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Negotiating Local Knowledge: Power and Identity in Development

Negotiating Local Knowledge: Power and Identity in Development


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745320076
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 04/20/2003
Series: Anthropology, Culture and Society Series
Pages: 344
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.46(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Johan Pottier teaches in the Department of Anthropology at SOAS, University of London.Paul Sillitoe is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Durham.Alan Bicker is at the Dept of Anthropology, University of Kent at Canterbury.

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Johan Pottier

Two decades ago, social anthropology became interested in 'indigenous knowledge' as a possible antidote to the failures of externally driven, transfer-of-technology focused, top-down development (UNESCO-Nuffic 1999: 11; Warren 1998). Underpinned by some deeply rooted assumptions, for instance, that local knowledge was bounded, static, consensual, non-reflective and unscientific (Howes and Chambers 1979), the initial search for indigenous knowledge convinced both anthropologists and developers that it was legitimate to look for and extract local knowledge elements for use in science. If local knowledge had anything to offer, it was because science could make use of it. The presumed consensual character of local knowledge, moreover, resulted in the further assumption that local knowledge 'systems' applied uniformly over extensive regions and time zones. Concretely and positively, the 'discovery' of indigenous knowledge demanded that development practitioners be receptive to the technology, skills and accumulated knowledge of people everywhere (Brokensha, Warren and Werner 1980; Richards 1985). On the negative side, the enthusiasm for local knowledge data produced some exaggerated claims about its value. Thus in agricultural research, correcting the bias against local knowledge sometimes resulted in the erroneous view that peasant farmers were collectively rational, even super-rational, everywhere (Fairhead 1993).

But the neat distinction between science and local knowledge did not last. First, under scrutiny, local knowledge began to reveal itself as the multifarious, contestable product of an ever-evolving syncretistic process (Scoones and Thompson 1994; Mundy and Compton 1995; Sillitoe 1998). The unitary concept 'local knowledge' fragmented into a plurality of local knowledges. Second, science came to be viewed as less universal and more particularistic than hitherto assumed (Agrawal 1995; Gardner and Lewis 1996). These new understandings prompted anthropologists to rethink the dichotomy. Increasingly, the blurring of this grand divide made researchers more conscious of the political economy of knowledge-for-development; that is, more aware of the risk of intellectual (and material) hegemony and more aware that a degree of local autonomy is required if sustained development is to emerge.

The post-modern challenge, however, also problematised the concept of hegemony: the exercise of power was complex business. At the Fourth Decennial Conference of the ASA (Association of Social Anthropologists of the Commonwealth), a short decade ago, there was consensus that 'the bounded' needed to be replaced by 'the relational' – and that this substitution, this moving away from ontological categories towards interwoven patterns, meant that from now on anthropologists would regard 'knowledge' as simultaneously local and global (Moore 1996). The conference called for a better appreciation of 'the complexities and techniques of knowledge production within and between societies, groups and regions' (1996: 14; emphasis added). Today, the intersection of power and knowledge remains fraught with uncertainty and contradiction. While there is much to be said for a perspective that views transnational hegemonic power as too fragmented to shape local conditions uniformly (Long 1996; Arce and Long 1999), it is also clear that powerful processes of disempowerment are at work, most notoriously through the patenting of life forms (Shiva 1992; IDRC 1994; Pottier 1999). Processes of disempowerment beg the question whether the optimistic, relational approach to understanding hegemony can be sustained.

Set in the broad context of global change and planned development, this volume explores knowledge as embodied practice and addresses the negotiated character of knowledge production with reference to the knowledge interfaces (Long and Long 1992) between local communities (their practices and discourses) and external agents of change, who have their own practices and discourses. No clear-cut distinction between 'local community' and 'external agents' must be assumed, however. Contributors recognise that the production of knowledge, in both development and non-development contexts, is acutely political, because 'what is excluded and who is qualified to know involves acts of power' (Hobart 1993). Knowledge production, we maintain, is embedded in social and cultural processes imbued with aspects of power, authority and legitimation; the act of producing knowledge involves social struggle, conflict and negotiation. Detailed attention to knowledge interfaces allows us to study what happens when 'local knowledge' – which means different things in different places, and different things to people who share the same space – is translated for the purpose of national or international use. And, vice versa, the interface approach throws light on what happens when international policy discourses are invoked for use in specific local settings. There are implications here for anthropology's role in development. We argue that an empirically grounded understanding of how knowledge(s) is (are) produced through the mediation of unequal power relations and processes of translation is a prerequisite for any serious attempt to instigate dialogue and make all stakeholders benefit from development initiatives.

The volume's focus on how knowledge for development is negotiated through processes of translation demands that we reflect on the nature of what is loosely called 'local knowledge'. To enable appropriate reflection on how local knowledge is constructed, the volume contains some contributions that are not about development per se. This is particularly true of the early chapters by Marchand (Chapter 2) and Kaur (Chapter 3), where the emphasis is on demonstrating ethnographically that researchers need to be aware of the fact that 'local knowledge' may have properties that lie beyond language (Marchand) and even beyond the strictly local (Kaur). The latter are 'allowed in' (and transformed) through the mediation of established cultural parameters. Developers need to take heed of these important corrections to the common assumption that all manifestations of 'local knowledge' are strictly local and always accessible through verbal communication.


What do we mean by local knowledge in the context of development? When reviewing two landmark publications from the late 1980s, Farmer First (Chambers et al. 1989) and Indigenous Knowledge Systems (Warren et al. 1989), David Marsden outlined the views and expectations of the day:

The problems of rural development are no longer seen to reside in the 'traditional' cultures of under-developed people, but rather in the partial and biased understandings that have emanated from the unreflexive application of a western scientific rationality, and in the results of a rapacious and selfish capitalism that has exacerbated rather than reduced inequalities. Indeed, 'traditional cultures' are now seen as containing the bases for any effective development.

For all these reasons there is a heightened awareness of the central importance of indigenous knowledge systems in the construction of sustainable strategies for rural development. ... The 'blue-print' approach is giving way to a negotiated, situation-specific approach which demands a dialogue between the different parties to the interventions that are constructed in the name of development, and which recognises the important, often crucial, knowledge that the traditional recipients of development aid have to offer. (Marsden 1990: 267)

The present volume provides an update on the idea of a 'negotiated, situation-specific approach' to development situations. Is the demand for dialogue being met, who is participating and on whose terms? These are key questions. But the specific aim of this volume is to go beyond the over-simplistic 'us' and 'them' dichotomy, Western scientists versus local knowledge holders, in order to explore a number of local encounters in which knowledges (plural) are negotiated by a multitude of stakeholders. This specific aim invites us to unpack some of the boundedness in vogue in the late 1980s, in particular regarding the concept of 'traditional culture' and the implied assumption that there is consensus on what constitutes useful local knowledge. New questions beg. If there is dialogue, how is it structured? Whose representations are conveyed? Are there dialogues within Dialogue, knowledges within Knowledge? How exactly does power come in? Is dialogue necessarily about the search for and validation of local knowledge(s)? The focus of our collection concerns local-level processes of knowledge negotiation; processes that remain little documented and understood.

In offering ethnographies of development dialogue, we demonstrate that 'local knowledge' needs to be understood in the broadest of terms to encompass not only people's understandings of the social universes they inhabit, but also of their rights. As Sillitoe and Wilson (this volume, Chapter 11) put it in the context of mining in Papua New Guinea, 'when we talk about indigenous knowledge ... we are referring largely to the need for a better understanding of, and accommodation to, people's knowledge of their rights to land, their tenure arrangements and their approach to payments such as compensation' (p. 244). In other words, the local knowledge debate is not limited to discussing seemingly bounded, technical expertise, of which it is sometimes said that it belongs to 'traditional culture'. Instead, over the past decade, a clear understanding has emerged that knowledge cannot be separated from the social context in which it develops, and that any analysis of the concept must include an appreciation of the power relations that underpin it.

It is exceedingly recognised that what is important in studying local knowledge is not so much 'bodies of facts', but the issue of 'how, rather than what, things are known' (Gardner and Lewis 1996: 74). When it first emerged, this how-focused approach was tied to a critique of the 'Farmer First' movement. While the latter had provided a welcome corrective to the common assumption that traditional beliefs and practices were obstacles to progress, as Marsden's review indicates, the movement tended 'to simplify and essentialise local knowledge' (Gardner and Lewis 1996: 74) by assuming that, like scientific knowledge, it too could be understood as a 'system' (see Gatter 1993; Richards 1993; Scoones and Thompson 1994). Today, we know that this assumption is not necessarily true, not even in the case of modern science. The growing awareness that local knowledge does not exist in isolation but interacts in a variety of ways with the science and practices of development agencies, has resulted in a thorough questioning of its presumed boundedness. Local knowledge 'never stands still' (Sillitoe 1998: 230), it is 'dynamic and strategic' (Sikana 1994: 82), continually shaped and reshaped, thus giving rise to a plethora of diverse knowledges and practices. Consequently, we take care not to approach local knowledge as unquestioningly endogenous, but highlight how local people regularly experiment with exogenous elements to strengthen their own knowledge repertoires. The incorporation of external/global elements in local knowledges receives much attention in this volume, for example, where Hindu religion meets nuclear science and politics (Kaur, Chapter 3), and where Welsh oil workers weave their active engagements with global corporate discourse into their own thoughts on local industry (Arce and Fisher, Chapter 4). In the latter case, the oil workers' dynamic understandings of their work environment contrast sharply with the reductionist understanding held by transnational stakeholders. People's knowledge, in other words, is never exclusively local, but results from complex negotiation practices linked to knowledge interfaces. Similarly, Raminder Kaur documents that festival tableaux at the Mumbai festival (Maharashtra, India) reveal how local understandings of the nuclear debate are embedded in a web of intersecting discourses whose discursive elements are part of the larger narrative of the nation.

In the same sense that the binary endogenous/exogenous view of knowledge does not apply much to everyday reality, so we must let go of the misconception that science and local knowledge (or Rural People's Knowledge [RPK] in Beyond Farmer First jargon) would be diametrically opposed, with RPK being specific, context-bound and practical, and science objective and generalisable. In the mid-1990s, Scoones and Thompson argued convincingly that 'RPK and western agricultural science are both general and specific, theoretical and practical. Both are value-laden, context specific and influenced by social relations of power' (Scoones and Thompson 1994: 29–30). The image of two opposed knowledge 'systems' does not reflect the complex and often contradictory processes that structure development at the local level.

Moreover, we must be open to the suggestion that expressions of local knowledge may say more about the social relations in which they emerge than about knowledge as such. Fairhead's research in Bwisha, eastern Zaire (now DR Congo) has yielded a telling example, which he discusses within the wider problematic of whether and how technical knowledge is locally varied and disputed. From his fieldwork Fairhead recalls how a woman and her husband discussed

whether or not cassava cultivation in a fallow killed Digitaria abysinica. She claimed it could, which he denied. What they were really arguing about, however, and what made the discussion so impassioned, was whether or not the husband would allow his wife to cultivate cassava (a crop she would control) on their fallow. This example forces us to question a common assumption: that ITK [Indigenous Technical Knowledge] exists like a lost and untranslated technical manual authored by a particular 'culture', and published by the researcher who has acquired the script. ... If I had asked only men, I might have treated the statement 'cassava cannot suppress Digitaria abysinica' as a quotation from Bwisha's 'technical manual'. Asking men and women independently, I might have felt compelled to publish two (gender differentiated) 'manuals', relating each to their different experiences with cassava.

... what is interesting here is less that men think this, or women think that, but (a) that as an agro-ecological process 'suppression' is locally understood and probably underlies many practices; (b) that differences of opinion (in applying this principle) exist, and these differences may reflect different politico-economic experience as well as technical experience, and (c) that it is quite common to find political or gender disputes (e.g. over access to and control over resources) being argued in an ecological idiom. Thus the ... issue is not just 'to what extent is technical knowledge distributed in a community' but also 'how and to what extent is technical explanation locally varied and disputed?' and 'how are varied indigenous technical opinions sociopolitically as well as technically constructed?' (Fairhead 1992: 4)

Another demonstration showing that technical knowledge is structured through politico-economic experience, and thus open to contestation, came to me during a PRA exercise on food security in Soroti, Uganda, in 1993. During this workshop, the first one in the region since the end of the insurgency, a prominent local farmer volunteered a technical lesson in how to grow millet successfully. Farmer Obi


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Copyright © 2003 Johan Pottier, Alan Bicker and Paul Sillitoe.
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Table of Contents

1 Negotiating Local Knowledge: An Introduction; Johan Pottier
2 A Possible Explanation For The Lack Of Explanation: Or, 'Why The Master Builder Can't Explain What He Knows' (Yemen); Trevor H.J. Marchand
3 Explosive Narratives: The Articulation Of 'Nuclear Knowledge' In Mumbai, India; Raminder Kaur
4 Knowledge Interfaces And Practices Of Negotiation: Cases From A Women's Group In Bolivia And An Oil Refinery In Wales, United Kingdom; Alberto Arce And Eleanor Fisher
5 Anti-Social 'Social Development'? Governmentality, Indigenousness And The Dfid Approach On Montserrat; Jonathan Skinner
6 'All Been Washed Away Now': Tradition, Change And Indigenous Knowledge In A Queensland Aboriginal Land Claim; Benjamin Richard Smith
7 Managing Natural Resources In Eastern Algarve, Portugal: An Assessment Of The Policy Uses Of Local Knowledge(S); Manuel João Ramos, António Medeiros, Pedro Sena And Gonçalo Praça
8 Interfaces Of Knowledge: The Revival Of Temples In West Hunan, China; Mary Rack
9 The Global Flow Of Knowledge On War Trauma: The Role Of The 'Cinnamon Garden Culture' In Sri Lanka; Alex Argenti-Pillen
10 Modern Information Warfare Versus Empirical Knowledge: The International Framing Of 'The Crisis' In Eastern Zaire, 1996; Johan Pottier
11 Playing On The Pacific Ring Of Fire: Negotiation And Mining In Papua New Guinea; Paul Sillitoe And Robin A. Wilson
12 From Seduction To Miscommunication: The Confession And Presentation Of Local Knowledge In 'Participatory Development' (Batak, The Philippines); Dario Novellino
13 Silencing The Nile (Uganda); Stan Frankland

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