Discussion Report 6 Carl Jackson - Words for Change

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Session Title

Words for Change


Carl Jackson (Institute of Development Studies)


Andrew Dale, Dhurjati Chaudhuri, Jess Stansfeld, Daniele Vincenti Mitchener

Key Discussion Points

Introduction The session aimed to share ideas on how words can help bring about change, share experience of working with words and experiment with creating new words or definitions. The group explored how the coining of new words and phrases and the definition of the meaning of words reflected and embedded social relations and power. Words can both enable and set boundaries for what it is possible to imagine and discuss. Who has the skills, confidence and permission to play with words and their meaning? What if we consciously seek to create or redefine words and thier meanings - could this shift the constelations of possibilities within which change can be sought?

Experiences Chauduri recalled how the phrase "soil-health" had been influentially coinded by M.S. Swaminathan - connecting in an innovative way the notion of health that had not before been associated explicitly with something as seemingly inanimate and simple as soil. Andrew commented on how Wittgenstein's philosophy of language underpinned this kind of view of langauage use by communities as being the source and boundary of meaning. Andrew said that the Washington Post ran an annual top ten of the best new words coined each year. He gave the example of the way the word Gender within development discourse had helpfully change the way that people thought about male and female roles. It seemed as though the word had arisen in response to a felt need to be able to think of social relations in a new way. Jess talked about the use of nicnames and slang in Brazil, where they helped communities and individuals to protect their identities and activities from illegitimate interference by the authorities. Daniele talked about how the businesses and politicians were very confident and skilled in using branding to coin words and phrases in ways that had powerfull effects on citizens. Carl said he'd been inspired to think about the role of words by recent articles in the Journal Development in Practice that looked at language use in development (especially the paper on Buzz Words by Andrea Cornwall). The journal articles reflected some concern that once powerfull words like gender or participation lost their influnce overtime as their original meaning was diluted or forgotten. Perhaps though the plasticity of language and people's inclination to play with and adapt their forms and meanings was at the heart of language use. Maybe if the skills and confidence to mess with words was shared with people with less power they could use words and their meaning to infiltrate and challenge dominant was of talking about and defining what change was possible or permitted?

Experiment To explore the idea of words of change we experimented with creating some word blends (e.g. like chocolate and alcoholic blended to make chocaholic) and hyphenations (e.g. like power and lurker connected to form power-lurker, meang the unseen but highly influential champions of online communities). The idea was hatched to create words that gave meaning to the feeling of experiencing the KM4Dev workshop for the first time. The words we came up with were: Transfreshing (transforming and refreshing); Immopen (immersion in openness); Ideabahn (highway of ideas); Newphoria (exposure to new ideas leading to euphoria); and Knowledge-jam (like a music jam, but tastier!). Jess said that the process was like creating poetry and it reminded her and Andrew of the poetry of E.E. Cummings. Andrew suggested that we could put up a wiki with a table inviting KM4Dev to list issues or topics that wished their were new words or definitions for in one column and offers of new words or definitions in the second column. Luca has already asked for a new word for Database, because it has come to mean a panacea of too many KM problems. We were having lots of fun and so decided to try to create some more. Other words we came up with were: Beanage (the act of spilling the beans to share knowledge - beans meaning tacit or private knowledge); and Notledge (the knowledge you will not share).

Closing Carl wanted to ask about how people felt about the idea of creating a kind of workshop where people could learn and experiment with creating and redefining words. The idea being to create a group of words that a group (within an community or organisation) could agree to all use in their interactions with people in power they wanted to influence to bring about change. People would use the words over time, infiltrating dominant discourses or proactively claiming the right to use a new word or definition within a process from which their priorities were not yet reflected. It was really great to hear that this might not be such a crazy idea. Jess coined a new phrase for the approach: Guerilla Wordfare (the use of words to bring about positive change).

We thought it would be great to have a Words for Change competition - people can suggest issues or topics they would like new words or definitions for and others can then offer these in return.

Thanks for making this session so inspiring - Carl