Knowledge, Action, and Space: An Introduction

Peter Meusburger and Benno Werlen

The present epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space.

Michel Foucault (1984/2002, p. 229).

Open and Contested Research Questions

This book starts from the widely accepted premise that parts of knowledge can be defined as ability, aptitude, or “capacity for social action” (Stehr, 1994, p. 95)1 and that the production and dissemination of knowledge are always embedded in specific environments (spatial context, spatial relations, and power structures). That point of departure makes it evident that the mutual relations between knowledge, action, and space are central research issues in disciplines dealing with human existence. For instance, acting under conditions of uncertainty, people must rely on experience gained in various situations and environments. To achieve their goals, they have to gather new information, acquire new knowledge, and develop new skills in order to cope with unexpected situations and unfamiliar challenges. Knowledge, experience, and information-processing are the foremost resources determining how aims of actions are set; how situations, opportunities, and risks are assessed; and how constellations, cues, and patterns are interpreted. They are the primary foundations for evaluating locations and spatial configurations, solving [1]

problems, and enabling individual actors and social systems to appropriate space. Knowledge, learning, and information-processing can be regarded as links between action and space or action and environment (for details see Meusburger, 2003). Conversely, the spatial dimension plays a key role in the acquisition of knowledge and the implementation of actions. Scholars broadly agree on several points:

  • • Commitment and willful intent alone do not guarantee goal attainment.
  • • Goal-setting (is a given goal desirable and feasible?) and goal-striving (how is the goal being pursued?) are affected by knowledge, skills, experience, and the search for new information.
  • • Experience rests upon former actions in specific settings.
  • • There are manifold relationships between knowledge, power, and action,
  • • Learning processes are embedded in, and to some extent shaped by, the social and material environment.
  • • Settings and locations have a fundamental significance in the search for and access to rare or valuable information, the acquisition and distribution of knowledge, and the successful implementation of actions.

However, the devil is in the details. Relationships between knowledge, action, and space are very complex, some of them are still not fully understood. Some theoretical approaches focus on very simple problems (laboratory experiments) or work with a number of black boxes or questionable premises. Studying the interrelations of knowledge and action, one is apt to raise the following questions: To what extent is knowledge a precondition for action? How much knowledge is necessary for action? To what extent do various types of knowledge influence aspirations, attention, evaluation of situations, search for alternatives, implementation of intentions, decision-making, and problem-solving? How do bidirectional connections between knowledge and action function? How do different representations of knowledge shape action? Are knowledge, skills, experience, and educational achievement useful categories or should they be replaced by broader terms such as “reflective system” or “cognitive capacities”? How rational is human behavior? What categories of rationality should be distinguished? Does irrational behavior reflect a lack of appropriate information or is it rather affected by the impulsive system and orientation knowledge? How do deliberative, rational thought and impulsive affect interact and influence action? Why do people occasionally act against their knowledge? What are the social functions of knowledge? In which way can action research profit from interventions of arts and aesthetics?

Some of the most pressing questions in the study of the interrelations of action and space are: Which concepts of space and place are appropriate for analyzing relations between knowledge, action, and space? At what level of aggregation (individual, organization, spatial units)[2] can relations between knowledge, action, and space be documented by which indicators and empirical methods? How much are the spatial conditions of actions exposed to historical transformation? What exactly is the role and importance of spatial representations for the construction of sociocultural realities in the past, present and future? How does the digital revolution change the historically established society-space relations? What are the spatial implications for the formation of knowledge? Is the term environment an abstract category, a social macrophenomenon, a local cluster of individual factors of influence, or a localized culture? How can one measure an environment’s impact on action and knowledge production (Meusburger, 2015a)?

These and other questions indicate that relations between knowledge, action, and space are not as simple as some people might assume or as some decision and risk models or traditional rational choice theories suggest. The questions simultaneously underscore the urgent need to explore the interdependencies of knowledge, action, and space from different disciplinary angles, scales of analysis,[3] time dimensions,[4] and ontologies.

The main ambition of this book is to contribute to the clarification of the linkages between knowledge, action and space beyond the well-established models. To redeem this claim it is first necessary to overcome the problematic legacy of homo oeconomicus and traditional rational choice theories and discuss some of the reasons why the spatial dimension was neglected or played only a marginal role in action-centered social theories. If we want to deepen the insights into the relations between action, knowledge and space, then the spatial dimension needs as much theoretical inquiry as the relations between knowledge and action (see the chapters by Werlen (Chap. 2), Ernste (Chap. 3), Olsson (Chap. 4), Gardenfors (Chap. 12), and Berthoin Antal and Friedman (Chap. 13) in this volume).

  • [1] The close relationship between knowledge and power is evident by the very fact that they have thesame etymological roots. The word power derives from the Latin potere (to be able). The Latinnounpotentia denotes an ability, capacity, or aptitude to affect outcomes, to make something possible. It can therefore be translated as both knowledge and power (see also Avelino & Rotmans,2009, p. 550; Meusburger, 2015c, p. 31; Moldaschl & Stehr, 2010, p. 9; Schonrich, 2005, p. 383).Most authors define action as goal-directed human activity that should be differentiated from purebehavior. Action is that part of behavior that occurs intentionally (see the Chap. 6 by JoachimFunke in this volume). Knowledge has an impact on action and behavior. P. Meusburger (*) Department of Geography, Heidelberg University, Heidelberg, Germanye-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it B. Werlen Department of Geography, Friedrich Schiller University Jena, Jena, Germany© The Author(s) 2017 P. Meusburger et al. (eds.), Knowledge and Action, Knowledge and Space 9,DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-44588-5_1
  • [2] A social system’s ability to act competently and achieve its goals depends not only on the knowledge of individual actors but also on their integration in organizations (institutions), the way organizations process information and share knowledge, interact with external social environment, andstructure the way decisions are taken.
  • [3] Each scale of analysis yields certain insights that other scales cannot deliver.
  • [4] Often the question of whether actors possess the knowledge necessary to solve a problem and ofwhich impact on decision-making and actions is due to superior or earlier knowledge or ignorancecan be answered only after events or actions have taken place and unintended consequences havesurfaced. Time lags between knowledge acquisition (e.g., research) and successful action (e.g.,innovations) can amount to many years or even decades.
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