By David Ludwig, Vitor Renck & Charbel N. El-Hani
How can local knowledge be effectively and fairly incorporated in transdisciplinary projects? How can such projects avoid “knowledge mining” and “knowledge appropriation” that recognize marginalized knowledge only where it is convenient for dominant actors and their goals? In addition, how can knowledge integration programs avoid being naive or even harmful by forcing Indigenous people into regimes of knowledge production that continue to be dominated by the perspectives of external researchers?
On the other hand, how can transdisciplinary projects avoid an exclusive focus on difference that risks creating an artificial divide between Indigenous/local and scientific knowledge and that contributes to further marginalization by denying the very possibility of meaningful dialogue?
We have addressed these dilemmas by developing a framework of partial overlaps. This is a model and methodology of relating actors beyond simplistic stories of seamless integration or insurmountable difference (Ludwig 2016, Ludwig and El-Hani 2020).
On the one hand, the framework assumes an overlap between the perspectives of actors that allows for intercultural dialogue and mutual understanding. Exploring overlaps in perspectives is a crucial element of any transdisciplinary practice that aims to identify common ground between heterogeneous actors in collaboratively working towards solutions.
On the other hand, the framework assumes that overlaps always remain partial and that many of the political challenges of transdisciplinarity relate to the question of how this partiality becomes negotiated.
In some contexts, partiality may be “complementing” in the sense that difference does not get in the way of successful collaboration. For example, Indigenous forest management may be entangled with spiritual perspectives that remain obscure to academic conservation managers but still lead to mutual recognition of expertise and collaboration towards a shared goal.
Other forms of partiality will be “conflicting” in the sense that they suggest contradictory courses of action and therefore require careful attention to the politics of transdisciplinary negotiations between actors in often very different positions of power.
Key elements of the framework of partial overlaps
The framework of partial overlaps distinguishes between dimensions of (1) epistemology, (2) ethics and (3) ontology.
- Epistemology: First, partial overlaps relate to epistemological questions of knowledge production and validation. In transdisciplinary conservation management, for example, an Indigenous community and academic ecologists may overlap in many observations of ecosystem dynamics while diverging in modes of knowledge production from intergenerational storytelling in the community to mathematical models of ecological dynamics.
- Ethics: Second, partial overlaps commonly extend into ethical reasoning. For example, there may be common ground in concerns about a local ecosystem but these are expressed in different normative orders and moral relationships between humans and their environments.
- Ontology: Finally, both epistemic and ethical dimensions are entangled with partial ontological overlaps. The ontological dimension is often the most challenging for transdisciplinary practices as it relates to fundamental differences in how actors view and relate to the world.
The acknowledgment of overlaps implies a recognition that even Indigenous communities and academically trained scientists do not live in entirely disconnected worlds that have nothing in common. A simple dualism between an “Indigenous world” and a “scientific world” that are exclusively defined in opposition to each other does not only misdescribe the relations between actors but is also politically harmful in precluding the very possibility of intercultural dialogue.
At the same time, Indigenous and academic actors do live in partially different worlds that require acknowledgement in transdisciplinary negotiation. Without recognition of ontological difference, Indigenous and local knowledge runs the risk of being assimilated into academic ontologies without acknowledgment of the inequalities that such an assimilation inevitably produces.
Theoretical and practical tools
The framework of partial overlaps aims to provide both theoretical and practical tools for navigating tensions of intercultural dialogue in transdisciplinary practice.
In empirical terms, our framework has been primarily developed through interaction with the fishing communities of Siribinha and Poças, in the state of Bahia, Brazil. As examples, we can mention our ongoing studies on the local ethnobiological and ethnotaxonomical knowledge of fish and birds and their overlaps and partialities in relation to academic science, or our studies on partial overlaps in the epistemological tools used by fishers and academic scientists.
In such practical terms, one needs to immerse oneself in the lived experience of the communities with which we work and, above all, one should assume an intercultural attitude. That is, one should be aware, when using the partial overlaps approach, that academic science and Indigenous or local knowledge are different knowledge systems that cannot be hierarchized in abstract terms. That is, if one asks which knowledge system is better, from our perspective this is simply a mistaken, unanswerable question, unless one takes academic science as a ruler for measuring the contribution of each and every knowledge system, something at odds with an intercultural attitude.
As knowledge is always embedded in cultural and historical settings, it develops in relation to a set of situated problems which it can handle, and then, in concrete terms, some knowledge systems may be better than others for doing specific things. Then, if we ask whether a given knowledge system is better than some other for some concrete, situated problem, we can at least tentatively find an answer. As the cultural and historical settings in which academic science and Indigenous or local knowledge develop are significantly different, they can benefit from comprehensive interaction and mutual learning.
With this intercultural attitude in the foreground, we use the usual research tools in anthropological, ethnographic and ethnobiological work, such as participant observation, semi-structured interviews, and so forth, while in action research we take a bottom-up perspective using participatory planning of the research and intervention, encouraging whenever possible the establishment of communities of practice.
How fruitful do you think this approach can be in relation to your philosophical expectations, and, especially, to your transdisciplinary work?
To find out more:
El-Hani, C. N., Poliseli, L. and Ludwig, D. (Forthcoming). Beyond the divide between traditional and academic knowledge: Causal and mechanistic explanations in a Brazilian fishing community. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C.
Ludwig, D. (2016). Overlapping ontologies and Indigenous knowledge. From integration to ontological self-determination. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A, 59: 36-45
Ludwig, D. and El-Hani, C. N. (2020). Philosophy of ethnobiology: Understanding knowledge integration and its limitations. Journal of Ethnobiology, 40, 1: 3-20.
Biography: David Ludwig PhD is an associate professor in the Knowledge, Technology, and Innovation Group at Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands. He works at the intersection of philosophy and social studies of science with a focus on global negotiations of academic and non-academic knowledge. Recent publications have focused on local biological knowledge of indigenous and peasant communities, on contested categories such as race in scientific practice, and on questions of global justice in science policy.
Biography: Vitor Renck is an ecologist and transdisciplinary researcher doing his PhD at the Federal University of Bahia, Brazil, and is currently a guest researcher at Wageningen University and Research, in the Netherlands. He is investigating the ethnobiology and ethnotaxonomy of artisanal fishers and using a transdisciplinary research approach in order to comprehend the prospects and limits of integration between traditional and academic ecological knowledge. His research interests include ethnobiology, human ecology, knowledge integration and agroecology.
Biography: Charbel N. El-Hani PhD is full professor in the Institute of Biology, Federal University of Bahia, Brazil. He is coordinator of the History, Philosophy, and Biology Teaching Lab and the National Institute of Science and Technology in Interdisciplinary and Transdisciplinary Studies in Ecology and Evolution. Between January 2020 and July 2021, he is a visiting researcher at the Centre for Social Studies, University of Coimbra, Portugal. He works in the areas of science education research, philosophy of biology, ecology, and ethnobiology.