Legacy Note / Changed Views

(this is a legacy file; included for posterity. My opinions on this topic have WIDELY CHANGED and I do not agree with the text below) I see the following text as naive and almost reactionary.

Changed Views

As of 19/04/24 I no longer endorse the view of the text. Not only did I seem to focus too much on one single aspect (science being equated with the Western) that I forgot everything about concepts like Michel Foucault’s Power/Knowledge

Thoughts on Briggs & Sharp, 2004 (“Indigenous Knowledges and Development: A Postcolonial Caution”)

The paper titled “Indigenous Knowledges and Development: A Postcolonial Caution” by John Briggs and Joanne Sharp talks about development, indigenous knowledge, western attitudes, and how they all intersect. It draws from postcolonial theory.

The paper talks about how indigenous knowledge is either appropriated or wholly disregarded by the West, especially in terms of development and conservation in favour of the scientific method. It argues that Indigenous knowledge is often seen as a hindrance to development and that indigenous voices are not heard. There is no representation. The locals are not asked what they want and instead, the West’s definition of development is forcefully thrust into their lives.

On Science

It talks about how science commands authority, and how it can be used to enforce, enact, and legitimize Western thought. To quote the paper -

“Formal science still represents a powerful body of knowledge, and it is still the language of authority and dominance in many development debates. Indeed, Pretty (1994: 38) has observed that ‘the trouble with normal science is that it gives credibility to opinion only when it is defined in scientific language, which may be inadequate for describing the complex and changing experiences of farmers and other actors in rural development’.”

While I completely agree with authors that dominant thought does not include adequate representation, I disregard their notion of conflating “science” and “ideas of the West”. Throughout the paper, science is treated as a product of the West, and solely the West. It is asinine to treat the entire discipline as nothing more than that. It is not just reductionary but also false. The West may exploit in the name of science, but that does not make it okay to misrepresent science, the scientific method, and the community (all of which rely on empiricism, rationalism, and skepticism).

Has Science been used to promote colonial ideas? Yes. Does that mean Science is inherently bad and is nothing but a vector of “Westernism”? No. Science is self-correcting. Science is open to change.

On Development

The paper says that  “Some approaches to indigenous knowledge can lead to a freezing of traditional cultures and ways of knowing. Such treatment supports indigenous knowledge only if presented as an unchanging presence”. This is rather illuminating. The example provided, of the Ojibwe tribe, shows us “mixing of notions of conservation can lead to quite ridiculous situations, leaving people’s belief systems captured within a Westernised structure”.

I agree with the authors that enforcing beliefs on others is not ethical, and alienates people. In the example, the Ojibwe tribe, the native population of the area were subjected to our ideals of conservation. The Ojibwe tribe has traditional rights to fish in the waters, but their fishing has led to people calling their behaviour “unsporty”. Why? All because the Ojibwe now use motorboats and lamps instead of their traditional methods.

Another example is how Bedouins in the Wadi Allaqi Protected Area are forbidden from killing scorpions and snakes in the name of conservation. However, these animals pose a danger to the community. When they kill these to keep everyone safe, they are committing a crime, legally speaking.

All of this reminds me of “the white man’s burden” or missionaries who considered it their duty to save others by enforcing their beliefs. It reeks of moral superiority and is condescending. When we make a decision, we must make sure it applies locally. Furthermore, we must only do so when the voices within the community ask for it. It is not okay to police others in the name of their own good. Morals, cultures, traditions all differ and should not be treated as a monolith.

This then poses another question, one rooted in Philosophy of Ethics. Do we let harm go on in the name of tradition? We can think of bullfighting in Spain, or closer home the sport of Jallikattu which was banned temporarily before the Government issued orders that it could be continued. Both these sports pose a tremendous risk to the players and the animals.

Or traditional medicine which does cause damage. Traditional medicine may work, but it has high chances of not working or doing more harm than good. I would like to highlight my issue with the authors using this example. Medicine is good, it is great and saves lives. Big Pharma has big profit margins making medicine more expensive. Does that make medicine bad? No. It still saves lives. In the same vein, science is not the boogeyman it is made out to be. We must focus on democratization of science, not reject it and devolve. The false dichotomy introduced is harmful. Also, the paper does not mention what indigenous knowledge comprises nor does it explain the definition of development it is using.


With that being said, I do agree with the authors that science is being used to legitimize people’s opinions and to enforce them on others. The problem we face is multi-faceted and does not have a one-size-fits-all approach. We must always consult the people whom it affects instead of assuming that we “know better”. This robs them of their agency. The policing of the affairs of people that do not fit the narrow lens of anglo-centrism is unacceptable. At the same time, separating science wholly and making a demarcation sets a bad precedent and could lead to another dimension of “us vs them” which will benefit none.