Safe areas of ignorance

I’ve yet to meet someone who doesn’t have a skill they pride themselves on. Even just a small range of actions they know they can reliably perform well, with or without pressure. Simple, elegant expertise: tying a rope, milking a cow, walking on stilts.

Outside my (relatively small) inner circle of competence lies a much larger sphere of things I kind of know how to do, or feel I should know how to do. When I get these things wrong, or receive instruction on how to do them better, I can feel attacked, ashamed, silly.

Household routines have a comforting, reliable and straightforward vocabulary (Isla Chira, Costa Rica)

When I was studying at the University of Chile I often watched the other foreign students with bemusement. The spunkiest, the smartest and the most charismatic would often squander the opportunity to become pleasingly fluent in another language, choosing English at every available opportunity.

It wasn’t until much later that I considered that their natural eloquence was a stumbling block. In new languages you are stupid, boring and clumsy. To those who thrive on choosing words with care, pleasing their companions with wit and insight, stumbling over conjugations is unbearable. For me, having learnt in pineapple fields, fishing boats and farm kitchens, far from the city’s insistent need for clever articulation, simple, repetitive observations were the mainstay of all conversations.

In a world full of problems, we are constantly being told to integrate, to think across scales and boundaries, and incorporate different knowledge cultures, so as to be able to make the best kind of sense of the challenges that confront us. Inside the ivory walls of academia we talk of multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research, where we gather up the threads of all relevant knowledge and try to line them up, plait them together, or fuse the endings, depending on our energy and epistemological bent.

At a recent round-table discussion about the relationship between transformational change and transdisciplinarity at the ANU’s Human Ecology Forum, we stumbled across the concept of safe areas of ignorance.

cultivating pineapples and open learning
CoopeSanJuan, Costa Rica

To feel safely ignorant about something, it has to lie outside both our core and our peripheral areas of expertise. Then what we don’t know doesn’t make us vulnerable. We don’t feel exposed. We’re curious, interested, open.

This becomes important in knowledge-sharing, especially in universities, where we are more used to jealously guarding our research domains with raised hackles and impenetrable jargon.

And, like my experience of language learning, we can reframe where we feel safely ignorant.

Inside the classroom I struggle immensely with feeling tongue-tied.

Under the tropical sky, in a world soaked in beauty and visceral pleasures – watermelon after 12 hours of physical labour – exclaiming ‘what lovelibility!’ and being gently corrected, can resonate with the joy of a child learning its first words.

So, whilst we build our knowledge and expertise, we should also perhaps cultivate our safe areas of ignorance.


You can read more about transdisciplinarity in Val Brown’s edited volume “Tackling wicked problems: using the transdisciplinary imagination” (winner of the 2010 Gerald Young Book Award for ‘the highest standards of scholarly work in the field of human ecology’)

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4 Comments on “Safe areas of ignorance

  1. what a great blog and post! 🙂 So true and i love the term safe areas of ignorance. When i lived in brasil it was humbling and weird to say the least… to all of a sudden not be able to speak freely and confidently – ME – who was always so chatty and confident. My brasilian friends thought of ME as quiet – ha, if only they knew!!! yes humbling indeed to feel nervous about speaking esp in a group if you werent confident of your words, trying to keep up w jokes and the classic ‘smile and nod’ when someone is talkign and u have no idea what they are saying! such a great experience to go through, especially on an empathetic level in my own country for other foreigners.

    • I’m smiling at the thought of describing your vivacious self as quiet Kate! Agree totally re humility and empathy. I think the other thing I did was make my communication much more physical – smiling, clowning around, dancing – opening up a whole other world of ‘safe'(ish) ignorance.

  2. Hi Deb,
    great to see you filling out the idea, it was exciting to be there as it emerged from the discussion. It feels like it is a really significant concept.

    How you have developed the idea helps my understanding.

    I agree with your core, periphery and beyond groupings but I don’t think we have to be restricted to being safe in our ignorance only in the outer layer. Your reasoning appears to be that when we don’t know really anything about something we don’t feel exposed in showing it. However, my experience is that many people feel vulnerable and exposed merely by being shown to be ignorant on any topic. I think the crucial thing here is why we feel vulnerable and exposed.

    My experiences of the forum, where this topic emerged, have ranged from feeling very safe as I exposed my ignorance to being clearly attacked and misunderstood. What I learnt from these very different responses to my usual ignorant input is that it’s not actually about me but about the boundary maintenance of other people who are protecting their knowledge patch for whatever reasons. I felt attacked because I was attacked because the people felt it important that I was attacked because of what they saw as my ignorance.

    So I would shift the focus of your three layers from trying to find a place where I don’t feel vulnerable and exposed to a place where I feel safe to be vulnerable and exposed.

    The key element here for me is trust.

    I’m privileged to have a number of significant people who I trust to attack me in love, to question my ideas and my logic but I never feel afraid or hurt by what they do because I know they care for me, respect me and are acting for my best. My strongest critic is my wife who for 30 years has questioned absolutely every idea I have ever voiced. Rather than hurting me or making me retreat she has helped me come to far greater understanding than I could have without her. Others have made far less insightful critique that has been far more hurtful because it was obvious that they were just setting out to put me in my place.

    So this leads me to want to explore what I can do to make places that are safe areas of ignorance for anyone to enter. What do you think?



    • Craig! Follow up post on our discussion still pending. My brain switches off over Summer. Still thinking about it though. Hope you had a great break. Hopefully see you at the SHE conference next week.

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