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 2

Powerful knowledge

Applications in a cultural context

Michael Fischer

Culture and traditional knowledge are concepts developed and advanced by anthropologists over the past century or so. These have recently been appropriated and used in ways never envisioned by anthropologists, sometimes contravening the data, theory and models used by anthropologists to develop these concepts. It would be fair to say that initially most anthropologists welcomed this attention, with not a few embracing these appropriations. But there is little evidence to support many of the principal applied threads that have developed in critical politics, economic development and conservation. Anthropologists have an opportunity and an obligation to clarify and refine both concepts in the context of these (mis-)appropriations, and to clarify them for what they are: anthropological inventions used to define and enhance understanding, not to define movable property or motivate new forms of race (and racism).

In this chapter I will briefly explore some of these ideas and examples in a restricted sense intended to reflect the relationship between culture, knowledge and behaviour in a context of change, in particular with respect to the relationship between explanation and practice, the relationship between applied scientific and cultural knowledge, and application to economic development projects.

Specifically, I argue that application of scientific knowledge is not the same as science, and undergoes a process that has properties not unlike those described by Ellen and Harris (2000) for ‘indigenous knowledge’. This process results in knowledge that is not just about the system represented, but is necessary for the system to operate in a contingent world even though it was not originally a subset of the knowledge being applied. This is what I call deontic knowledge, or in more familiar terms, enabling knowledge. Building on Ellen’s concept of prehension (Ellen 1986, 1993), I suggest the operative principle in indigenous knowledge has similar properties. Describing or formalizing this enabling knowledge permits us to more formally describe what Ellen and Harris suggest is ‘tacit, intuitive, experiential, informal, uncodified knowledge’. Using a development example from Pakistan I illustrate how confusing enabling knowledge with ‘good practice’ can lead to project failure. I conclude with some remarks on a ‘relevant’ anthropology, and the need for greater cooperation between the different strands of anthropology.

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