‘They don’t know what they are talking about’: Learning from the dissonances in dialogue about soil fertility knowledge and experimental practice in western Kenya
ABSTRACT: Knowledge-based development interventions for improved natural resource management have long advocated for the integration of local and outsiders’ knowledge. Participatory and conventional approaches frame this as a dialogue between “local” and “scientific” knowledges, using the relative strengths of each stakeholder’s experience to reinforce knowledge gaps. While the epistemological and methodological challenges of such dialogue are well-documented, this study uses a community-based learning project for integrated soil fertility management in western Kenya to explore the less understood dynamics of dissonance between and within knowledge systems. While participatory research did build a dynamic expertise for soil fertility management shared by both smallholder farmers and scientists, divergent expectations and understandings emerged after the initial enthusiasm of shared learning. This included scientists assessing farmers as “not very good” researchers and farmers seeing researchers as “not very good” farmers. Dissonances between actors’ different understandings of soil, the research process, and each other had multiple implications, including on the validity of conclusions reached by different actors and on the possibility for scientific support for local experimentation. While many dissonances ultimately fueled learning and improvements to the project, this required both farmers and scientists to move beyond initial critiques of each other’s knowledge and practices. At their worst, dissonant knowledge claims were actually political ones, hiding competition for control of the development process. Recognizing the nature and extent of dissonances is therefore a crucial step in understanding how best to apply limited resources and disciplinary expertise within participatory teams attempting to build hybrid knowledge.
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