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Agrawal - Dismantling the divide between Indigenous and Scientific Knowledge

In "Dismantling the Divide between Indigenous and Scientific Knowledge", Arun Agrawal argues the distinction between indigenous and scientific knowledge is problematic. Currently, indigenous knowledge is viewed as a valuable resource, one allowing its holders to exist in 'harmony' with nature. This view of indigenous knowledge has made it particularly relevant in discussions regarding sustainability and development. However, indigenous knowledge was not always conceptualized in this way. In the 1950's and 1960's, developmental theorists viewed indigenous knowledge as inferior and hindering development. Agrawal argues shifting viewpoints of indigenous knowledge is due to the failure of modern science and grand theory to improve the life chances of native peoples.

How does western knowledge differ from indigenous knowledge? Agrawal lists 3 common themes that are used to describe differences between the two types of knowledge:


However, by distinguishing indigenous knowledge from scientific knowledge, theorists are caught in a dilemma. Focus on indigenous knowledge has gained native peoples an audible voice in development. Yet, this distinction creates a dichotomy between indigenous and scientific knowledge. This dichotomy is especially problematic because of the exchange and communication between the two types of knowledge. Arun argues that the distinction between indigenous and scientific is completely artificial.

"Substantive differences between indigenous and western knowledge presumably lie in their subject matter and their characteristics." Indigenous knowledge is depicted as concrete, being closely tied to technical solutions indigenous people face in their daily lives. Western knowledge is depicted as abstract and analytical, divorced from the lives of people. However, empirical research has shown that indigenous knowledge is also abstract. Similarly, western knowledge also has a utilitarian aspect that is apparent in every aspect of life.

In terms of methods, indigenous knowledge is assumed to be bound structural constraints where western knowledge can move beyond these constraints. This assumption implies western science is somehow 'open' where indigenous knowledge is 'closed.' Feyerabend(1975) argues that western science has been resistant to inquairy outside of institutionalized science. To say indigenous knowledge is closed is also inaccurate. New knowledge introduce to indigenous culture creates a range of attitutudes ranging from admiration to embarrassment. Despite popular views of the scientific method, philosophers of science have been unable to discern any differences between science and 'non-science.'

In terms of context, indigenous knowledge is conceptualized as being embedded within a particular community and bound by space and time. The context for western knowledge is universal. Context too is problematic. The application of western approaches to development have failed due to their ignorance of social, cultural, and political contexts in which they were implemented. The application of indigenous knowledge of one group to another group implies that traditional knowledge can move beyond the constraints of time and space.

Agrawal concludes that the distinction between indigenous and scientific knowledge separates 'us' from 'them.' When we recognize how these two types of knowledge are similar, we can begin a "productive dialogue that safe guards the interests who are disadvantages."

Agrawal, Arun. "Dismantling the divide between Indigenous and Scientific Knowledge." Development and Change. 26 (1995):413-439

Feyerabend, P. Against Method. London:Verso,(1975)

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