Guest Article: TK & Western Science

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Home » Resources » Publications » Articles » 2009 Guest Article: TK & Western Science

2009 Guest Article: TK & Western Science

Under the Traditional Knowledge Bulletin, the UNU-IAS TKI is currently running a series of guest articles/ commentaries on topical issues in traditional knowledge. If you would like your research to be considered for inclusion in this series, please contact us with details.

This opinion piece focuses on the seemingly complex relationship between traditional knowledge and western science.

The Whizz of Electrons and the Wisdom of Elders: Linking Traditional Knowledge and Western Science

By Ameyali Ramos Castillo, Adjunct Research Fellow, UNU-IAS Traditional Knowledge Initiative
Published online: 31 July 2009

With pressing environmental challenges like climate change and increasing socio-economic complexities, the relationship between Traditional Knowledge (TK)[1] and science is now receiving considerable attention. Conferences calling for the “convergence of TK and Science” have been held, publications critically analyzing “TK and science integration” are appearing in numerous disciplines, and discussions on how to bridge the divide between TK and science are becoming more widespread. At the forefront of innovation are numerous research initiatives that link TK and western science such as an Australian Carbon Abatement project that is based on Aboriginal fire-burning practices and a water catchment experiment that uses Maasai TK and modern technology. But what is the relationship between TK and western science?

Over the past 30 years scientists, Indigenous Peoples and policymakers alike have been grappling with this very question. While many agree that TK and western science can complement one another, there is widespread debate as to if, how and to what degree TK and western science should be integrated/bridged/converged.

Attempts at bridging TK and western science in practice have raised significant questions about the epistemological[2] differences and similarities between the two. While some believe that TK should be held to the same methodologies and standards used in science, others argue that while “scientific practice generally excludes the humanistic perspective, traditional understanding assumes a holistic view including language, culture, practice, spirituality, mythology, customs and even the social organization of the local communities, (thus) to suggest that traditional knowledge is only the equivalent of science is to diminish incorrectly the strength and breadth of traditional knowledge.”[3]
These philosophical discussions have produced vastly different models and guidelines for TK and western science integration and, in many cases, have stalled any discussions on practical integration until the epistemological differences are further explored. While these discussions are important, pressing environmental and socio-economic challenges demand immediate action beyond academic discourse. The question thus becomes, how can TK and western science contribute to solving these challenges without compromising the integrity of either one of the knowledge systems? 
The answer may lie not in the knowledge systems but with the knowledge holders. A focus on fostering partnerships and collaborative opportunities between the knowledge holders – ie Indigenous Peoples and scientists - seems a more likely path to allowing the necessary protocols, models, and guidelines to emerge on a case-by-case basis. Only by fostering spaces where scientists and Indigenous Peoples can work together can we hope to discover the valuable contributions that the collaboration between TK and western science can offer. 

[1] Traditional knowledge generally refers to the wisdom, knowledge, teachings, and practices of Indigenous or local communities.

[2] Epistemology or the theory of knowledge is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope (limitations) of knowledge

[3] From Native Science publication on “Comparisons between Indigenous and Scientific Knowledge”

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