New initiative to study how knowledge circulates through society  

The nature of knowledge, and how it is created and spread, are highly topical issues that will be researched at a hub being established at Linköping University. Topics in focus will include how knowledge is created and spread; how it circulates in society; and how it is – or is not – regulated.

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From scientific journal articles, the classic textbook and printed newspapers to exhibitions, social media, podcasts and webinars – knowledge is spread in many more ways today than for just a decade ago. Still, the dissemination of knowledge is affected by various types of regulation – or lack thereof. This may be legislation in the form of copyright or patent laws, or it may be technical and practical possibilities and limitations. There may also be informal and formal control over the spread – ideas about what knowledge is and norms about what should or may be spread.

The new research initiative COMPASS is a hub where researchers will investigate the terms and preconditions of knowledge and knowledge dissemination. This research will follow two tracks: firstly the forms of knowledge, which concerns how knowledge is expressed, and secondly the norms of knowledge, i.e. how knowledge is (or is not) regulated.

“We are particularly interested in the interaction between knowledge’s different forms and norms, both today and historically”, says Eva Hemmungs Wirtén, who will lead COMPASS together with Jesper Olsson.

The starting point is that knowledge is always influenced by the terms and preconditions of society.

“Knowledge is never completely free. Both forms and norms influence how knowledge moves, or doesn’t move, through society”, says Jesper Olsson.

A central question for our time 

The researchers working in COMPASS point out that the research initiative is highly topical.

“Our public space has undergone dramatic changes in recent decades. The medial preconditions for spreading knowledge have changed: we see how knowledge is questioned. Questions about knowledge are highly charged, and it is important to investigate its conditions both in our time and in history”, says Jesper Olsson.

The research at COMPASS will be interdisciplinary, gathering researchers from different fields. The aim is to conduct research that can illuminate societal problems and phenomena from various perspectives.

“We believe that this is extremely topical. Research can help us understand these trends in society in different ways”, says Eva Hemmungs Wirtén.

Collaboration and seminars 

The researchers are hard at work establishing the hub.

“We’re planning the first two years, applying for research grants, recruiting colleagues, and establishing contact with researchers at LiU and other universities. These questions engage a great number of researchers, and we hope to expand our exchange with other universities”, says Johanna Dahlin, coordinator for COMPASS.

COMPASS started on 19 May with a seminar together with LUCK – the Lund Centre for the History of Knowledge. LUCK began operation in 2020, and at the seminar its representatives described how research at the centre has been built up. And there are plans for a seminar series.

An initiative at Linköping University 

Initially, COMPASS will run for two years, with funding to commence research provided by Linköping University.

“This is an important initiative to increase understanding of how societal change affects the role of knowledge in society”, comments Josefina Syssner, head of department at the Department of Culture and Society, where COMPASS is based.

“Over the past decade, strong forces have challenged the ideals of knowledge and democracy. Populist movements question established methods of knowledge production, while scientific knowledge is increasingly often assessed from a short-term, utilitarian perspective. The ways in which knowledge circulates have changed. Researchers today navigate a complex landscape of intra-scientific publishers and journals, popular publishers and media houses, and traditional and social media – all with different requirements and expectations for how knowledge can be expressed and formed. With COMPASS, we want to learn more about what all these changes mean for the role of knowledge in our society.” 

Translated by George Farrants and Martin Mirko.

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