Four Assumptions in Western Knowledge Creation
Welcome and thank you for joining me or another edition of Slightly Problematic. Tonight I would like to talk about the problematic process of knowledge generation from field work, archival research, or synthesis of non-western and Indigenous scholarship. As a western scholar, there are a few assumptions that we are often guilty of bringing with us when we set out to learn across time and across cultures.
That a researcher will be able to reach a level of cultural competency to understand the written or oral texts which form the base of our data. Presumably, like a cultural cryptographer, time plus process will sooner or later lead to decoding the meanings hidden in plain sight.
That Western theorists have developed theory and methodology which provides tools which can compensate for ignorance and ethnocentrism to effectively translate a text/narrative/story from an Indigenous or non-western author/speaker, into western frameworks which align with a positivistic perspective on knowledge creation.
That Western Theories belong to the western culture, such that credit can be attributed to individual western theorists or periods of western “thought” such as “the enlightenment”, “modernist era” or “postmodern era”.
That what emerges from a researcher’s field work is a result of the research design and methods of the researcher, rather than the appropriation of incomplete impressions gained of fully developed epistemologies that neither are connected to western ways of knowing, nor even definitively compatible with western ways of knowing.
Taken separately these assertions seem either benign or even perhaps even reasonable. Particularly as anthropologists, it is extremely pleasant to presume that what you are doing in ethnographic field work is building your cultural competency to be able to effectively communicate ideas and understandings across cultures.
And isn’t finding western theoretical frameworks which can be used to integrate or explain unfamiliar ideas or occurrences the key to communicating non-western knowledge to western audiences?
And furthermore, is there really harm in having to “nudge” things a little bit to make them fit into conversation with existing perceptions of what’s-what?
Isn’t that just the tried-and-true process of hermeneutics at play to find the “essence” behind the text?
And what’s the harm in attributing credit to Michel Callon, Bruno Latour, and John Law for “discovering” a way to look past centuries of Western belief in the universal truth of the cartesian divide to posit that it is possible to understand complex systems through decentering and deprivileging humans as the only sources of agency and action by making room for non-human and non-entities?
These questions are intimately linked to just how we should consider the results of field work, and the subsequent knowledge that might emerge from it today.
The “Age of Discovery” as it is romantically referred to, was a period of intensification of European colonialism and imperialism.
The world was seen through an ethnocentric lens of cultural evolution, in which the West was the height of human progress, and as such, was the arbiter of the contentious cultural constructs of knowledge, fact, and truth.
At the same time that geographies were appropriated, so to were non-western epistemologies, and at the same time that resources were mined, so to was knowledge.
And similarly to other colonial industries, what was being taken was not intended to be shared-- language, religion, and virtually every other facet of cultural life that ethnologists were collecting, were made illegal under colonial rule, while ethnologists partook in what James Clifford referred to as
[a] form of culture collecting … [which] highlights the ways that diverse experiences and facts are selected, gathered, detached from their original temporal occasions, and given enduring value in a new arrangement. Collecting – at least in the west, where time is generally thought to be linear and irreversible – implies a rescue of phenomena from inevitable historical decay or loss (Smith 2012, 122).
This “new arrangement” that gives enduring value referred to by Clifford is often the result of a hermeneutic process in which a particular set of individuals are privileged with expertise in interpretation in the case that there are any snags in translating what appears to be present, to what is to be understood.
Hermeneutics emerged from biblical scholarship, whereas Western society continued to move farther from the cultural and historical contexts where the original texts are situated, it was desired to bring them into conversation with contemporary questions about life, society, and the universe.
When empiricism challenged the church’s monopoly to knowledge creation, the tradition of filtering knowledge through an elite scholar class continued.
Western scientists arose as the alternative to the clergy, and while empiricism challenged the idea that the earth was the center of the universe, it cemented the preeminent place of the White, Western educated, male (human) scholar as the center of the phenomenological universe.
Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Gadamer, Descartes, are among the foundational theorists who built the many of our concepts of have informed ideas of how to understand phenomena and how to interpret empirical data which continues to hang as a specter in anthropological theorizing.
Even repudiations of their postulations must pass through the gatekeepers who guard their legacies, which returning to ANT is why the idea of de-centering humans in their relationships with the world can be argued as a new idea.
Or why Raymond Dart is attributed with “discovering a skeleton” which was first discovered by mine workers in South Africa.
Then and today, the growth of western knowledge is predominantly recognized as being White, western educated, male, human scholars.
Here I will shift to more intentionally to the question of deep understanding by Western minds of non-western and Indigenous, stories, texts, and narratives. As I am doing now, a narrative is authored with assumptions about the experiences that my audience carries with them.
Paula Gunn Allen’s work “The Sacred Hoop” speaks directly to these matters when she acknowledges that Westerners “naturally tend to see literature in terms that are familiar to them, however irrelevant those terms may be to literature under consideration”. Allen specifically cites the Western assumption that a person shares a story in order to share their individual thoughts, experiences or insights so that others can or will feel or understand what you felt— she points out that the idea of ‘a private soul at the public wall’ is far from universal.
When a positivist approach to knowledge generation is applied to the natural world, it is also structuring how the social world is understood. Perceptions of relationships, separations, the position of people in the world are implied through a Western paradigm. While Western knowledge assumes that understanding the natural world is an empirical process, how their knowledge fits into it is subjectively formed. Smith argues that “the challenge then for understanding the social world becomes one developing operational definitions of phenomena which are reliable and valid” (Smith 2012, 42).
Lucor Jordan (he/him)
Cultural Anthropologist and Director of Operations at Slightly Problematic
Lucor Jordan is an applied cultural anthropologist who brings a background in environmental anthropology, collaborative research, organizational impact assessment, asset-based community development, building cooperative capacity, and culinary anthropology. Applied anthropology at its heart carries a commitment to relevant and ethical work that bridges engaged scholarship with pressing social issues, and this is particularly aligned with the mission of Slightly Problematic. It is with humility and excitement that he joins this inspired community of practice.