Indigenous Knowledge

Authored by: Paul Sillitoe

The Ashgate Research Companion to Anthropology

Print publication date:  May  2015
Online publication date:  March  2016

Print ISBN: 9780754677031
eBook ISBN: 9781315612744
Adobe ISBN: 9781317044116


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On the face of it, indigenous knowledge (IK) in development should call to anthropology, as an area where the discipline may have relevance and influence outside academia. Development is one of those fields where those trained in anthropology should see a clear application of their knowledge, particularly with the emergence of participatory approaches. Yet strangely enough this is not so, with the IK initiative flagging instead of burgeoning. This contribution to the Ashgate Research Companion to Anthropology asks why this should be so, and explores the current status of IK research. The chapter gives a brief overview of IK work, which seeks a place for local cultural heritage in development contexts. The rationale is that people’s understandings and views should feature in any interventions that impinge on their lives. This work seeks to promote development activities to better fit with local aspirations than top-down impositions, such that they may prove appropriate and thus sustainable. Why is this view not more widely accepted? An avenue explored here is that politically correct (PC) concerns may be inhibiting the up-take of IK research opportunities. For instance, the interfacing with capitalist informed development (as an activity generally concerned with improving material standards of living and demanding economic growth) may imply that people treat their cultural inheritance differently, for example as a commodity. This may open the way to unwarranted exploitation of their cultural heritage and takes us onto politically contentious issues. The associated process of globalization is throwing up various contradictions. For instance, some members of local communities think that IK or local traditions should serve as models of development, some even reinventing traditions in the context of their contemporary understandings of previous ways, whereas others are more concerned to achieve higher material standards of living, thinking that the capitalist model offers the best route. Consequently, while some persons think of IK as something that they need to maintain, even preserve, to guide future development, others think of it as either a barrier to change or a resource that may be exploited to access the market and its products. Researchers consequently find themselves in an ambiguous moral position. On the other hand, it is possible that other ways of being in the world allow populations to resist the capitalist political-economic agenda, with a different view of knowledge and its application. Indeed it is arguable that such alternative cultural perspectives may offer us a way forwards, particularly with the current “crisis of capitalism.” This may further recommend anthropology to the public, drawing attention to one of the subject’s central tenets, namely that we have something to learn from other cultural traditions; it is certainly not all one way as economic development suggests.

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