From instinct to theory

‘Community informatics doesn’t have much theory’… well, actually it does, it’s just that practitioners don’t call it that. Practice is (or feels) more instinctive, more intuitive. But if theory does exist (and we know it does) how does practice inform the organic development of it and the creation of new theoretical models?

What roles does instinct play in theory development for CI?

How does what we do instinctively get refined and when does it become ‘theory’? Is it possible for us to formalise this process so that we can describe not just the theories and the practice but also the process of applied learning that occurs in CI projects and translates into new models, frameworks and theories that others can use. We accept that this involves developing some common language and principles and that, once we’ve done this we can then share and measure what we do.

But stepping back a moment to the practice level, can we ever say that what we do is ‘instinctive’ is it just the implementation of conceptual ideas that we already hold and which are based on existing theory. No, instinct comes first… practitioners develop a feel for what does and doesn’t work. This means it can work in theory. It can work in another place. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to work here. We know this simply because we instinctively know and no amount of theory will change that.

Instinct comes first, it leads to conceptual ideas that, overtime, evolve into theory. Our experiences re-enforce intuition so that the process becomes self-referential. We learn through doing and we learn as much from what doesn’t work as from what does.

So the process of transforming informal practice into formal theory is in part about mapping community ideas. And about mapping our ideas about what we’ve done. This can itself generate language and concepts that we can share with colleagues, both practitioner and academic. But we must recognise some of the limitations and barriers, such as the conflict between community practice and academic language. And we need to understand that theory generation requires explicit definition and structure and that this difficult to achieve. We also need to know that we need a range of different skills. Knowing and doing are separate roles to communicating what we do to others. It might require different people to do it (or might not).

So, step one is to translate our intuitive thoughts into real world projects. Step two is not a straight forward leap into theory generation but an intermediate step where it is important for us as practitioners to bring reflexive practice to our actions. This is the starting point for theory development. Reflexivity is vital because it is important to understand not just what we did or the technical imperatives but the purpose behind the actions of the different actors in a community setting (ourselves included). It is important too to understand and reflect on the purposes and motivations of the community itself (in all its variations and without assumed homogeneity).

Practitioners and researchers must recognise that their presence on a project or in a community can never be neutral. It will always have some impact , whether positive or negative. It can therefore be problematic to frame CI as a temporal intervention; solutions can take a long time to demonstrate success and framing as a ‘project’ with limited intervention can create unnecessary barriers and restrictions.

There is a challenge with the language we use too: CI suggests an inherent underpinning theory (and privileging that theory) but in reality the language can create a chasm between academics and community members as, to the latter, it is a meaningless term. Perhaps it’s better to frame the work we do as ‘community media’ which is now more widely understood (and meaningful)? But in reality does this matter for the academic discipline since we never use CI language in communities anyway? Is this simply a reflection of being a ‘broad church’ inter-disciplinary praxis-based community ourselves? However we define ourselves, we need to be open to multiple disciplines, ideas and theories, but recognise that at the point of contact the language has to be that of the community not of CI. The only question that really matters is: ‘is what we’re doing good for the community?’

Ultimately then, theory can (and does) inform what we do. But that does not mean we are explicit about ‘naming’ it when we work in communities. It is simply not relevant or even appropriate to do so.

Practice is developed from a synthesis of experience, theoretical and practical knowledge. And above all what we do is led by our instincts: Our instincts inform our practice, our practice informs our theory, and our theory shapes our instincts. As Kant put it, “experience without theory is blind, but theory without experience is mere intellectual play.”

This is my summary of a break-out session at the CIRN 2011 Conference convened by Steve Thompson. There’s a live version of this on the CIRN Commons Wiki that you can update and edit].

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