A Comparative Study of “Indigenous Knowledge” and “Modern Science”

JSPS Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research (A) 25244043

About the Project


Today, the knowledge of indigenous groups, as well as the Indigenous Knowledge (IK) produced by other social collectivities in the process of adapting to the ecological and social environments of various localities around the world, have drawn attention. Studies performed in the past (e.g., Berkes, F., Sacred Ecology, Taylor & Francis 2008) have shown that IK is a condensation of rich and delicate knowledge and technologies closely suited to each locality’s ecological and social environment. For example, it has been pointed out that the Inuit, the indigenous people of Canada’s far north, possess knowledge related to the climate changes and wildlife of the far north that rivals modern scientific knowledge. Since the 1990s, both Inuit knowledge and modern scientific knowledge have been used together at sites of environmental development and resource management (Shunwa HONDA, Hiroaki KUZUNO, Keiichi OMURA eds., Bunka Jinruigaku Kenkyu: Senjyumin no sekai [Cultural anthropological research: The world of indigenous peoples], Hosodaigaku Kyoiku Shinkokai, 2005).

However, an issue has emerged due to the attention on IK: the friction between IK and MS. Regarding the same phenomenon, IK and MS may offer competing points of view, and at time, stand in opposition to each other. For instance, currently, in wild life management projects in the far north, judgements produced by the Inuit and MS regarding the regulation of the polar bear hunt are in opposition (Freeman M.M.R. & L. Foote eds., Inuit, Polar Bear and Sustainable Use. CCI Press, 2009) Against the claims of MS that hunt regulations are necessary based on declining numbers of polar bears, the Inuit claim that the numbers of polar bears are actually increasing.

In this context, easing the friction between IK and MS, and finding methods for using both that draw on their respective characteristics is a pressing challenge. However, as past researchers have themselves notes (Nadasdy P., Hunters and Bureaucrats. UBC Press, 2003), the mechanics of regional politics, economics, and society have not been taken into consideration. Moreover, an approach that assumes a symmetrical opposition of IK and MS and only considers each at the conceptual level can only promote the friction between the two. An approach that temporarily brackets the conceptual opposition between the two, and investigates the concrete processes that emerge within regional social, economic, and political mechanics is needed.

Research Objectives

In this research, the relationship between IK and MS will be analysed according to the following four modes, to demonstrate the following.
In order to shed light on these processes, this study will attend to the concrete processes by which the knowledge of individuals involved in both IK and MS become socially disseminated and institutionalized. Neither IK nor MS are knowledges of individuals, but are produced by the social dissemination and institutionalization of the knowledge of individuals. (Latour, B. Science in Action. Sangyo Toshokan, 1999). By ethnographically investigating these dissemination and institutionalization processes and the effects of regional social, economic, and political mechanics on them, the concrete processes by which differences between IK and MS will become clear. In addition, by exploring possible ways of adjusting the politics produced in these processes, we will pursue ways of addressing the contemporary issue of relieving the friction between IK and MS through the generation of a general theory and the exploration of concrete methods. The actual subjects of the study each differ in their historical backgrounds and current situations, but they are six areas in which the friction between IK and MS is becoming particularly intense.

(a) The use and management of Wildlife:
The opposition of IK and MS in the ecological characteristics, and population levels and distributions of endangered species and other wildlife. (The Canadian Far North and National Parks in Botswana)
(b) The use of ocean resources:
The opposition of fishing methods based on MS and IK. (The fishery in Madagascar)
(c) Water resource management:
The opposition of traditional indigenous and modern scientific flood control technologies. (Water systems in the Bangkok area, Thailand)
(d) Biological resource discovery:
The opposition of indigenous and modern scientific categorizations of plants and animals in the context of the collection of biological information on biological resources, such as plants with potential uses as medicines and health foods. (Plant resource database in India)
(e) Awareness and use of land:
The opposition of IK surrounding sacred sites and modern land development planning. (Australia)
(f) Countermeasures for abnormal weather events due to global warming:
The opposition of IK and MS and technology (Greenland)

In this study, the respective processes of the social dissemination and institutionalization of IK and MS in these six areas will be investigated and compared in order to bring the process through which discontinuities are produced in the continuities between the two. As is discussed below in “Research Plan and Methods”, the following four [sic] modes will be used as bases for comparing the dissemination and institutionalization processes of IK and MS, according to the way that individual knowledge and technology are institutionalized and the type of mediation, as previous studies (Latour B., Science in Action, Sangyo Toshokan, 1999. Goody, J., The Domestication of the Savage Mind, Iwanami Shoten, 1986) have shown that the type of mediation, be it speech, text, or numbers, exercises a significant influence on how the processes of dissemination and institutionalization of knowledge and technology are constructed, whether in IK or MS.

(a) Mode of dissemination in communities of practice mediated by speech.
(b) Mode of institutionalization and recording by text.
(c) Mode of recording and analysis by numbers and geometric diagrams.

In this research, the relationships between IK and MS will be analyzed according to these four [sic] modes, to demonstrate the following:

(1) The actual state of continuity and discontinuity of IK and MS:
This will be investigated for both IK and MS by looking at how the above three modes co-exist and are mutually intertwined, and reveal commonalities and differences in the combinations of the three modes between IK and MS.
(2) The processes by which knowledge and technology are legitimated and validated:
This will be investigated for both IK and MS to understand what kinds of combinations of the three modes are recognized as valid and legitimate.
(3) The processes by which discontinuities are produced from continuities:
The relationship of the three modes to each of the regions’ social, economic, and political mechanics, and the effect on the combination of the three modes that produce discontinuities between IK and MS will be investigated.
(4) Methods for adjusting IK and MS:
Possible methods will be investigated for adjusting both IK and MS within the knowledge dissemination processes created from the three modes, in ways that draw on their respective advantages.