What’s the difference between science and religion? Thoughts about indigenous knowledge systems

Several of our anthropology research team members just came from a lecture by Prof Sandra Harding from UCLA on different science and knowledge systems, which was really inspiring. It was part of an Indigenous Knowledge Systems Workshop here at the Arctic Centre, the other keynote lecturers being Elina Helander Renvall and Suvi Ronkainen.

When we ‘do’ science together, is it indigenous or Western Knowledge? Harding argues that nowadays all this is hybrid knowledge (photo from Nel’min Nos, Nenets AO 2004)

Harding placed her thoughts on different epistemologies in the framework of postcolonial science studies, starting out with one of the most fatal western misconceptions: that there is only ONE right way of knowing, and that this can be produced only by ONE culture, namely western culture. Rather than summarizing her entire talk, I would highlight some of the issues that I found most inspiring.
Good that Harding reminded us that this move against western triumphal absolutist science claims is not that new. Back in 1925 Malinovski (Magic, Science and Religion) said that ANY culture, be it fishing, hunting-gathering or whatever livelihood, bases on observing the environment and applying reason and deciding on that reasoning about the observed phenomena. Also I found worth noting that western science as well as any other knowledge system is full of superstition and rituals. Harding recommended us to have another look at Laura Nader’s volume “Naked Science”, where we find out how Western nuclear testing was more about rituals and ceremonies to scare the Soviet Union than producing more hard knowledge.

Religious practice or science? Mushroom cloud over Bikin Atoll. Picture from Guardian.co.uk

Now that we know that there is no hierarchy of knowledge systems, Harding inspired us to think in terms of familiarity and unfamiliarity. Other knowledge systems use ways of reasoning that works for them, but are very unfamiliar for a western scientific approach. For example it’s hard to understand how North American Indigenous Peoples manage the goose population by personifying the geese, entering in dialogues with them, and getting indications from them how to hunt, how much prey to take (see Colin Scott’s chapter 3 in Nader’s ‘Naked Science’ reprinted as chapter 9 in Harding (ed) 2011: The Postcolonial Science and Technology Reader.
Unfortunately there was no time for questions to Harding, so I share here my own questions and see if anybody would like to enter a discussion here:

1) Firstly, Harding gave in the beginning a set of definitions of indigenous knowledges. Her definitions were: Indigenous Knowledge (IK) is

  • self-produced and self-managed by Indigenous People, [that definition is favoured by Harding]
  • IK is only environmental parts of knowledge (not spiritual cultural etc, e.g. when western scientists search parallels to their own env science), [problematic definition]
  • IK is all traditional knowledge (pre-modern), including pre modern west [problematic definition]
  • IK is all non-western knowledge (how about China? Is Chinese medicine IK?), [problematic definition]
  • folk knowledge of any culture, [problematic definition]

These definitions made me wonder how to distinguish indigenous knowledge from cultural heritage and oral history narratives. Do we need such a distinction at all?

2) Secondly, Harding said that what we have now is multiple conflicting sciences and philosophies. Considering that all of these knowledge systems base on beliefs and worldviews, I wonder how we would draw the border between religion and science, both of which focus on explaining the world for us? Aren’t religions also part of these multiple conflicting philosophies?

3) Thirdly she introduced us to the already existing interaction between knowledge systems, but highlighted that it’s not whole sciences that travel, only aspects, bits and pieces, out of context. E.g. accupuncture in the West: not all of Chinese medicine travels to the West. All the spiritual and worldview dimensions stay in China. The same is true vice-versa, Harding claims. Not all of western science travels. Only what fits to existing systems in a particular setting. Now if that would be true, wouldn’t that be an ideal world where all the existing knowledge systems remain in function, and none of them would be endangered to disappear? For example, if some indigenous medicine would take over from the West only the pills that would fit to their existing knowledge, than other culture’s medical knowledge would not be endangered, right? On another field, there would not be endangered religions if people would take over from missionaries only what they think fits to their existing cosmology. Or would there be?

6 thoughts on “What’s the difference between science and religion? Thoughts about indigenous knowledge systems

  1. fstammle

    On the reliability and impartiality of research
    We are just sitting here with Prof Harding, who made an interesting comment that I thought is worth sharing:
    We discuss the problems of how research connected to activism, advocacy groups and other interests that may be called ‘vested’ is seen to fall short of objectiveness and impartiality, and thus its results can’t be considered reliable.
    To this Harding replies: how about military research? It’s extremely reliable and makes a real difference: guns shoot, bombs fall, rockets hit their goals. States fund research that is very much targeted to the immediate purpose, and yet nobody doubts its reliability and validity. So how come that we are required to be impartial in order to do research that is valid and reliable?
    This points to an important insight in anthropology, because I think our discipline has liberated itself from this idea of having to be objective and impartial. Isn’t there rather wide agreement in so far as anthropology is a very subjective discipline in which a lot depends of the researcher and the research partners personalities, and secondly that we do not have to hide that fact anymore and pretend to be impartial? Quite on the contrary, with this subjectivity we transport with our research results not only ‘data’ but also how these facts matter for people and change their lives – and that is way more important than the data themselves, right? What’s the value of ‘data’ if we do not know how it matters for people?
    Discussion on this here would be much appreciated.

  2. Miranda

    It’s easy to say that endangered (ie subjugated) religions should be able to just take parts of the proselytizing message, but I have yet to see very few examples of a missionary religion bending to the wants – and cultural needs – of a smaller religion. The Pueblo peoples had to have a full on revolt in 1680 to make clear to the Spanish government that the knowledge systems (including the religous systems) were going to stay as they were. you can see this today in many of the Pueblos. the ceremonies and the ways of being are still vibrant. not pristine by any means, but still very strong.

  3. Very interesting about the Pueblo! So you are saying that they revolted and succeeded to stick to their own ways, resisting the dominant Spanish knowledge system? That’s impressive, and great to know that this knowledge system is still vibrant.
    The idea of pristineness in my view is not compatible with society and culture anyway: human life and social forms are not organisms in stable states but in constant flux, so I wouldn’t say there is some ‘pristine state’ in a society. Even in the case of American pre-colonial contact times this notion was refuted (Denevan, http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/~alcoze/for398/class/pristinemyth.html).
    In the Russian Arctic, the Nenets reindeer nomads in the 20th century have taken over elements of Leninism, and before that Christian Orthodoxy, but their animist worldview and continued to be enacted in the environment. But now this is changing because of baptist evangelical missionary activity that encourages them to abandon the principles of their cosmology (http://www.jef.ee/index.php/journal/article/view/70).

  4. Svetlana

    Thank you very much, Florian, for the inspiring report and reflections about Sandra Harding’s w/shop!
    It was especially meaningful for my own work, since I am now closely connected to postcolonial studies in Aalto University via collaborating with one of our our professors, from the US, and he refers to her works amongst others. So, it is great to have such an update with regard to mutual enrichment between domains of ‘indigenous knowledge’ and ‘western science’.
    In design, mainly in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), we have such a thing as ‘postcolonial computing’. Though it is quite a narrow term, it has so little to do with actual computing nowadays. Generally, it is an analytical orientation, a kind of lens for design researchers, to better understanding what is really going on when contemporary technologies travel to new cultural contexts.
    The phenomenon behind this process is a so-called ‘appropriation’: the action of taking something for one’s own use, typically without expectations of a designer/manufacturer (it was first said about software, but basically it is just giving a name to a very natural process of adjustment, which has been going on long time before with other mass-produced objects).
    Numerous examples of local appropriation of globally acknowledged technology do not only indicate that some people are personally active, creative and skillful; they also enable each other to be such through knowledge sharing…
    What is important (and what I appreciate so much in your post, Florian), is the variety of definitions of the IK. And the list is not full, of course, it is more likely an insight into a continuous search for a ‘contextually appropriate definition’. In other words, though IK has been defined many times, we have to do it, I think, for every particular instance. In the situation of designing for a new cultural context, IK could be defined as “users’ or members’ knowledge” (a kind of profound expertise in a certain locality), which should be acknowledged by designers. So, assuming that members of a certain community are actually experts in their own context, designers become not ‘benefactors’, who came to satisfy people’s needs and solve their problems by nicely designed gadgets, but facilitators, who are supposed to provoke people to help themselves.

    Maybe I went a little bit too far from the initial discussion, sorry if so,
    but I just wanted to say that we are now working with my colleagues in Aalto on the common paper, where through case studies we want to explore how exactly to ‘bridge the gulf’ between ‘indigenous knowledge’ and ‘professional knowledge’. From my side, I am going to contribute with some cases from my work with Arctic natives.
    As soon as the initial draft appears, I would be happy to share it with the blog community!

    Kindest regards,

  5. Some comments on prof. Harding´s lecture
    How can we understand to the discrete ´logics´ on which are the local knowledge- systems based? How can we interpret them or explain them?
    – If we get to understand them during the prolonged fieldwork, we still should try to share our understanding with our colleagues and with the public. How can we do this and still preserve the discrete character of a given system of logic? Should we just describe it in its own context (natural, social…) and ´explain´ it by itself? This kind of explanation would be a tautology and can only have a form of art or a non- fiction (but not scientific) literature – we can also dance it out, for example.
    – Can we try to ´explain´ a given system of logic by relating it to other systems of logic – a kind of comparative study of systems of logic? Accumulation of species of systems of logic would not explain anything as well – until we move to a higher (more general) type of explanation: That is to figure out the common principles of the particular systems of logic. This take us already to a position described by Ingold (2000: figure 1.1): To judge the culturally postulated ´worldviews´ from a position of Universal reason (the perspective of the Western science), which believes to study the world ´as it really is´. The principle of this kind of explanation is to describe the principles of a given set of phenomena and to relate it in a formalized way to the already known theories and thus to:
    1) enrich them by new body of data to which they apply
    2) extend them by finding new links between so far separated theories
    3) falsify them and establish new theories (or even paradigm) which enables us to integrate the new findings to a more coherent and general body of knowledge
    – I believe that the Western science (scientists) must act AS IF it really stands in the position of the Universal reason,´ above´ (on a more general and abstract position) the local systems of logic; the research of each particular system of logic should be a kind of a case study for the more general theoretical conclusions.
    – The purely scientific purpose of the research should not be condemned as non-ethical in its principle (as it seems to be in the social sciences nowadays). It can be done in a most ethical way. The personal behavior of the scientist, his attitude to the hosting society and the responsibility for the society studied stands on another level (as well as the notion of ´giving back´ to the society studied) than the purpose of the research itself. Although they are a necessary part of the research, they should – ideally – affect it as little as possible.

  6. fstammle

    That’s very interesting Rudolf, thanks for sharing these thoughts. I must say that I don’t agree to some of what you write. I hope to have some time later to substantiate my argument, but for a start you can read Stephan’s and my comment to Svetlana Usenyuks’s recent blog entry on Arctic design. There we outline some of this idea of subjectivity and emotional involvement of the researcher in the research. Especially in the end of your entry you admit that the researcher’s personality and also emotions are part of the research – yes, and that’s why it’s illusionary to exclude them of our analysis. In doing so we may get a bias in our research that is later impossible to track if we try to keep quiet about it. Read for example the publication of Malinovski’s diary in the field (A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term, in the most recent edition with the foreword from 1989) and find that his groundbreaking ethnography comes in a completely different light. Hiding that personal background did put a bias in the academic work that is there yet impossible to map. If we know about the personality, we as readers can ourselves judge about what happens in anthropological fieldwork and get into the position of judging ourselves if we find the conclusions of those authors justified. I would argue that there is NO social science that is ‘objective’ and impartial, and would agree with Harding that even the natural sciences aren’t because the results are driven by basic hypothesis and convictions that influence research and results.
    One more thing I would strongly disagree with you is the ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ level. That sounds very much like colonial evaluation of who is higher and lower, more or less ‘scientific’, intellectual and so on. Instead, we should acknowledge that all knowledge systems are first just ‘there’, and require to be taken for what they are, and not classified according to some hiearchical that we the clever westerners think is valid for everybody. One of the good achievements of social and cultural anthropology is that it overcame this colonial hybris, and it didn’t lose credibility just because it became fairer and more honest. That’s at least what I think from the top of my head. I’m happy to discuss this further.

Comments are closed.