- Introduction: Knowledge in Practice
To demarginalize Africa and the Third World with regard to knowledge as well as in all other respects, to ensure . . . that the margin be no longer margin but part and parcel of a multi-faceted whole, a centre of decision among other centres of decision, an autonomous centre of production among others, such is today a major task. But such appropriation by the periphery of all the useful knowledge supposes further, a conscious effort towards a critical but resolute re-appropriation of one’s own practical and cognitive heritage, a negation of the marginality of one’s endogenous knowledge and know-how, and a re-insertion of the ‘traditional’ into a living tradition that looks out to the future.(Hountondji 1997: 36)
Paulin Hountondji’s demands for the study of knowledge in Africa offer a suitable starting point for the theme of this special issue. His words flag up points of practical engagement and sketch a desirable perspective of Africa as a self-confident, forward-looking centre of knowledge production. This special issue contributes towards this endeavour by presenting empirically grounded case studies of ‘knowledge in practice’. More specifically, the articles illustrate the construction and exercise of ‘expertise’ in numerous settings, and reflect theoretically upon the criteria by which expert knowledge is judged and the social processes of its validation. While the articles are analytical (rather than political), they respond to Hountondji’s challenges by providing focused discussions on Africa’s diverse ‘practical and cognitive heritage’. They investigate the ways in which expertise and the transmission of knowledge are part of meaningful living traditions, grounded in everyday life and connected to the wider world.
Notably, the epigraph is taken from Hountondji’s introduction to a volume on ‘endogenous knowledge’1 that progressively explores [End Page 1] the relations between Africa’s longstanding traditions of science and literacy with its ever-present traditions of orality and myth. In contrast to Hountondji’s earlier stance (see Hountondji 1996), the African researchers do not reinforce polarity and opposition, but instead testify to the complementary roles of orality and literacy in the transmission of knowledge. More recent scholarship has endorsed this view, showing that, in Africa and elsewhere, orality and speech performance interact with literacy and literary skills in more dynamic ways than was commonly assumed (Furniss 2004; Finnegan 2007; Barber 2007a). Even if the so-called ‘great divide’ between literate and non-literate communities persists in some grand (and rather abstract) social-historical narratives of ‘civilization’, in actual practice everywhere, speech forms the basis for rhetorical skills. Orality continues to be fundamental to the production and communication of knowledge in all societies, and nowhere has it been simply replaced by literacy.2 Indeed, neither politics, nor religion, nor intellectual progress can be realized, or imagined, without the direct ‘interaction rituals’ of face-to-face dialogue (on the latter, see Collins 1998: Chapter 1).
The function of language, whether spoken or written, is duly recognized as pivotal to any knowledge economy;3 but the acting body, too, is integral to the formation, acquisition, expression and continual transformation of knowledge (Marchand 2007). Though propositional and embodied forms of knowledge differ in significant ways (in terms of the cognitive apparatuses that give rise to them and their respective modes of expression), they are nevertheless mutually constitutive and cannot be isolated, one from the other, in studying ‘expert’ performance or knowledge transmission. Marcel Mauss’s seminal contribution (1934) to our understanding of the body as a nexus of social and cultural knowledge, technical skill and habitual activity was most famously elaborated by Bourdieu (1977). Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological studies of the senses and perception likewise designated the body as the locus of human knowledge and experience (1962). In combination, practice theory and phenomenology have directed recent generations of social scientists to carefully examine people’s actions as well as their words.
In this regard, Africanist anthropologists have made outstanding contributions to the study of embodied ways of learning and knowing in the course of daily life and work activity. Lave’s research on apprenticing tailors in Liberia (n.d.; 1982), for example, laid the...