Porta 2008) or blind spots
within global value chains. In their capacity as structural holes, dealing with knowledge
asymmetries means to fill them, as it were, if the company in question wishes to profit and
prosper. But not only is the world of business fraught with knowledge asymmetries of various kinds, the geo-political landscape, too, features knowledge asymmetries. The proverbial
North-South divide, for instance, may also be seen as an expression of a knowledge gap
(Evers 2002). According to a study by Nair and Menon (2002) the “failure of past development efforts” may be examined in the light of knowledge asymmetries between North and
South. Again, such knowledge asymmetries are to be “rectified”. Knowledge asymmetries
are, however, by no means limited to the relative abstract levels of international relations,
business & industry, organizational studies or Knowledge Management. Knowledge asymmetries are also to be found at the mundane level of day-to-day communicative interaction – for instance between the knowledges of the expert and the layperson with regards
to a specific knowledge domain (Beatty 2006). Knowledge asymmetries can also give rise to
misunderstandings in intercultural communication due to the fact that “[t]he social stock of
knowledge of various societies differs significantly” (Günthner/Luckmann 2001: 57).
Based on the above examples, which are in fact but a few excerpts from a highly prolific
research literature spanning a multitude of fields, schools, and paradigms, it seems obvious
that the notion of knowledge asymmetry is indeed a fixture in many research fields. Knowledge asymmetries seem to exist between people, between organizational units or functions,
between companies, between different strata of society and even between nations or continents. And different though the examples may be they seem to resonate with a wish to
overcome, to fill, to reduce, to rectify whatever knowledge asymmetry is in question. Talking about knowledge asymmetry in this manor, i. e. applying it as a metaphor to designate
an unwanted aspect of human interaction, is in tune with much current sociological and
communicative research dealing with asymmetries in as much as it seems to be drawn to
(or from) a particular ideology; an ideology cast in an almost Hemingwayian mold of “have
and have not”1.
Traditional knowledge gap models (e. g. Thunberg et al. 1982) assume that one party in
a communicative event has relevant and sufficient knowledge (the “have” position) whereas
the other does not (the “have not” position), and that this gap tends to widen over time (e. g.
Bensaude-Vincent 2001). Within the research community of the Public Understanding of
Science movement (e. g. Durant/Evans/Thomas 1989 et passim) a congenial framework led
to the canonizing of a “deficit model” (e. g. Bauer/Allum/Miller 2007), i. e. a frame of reference in which the lay person would be seen as being in a knowledge deficit contrasted with
the knowledge surplus of the expert (in casu the scientist)2. And even if political, societal
or other authorities or agents would try to diminish the gap or reduce the deficit by means
of, say, education, the “haves” would also benefit from said education – and probably even
more so than the “have nots”. This leads to a permanent (if dynamic) knowledge asymmetry;
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something which has given rise to a critical evaluation of knowledge asymmetries. Looking
at knowledge asymmetry not only as a statement of fact but from this critically evaluative
have vs. have not perspective, a transition can be followed from mere metaphor to fully
fledged allegory; i. e. talking about knowledge asymmetry seems to evoke an entire evaluative discourse of have vs. have not. Whereas I do not in any way shape or form disregard
the research productivity of this discourse, it has also proven to be somewhat hegemonic
(in the sense of Laclau/Mouffe 2001) in as much as this evaluative stance seems to obscure
(or even subdue) other perspectives on knowledge asymmetry. This has prompted me to
look into the phenomenon of knowledge asymmetry from the viewpoint of another and less
confrontationally oriented ideology. I am, hereby, neither overlooking nor discarding of the
phenomena of oppression and exploitation carried out by the powers that be in late capitalist societies. I am merely advocating that a change of perspectives may lead to new insights
and hopefully new avenues of research – insights and avenues that may prove productive
to future research into LSP, Public Understanding of Science, Science Communication and
related disciplines.
By way of summing up the above introductory remarks, I hold that whereas there is no
lack of taking the idea of knowledge asymmetry for granted and applying it to a wide variety of expressions, so far little research – if any – has been done toward understanding the
concept itself. I also maintain that prototypically the phenomenon of knowledge asymmetry
is evaluated as an unwanted state of affairs. Taking these as my points of departure, the following pages aim at opening up a discussion of how knowledge asymmetry may be understood conceptually and how this understanding may be evaluated and applied within a wider
framework of Knowledge Communication research.3 Acknowledging that there can be no
“immaculate conception” when it comes to research design (Sullivan/Porter 1993), I do not
propose that the ensuing analysis and discussions of knowledge asymmetry are neutral. I
can, however, say that for the purpose of this article I explicitly do not adopt the evaluative
stance introduced above; hence the subtitle of this paper.
Needless to say, one may look at any phenomenon, including that of knowledge asymmetry, from a myriad of perspectives (Ortega y Gasset 1961 [1923]: 90). Adhering, however,
to the notion that conscious “perspective taking” is a prerequisite for systematic analysis
(Perner/Brandl/Garnham 2003: 358), I have found it – for the purpose of this article – to be
the obvious choice to look at a (re-)conceptualization of knowledge asymmetry from these
perspectives:
•
•
from the point of view of basic assumptions of asymmetry (section 2),
from the point of view of basic assumptions of knowledge (section 3),
Speaking with Linnell and Luckmann, however, I further hold that “[…] asymmetries of knowledge are important only when they are made communicatively salient” (1991: 5), which has
lead me to add a third perspective to my conceptual analysis, namely to examine knowledge
asymmetry:
•
from the point of view of basic assumptions of communication (section 4).
In their synthesis, i. e. as communicatively salient knowledge asymmetry, the three perspectives
are then discussed and elaborated upon and theoretical implications are drawn (section 5).
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2 Knowledge Asymmetry from the Point of View of Basic Assumptions of Asymmetry
As an intuition pump, and in order to introduce the concept of ‘asymmetry’, I take my point
of departure in a geometrically-oriented understanding of the concept. This, in turn, is in
line with the defintion offered by Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English
Language (1989 edition), where the following definition of being asymmetric is offered: “not
identical on both sides of a central line”. Conducting a rudimentary analysis of this definition
we may say that asymmetry is a relation that is established when a single-plane distinction is
made between two entities, allowing a certain position (or an observer) to appreciate them as
being non-identical4.
Symmetric
ASymmetric
Figure 1: Symmetric and asymmetric, a single-plane distinction.
First of all this implies that the asymmetric relation does not merely emerge, but is produced
by the position or observer who makes the distinction; regardless whether the entities appreciated are natural or a man-made. Returning to the definition proper, it is striking, if not
surprising, that asymmetric is defined along the lines of its negation, of what it is not, i. e. not
featuring symmetry. And even if the above definition does not contain an openly evaluative
stance, the negation itself does, however, give rise to an intuition that symmetric is the basic
or neutral state, and its opposition the marked state. Lexico-semantically speaking, this intuition is to a certain degree warranted if we compare asymmetry to other compounds featuring
the Latin prefix ‘a’, e. g. amoral, asocial, etc. Here, too, this prefix generally qualifies the main
word, often framing the concept behind as not conforming to norm and, therefore, sometimes
even undesirable. If we focus on asymmetry, ‘the lack of ’ in question is the lack of balance or
of equilibrium – which, consequently, is to be found in its opposition, symmetry. And it is
probably in this comparison, its underlying assumptions and evaluative stance, that we find the
metaphorical roots for the critical interpretation of asymmetry (section 1). But, as introduced
earlier, my approach to the (re-)conceptualization of asymmetry is agnostic or naïve (in the
sense of Schutz 1976 [1969]) and as such I am neither informed by the underlying assumptions
nor by the evaluative stance of the comparison.
Taking an agnostic, naïve look specifically at the two entities making up the asymmetric
relation there is yet another qualification to be noted. In the asymmetric relation, which –
geometrically speaking – can only come about when both entities are present and both are
taking part in forming said relation, it is evident that the entities feature a mutually obligate
interdependence. An interdependence which makes it clear that neither entity may be said to
supplement the other in forming the relation; they do in fact complement one another. The
complementary relationship (or mutually obligate interdependence) in turn makes it evident
that no one entity holds an apriori hegemonic position. Asymmetry – in the geometrical sense
– is first and foremost a relation, not first and foremost an evaluation.
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Returning to the distinction between symmetry and asymmetry – and being informed
by geometry – what we may say, evaluatively speaking, about the distinction is that it seems
to feature a certain absoluteness. Absolute in the sense that even the slightest deviation from
symmetry leads to asymmetry. Due to the fact that the two entities of the symmetric relation
are eo ipso identical, the symmetric relation is in fact a tautological one. Contrary to that,
asymmetry may be placed on a continuum of ‘asymmetricalness’. And since differentness is an
attribute significant to asymmetry, an examination of the nature of this differentness will now
be conducted. Perceptually, the two entities constituting the above asymmetric relation are
different, and we may even say that their differentness is a “difference that makes a difference”
in the Batesonian sense (1972: 448 ff.); i. e. their differentness is formative for our perception.
But the fact that they are different, and that we call this difference asymmetry, does not per
se allow us to distinguish between asymmetry and other kinds of (single-plane) differentness.
Turning to Hegel (1970 [1813]), differences between two entities may be divided into dissimilarity (in German: “Verschiedenheit”) or contradiction (in German: “Gegensatzpaare”). In the
case of dissimilarity the distinction is made on the basis of “simple difference” (Kjær 2006: 72)
– that is, based solely on external features; an elephant and a pen are examples of two entities
that are dissimilar in this respect. Contradiction, on the other hand, or “inner difference” (op.
cit.), is a relation established when the two entities in question are different yet interdependent. Hegel would refer to them as “in einer Identität verschiedene” entities (1970 [1813]: 60).
Prototypical examples of such relations would be positive-negative, man-woman, etc. In figure
1, the asymmetric relation does not come about along the lines of an elephant-versus-pen
dissimilarity; the image leaves no doubt as to the interdependence of the two entities. With
this we have yet another piece of qualification: asymmetry is a relation in which the entities
juxtaposed, contradictive though they may be, have a cohesive common denominator, a sortal
of sorts6, which serves as a means of identification. In the geometric example above this would
be one of form7.
In summing up the viewpoint of general assumptions of asymmetry, we may say that
asymmetry is a relation not an evaluation. It is a relation of two entities, which feature not
merely differentness, but differentness under a specific sortal: differentness per se does not
make an asymmetry. The two entities of the asymmetric relation in fact also feature a mutually obligate interdependence, which in turn renders them complementary. Due to the fact
that the sortal, which identifies knowledge asymmetries, is not one of form – as in figure
1 – but one of knowledge, the (re-)conceptualization now turns to basic assumptions of
knowledge.
3 Knowledge Asymmetry from the Point of View of Basic Assumptions of Knowledge
Due to the fact that the concept of knowledge has been pondered upon since even before the
“Theaetetus”, I cannot – for obvious reasons – present a literature review with any claims to
representativeness. Congenial with van Dijk I would sum it up like this:
The theory of knowledge has been the object for thousands of years of epistemology in
various cultures, and of psychology and the social sciences for many decades, and it is
therefore impossible to summarize the most important results of so much reflection, theory and research […]. I shall therefore merely state my own position in a very long and
complex debate […]. (Dijk 2005: 75–76)
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My own position, as it were, is in many ways a reaction to the cognitivist approach (see below). Even if the cognitivist approach to knowledge may no longer be comme il faut in current
epistemological theory it is nonetheless still a widely-accepted school of thought – especially
within Knowledge Management8. A summary of von Krogh’s rendering of the dominant cognitivist position reads like this:
The “cognitivist perspective” is the most firmly established and well known [view on the
nature of knowledge] […]. Knowledge was considered to be representations of the world
that consists of numbers of objects or events […]. Knowledge was universal. […] [K]nowledge was explicit, capable of being encoded and stored, and easy to transmit to others.
(Krogh 1998: 134)
To much of the classical cognitivist perspective, knowledge – or the lack of it – is a matter
of representation. Since knowledge is a matter of representation “most cognitivist approaches equate knowledge with information and data” (Venzin/Krogh/Roos 2000: 38). Equating
knowledge with representation quite naturally leads cognitivists to the perception that knowledge is context-free and subsequently that cognitivism “simulates a knowledge without knowers” (Barth 2002: 2). To illustrate this anecdotally, knowledge asymmetry (or symmetry), as
seen through the cognitivist lens would be a matter of comparing the bits and bytes of one’s
database(s), the capacity of one’s (internet) resources, the number and/or length of books and
reports in one’s storage facility, at one’s command, etc. with the corresponding quantity belonging to somebody else (with whom one would like to make a comparison). Asymmetries in
this sense would indeed be measurable in a positivistic, quantitative sense. To constructivism,
however, the school of thought9 within which I find my position, such asymmetries would
(merely) be asymmetries of data or of information, not knowledge; and as such quite uninteresting for the purpose of this article. This statement, quite naturally, impels me to elaborate
somewhat on the critical distinctions between knowledge, information and data. According to
constructivism, knowledge is neither a matter of one’s representation of the world (in books
or elsewhere) nor the degree to which this representation may or may not correspond to the
world. With a general reference to Kant (and the strand of constructivism of which he is the
founding father) we cannot appreciate the world (“das Ding an sich”); what we may be able to
do is to appreciate our sense impressions of said world (“das Ding für uns”)10. Sense impressions, which – in a process of individual selection – are transformed into perceptions. These
perceptions, in turn, are molded – in a process where the governing principle according to
Kant is one of functionality – into concepts. Davenport and Prusak’s (1998) analytical distinction between data, information and knowledge (which, in its essence is Kantian, even if this is
not recognized by the authors) mirrors this underlying idea: Data would be phenomena which
we register with our senses (sense impressions); information would be phenomena which we
relate to other phenomena (perceptions); whereas knowledge would be phenomena which we
integrate and evaluate – one way or the other (concepts)11. Embracing this position, knowledge
is not an entity, which one may store externally and retrieve at one’s leisure. In stark contrast to the classical cognitivist perspective, the constructivist position holds that knowledge
is “somehow a product of a knower” (Glasersfeld 1974 et passim), i. e. never context-free, never
mere representation. From this point of view, knowledge is basically a matter of the knower
constructing knowledge, of collating experiences and integrating these according to his or her
ability to infer (Russell 1961 [1948]: 9).
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Since knowledge, from a constructivist perspective, is somehow a product of a knower’s
collated experiences and inferences, gauging knowledge is indeed less straightforward than
measuring, say, data or information in a textbook (as would be the case in the classic cognitivist position). But even if we cannot positively gauge the knowledge of the ‘alter’, we may,
however, be able to appreciate it. Returning to Kant, what we are left with is an appreciation
of knowledge as a “Ding für uns”. Evoking the philosophical credo of Niels Bohr, himself a
neo-Kantian, that “we are suspended in language” (Petersen 1963), human communicative
interaction is the medium in which we may appreciate knowledge (see also Stacey 2001: 197)
as well as knowledge asymmetry. What remains for us, then, is to approach knowledge and
knowledge asymmetries as discursive constructions. The research strands of constructionism
(Gergen 2001 et passim), which in turn draw extensively on a Foucauldian appreciation of
discourse and knowledge and a systems theory approach to communication (e. g. Luhmann
1992), are strong testimonies in support of this claim.
Summing up, we may say that in order to gain access to and appreciate knowledge asymmetries we need to enter into the flux of communication. This position consequently leads
me to turn to some formative ideas regarding the role of communication in establishing the
asymmetric relation in question.
4 Knowledge Asymmetry from the Point of View of Basic Assumptions of Communication
One may approach communication studies from a variety of different angles (e. g. Beebe/
Beebe/Ivy 2004, Cragan/Shields 1998, Windahl/Signitzer/Olson 2002 to mention but a few
recent publications); but there seems to be a sort of common acceptance of a trajectory in
the history of ideas of current research into the nature of communication. This trajectory
progresses along the lines of three phases, each with a different dominant focus:
The shift in focus in these phases is quite revealing: From communication as a matter of
“the sender” sending (communication seen as transmission or signaling) via communication being a matter of “the sender” adjusting to feedback from the “receiver” and/or
the environment (communication seen as interaction, typically from a cybernetics’ point
of view) to the idea that communication is basically a cooperative enterprise (Tomasello
2008) calling for the equal involvement of both “sender” and “receiver” – explicitly perceived of as communication partners (Rogers and Kincaid 1981) – in a joint meaning
making process (communication as transaction, typically based on a systems theory approach). (Kastberg 2011: 3)
According to the third phase, also called the transactional or convergence view of communication (Kincaid 1973), the communication partners not merely engage in a process of discursively constructing meaning. They are also simultaneously and mutually engaged in a process of
discursively constructing one another. One of the main claims in the work of Alfred Schutz is
the appreciation that the other (or ‘alter’) – mutatis mutandis – is like me (‘ego’) (Schutz 1976
[1969])12. While this notion is highly problematic (and for many different reasons), it is also not
altogether untrue. Because even if mirroring the ‘other’ on oneself may be said to be a sort of
sociological reductionism, the act of intuitively doing so is nevertheless sensible in order to be
able to navigate in a world full of, well, others. In order, however, to further qualify the concept
of the ‘other’, I turn to Mead who would speak of the “generalized other”, i. e. a result of a proc- 143 -
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ess in which the ‘ego’ is “[…] taking the attitudes of others towards himself, and […] crystallizing all these particular attitudes into a single attitude or standpoint which may be called that of
the ‘generalized other’” (Mead 1934: 90). And although the concept of the “generalized other”
reveals much of the inherent complexity of communication (and communicators) as seen from
the transactional point of view, it is due to the Parsonian notion of “double contingency” that
we are able to appreciate the ‘other’ as a dynamic and relational entity. Double contingency is
basically an elaboration on the relational phenomenon that when interacting with the other,
I recognize the other and at the same time I recognize that the other recognizes me. What
double contingency brings to bear on the understanding of this interactional relationship is
the fact that in the recognition of the other there are also mutualistic expectations; i. e., I have
expectations towards the other but at the same time I expect that the other has expectations
towards me (Parsons/Shils 1951: 105 et passim). However, from this rendering of double contingency it becomes clear that Parsons’ understanding of communication is probably interactional rather than transactional in as much as it is centered around the perspective of ‘ego’
or the sender, as it were. In the transactional view, however, where both parties are equally
recognized as communication partners, not merely one communicator mentally establishes
a double contingency. From a transactional point of view both communication partners perform that task, in effect making it a double double contingency.
In a transactional understanding of communication, knowledge asymmetry is part and
parcel of this double double contingency. In a pre-operative interview, for instance, surgeon
and patient alike establish a double double contingency of reciprocal expectations. And one
very important aspect of this double double contingency is made up of an imbedded knowledge asymmetry. Under the sortal of, say, clinical knowledge a knowledge asymmetry – mutatis mutandis – comes into existence between surgeon and patient during this pre-operative
interview – presumably (or hopefully) in the surgeon’s favor, as it were. The surgeon expects
to be in command of expert clinical knowledge pertaining to the operation at hand; she also
expects that the patient expects so. The patient on the other hand expects the surgeon to be
in command of expert clinical knowledge and expects that the surgeon expects that the patient expects so, too, etc. Under the sortal of, say, welding or gardening knowledge the tables
may very well have been turned – albeit not necessarily. Speaking from a transactional point
of view, the idea of the double double contingency in turn leads to a further qualification of
the concept of knowledge asymmetry. As was the case in the double double contingency, any
knowledge asymmetries ‘lived’ by ‘alter’ and ‘ego’ feature a similar reciprocity of expectations.
Analogous to the double double contingency, the knowledge asymmetry is then, in fact, a double knowledge asymmetry to the concrete and actual participants of communication, ‘alter’
and ‘ego’, in casu surgeon and patient.13 To a third party, however, who – for whatever reason –
is not engaged in the communication as a participant, but who (merely) observes the communication the idea of an observed (or general) knowledge asymmetry remains. As hinted at, the
perspectival difference between these dimensions of knowledge asymmetries may metaphorically speaking be coined as ‘lived’ versus ‘observed’ knowledge asymmetries respectively.
But where, less abstractly speaking, in this web of expectations of expectations (of expectations) do we appreciate knowledge asymmetries? When may we say that they are communicatively salient? Speaking from the transactional viewpoint, a knowledge asymmetry becomes
communicatively salient when it is discursively constructed.14 Deeply ingrained in the transactional understanding of communication is that its telos is mutual recognition (Honneth 2003)
and mutual understanding15 (Rogers/Kincaid 1981). Ideally (or indeed, ideologically) as com- 144 -
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municators we are naturally inclined to try and understand the ‘alter’ or to foster understanding in the ‘alter’ respectively.16 In this flux of communication aiming at mutual understanding
and recognition, knowledge asymmetries emerge when a “perturbation” is generated (Glasersfeld 1989: 11). Verbal indications of perturbations (in this case: knowledge asymmetries) could
be questions as to understanding and meaning, it could be conversational repair mechanisms,
statements of doubt, utterances of disagreement, etc. Such perturbations trigger endeavors
on behalf of one or both communicators to re-establish communication as a transactional
meaning making interaction, to re-establish the cooperative equilibrium of the communication flux.
Derived from the above discussions, we are now able to further qualify the concept of
knowledge asymmetry. Communication, as seen from the transactional perspective, is a mutualistic meaning making process. Building on the refinement of Parsons’ idea of double contingency, we may say that where a third person would ‘observe’ knowledge asymmetry between
‘alter’ and ‘ego’, ‘alter’ and ‘ego’ themselves would ‘live’ double knowledge asymmetry. Knowledge asymmetries – be they lived or observed – become communicatively salient when they
are discursively constructed; i. e. when perturbations are generated and acted upon.
Having thus discussed and (re-)conceptualized knowledge asymmetry from the three perspectives proposed in the research agenda of this article, I go on to conduct a theoretical
synthesis of these perspectives as well as point to some theoretical implications of the (re-)
conceptualization.
5 A Synthesis and some Theoretical Implications of the
(re-)Conceptualization of Knowledge Asymmetry
Informed by the discussions carried out in the three previous sections, I am now able to substantially enrich what was initially a rudimentary analysis of asymmetry seen from a geometrically oriented viewpoint. The condensed synthesis reads: Knowledge asymmetry is a relation,
which is produced in communication. The discursive construction of knowledge asymmetry is
observable via perturbations. Knowledge asymmetry becomes communicatively salient where
a single-plane distinction is observed between the knowledges of ‘alter’ and ‘ego’. The distinction is one which allows one or more positions to appreciate the knowledges of ‘alter’ and ‘ego’
as being non-identical under the same sortal.
In terms of theoretical implications of this (re-)conceptualization of knowledge asymmetry, I have summarized them under three main headings, i. e. position, knowledge, and evaluation.
The position that makes the distinction in question may be engaged in the communication
proper (‘alter’ and ‘ego’) and/or s/he may be a third party, an observer. For ‘alter’ and ‘ego’, who
are engaged in the mutualistic process of meaning making, the knowledge asymmetry is not
an ‘observed’ one, but a ‘lived’ one. From the viewpoint of transactional communication this
makes the lived knowledge asymmetry a double knowledge asymmetry. This understanding
leaves us with the valuable insight that knowledge asymmetry is lived from the inside, yet as
researchers we observe it from the outside. Perspectivally speaking, the lived double knowledge asymmetry of ‘alter’ and ’ego’ must thus differ from the one observed by the observer.
This, however, does not mean that ‘alter’ and ‘ego’ have a common perception of the knowledge
asymmetry they are living – with all probability they do not. In stark contrast to the onesidedness of much research into knowledge asymmetries we may safely conclude that – based
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on the above (re-)conceptualization – there are multiple positions from which to perceive of
and evaluate knowledge asymmetry; each being a valid position in its own right and as such
each worthy of further investigations. Systematically addressing each position could lead to a
perspectivally nuanced appreciation of the phenomenon of knowledge asymmetry.
Secondly, holding that knowledge is somehow a product of a knower, i. e. his/her experiences and ability to infer, the knowledge asymmetry between ‘alter’ and ‘ego’ may not be measured (in the classic cognitivist sense), but it may be appreciated as a discursive construction.
The medium, in which we may appreciate knowledge asymmetry, is, consequently, human
communicative interaction. In order to become communicatively salient, knowledge asymmetries generate perturbations in the flux of communication. As seen from a transactional
view of communication such perturbations motivate endeavors to re-establish the equilibrium of the cooperative communication flux – provisional though it may be. This, in turn,
implies that the idea underlying the metaphor of the ‘gap to be filled’ can no longer be upheld when talking about knowledge asymmetry. Seen from the (re-)conceptualization there
is, quite simply, no gap to fill. Speaking with Günthner/Luckmann (2001: 63), we may indeed
turn the tables and say: were there no knowledge asymmetry, there would be no motivation for
meaning-making endeavors in the first place. The (re-)conceptualization of knowledge asymmetry warrants that we appreciate asymmetry not exclusively as an upholder of an unwanted
status quo, but rather as a potent motivational device, and – in that capacity – as one of the
prerequisites for communicating in the first place.17 Consequently, mediating across knowledge asymmetries between, say, expert and layperson in this sense cannot be a matter of filling
gaps, of perceiving of the ‘alter’ as the target of one’s transmission of knowledge. Such notions
reflect a radically different understanding of what counts as communication (section 4) and
what knowledge is (section 3). Congenial with a transactional understanding of communication and its emphasis on the double double contingency and – derived from that – the double
knowledge asymmetry, lies a fundamental shift of perspective: from communication understood as ‘communicatio’ (as “message”) to communication understood as ‘communis esse’ (as
“togetherness”). Addressing this shift could give rise to a re-interpretation of many a truism in
research fields ranging from Public Understanding of Science via Science Communication and
LSP to Knowledge Management – just to mention the most obvious. The archetypical truism,
or at least the one, which first springs to my mind, is that of the ‘good’ text; a panacea to heal
all interactional ailments. But since a message that may be deemed ‘good’ by one individual,
may be offensive, patronizing, untrue, or simply unintelligible to another individual, the ‘good’
in the good text cannot – from the transactional point of view – first and foremost be a matter
of ‘communicatio’. Rather it is first and foremost a matter of ‘communis esse’ (see also Kastberg
2007: 12–13); something which, in turn, stresses the importance of further investigating ‘good’
mediational communication from the viewpoint not of text, but of context. Of taking into
serious consideration the intricate web of demo-, socio-, psychographic and other relevant
sociological and communicative variables of the communicators who are ‘living’ the double
knowledge asymmetry when carrying out research into this phenomenon.
Last but not least, returning to the distinction, we saw that it is a distinction stating that
the knowledges of ‘alter’ and ‘ego’ are non-identical yet under the same sortal. This means that
whereas differentness per se is a necessary qualifier in order to establish knowledge asymmetry it is not a sufficient one. The garden knowledge of the trained gardener and the engineering
knowledge of the trained engineer are, thus, not asymmetric, even if they are undoubtedly different. In a knowledge asymmetry the knowledges of ‘alter’ and ‘ego’ do feature differentness,
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but under the same sortal. This implies that knowledge asymmetry is a phenomenon which
can only come about if the two entities in unison form a relation under a sortal. And being
under the same sortal, the two knowledges in fact feature mutually obligate interdependence. In as much as both are referring to the same sortal, they are complementary in forming
and keeping up this relationship. Strictly speaking, then, knowledge asymmetry is a relation,
and not an evaluation. Viewing knowledge asymmetry as a relation in this sense implies that
neither of the constituting knowledges may be said to hold a hegemonic position. This less
confrontational and admittedly rather dialectical view of the relationship is quite compatible
to Engeström/Engeström/Vähäaho’s laconic statement that, “[i]f you take away patients and
illnesses, you do not have hospitals” (1999: 170). In other words: without domain laymanship
there would be no domain expertise – and vice versa. If indeed expertise and laymanship
feature such a figure-ground-like relationship then complementarity and not disparity would
be a novel lens through which we may look at this relationship. Turning to systems theory
a similar thought has already proven fruitful. Here it is commonly accepted that the system
and its environment(s) feature asymmetry. However, it is equally accepted that the two are
interdependent, and that in fact the two entities in many ways can be said to live off one
another. Such a notion could add another layer of reflection to the expert-layman relationship within specific research strands such as, say, the “democratizing knowledge production”
(McCormick 2007) or “upstream engagement” in the knowledge production process (Kurath/
Gisler 2009). And, speaking in more general terms, such a take on the knowledge asymmetry
between expert and layperson could also question the archetype of the privileged position of
expertise.
In accordance with what I set out to do in this article (section 1), I have challenged the
hegemony of the “have vs. have not” discourse when talking about knowledge asymmetry. As
stated, my aim in doing so was to open a discussion of how knowledge asymmetry may be
understood conceptually and how this understanding may be evaluated and applied within a
wider framework of Knowledge Communication research. To this end I made use of a two-step
approach. First, I (re-)conceptualized knowledge asymmetry from three core perspectives: i. e.
asymmetry, knowledge and communication (sections 2, 3 and 4). Secondly, I synthesized these
perspectives and – based on that – went on to discuss pertinent theoretical implications of this
(re-)conceptualization (section 5). Based on this (re-)conceptualization, a strong theoretical
impetus has emerged for venturing beyond the “have vs. have not” discourse. Applying, testing and challenging this (re-)conceptualization of knowledge asymmetry could very well spur
a productive and prolific strand of future research.
•
Notes
As in the 1937 Hemingway novel To Have and Have Not.
Even if the research community dealing with Public Understanding of Science has criticized and distanced
itself from the deficit model its legacy nevertheless still lingers on (e. g. Miller 2001).
3
For my definition of Knowledge Communication see Kastberg (2007); for a discussion of the relationship
between Knowledge Communication and LSP see Kastberg (2010a and 2010b).
4
I do not overlook the fact that asymmetry may indeed be multisided and the distinction may indeed be a
multi-plane one, for the sake of the conceptualization, I do, however, refrain from widening the scope, as
the general concept of asymmetry developed here is able to encompass these additional features.
5
I will come back to this notion in section 4.
1
2
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Peter Kastberg
Fachsprache 3–4 / 2011
For the purpose of this paper, I understand sortals with reference to Locke’s etymologically based notion
that it is “evident that things are ranked under names into sorts or species, only as they agree to certain
abstract ideas, to which we have annexed those names, the essence of each genus, or sort, comes to be
nothing but that abstract idea which the general, or sortal (if I may have leave so to call it from sort, as I
do general from genus), name stands for.” (Locke 1975 [1690]: Book III, Chapter III: 15). I thereby explicitly
refrain from entering into the ongoing philosophical debate as to the nature of sortals; for a relative recent
review of that debate see Grandy (2008).
7
A similar relation is to be found within semantics (e. g. Levin 1974); here the antonym would be an example
of such a relation.
8
Venzin, von Krogh and Roos (2000) give an in-depth presentation of the cognitivist perspective, of its history as well as point to the fact that it is (still) a perspective which is widely accepted.
9
Or, rather, constructivism is a family of schools of thought.
10
For obvious reasons I cannot go into Kantian constructivism in this article, but would like – for those who
might be interested – to refer to the preamble to the 2nd edition of his “Critique of Pure Reason” („Kritik
der Reinen Vernunft“ 1787 [1900]) where Kant introduces what to his followers later would be refered to as
Kant’s Copernican Turn („Kants kopernikanische Wende“).
11
A prototypical integration/evaluation in this sense would entail an implication along the lines of “if so –
then so”; see also Kastberg et al. (2007) for further discussions as well as examples of this analytical distinction.
12
Naturally, Schutz did qualify this statement; see Schutz (1976 [1969]) for further elaborations of this particular concept.
13
Naturally, there may be – and often are – more than two communication participants, but since the number
of participants does not per se alter the theoretical foundation of this (re-)conceptualization, I refrain from
widening the scope at this point.
14
For a concrete analysis carried out within a “discursive construction of” framework, see Kastberg/Ditlevsen
(2010).
15
Mutual understanding in this sense also implies that ‘alter’ and ‘ego’ may agree to disagree.
16
An ideology which leaves little doubt as to its Habermasian legacy; I have discussed the relationship between the Habermasian legacy and Knowledge Communication elsewhere, see Kastberg (2007).
17
As well as for learning, see Tange/Kastberg (2011) for a discussion of and a case study regarding knowledge
asymmetries and learning in tertiary education.
6
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Peter Kastberg, Ph.D.
Aarhus University, Denmark
Department of Business Communication, Business and Social Sciences
[email protected]
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