Development and Local Knowledge: New Approaches to Issues in Natural Resources Management, Conservation, and Agriculture

By Alan Bicker; Paul Sillitoe et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter 3

Management of knowledge and social transformation

A case study from Guatemala

Hans Siebers

The concept of indigenous knowledge has come to play a prominent role in contemporary debates on development. This coming to the fore reflects the fact that processes of social transformation and of formulating policy objectives of social intervention are increasingly understood in pluralist terms, i.e. as multiple trajectories (Helmsing 2000) or as multiple modernities (Arce and Long 2000). The emphasis on plurality indicates that in our understanding of these processes we have made a decisive step away from the conventional developmentalist ways of thinking about social transformation and intervention framed in evolutionist, teleological, ethnocentric or naive optimistic expectations. It also points to the need for highlighting the aspirations and interests of the people involved in these processes, demonstrating the value of their own resources embedded in their life-world. Social transformation can no longer be equated - if this was ever possible at all - with the adoption of modern technology, the assumed opposite of indigenous knowledge.

However, this opposition framed as indigenous knowledge versus modern technology leads us into serious conceptual problems. I would claim that there are no fundamental ontological differences between the various bodies of knowledge these categories refer to. From the instrumental point of view, the rationality of modern technology compared to indigenous or local knowledge cannot a priori be assumed. Modern technology is always applied in specific social conditions which determine its outcome. Consequently, the efficacy and efficiency of modern technology can only be evaluated a posteriori , after its application in specific conditions. As we know very well from e.g. the green revolution, the application of modern technology may easily lead to shifts in power relations neutralizing the possible positive effects of increasing rewards. Problems of instrumental rationality (efficiency and efficacy) must always be understood in relation to the specific groups of people involved the moment it becomes socially relevant. In social terms the application of a specific body of knowledge may be rational for some while being irrational for others. The efficacy of both indigenous knowledge and modern technology would adopt a fetishized character - expressed in meaningless quantitative terms - when delinked from the various groups of people involved and isolated from the cultural and power contexts in which they are always embedded.

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