Knowledge society, information society and industrial society are all interlinked concepts with  a particular ideology which places undue faith on science, technology and development. The origin of the terms especially knowledge society is attributed to various scholars culminating in the description of ‘post-industrial societies’ which depend on material production as a key to growth and human welfare. These conceptual developments witnessed an ‘end of ideology’ phase described by Daniel Bell and others.  They impudently assume that the progress in the society is directly linked to the use of science and technology and also state that the material culture is the most developed cultural form in the world. Knowledge is expected to aid decisions which can remove all forms of insecurities and risks and this is also expected to help decisions which can take the societies forward (Krohn, 2001). The present over emphasis and huge investments on information and communication technology by both the State and the private sector are an evidence of such a faith.

It is in this backdrop that some of the methodological paradigms evolved which characterize all other societies that do not fall into the so-called developmental philosophy as backward.  Some of the basic fundamental domains such as human reproduction also fell into this framework in an obsequious style. The seventies was the period when the West was especially concerned about population growth in some of the Asian and African countries. That concern was bordering on a kind of xenophobia and intolerance with a feeling that such countries would explode with population which will eat away the resources in this planet! Disciplines such as ecology and demography were used to justify this feeling. It was during this period that family planning programs were liberally used to control the so-called exploding population. Research on newer forms of contraception was also initiated during this period.

There was also a need, however, to reach the people so that they will start using these new techniques that the West had developed. In fact, some of the female sterilization and contraceptive techniques were experimented on Indian women and were included in the program without sufficient evidence. Many women had to go through the side-effects of some contraceptive techniques such as IUCD.

The whole approach of knowledge, Attitude and Practice (KAP) was evolved to popularize contraception among the population and volumes of studies based on this approach were conducted by demographers and psychologists. The assumption of KAP was that if you provide adequate knowledge, it will lead to a positive attitude which will finally lead to practice and in this case adoption of contraception. This linkage was questioned by many scholars as it was found that although people have knowledge and Attitude, such positivity may not always lead to practice. This was especially found regarding family planning practices as the social environment in Indian villages was not ideal for such adoptions. The simplistic assumptions of the linkages were found to be fallacious. This was termed as ‘KAP GAP’ by some socially sensitive demographers to describe the road blocks to practice despite good knowledge and positive attitude. But the KAP studies continued to proliferate with some mutations and deletions and still remain popular even now with respect to diseases and programs.

In order to circumvent the non-practice by the Indian population, many people were dragged to the family camps and  forcibly sterilized or IUDs inserted. It was one of the worst periods in the history of Indian public health (apart from politics) which both the politicians and professionals realized afterwards due to heavy backlash from the people.

Evidently, knowledge was not the only factor which influence the trajectory of societies as conceptualized by the dominant political and economic philosophy. The present pandemic has further exposed the limitations of the so-called ‘knowledge society’. Although, not openly admitted, there was complete maiming and helplessness written largely on the faces of Western leaders regarding the course of the pandemic. It took such societies backwards almost a century back when the world witnessed the influenza pandemic and the same preventive measures known as John Haygarth’s 18th century rules of prevention (including contact tracing) evolved during the smallpox epidemic and subsequent epidemics had to be brought back. The incomplete knowledge of the COVID-19 infection played a major role in shaping our response to the disease. It shaped not only the worldviews of the people but even the official responses including preventive actions. A large proportion of such science could be just guesses, assumptions and hypothetical statements based on available understanding. But some of them are also falsities in the name of science which would have induced panics among population. The world is still examining probabilities and there are many of them. We are yet to decide on the confidence intervals  of many scenarios  whether it is 99 or 95 percent confidence or even less. It appears that we  have to still depend on Asclepius, the Greek healing God and his daughters Hygieia (‘Hygiene’, the goddess of cleanliness), Laso (the goddess of recovery from illness), Aceso (the goddess of the healing process), Aegle (the goddess of good health) and Panacea (the goddess of universal remedy) for saving us from the pandemic!

However, let me end on a positive note. The present pandemic no doubt questions the political and economic assumptions of knowledge societies. But what could evolve will be an analytical unification of the past, present and future possibilities. Such unified systems have to be responsive to the new challenges and new problems. This is especially necessary as knowledge including medical systems are struggling in the present context philosophically and operationally.

Kesavan Rajasekharan Nayar is affiliated to Global Institute of Public Health and Santhigiri Research Foundation, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala

W. Krohn, in International Encyclopaedia of the Social & Behavioural Sciences, 2001


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