Linking indigenous and western knowledge systems

Linking indigenous and western knowledge systems

Years of oppression by colonizing powers, initially involving wide-scale conquest and slavery, afterwards consisting of forcible changes to indigenous peoples’ ways of lives, and most recently characterized by the expropriation of indigenous knowledge and biopiracy of natural resources used and protected by indigenous peoples, have put huge pressures on the relationship between western and indigenous societies.
These difficulties are mirrored in the way the two distinct knowledge systems view each other. Western knowledge systems are built upon the idea of positivism, which is the belief that the most trustworthy source of knowledge is information acquired by the senses and verified by logical, scientific, or mathematical testing. Knowledge that does not come is this way is regarded with a great deal of suspicion. Indigenous knowledge systems, which are based on metaphysical beliefs, tend to view knowledge as much more subjective, and so are not as prescriptive in how they go about acquiring it. In other words, there are lots of different ways that one can learn about the world and our place within it. As Laurelyn Whitt, a philosophy and native studies specialist, puts it:

The richness of the indigenous commitment to epistemological pluralism lies in the recognition that there are diverse “versions of existence,” diverse ways of being in the natural world, and so diverse experiences to appreciate and respect.

The result of all this is that indigenous knowledge has, at best, been sidelined or looked down upon, but at worst, deliberately suppressed or eradicated. Universities – under pressure by increasingly sophisticated campaigns by indigenous people – are now beginning to resolve this, but there are still relatively few high schools in the world that make indigenous knowledge a priority. Where indigenous knowledge is given curriculum time, it is usually in the form of an appreciation of their artistry, and a rather condescending portrayal of their history. A serious consideration of their ideas generally does not feature. This, according to Marie Battiste,

perpetuates notions of Indigenous peoples as historical and local, not contemporary and global with a knowledge system that has value for all.

Methods of studying indigenous knowledge systems

For those of us who come to this area of knowledge as ‘outsiders’, accessing and understanding indigenous ways of thinking presents certain problems. To start with, indigenous knowledge systems is probably the most unfamiliar of all the eight areas of knowledge within TOK, and the only one that it is possible to have no prior experience of. Furthermore, as indigenous societies are so incredibly diverse, it’s easy to make over-generalized assertions and judgements, which we must be careful about. Finally, many indigenous knowledge systems have practical difficulties that prevent us from easily obtaining a clear picture of the knowledge that characterises them. These difficulties include the fact that much indigenous knowledge is based on non-literary sources, which is hard to access, particularly because of how remote many indigenous societies are (indeed, there are a few that still remain untouched). A lot of indigenous knowledge also comes from societies that have either died out, or are on the verge of doing so. These problems can also compound each other – consider, for example, how we investigate the knowledge of a society that never wrote anything down, and whose language no one now speaks.
Of course, there is a substantial amount of indigenous knowledge that is very accessible, and as indigenous peoples are slowly gaining more political rights throughout the world they are forcing the world to take notice of their ideas, and the knowledge systems they are built on. However, we do need to take account of the thousands of societies whose knowledge is hard to access.

The work of human scientists

Human sciences and indigenous knowledge systems have an intimate relationship, as it has traditionally been the role of anthropologists, ethnographers, and sociologists to make the first academic studies of indigenous societies. This usually involves spending at least a few months, but often years studying their way of life. However, it isn’t just human scientists who are involved in these studies: experts from other fields are also interested in studying small-scale societies and those societies’ relationship with their environment, such as historians and biologists. By ‘academic studies’ we mean studies that take a scientific approach, involving the investigation of a specific hypothesis, via quantitative data. This leads to results that should be objective and testable, and be possible to replicate.
This all sounds good in theory, and there is no doubt that human scientists have provided superb information and knowledge on many indigenous societies around the world. But there are also various difficulties with this immersive method of gathering indigenous knowledge. First, there is the phenomenon known as the Hawthorne (or Observer) Effect.. This is the way in which observers will affect and alter the object of study, meaning that what they are studying doesn’t match up to its ordinary reality. The Hawthorne Effect can be relatively benign, and simply involve those being studied behaving differently around ‘strangers’. Of course, even the most expert human scientists cannot know for sure if this is happening, given that they are probably dealing with a society whose ‘normal’ mode of behaviour they are unfamiliar with.
Second, even trained experts bring with them biases, which act as a paradigm through which they view the indigenous society under observation. These may not be personal biases, but may be imposed upon them by the society and academic institution from which they have come. Whilst we like to think of the academic world as one that used objective methods in order to acquisition knowledge, it is just as prone as any other aspect of society to fashions and trends. These are sometimes intellectual paradigms, made popular by influential academic thinkers, and broader ways of thinking and behaving that affect the whole of society. Observers who take with them such outlooks will inevitably skew the data and information that they find in order to address such paradigms. One such example is the work done by the Margaret Mead in the Pacific Islands, who in the 1920s published Coming of Age in Samoa, one of the most influential anthropological books ever written, based on her work in the South Pacific. Her portrayal of a sexually and socially egalitarian society struck a chord with the early feminist movement, as well as with academics who were keen to promote the idea of nurture rather than nature as being the key component determining human behaviour. However, many people have questioned the extent to which her findings were deliberately (or even subconsciously) designed to fit in with the intellectual zeitgeist of the time.

Written sources of indigenous knowledge

Even if a society does not possess a written tradition, we can often find out about it by looking at descriptions of first contact that were made by literary societies. Most of these were created by non-scientists, so their major drawback is that they do not often focus on particularly wide aspects of life, or the knowledge systems that belonged to these societies. Instead, they tend to focus on narrow aspects of the society that they were intent on exploiting – the best example being Spanish accounts of the natural resources possessed by the indigenous peoples of South America, which was the only aspect of society that they were genuinely interested in.
Having said that, it can also be the lack of training that makes these accounts interesting for us. One such example is that of Sabine Kuegler,, the daughter of German missionaries working and living with Fayu nomads in Indonesia in the 1980s. The Kueglers were the first Europeans to live among the Fayu, and Sabine Kuegler grew up in their society from ages 7 to 17. Although Kuegler’s book (Dschungelkind, or Jungle Child) lacks an academic approach, such as being based around a hypothesis, offering data tables, considering the state of current anthropological thought on her subject, what it does contain is in some ways even more valuable. As Diamond writes:

Because Sabine’s playmates were Fayu children and she grew up partly as a Fayu herself, her book approximates an autobiography of a Fayu, but one endowed with a dual perspective as a Fayu and a Westerner. Sabine was thus able to notice Fayu characteristics – such as their sense of time, physical difficulties of Fayu life, and the psychology of being a Fayu – that a Fayu would take for granted and not bother to mention.

As Diamond also mentions, what is interesting about the book concerns Kuegler’s return to Europe, which she then viewed and assessed through Fayu eyes.

Oral sources of indigenous history

In order to gain information about indigenous knowledge systems that has not been ‘tainted’ by contact by people intent on either subduing or studying them, we need to find out about the way their societies operated before contact occurred. One way to do this is to carry out interviews with current members of indigenous societies, and ask questions about their past. This method of study can have some remarkable results, as seen in the work of Polly Weissner and Akii Tuma on the Enga people of Papua New Guinea, mentioned by Jared Diamond in his book The World Until Yesterday. Weissner and Tuma interviewed elders in no less than 110 different tribes, cross-checking their accounts with dateable events, and weighing up different accounts to allow for biases. On the other hand, there are many peoples for whom this method does not work, such as those who approach empirical knowledge in even more of an extreme way than we have already mentioned. Diamond offers the example of the linguist Daniel Everett in the late 1990s:

Everett found that Brazil’s Piraha Indians refused to discuss anything that they had not seen with their own eyes, and hence were scornful of Everett’s efforts to tell them about the life of Jesus: “Did you see him yourself? If not, how can you believe it?”



Another way of finding out about indigenous societies’ past is by using archaeological methods. The great advantage of this method over other ones is that it allows us to understand societies that are up to tens of thousands of years old, and that were never touched by the industrialised world. The disadvantage, of course, is that despite archaeological methods being so impressive, so much detail about life amongst these societies – the names of individual members of society, what motivated them to behave in the way they did, the relationships they enjoyed with each other, the way in which they spoke – is lost that there it’s very hard to get a handle on their outlooks on life. It takes, therefore, an archaeologist several years to build up the same amount of information that would take an ethnographer a single day to acquire.

Questions & links

1. What are the major impediments to us learning about indigenous societies? Which one would you rank as the most serious?
2. Linking ethics: to what extent do we have a responsibility to learn about indigenous knowledge systems?

Knowledge framework

Historical development: How has the relationship between western and indigenous knowledge systems changed over time?
Concepts & language: Are there any concepts that require specific language before we can studying indigenous knowledge
Methodology: Which ways of knowing do we need in order to fully understand indigenous knowledge systems?

Cite this page as: Dunn, Michael. Linking indigenous and western knowledge systems (26th September 2014). Last accessed: 19th March 2018


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