February 15, 2013, by Brigitte Nerlich

The language of knowledge: A new tower of Babel?

For some time I have been intrigued by the word ‘knowledge’. The more I hear it being used, the less I understand its meaning. The confusion increases with every ‘compound’ use that I come across (in linguistics a ‘compound’ refers to a combination of two or more words). Most recently I came across the compound ‘knowledge mobilisation’, which is, apparently a new term for what in the olden days was called ‘knowledge transfer’, a word that itself has undergone continuous narrowing in meaning from being a synonym for ‘knowledge exchange’, including public engagement with knowledge, to meaning business applications of research. Other older compounds related to knowledge transfer are knowledge brokering, knowledge translation and so on. These compounds in turn are related to wider issues related to the modern knowledge economy and knowledge society (definitions below). There is also talk of co-production of knowledge in academic circles, a concept that needs its own semantic analysis. Interestingly, within this field of academic and organisational usages, the noun ‘knowledge’ can also be used in the plural, as when scholars talk about situated knowledges or a hierarchy of knowledges and types of expertise (another word waiting for semantic analysis, but having already undergone some sociological analysis).

Gathering knowledge about the word knowledge: The OED

When trying to fathom the meaning of knowledge by looking at my trusty source of linguistic knowledge, the Oxford English Dictionary (online, but unfortunately behind a paywall, but try this), one finds a very long entry on this complex word starting with attestations as early as the 900s. In terms of compounds there are quite a few listed but not many that are in current use. However, one can find: “knowledge economy n. Econ. and Business an economy in which growth is thought to be dependent on the effective acquisition, dissemination, and use of information, rather than the traditional means of production”, “knowledge industry n. the branch of economic or commercial activity concerned with the development and use of knowledge, spec. in universities, polytechnics, etc”, “knowledge management n. Business the use of management techniques to optimize the acquisition, dissemination, retention, and use of information, esp. within an organization”, and “knowledge society n. a society based on the acquisition, dissemination, and use of information, esp. by exploiting technological advances; a society with a knowledge economy”. This brings another word into the semantic equation, namely (marketable) information, which is, one might hope, different to knowledge but could be said to feed it in some sense. I’ll come back to that later.

Gathering knowledge about the word knowledge: WordNet

When one looks into another source of information about more modern uses of the word, namely WordNet, one finds only one sense of the word, namely “cognition, knowledge, noesis — (the psychological result of perception and learning and reasoning) => psychological feature — (a feature of the mental life of a living organism)”. Here the words learning and reasoning are used which are essential to knowledge, but seem to be rarely mentioned when academics talk about the knowledge society, knowledge transfer and so on. And I suppose some of that learning is based on having and thinking about certain types of information. WordNet also informs us that “knowledge used as a noun is very rare”. This is perhaps the reason why I have difficulties with the word. While people may talk about learning and teaching, they may not talk about having or acquiring knowledge. They may tell each other about things they know and don’t know, that is, transfer knowledge between them in conversation, but without actually thinking or talking about knowledge transfer. This is similar to the word communication. People communicate with each other all the time and in so doing might actually learn from each other. There are even some formalised activities, such as ‘science communication’, that build on these more informal communication and knowledge acquisition activities and try to engage with those that want to learn more (or acquire knowledge or, indeed, information). However, as with the word ‘knowledge’, the word ‘communication’ is rarely used in ordinary language (WordNet: “communication used as a noun is uncommon”).

Knowledge mobilisation

And yet, as anybody with an ear to the academic ground will have noticed, the word knowledge IS indeed used in certain spheres of public life, such as universities, organisations etc., especially as part of the compounds I have listed above. This brings me back to the compound that made me think about the word knowledge in the first place, namely knowledge mobilisation. What is it? And what has it to do with information and learning for example? When I tried to find out, I came across this website which sets out the whole complex issue of knowledge mobilisation and related concepts such as knowledge transfer. There is even a survey where you can test your knowledge mobilization IQ! It starts by saying: “Knowledge Mobilization (also known as KM), refers to ways in which connections can be made between research, policy and practice. Are you curious about how much you know about KM? ….”. The term was first used, it seems, in Canada and York University is a recognized leader in Knowledge Mobilization. Canada’s knowledge mobilization network is called ResearchImpact. Interestingly, this work is mainly linked to mobilising research in the social sciences and humanities, as pointed out in a Guardian article by one of the founders of this network, David Phipps.

Going baroque

This article explains in detail the semantic differences between some of the compounds introduced at the beginning of this blog post: “A note on terminology: many organisations use diverse terms to describe knowledge mobilisation. There are subtle distinctions between knowledge transfer (KT), knowledge translation (also KT), knowledge exchange (KE), knowledge transfer and exchange (KTE), knowledge translation and transfer (KTT), knowledge mobilisation (KM), and knowledge integration (KI); however, they are all terms to describe essentially the same process of connecting research to practice and policy. Recently, an effort to move away from the terminology recommends the term K* (“K-star”) as a solution to those entrenched in their own identities and resistant to other terms. We prefer to use knowledge mobilisation. We also prefer not to get distracted by the debate on terminology because we are busy enough just doing it.”

So the focus is, it seems, on turning knowledge into practice, or perhaps putting knowledge to work in and for society. This brings us back to knowledge: What is the knowledge that is made useful here? The term knowledge seems to refer mainly to research findings and to using them in practical ways (which is, of course, a good thing!). But how practical is the use of increasingly complex language in this context?


I started to write this post because I was puzzled about the word knowledge and wanted to ‘know’ more about this word and its meanings (especially in the context of linguistic compounds). It seems that the word is crucial to the contemporary research and impact agenda within universities and other organisations. It also seems that the word is not in common use in ordinary language (outside academia). Is there a danger perhaps of a real disconnect, and perhaps a widening one, between those who talk the knowledge mobilisation, exchange, transfer, brokering etc. talk and those for/by/with whom this knowledge is supposed to be put to work? And may the language used perhaps contribute to the gap that has to be bridged by knowledge ‘transfer’ activities? How can ordinary people get involved in knowledge creation, transfer and mobilisation when confronted with these rather baroque linguistics constructions around ‘knowledge’ that I have explored above? Would it be better to talk about mutual ‘learning’ (as a verb, a verb that is in common use and quite familiar to people, according to WordNet) and ‘conversation’ and ‘working together’, for example? Would that make real ‘dialogue’ and collaboration between so-called knowledge producers and knowledge consumers (or knowledge co-producers) easier and more useful?

And a final thought: There seems to be a real thirst for learning about interesting things, for acquiring, what one may almost call, useless knowledge (about stars, penguins and so on), which doesn’t quite fit the economic and instrumental meanings of knowledge highlighted in the compounds found above. This thirst for learning and indeed ‘wonder’ (‘a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable’, Google definition) seems to be quenched to some extent by programmes made for example by David Attenborough and Brian Cox. These programmes are, of course, part of our knowledge economy, but their form and function in it would need a separate blog post.

Image: Tower of Babel, wikimedia commons

Posted in ImpactKnowledge SocietyLanguageScience Communication