It Takes Two to Tango: Knowledge Mobilization and Ignorance Mobilization in Science Research and Innovation

Gaudet, J. (2013). It takes two to tango: Knowledge mobilization and ignorance mobilization in science research and innovation. Prometheus, 31(3), 169-187.


The main goal of this paper is to propose a dynamic mapping for knowledge and ignorance mobilization in science research and innovation. An underlying argument is that ‘knowledge mobilization’ science policy agendas in countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom fail to capture a critical element of science and innovation: ignorance mobilization. The latter draws attention to dynamics upstream of knowledge in science research and innovation. Although perhaps less visible, there is ample evidence that researchers value, actively produce, and thereby mobilize ignorance. For example, scientists and policymakers routinely mobilize knowledge gaps (cf. ignorance) in the process of establishing and securing research funding to argue the relevance of a scientific paper or a presentation, and to launch new research projects. Ignorance here is non-pejorative and by and large points to the borders and the limits of scientific knowing – what is known to be unknown. In addition, processes leading to the intentional or unintentional consideration or bracketing out of what is known to be unknown are intertwined with, yet remain distinct from, knowledge mobilization dynamics. The concepts of knowledge mobilization and of ignorance mobilization, respectively, are understood to be the use of knowledge or ignorance towards the achievement of goals. The value of this paper lies in its conceptualization of the mobilization of knowledge as related to the mobilization of ignorance within a complex, dynamic and symbiotic relationship in science research and innovation: it takes two to tango.

Joanne Gaudet (@gaudetj_99) guest blogged about ignorance mobilization on Mobilize This! in January 2013. Her paper was published later that year and I thought it would be interesting for the journal club to step back from our practices and think about the words we use to describe our work.

Ignorance mobilization needs to be defined but before we define ignorance mobilization we need to define ignorance. Ignorance not in a pejorative sense but “as the limits and borders of knowing – what scientists know that remains unknown in any given area of science.” Ignorance is the lack of knowledge and for scientists that means the questions that arise from discovery of new knowledge. As we discover new knowledge we raise questions about what remains unknown. That is ignorance and it can be mobilized. When a researcher publishes a scientific paper s/he almost always writes about what questions (whose answers are unknown) arise from the project or what the next steps will be to learn what is unknown.

In a reference to the title of the article, Joanne explains how knowledge and ignorance are interconnected. “Knowledge remains provisory in relation to ignorance (and vice versa) in a complex, dynamic and symbiotic relationship: it takes two to tango.”

Furthermore, ignorance drives innovation. Research seeks to know what is unknown and develops new approaches to products, policies and services that are only improved by mobilizing ignorance to develop new knowledge.

Are you with me?

Knowledge mobilization is mobilizing what is known. Ignorance mobilization is mobilizing what is unknown.

If you are mobilizing knowledge you are disseminating what is already known by making knowledge accessible in alternative formats to enhance its uptake by wider audiences than traditional scientific publication. CIHR calls that end of grant KT. I call it dissemination.

If you are mobilizing ignorance you are working to develop knowledge about what is unknown. Anyone practicing integrated KT (i.e. collaborations between academic researchers and non-academic partners) is actually practicing ignorance mobilization. Any collaboration starts with a shared interest in a question about something that is unknown. In other words a collaboration starts with a shared interest in ignorance. Collaborating on ignorance is ignorance mobilization.

We disseminate knowledge but we collaborate on ignorance.

Are you with me now?

Ignorance drives innovation (see above) and is also used to inform policy. Joanne claims that “when policymakers pay attention to expert opinion on knowledge gaps, they are mobilizing ignorance – using active non-knowledge in attempts to reach political goals.” Helping end users achieve a goal is the raison d’être of knowledge and ignorance mobilization.

I find this paper interesting but I do not see how it helps my knowledge mobilization practice except to give me a new perspective on what I am doing. The models she presents of interactive knowledge and ignorance mobilization are from her thinking in 2011 or 2012 (the paper was published in 2013). Our understanding of pathways from research to impact and the role of knowledge brokers in both dissemination and integrated methods of knowledge/ignorance mobilization have become more sophisticated. I don’t recommend getting lost in her models. But I do encourage all of us to take a step out of the weeds of our daily work and consider other perspectives.

Questions for brokers:

1. What percentage of your effort is spent mobilizing knowledge (dissemination or end of grant KT) vs supporting collaborations on ignorance (integrated KT)?

2. Ignorance mobilization: An interesting theoretical concept or a distraction from getting my job done. Discuss.

3. How much time do you wish you had to think about your work to better inform how you do it?

Research Impact Canada is producing this journal club series as a way to make the evidence and research on KMb more accessible to knowledge brokers and to create on line discussion about research on knowledge mobilization. It is designed for knowledge brokers and other knowledge mobilization stakeholders. Read the article, then come back to this post and join the journal club by posting your comments.

2 Responses to “It Takes Two to Tango: Knowledge Mobilization and Ignorance Mobilization in Science Research and Innovation”

written by Hilary On 27 July 2017 Reply

Overall, an interesting perspective. In the work that I am engaged in, most of what is known is known, but not applied or disseminated in ways that are helpful to the particular audience — so I work with those stakeholders to shape the evidence into resources that will be meaningful for their ongoing learning processes. Anything that is unknown is because it has not been applied to a particular scope of practice — and when/if that scope is expanded, the work comes in to synthesis what exists in ways that will be meaningful to adding to practice.

As a broker though:

1. My time is divided into about a 70/30 or sometimes a 80/20 split with the greater percentage to mobilizing knowledge and the lesser on the supporting ignorance mobilization. However, often the integrated KT helps to inform other knowledge mobilization projects (where there is known knowledge, but it hasn’t been synthesized for the particular audience in a manner that is helpful, so I do that!).
2. Both — interesting yes. A distraction? Not so much — I have learned a ton from the practitioners I engage with, to the point that there have been practices that I have been ignorant of and now know (in many ways I am happy that I did not know of some of those events until this point!).
3. I happen to have the grand pleasure of being given time and space to consider my KT work to inform how to get better at it, in the sphere that I am currently in. I also have the pleasure of working very closely with practitioners who are my colleagues who know the practice and who are available to muddle through the questions I have as I engage in the research-practice-resource divide and make those connections stronger.
It’s a wonderful place to be in when one can do both questioning of what is unknown and intersecting and applying the what is known for dissemination. I feel that this furthers fields in a practice perspective and I feel privileged to be a part of it.

written by Corinne On 1 August 2017 Reply

I agree with Hilary, that being in a space where one can examine the lack of available knowledge in a particular area is as valuable as the mobilization of new knowledge. In my role within my organization, I am responsible for activity that does both. As the purveyor of best practice guidelines, there is always the tension of what is known, and can be captured to make a statement about optimal clinical practice, and where there are gaps.

Sadly there are often huge gaps in the available knowledge, making us all too aware of the scope of ignorance. Of course the expertise of the clinicians that we collaborate is what sheds the light for us on the nature and scope of the ignorance. It is very valuable to my role to mobilize the ignorance, in order to make the case for further (applied and meaningful) research that can then potentially the new knowledge to mobilize. As my organization is also a funder of research, mobilizing the ignorance is just as crucial and reminds us how much more there is to do. They are both, for me, sides of the same coin, and the process is very fluid when it is working.

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