A Framework for Understanding: Critical Questions for Effective Action

The questions that I have been asking the last several weeks can be important tools when integrated into a framework to facilitate effective social change. Whether you are an engaged scholar, a practitioner, a nonprofit leader, staff or volunteer at a community organization, or you are an advocate or movement activist responding to a specific issue, these questions represent a framework through which to understand, learn, analyze, and act. Having a process to evaluate issues and develop effective strategies is important on both the larger stage of making change and on the personal level of using your energy and resources where they can be most effective. These questions are a way to sort through the news cycle and the many requests – to contact Congress, sign petitions, and, of course, donate money to numerous causes and campaigns – that are already overwhelming and will become more daunting as the 2020 election grows nearer.

When confronted by ‘news,’ proposed legislation, policies enacted or overturned by state and federal agencies, or information from any source, or your best friend’s opinion this process can help in making the decisions to engage, to respond strategically, or, when necessary compassionately. It can guide an investigation of the context of a problem or issue and reveal what is usually behind the scenes: the purposes of individuals, groups, or organizations; the beliefs and values that shape their point of view and fuel their actions; who their activities benefit and who is harmed by their pursuits; and how to develop specific responses to counter both the beliefs and values and the behaviors that impact the well being of people and planet.

The Framework

This framework is an integration of ideas and practices drawn from the Human Science tradition[i] that includes understanding what is knowledge, a respect for the experiences of human beings in their ordinary lives, and an emancipatory commitment to analysis and action. I often visualize this as a tripod that swivels 360 degrees with either a scope or a camera (I am a birder, hence this image), but you will come up with your own image as you put it into practice. Here is brief introduction to each leg of my tripod, or framework. And, some colloquial questions and comments related to each one. You can probably add to each list.


The study of the source, nature, and limits of knowledge is called Epistemology, which is a branch of philosophy. It may sound abstract, but we study knowledge everyday when we consider beliefs, opinions, or the directions to put together an Ikea bookcase. The traditional questions about knowledge are: where does it come from (the source), what is its nature (truth, belief, reason, opinion), and how can it be applied (the limitations). When we ask these questions we are asking the maker of a statement to describe where they learned something and to justify the veracity they claim for it. Knowledge claims range from statements of faith to information, from belief to opinion, that is informed or uninformed.

Knowledge can come from a variety of sources: for some people it is revelation, or tradition; for others it is reason or science; for some their favorite newspaper or TV channel; and for others, it is “that’s what my dad always said.” There is not one body of knowledge that we all agree upon. Very often, then, we are not even having a conversation because we are using a different language. In what is called an epistemic conversation the participants are in agreement about the beliefs, values, and the meaning of the words. With so many competing epistemological camps, we are in fairly constant conflict about the meaning of basics ideas – human rights, freedom, civility, even what constitutes our democracy. If we want to have a conversation about where we are going as nation, we need to learn to interrogate our own and other’s claims to ‘truth.’ How we do this is the challenge.

Colloquial Knowledge Question:

What in the world were you thinking? Where’d you get that cockamamie idea? (these were my mom’s favorites)

Respect for People’s Experience of the World

This is a focus on the actual (lived) experience of people in their daily lives. People always ask what do you mean by “lived” experience, what other kind is there? When we try to understand other peoples’ perspective we inquire into their background, that is, the reality of their lives, and we are interested in two things: the experiences they have had and the feelings they have about their experiences. These are two different categories. For example, one is a description of being poor – I lost my job, I do not have enough money for housing, food, or healthcare. The other is how it feels to be poor – “I am so scared.” “I am so ashamed.” “I feel so helpless.” Lived experience is the term used to denote the subjective content of such experiences. I described this difference in the first week as an approach to research, or inquiry, that arose out of the realization that the natural sciences could not tell us much about things that are not amenable to measurement, such as human thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

A wide range of qualitative research methods (in contrast to the quantitative methods we associate with natural science) developed from this realization to explore human experience. One particular method, phenomenology, is known for its focus on experiencing – how does it feel – not just the description of the experiences. It is the research method most associated with delving into the meaning we make of things that happen to us. It is usually pursued through listening to people’s stories. Telling and listening to stories is something we humans do all the time and so this is really just another academic enterprise based on something we do everyday when we share with family and friends (although subjective experience seems to be all over the internet now). So, it is not just, “my dog died,” it is, “I am so sad, I don’t know what I am going to do without ….” It is not, “I was fired yesterday,” it is “oh my god, I got fired yesterday and I am so scared.” So, this ‘research’ method of paying attention to the reality of people’s lives, generally through their stories, is very much apart of being human. Stories are often dismissed as not relevant because they are ‘personal’ when it is clear that how people feel is an important part of everything they do from their jobs to parenting to police work to politics.

Colloquial Lived Experience Comments:

“I know just how you feel.” Response: “Don’t tell me how I feel!”

Critical Analysis and Action

The third leg of the framework is the analysis of knowledge and lived experience from the point of view of those marginalized or oppressed. From the beginning of this dialogue about the nature of a science of human experience an emancipatory objective – how to free people – has been clear. The territory was staked out by European ‘Critical Theorists’ in the 19th through today continuing in the recent analyses of gender, ethnic, race, class, queer, disability, and environmental theorists. The focus of critical theory and critical social science is on an analysis of power from the point of view of those who are typically powerless. These perspectives are controversial principally because they are about the rights of people (and the planet) whose rights are often denied.

I’ll circle back in the following weeks for a thorough explication of the essential theories and how they are applied to social conflict and the return of rights to the people. However, the main point here is that this part of the framework is essential in analyzing the point of view of someone who claims that their knowledge is correct, especially in determining policies we all have to live by. Critical theory is just like the other two concepts – knowledge and lived experience – it is not just an academic exercise. The questions we asked about the probable misinterpretation of the Mueller report: who benefits, who is harmed, who wins and who loses are the work associated with this part of the framework. Pulled to together these three concepts support us to ask about and challenge the context – the beliefs of the powerful and their followers; to learn about how people experience power over them; how to analyze the ways power is wielded to control and exploit, and, finally, how to respond in ways that effect change.

Colloquial Summary of a Problem:

“They should just stay in their own country, get a job, save money, eat less, stop smoking,…”, etc.

I’ll return to these three concepts in the following weeks with analysis of current issues to illustrate how we can apply them in our work, advocacy, and activism. Once again I recommend clicking over to the Still Doing Democracy site (https://stilldoingdemocracy.com/), a sponsored project of HSI, where Jim Smith and I are applying this lens to the issue of securing our democracy.

[i] There is a growing list of resources that illuminate the Human Science approach on the website under the Resources tab.

JoAnn McAllister

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