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.
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.
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?