Reply To: April 28th Science, Society, and Power

Author Replies # Posted on April 29, 2014 at 19:46

In response to Yongliang Gao:

I’m interested in the latter half of your reflection there, and your comment on ‘we’ and I’m assuming you mean the academic community, can trust information relayed by local people concerning forest histories, conservation strategies etc. Certainly there are many communities where oral histories and traditions are passed down in ways that could be seen as comparatively informal, semi-permanent, and prone to human error and manipulation. In addition, as a researcher, being an outsider, asking people to discuss these oral histories and traditions to the best of their abilities requires a lot of mutual respect and trust which can be really difficult to establish in the time frames allotted to say a masters student.

However, if you as a researcher are using ‘indigenous knowledge’ or ‘traditional environmental knowledge’ (TEK as it is known in the policy world) to substantiate an argument there are many ways in which you can evaluate the applicability of the statements relayed to you. Certainly one should be critical and consider the strengths and weaknesses of any data collected during the research process. Just as Fairhead and Leach discuss, we should be critical of the knowledge we inherit from government sources, policy makers, and other academics.

I believe that looking at a variety of data sources to examine the fallibility and biases which may be present in oral/participant observation gathered evidence is a good way to go. For instance if local people say the forest is not shrinking, look at historical photos, old government records, the diaries of explorers and travellers in the region and see if your data all indicate similar trends or if there appear to be distortions.

But it is so important to be critical and challenge all data sources and TEK is not in and of itself inherently more or less ‘good’ than any other resource for addressing research issues. That being said, Fairhead and Leach do learn a lot from the Guinean people they interview in the film, and actually the ‘local environmental knowledge’ turns out to be much more authentic and valid in some respects than the government/policy-maker/scientist rhetoric (I discuss this in my reflection paper posted above). A general rule may be to use as many different data sources, informants, perspectives etc as possible and evaluate the authenticity of them all with equal rigour.