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  4. 3.34 Rapid evidence assessment - uncomfortable knowledge

3.34 Rapid evidence assessment - uncomfortable knowledge

Academic team: Professor Mark Fenton-O'Creevy, Dr Nicky Miller, Dr Benjamin Bowles 
Policing partners: N/A
Status: Complete


Faced with a legitimacy crisis in British policing, it is worth considering wider evidence about how such crises arise for organisations. One important strand of organisational research in recent years concerns how ignorance is manufactured in organisations as they seek (both consciously and unconsciously) to avoid ‘uncomfortable knowledge’ through strategies of denial, dismissal, diversion and displacement. As Steve Rayner notes “to make sense of the complexity of the world so that they can act, individuals and institutions need to develop simplified, self-consistent versions of that world. The process of doing so means that much of what is known about the world needs to be excluded from those versions, and in particular that knowledge which is in tension or outright contradiction with those versions must be expunged. This is ‘uncomfortable knowledge’   ” (Rayner, 2012;p107). Drawing on examples from other organisational contexts (including banking crises), this rapid evidence analysis will discuss how avoidance of uncomfortable knowledge can lead to reputational failures and crises. 

Tackling the ways in which organisations fail to address uncomfortable knowledge is a complex process. It involves more than applying the terminologies and theories listed above to the issues and, rather, rests on addressing the gap between knowledge and action in organisations. We see potential in techniques from the so-called ‘pedagogies of discomfort’ (Boler and Zembylas, 2003; Head, 2020) which could be used to help police practitioners to grapple with uncomfortable knowledge. This and other work on tackling uncomfortable knowledge, in spheres ranging from racism, and misogyny to violent conflict and climate change, emphasises the importance of appropriate support to help overcome the barriers to engaging with uncomfortable knowledge.

The team are at the early stages of seeking funding and collaborators for an investigation into the potential of approaches to addressing uncomfortable knowledge in policing organisations. This research will evaluate whether the concept of ‘uncomfortable knowledge’ can provide useful insights for thinking about the knowledge/action gap in policing. It will examine spaces where there are known issues that challenge the trustworthiness and legitimacy of policing and ask how relevant knowledge is conceived of and acted on within the forces. Where it is not acted on, we will identify what kind of ignorance is being constructed around it and draw out strategies for how this ‘ignorance’ can be combatted in the future. 


Title Outputs type Lead academic Year
Investigating the role of 'uncomfrtable knowledge' in failures to address longstanding problems harming the trustworthiness of UK policing Conference paper Fenton-O'Creevy, M 2023



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