Transforming through the word: Ecuador transgender community’s experience of knowledge production

Herbst, Natalia (2016). 'Transforming through the word: Ecuador transgender community’s experience of knowledge production' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.

One way to reflect about whose knowledge counts in defining and doing development is to consider knowledge as the construction of discourse, which based on certain language and concepts, is instrumentalized in naming the world. Knowledge constituted in language, creates the boundaries within which we think how to improve the world and implement development initiatives in the pursuit of ‘good change’(Chambers 1995). I will reflect about how knowledge is produced, focusing on the role of language in ‘defining’ the discourses that will set in motion the ‘doing’ of development. I will base this on the theories of Freire(1996), Foucault(1977), Gaventa and Cornwall(2006), Chambers(1995; 2006), Butler(1990; 2015) and Box(2007); in relation with the case of the transgender community in Ecuador. I will consider how they have reflected about the use of words and the construction of language in contrast to western mainstream LGBTQI discourse, and a knowledge cleavage between urban transgender and pre-Hispanic coastal non-binary communities.
Through a process of ‘concientisation’ language as a form of knowledge can challenge diverse forms of power. In the case of the Ecuadorian transgender community this relates to Butler’s(2015) observation that ‘life is more liveable when we are not confined to categories that do not work for us, or categories that are imposed on us and take away our freedom’. The paper will show that in the quest for human development, which word counts is important for issues such as the personal construction of identity and the constitutional codification of rights, that can challenge mainstream development labels and categories.
Development practices are constructed from languages with attached values and ideologies, thus which one prevails is determinant of how and who will these practices impact. How issues are approached will depend of how inclusive/exclusive, neo-colonialist, ethnocentric, or culturally relative the chosen discourse is. The experiences of the transgendered community in Ecuador of naming their identities and packing the ‘diverse family’ concept which was introduced in the 2008 National Constitution, show that whose knowledge counts when we define and do development is determinant of what is conceivable and thus of what can be attained. Whether this relates to gender-identity matters or any other issue characterized by exclusion and vulnerability, it becomes vital for practitioners to refrain from replacing one set of dominant voices with another in the name of participation (Gaventa and Cornwall 2006, 126) in the intent of broadening the worldview in which they will base their practices.

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