Knowledge Action Inquiry: What do we know about severe and multiple disadvantage?

11th November 2018, words by Oliver French

We all try to make sense of the world we live in: it’s part of the natural state of things to assemble information and act on what we (think or feel) we know. Similarly, the idea of knowledge underpins our whole discourse on severe and multiple disadvantage, as we try to understand the social harms that we see and decide on courses of action in response. This covers what ‘severe and multiple disadvantage’ is and what it means; who it affects and how it’s experienced; its causes and consequences; how we create ‘solutions’ and ‘interventions’; and all manner of evidence, research and evaluation information, plus much more besides.

However, we’ve come to think that the way we currently create and apply knowledge about severe and multiple disadvantage has both practical and ethical limits which suppress effective, humane solutions, and obscure our mutual connectedness to the world that we share.  We (and we include ourselves in this) label people, both positively and negatively, instead of focusing on a common, shared humanity. Sometimes, it might be useful to label so we can ‘name the problem’ – in our case we called it ‘severe and multiple disadvantage’ – but too heavy or simplistic a focus on people’s deficits and ‘needs’ locks us into stigmatising conversations and the idea of ‘otherness’. There are also inequalities in who has the power and freedom to create, broadcast and implement knowledge.

We want to promote a healthier knowledge system which is more aware of the assumptions which underpin our current approaches and brings in more diverse perspectives than are usually heard and privileged. This doesn’t mean denying everything or saying that people are wrong, but rather searching for and nurturing the existence of our system behaviours in how knowledge is created, used and shared – in particular themes like equality of voice and seeing the world as an interconnected whole rather than just our own corner of it.

To get us going, our initial three themes of work will be:

  1. From proving to learning in research, evidence and evaluation

Dialogue about ‘evidence’, ‘needs’, ‘solutions’ and ‘interventions’ which ‘work’ and are ‘scaleable’ have captured an unhealthy share of the market for knowledge and information relating to severe and multiple disadvantage, and a focus on learning has fallen far behind a pressing need to evidence ‘success’ – including to organisations with resources like ours. Therefore, we’ll be exploring research and evaluation methods which are suitable for the complex world we live in and which really help us reflect and adapt.

  1. Democratising knowledge

Privileged positions are held by some people and types of knowledge over others, and the nature of our knowledge is linked to who has constructed it. We also have an empirical worldview which holds that everything is understandable through a scientific lens of observation and testing – even abstract concepts like ‘resilience’, ‘progress’ and ‘happiness’. We want to seek different perspectives, inputs and outputs in our knowledge around severe and multiple disadvantage, and ask not just what we know but how we came to know it, and consider the people, methodologies and interpretations that we used and excluded.

  1. Examining the basis of our collective knowledge system

Whenever we assemble frameworks to make sense of the world, we make a number of decisions which bear the fingerprints of our values, assumptions and prejudices. We construct knowledge rather than simply discover it, and our own work on ‘severe and multiple disadvantage’ – a term we invented, and which has no intrinsic value beyond what we decide to give it – is a clear example of this. So we want to hold (and join in with) a more fundamental conversation about the hidden and unquestioned assumptions of our worldview, particularly our focus on people’s ‘otherness’.

We have the beginnings of an ambitious and varied workplan on the basis of ‘start somewhere and go everywhere’, which we’ll be explaining in a little more detail as the week progresses. In many cases we’ll be entering (or staying in) conversations which are already very busy and well-developed, so are keen to make links which will help us to learn and identify areas where we can add value or act independently. We’d love to hear from you if you have any thoughts about the Knowledge Action Inquiry or would like to join the conversation – or even start an entirely new one.


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