Sunday, November 7, 2010

Local knowledge

Talk about local knowledge mostly implies that local perspectives are somehow dismissed or ignored or simply not observed by decision- makers. High modernist states are assumed to be among the worst here, and the worst of the worst has to be the hyper- planned Soviet Union. That is the standard story, at least. The fact that the U.S.S.R. does not exist anymore, is seen as the proof of the pudding, and also makes sure that very few will come to its defense.

After spending some time in Uzbekistan, and reflecting on my experiences in a few other places, I tend to believe that over- planning was not the problem, and that local knowledge was everywhere. One of the difficulties, I think, was the enormous gap between formal and informal, the difference between the official self- descriptions and the actual functioning of the Soviet state.

That meant that in some places, and for some issues bottom- up initiatives were existing but not acknowledged, while in other cases, the opposite was true, and pseudo- local knowledge figured in fake participation. Kolkhoz workers could convince their chair of a better land use, and he could get it done. Local party leaders could jump directly to Moscow to plea their case. Local actors did their own thing, based on their insights, without even telling. Sometimes, this was simply a way to make the system work, sometimes a way for local players to enrich themselves.

Showing how things really worked was difficult because officially, all Soviet citizens were the same, wanted the same, and the State knew the needs of the collective. Showing how things worked would reveal the limits of central planning, it would reveal local differences and knowledges, and cliques thriving on black markets. But, it would also show where in fact more planning would be useful, where more coordination between interests (once acknowledged) could bring the common good closer.

(The house is empty now. In the summer, I had to wait in line for hours to take a shower, now I have three bathrooms for myself. One has hot water, so the choice is easy)

1 comment:

  1. Interesting thoughts, similar ideas are presented by Katherine Verdery who showd that and how relationships mattered during and after communism. The big differences in possible connections enabled some people to gain power and money, while others, who lacked connections faced much tougher times. The formal systems, indeed differing largely from the informal system, however gave some people a better position in the network than other. (reminds me of some place here in the NL).

    The elite could be recknognized by their possesion of hot water.