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In Theory Think different: Think local

In this week's 'In Theory' column, political theorist Andrew Robinson looks at the concept of local and indigenous knowledge. As Robinson argues, the West, in all its modern technological glory, might not be as 'knowledgeable' as it think it is.

In Theory, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, November 19, 2010 7:56 - 2 Comments

By Andrew Robinson

In thinking about theory, it’s common to think mainly of “big names” – figures like Deleuze, Marcuse and Negri, who I’ve discussed in previous columns. But it needs bearing in mind that to one degree or another, we are all theorists. We all build ways of seeing from the concepts and perspectives we have available or are able to create, using these perspectives to make sense of and guide our own lives.

Since we’re all theorists, there’s no reason why the study of theory has to confine itself to famous authors. The immanent theories of everyday life can also provide insights and knowledges.

This is particularly the case when dealing with what is termed ‘local’ or ‘indigenous’ knowledge, the types of complex, place-specific knowledge which arise when people have dense relationships to particular places and ecosystems. Here, I will summarise some of the features of such forms of knowledge. It is not, of course, possible to cover a massive scope of specific perspectives in a single article, but the general outlines of the ways indigenous or local knowledge differs from global knowledge, and the challenge and potential it offers to radicals in globalised societies, can be suggested.

Local and Global Knowledge

The relationship between humanity and phenomena such as nature, space and power is differently constructed in different perspectives, or ways of seeing. The difficulty is that these ways of seeing are today arranged in an unequal hierarchy in which Northern or rich-world ways of seeing predominate over local perspectives of various kinds.

Local or indigenous knowledge (also sometimes called local science) is usually constructed in a binary with global knowledge or global science, which is an expression of the power of Northern ways of seeing. Global knowledge is often in fact a ‘global-local’, meaning that it is a type of local knowledge which is wrongly proclaimed to apply everywhere and to everyone.

For instance, Anglo-American cognitive psychology is based almost exclusively on experimental studies carried out in controlled conditions, in which the subjects studied were psychology undergraduates. The results obtained from this particular group are presumed to ground claims about the nature of human cognitive processes which apply to all people, everywhere.

Global knowledge is often criticised in indigenous knowledge studies for its complicity in colonial exclusions, its emphasis on representation rather than immanent connection, its totalising claims, its discounting of other perspectives, its objectification of reality as external (rather than relational), its separation of humanity and nature as realms of study, and its concealment of the ways in which its own knowledge is produced by particular local configurations.

It is sometimes suggested that global knowledge is complicit in top-down forms of power, because of the similarities between its top-down way of seeing and the processes of power found in states and other hierarchies.

Proposals grounded in science, usually derived from laboratory settings in which complex variables have been removed, are often ineffective in far more complex environments. They are often also connected to top-down mapping practices which render a territory understandable by simplifying it.

The situation is further complicated by the power-inequality between scientists and local groups. Global knowledge also tends to overexploit ecosystems by oversimplifying its view of the processes involved. Local knowledge, in contrast, tends to be networked, constructing diffuse knowledge which corresponds to diffuse power.

For instance, prohibitions arising from local knowledge are rarely based on formal rules, but rather, on taboos and social pressure. Hence, even when some kind of prohibition exists, social power is effectively diffused within the group.

Indigenous or local knowledge has gained increasing recognition as the ecological and social effects of global projects have become clearer: ‘scientific’ commercial forestry has devastated forests previously maintained for centuries, the removal of herders from nature reserves has negatively transformed the ecosystem and harmed biodiversity, local medicines remain the basis for a large proportion of drugs, and so on.

This has led to a certain degree of questioning, even within the North, of the privileging of global knowledge. It is now widely accepted that global knowledge doesn’t always get it right in local settings, and that local knowledge is sometimes better. The revaluing of local knowledge is also partly an effect of indigenous social movements, and is further prefigured in the work of authors such as Foucault and Deleuze.

Another factor is the growing recognition of complexity, particularly in ecology. If ecosystems and social systems are complex systems, the networked relational constructs of local knowledge are more appropriate than the top-down emphasis on representation.

This recognition is, however, rather limited, mostly consisting of attempts to encode and exploit particular items of knowledge such as the medicinal uses of plants, attempting to incorporate such local knowledge ‘upwards’ into global knowledge. This kind of decontextualising extraction of knowledge goes against the spirit of how indigenous knowledge operates. Agrawal views this kind of appropriation as misrepresenting indigenous knowledge for an external gaze, and as a kind of ‘capture’ of knowledge by the dominant system.

There is a tendency to bring local and global knowledge together in dialogue, but in ways which reinforce the primacy of global knowledge, for instance by using its languages and formal structures. In contrast, horizontal transmission between local knowledges often has to go by way of such global transmission-belts. The power-relation is here crucial, and conflicts between local and global knowledge are inseparable from those between locals and outside experts. Often, furthermore, local knowledge is only recognised when it can be translated into and verified within a global scientific frame.

This process of reducing knowledge to testing and codification involves dislocating knowledge, removing it from its locality. The compatibility of local and global knowledges is often artificially created by reducing local knowledges to global perspectives, containing local content in a global form. Scholars such as Arturo Escobar have argued that development projects rooted in global knowledge tend to devalue and subordinate local knowledges, reproducing colonial relations of power.

Characteristics of Local Knowledge

While local knowledge varies dramatically between different localities, it tends to have certain formal features which differentiate it from global knowledge. Whereas global knowledge is concerned with making generic claims about types of things on an abstract level, local knowledge is concerned with detailed, related, situated connections to particular places and sets of relations.

Local knowledge usually shows complex and nuanced awareness of the specific relations involved in local situations. It is better than global science at things like figuring out whether a particular ecological change is an effect of human action.

The distinction between indigenous and local knowledge can be compared to various theories which emphasise how capitalism ‘reifies’ social life, portraying social relations as if they were objects, replacing awareness of processes with a focus on their products. An awareness of complexity, relationality, and the importance of ‘doing’, are already present in indigenous knowledge, which in many respects already knows the things which Northern critical theory is struggling to re-learn.

Local knowledge is not so much a body of information as a social process through which knowledge is learned and shared, a process unique in the case of each group which uses it. It constructs a kind of knowledge which is ‘lived’, or located in particular ways of living and relating, rather than being abstracted from ways of living. It tends to be expressed in practices, as opposed to global knowledge which is mostly written in books.

It is often connected with forms of learning and social practice which emphasise learning by doing or which encourage an inquisitive and experimental approach to the world. It is thus learned and reproduced in very different ways from the processes which transmit global knowledge.

The ecological significance of local knowledge is strong. Systems based in local knowledge tend overall to be more sustainable than global systems, and local knowledge can produce highly detailed local ecological awareness. There is controversy over whether sustainability and the promotion of biodiversity are in any way intentional, but they are clearly observable effects.

This said, local knowledge is not an absolute guarantee against ecological damage, particularly if people move to a new area, if local conditions change, or if outside forces have a large impact. It is not a magic cure to ecological problems, and is only as reliable as the extrapolations from situated experiences on which it is based. This said, it draws on a wider and more diverse array of situated experiences than does global knowledge, and hence is often better situated to identify and deal with ecological problems.

Local knowledges also usually involve an intense sense of locality and place, and are self-consciously local and place-specific. This construction of a sense of place in local knowledge is very different from top-down mapping practices. It involves the formation of specific connections which actively relate people to particular sites, creating what are sometimes called ‘existential territories’. The ways in which local groups map spaces often have many dimensions, and focus on the uses, structures or meanings of places rather than their abstractly observed characteristics.

It talks mostly about relations, rather than things. This preference is often built into the structure of indigenous languages, with words referring mainly to relations instead of things. In some cases, the ability to ‘properly’ act or know is believed to be conditioned on a specific position in an entire relational web. It also tends to be holistic, rejecting the global-scientific approach of dividing the world into categories and disciplines, and rejecting simplification.

Hence for instance, natural, cultural and supernatural spheres are not necessarily separated, but can be viewed as a single field or a continuum. The entire local context is sometimes linked together in complex narratives of origin and essence which cross the three planes.

Faced with a choice, global knowledge tends to choose decisiveness, whereas local knowledge chooses inclusion. Local knowledge is often happy with inconclusiveness and differences within itself, placing a lot less value on coherence and decisiveness compared to global science (and global power).

This is shown, for instance, in the prolonged consultative processes which accompany indigenous decision-making. Whereas global knowledge seeks to extend itself over space, indigenous knowledge tends to extend itself through time. It also often emphasises the qualitative over the quantitative. For instance, Melanesian approaches to counting focus on the value of things which can’t be counted, and many indigenous approaches oppose the idea that wealth is measurable.

Wealth, rather, consists in the density and richness of social and ecological relations. The mode of expression of local knowledge is usually expressive, rather than instrumental. In other words, it is primarily a way of giving voice to particular perspectives, feelings and experiences, rather than a way of manipulating objects.

This contrasts with the language of ‘modernity’, which is increasingly trapped in instrumental ‘rationality’.

As a way of constructing life-worlds, local knowledge is connected to an orientation to redundancy rather than efficiency. Local knowledge often involves the maintenance of high levels of redundancy in its social system. In other words, instead of massively producing or extracting certain very specific ‘resources’, they maintain a wide range of different subsistence strategies connected to different means of survival. Such approaches go against ideas of efficiency dominant in capitalist economies, but provide a lot of resilience against unexpected events and crises.

For instance, a group growing multiple crops might make less on the commodity market, but be less at risk of starvation or dispossession in the event of a failure of one of the crops. The management of risk through resilience, rather than through the closure of space known as ‘security’, also sets indigenous knowledge aside from state perspectives. Resilient systems also tend to promote biodiversity. At least in principle, indigenous perspectives also usually reject the reduction of nature and of non-human entities to instrumentally usable resources. Rather, they are part of specific, densely related local places.

Similar to this orientation to resilience, indigenous knowledge often engages in syncretism, incorporating elements of newly-introduced belief-systems as an additional, parallel track alongside existing belief-systems. This is seen as a way to enrich indigenous knowledge by multiplying the perspectives it contains. Outside agents often find a similarly inclusive stance, except when local people have been hurt by previous contact. As well as aiding resilience, this approach expresses a situated view of the world which is very different from Northern ideas of purity and identity.

It doubtless carries dangers of recuperation, but it also provides the potential for resistance from within. In the Zapatista story “Questions and Swords”, external power is portrayed as a sword, and the local context as water. Power thinks it has dominated the context by striking the water and passing through, but in fact, over time, the water will rust the sword.

This is a metaphor for how local knowledges can absorb and corrode external power, reducing it to an empty shell of itself and preserving local autonomy. One might say there is a constant struggle below the surface in many marginal contexts as to which of the two forces – submersion and corrosion – will triumph.

There is a certain controversy in the scholarship which arises from the fact that local knowledges can both be highly pragmatic and instrumental, and also theoretical, religious and cosmological (such as the idea of an ecosystem as a living spiritual being which can feel pain), sometimes at the same time – for instance, a prohibition against destroying a sacred grove might also serve to protect an important source of food or medicine. Northern commentators have problems getting their heads around this, and end up splitting into two camps – some who read indigenous knowledge as entirely pragmatic, and others who read it as primarily cosmological.

The former accuse the latter of romanticism, misrepresenting indigenous people as a kind of untainted perfection, the latter accuse the former of creating their own version of a global-local and silencing local ways of seeing. While indigenous knowledge often involves extensive practical claims, these often make little sense outside their cosmological context. Their removal from this context effectively also removes their locality.

To complicate matters further, the relationality and situatedness of indigenous knowledge also seems to apply to the ways in which it’s expressed to outsiders: local people will play up or even invent a pragmatic view or an ecological worldview to appeal to powerful groups in the North. Indigenous knowledge also looks rather different from each of the positions situated within it, which are sometimes affected by differences in power and perspective. And many groups have taken on extractive attitudes arising from the wider capitalist context. In many cases, local knowledges coexist in unstable relations with global forces.

Subsistence and Local Knowledge

There are degrees of locality of knowledge and connectedness, not a simple dichotomy of local and global. Local knowledges arise in a great many cases, including groups within highly commodified societies who are attached to a particular ecosystemic niche through their work – for instance, small-scale commercial fisherfolk, commercially oriented settlers in marginal regions, and even industrial workers (the phenomenon of ‘tacit knowledge’).

They reach their most elaborate forms, however, in societies based on subsistence economies, such as foragers, small-scale cultivators and nomadic herders. This is because it is favoured by the close connection these groups have to a particular local place and ecosystem, by the artisanal knowledge involved in their economies, and by their cultural continuities.

This is the reason that local knowledges are under threat. Subsistence economies are nearly everywhere under attack from commodified economies. State projects, such as building large dams and converting farmland to industry, usually end up redistributing resources from poor to rich. But the cost to the poor, being mainly in subsistence, is often literally impossible to count, meaning the projects look like a net gain in wealth.

The corrosion of subsistence contributes to impoverishment and dependency on capitalism. It also destroys the context in which new indigenous knowledges emerge, and existing knowledges are preserved. Hence there is growing concern at the loss of indigenous knowledge, at ‘language death’ (the shrinking number of global languages and hence of local ways of seeing), and at threats to the survival of indigenous groups.

There are ways in which local groups survive such processes. Often, subsistence has been preserved through an exodus into areas increasingly distant from commodified and state-controlled spaces, often into forests, deserts and hills. This has been a long process over time. Indeed, it is increasingly recognised that what are today called indigenous or ethnic groups are products of historical political divisions, in which groups retreated from or attempted to escape encroaching state power.

Today, these strategies of exodus are threatened by the growing global expanse of capitalism and of the state’s gaze. But they are also aided by the weakening of state power in peripheral regions, the emergence of so-called “black holes” where, because of the impact of neoliberalism, centralised power has broken down. Hence, locality is paradoxically more threatened than ever, but also more powerful, more prone to reappear in new forms.

The Theoretical Importance of Local Knowledge

Some authors have sought to attach theoretical importance to the phenomenon of subsistence. The subsistence perspective, proposed by authors such as Maria Mies and Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen, argues that subsistence should be construed as an entire way of seeing separate from capitalist commodification. Subsistence does not here mean being poor.

It means providing the necessities of life by working with and nurturing nature, rather than seeking to conquer and exploit it. In this perspective, social activity should not aim primarily at markets, but rather, at satisfying needs. This reorientation involves rejecting most of the ways capitalism has taught us to view the world.

It is too common for local knowledges to be confined to particular academic subfields, deemed relevant to their locality but irrelevant to the ‘developed’ world. This process echoes the political processes whereby local and indigenous groups are ‘enclaved’, or confined in particular spaces, separated from each other and from influence on the wider world. Local knowledges in fact have relevance to all the big questions of theory.

For instance, authors such as Valentin Mudimbe have attempted to revive the idea that local knowledges are relevant to philosophy, questioning the dominant narrative in which philosophy was invented in the North. The main difficulty in drawing on and revaluing local knowledges is the effects of ‘enclaving’, the isolation of such knowledges. This leads to a need to construct networks which maintain the locality of contexts but are also able to communicate through ‘weak ties’ across contexts.

In this vein, various authors such as Glissant, Mignolo and Khatibi argue for the formation of ‘border knowledges’ which form horizontal connections between different local spaces, reconstructing the global, or ‘planetary’, as a network of perspectives rather than something viewed from the top-down. This kind of horizontal connection can help avoid the problems arising from connection by the intermediary of global knowledge, instead connecting localities without an integrating centre.

Local knowledge is neither a distant, esoteric knowledge which is ‘lost’, nor a collection of information which can be incorporated in dominant frames. It is based on a way of seeing and relating which produce a different form of knowledge in correspondence with a different form of power, both among people and between people and the ecosystem. What can be learnt in the capitalist-dominated world from indigenous knowledge is above all the practice of forming such alternative ways of seeing and relating.

Local knowledge provides the basis for building a new world in the interstices of the old, in the holes in the dominant grid. The question is not only to defend existing spaces of subsistence, but to expand and recreate the social relations through which such spaces emerge.

Andrew Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. His book Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies (co-authored with Athina Karatzogianni) was published in Sep 2009 by Routledge. His ‘In Theory’ column appears every other Friday.


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