Indigenous Knowledge: Implications for Development

By Atal, Yogesh | Madhya Pradesh Journal of Social Sciences, December 2009 | Go to article overview

Indigenous Knowledge: Implications for Development


Atal, Yogesh, Madhya Pradesh Journal of Social Sciences


There is a real danger to the tribal cultures in the sense that they might, disappear as forces of modernization and globalization become more potent. There are people and agencies that express worry about profound loss of indigenous people and their knowledge about the natural world constructed by generations from their intimate ties to their locale. They allege that their practices and beliefs are marginalised and neglected because these are regarded as inferior forms of knowing compared to the western scientific tradition, presented as universally applicable.

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Some time towards the conclusion of the last century, when the world community was taking stock of the achievements of various development decades since the setting up of the United Nations, there arose a demand to attend to the needs of the indigenous populations. As a consequence, the United Nations decided to observe the decade of 1995-2004 as the International Decade of the World's Indigenous People. Since the agenda of the decade required more time, a second decade has been declared in continuation of the first decade.

The overpowering processes of colonization that followed the industrial revolution influenced all the non-Western societies, including the tribal communities. It is during that process the science of Anthropology grew. Missionaries and political administrators were the first to reach the tribal communities who lived in comparative isolation, and led a life that was quite distinct from the colonisers. These societies were characterised as queer, exotic, and primitive, and their strange ways of life became the subject matter of many descriptive accounts published for the Western audience. Later, it was realised that a deeper understanding of their cultures and behaviour was necessary for an efficient administration of the area. Thus, Anthropology entered the training curricula of the administrators chosen to rule these colonies. Concern with the past of the mankind also led to evolutionary theories that put these societies at lower levels of development and the western societies at the top of the pyramid. Implicit in this kind of exercise was the belief that there is a single course of evolution and that the practices of the primitives will have to be replaced by those evolved by the Western societies. That was the prescription to make the primitives civilized. Opposed to this approach were many anthropologists and social workers who felt concerned about the ill-effects of cultural contacts with the outside world that were destroying their distinctive cultural traits and subjecting them to the exploitation by outsiders. Their plea for the preservation of tribal cultures was eloquent and forceful. But it was misunderstood by others who alleged that these were treating tribals as "anthropological zoos" to obstruct their progress.

It can safely be said that construction of knowledge about, and for, the indigenous people was made, during that period by the non-indigenous people. The "outsiders" took on the role of understanding the "other cultures". That is how the discipline of Anthropology came to be defined. It is this definition that also facilitated studies of communities other than the tribal that belonged to indigenous civilizations. India, thus, offered a good site for research to those anthropologists who extended their scope beyond the tribes to cover indigenous civilizations.

However, in such non-tribal societies, nay the civilizations, the insider scholarship contested the social constructions by the outsiders. Of course, such contestations were part of a nationalistic sentiment that grew with the freedom movement. Now a similar reaction is in evidence in case of other tribal communities which have among themselves a good number of literates and highly educated people, including those trained in Anthropology. These insiders question outsider reconstructions of knowledge of their respective societies. …

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