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Agrawal 1995 (Arun, “Dismantling the Divide Between Indigenous and Scientific Knowledge” Development and Change Vol. 26 (1995), 413-439.)

A number of inconsistencies and problems mark the assertions from the neoindigenistas. Their case seems superficially persuasive. Indigenous knowledge and peoples, the argument goes, are disappearing all over the world as a direct result of the pressures of modernization. Their disappearance, in turn, constitutes an enormous loss to humanity since they possess the potential to remedy many of the problems that have emasculated development strategies during the past five decades. Greater efforts must, therefore, be made to save, document and apply indigenous strategies of survival. But neo-indigenistas remain committed to the same kind of dichotomous classification that dominated the world view of the modernization theorists,* in spite of their seeming opposition to the idea that indigenous institutions and knowledge are obstacles to the march by the Angel of Progress. Both groups of theorists seek to create two categories of knowledge - western and indigenous - relying on the possibility that a finite and small number of characteristics can define the elements contained within the categories. This attempt is bound to fail because different indigenous and western knowledges possess specific histories, particular burdens from the past, and distinctive patterns of change. Colin MacCabe (1988: xvii) puts it: ‘any one world is always, also, a radical heterogeneity which radiates out in a tissue of differences that undoes the initial identity’. Western knowledge is supposedly guided by empirical measurements and abstract principles that help order the measured observations to facilitate the testing of hypotheses. Yet, by what yardstick of common measure can one club together the knowledges generated by such western philosophers as Hume and Foucault, Derrida and Von Neumann, or Said and F ~ g e l ?And by what tortuous stretch of imagination would one assert similarities between the Azande beliefs in witchcraft (Evans-Pntchard, 1936), and the decision-making strategies of the Raika shepherds in western India (Agrawal, 1993, 1994), or between the beliefs among different cultures on intersexuality (Geertz, 1983: SW), and the marketing activities in traditional peasant communities (Bates, 198 1; Schwimmer, 1979)? Thus, on the one hand we find striking differences among philosophies and knowledges commonly viewed as indigenous, or western. On the other hand we may also discover that elements separated by this artificial divide share substantial similarities, as, for example, agroforestry, and the multiple tree cropping systems of small-holders in many parts of the world (Rocheleau, 1987; Thrupp, 1985, 1989); agronomy, and the indigenous techniques for domestication of crops (Reed, 1977; Rhoades, 1987, 1989); taxonomy, and the plant classifications of the Hanunoo or the potato classifications of the Peruvian farmers (Brush, 1980; Conklin, 1957); or rituals surrounding football games in the United States, and, to use a much abused example, the Balinese cockfight. A classification of knowledge into indigenous and western is bound to fail not just because of the heterogeneity among the elements - the knowledges filling the boxes marked indigenous or western. It also founders at another, possibly more fundamental level. It seeks to separate and fix in time and space (separate as independent, and fix as stationary and unchanging) systems that can never be thus separated or so fixed. Such an attempt at separation requires the two forms of knowledge to have totally divorced historical sequences of change - a condition which the evidence simply does not bear out. According to Levi-Strauss, contact and exchange among different cultures, including between Asia and the Americas, was a fact of life from as early as thousands of years ago (1955: 253-60). Certainly, what is today known and classified as indigenous knowledge has been in intimate interaction with western knowledge since at least the fifteenth century (Abu- Lughod, 1987-88, 1989; Eckholm, 1980; Schneider, 1977; Wallerstein, 1974, 1979a, 1979b; Wolf, 1982). In the face of evidence that suggests contact, variation, transformation, exchange, communication, and learning over the last several centuries, it is difficult to adhere to a view of indigenous and western forms of knowledge being untouched by each other. As Dirks et al. remark (1994: 3), it was the ‘virtual absence of historical investigation in anthropology (because of which) cultural systems have, indeed, appeared timeless, at least until ruptured by “culture contact” ’
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