Merging Networks: Traditional Ecological Knowledge

McQuire (2006) speaks of four “strands” of alternative conceptualizations of technology that begin to emerge in the 70s. Here, I want to highlight the third strand, where he mentions Western technology in relation to that of alternative, ‘non-western’ communities. The critique relates to the notion that ‘localized’ indigenous knowledge systems are marginalized in comparison to universal claims of knowledge perpetuated by ‘Western’ technology.

Environmental scientists tend to put an emphasis on what they term “Traditional Ecological Knowledge” (TEK). TEK is a “body of knowledge, belief, and practice” accumulated and handed down through generations of indigenous communities (Wikipedia). The theory concerns the relationship of living beings with their traditional groups and environment.

Over the years, scientists have begun to acknowledge these forms of knowledge, as they provide a deep and long-standing understanding of ecological systems, in relation to Western scientific understandings of the same systems that comparatively have a much shorter historical knowledge. By putting more emphasis on TEK, its legitimacy increases by providing a framework of knowledge that can be worked with in conjunction with Western science. This combines the two systems of knowledge, maximizing the potential for solutions.

Conceptually, this allows for the merging of two different networks of knowledge by providing opportunities to form new links, in order to find new, alternative solutions. In practice however, this merging will often lead to the butting of heads between these two very different system-based approaches, slowing down the application of solutions in an environmental context. Some limitations in TEK include:

  • Technology can provide benefits that override constraints in TEK
  • Consequences are not always predictable – have impacts as strong as non-traditional methods
  • Focus on the local makes it difficult to apply to larger scale problems
  • TEK cannot override external impacts; for example, expanding eco-tourism industry (focus on economic benefits will usually trump environmental advantages)

Despite this, The idea of merging these systems still persists, and has been applied successfully on many occasions. For example, in Sweden in 2001, a common-pool crayfish resource was dealing with water acidification issues; applying TEK methods protected the whole watershed, preventing overexploitation of the resource (Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, Peter Coppolillo – Conservation: Linking Ecology, Economics, and Culture).

This kind of approach has many benefits, yet shows the challenge in merging such different networks of knowledge. Over time however, and a little bit of optimism, the links between these networks will adapt and strengthen and will allow for a more holistic approach in applying solutions in environmental contexts.

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2 Comments

  1. hmmmm, very very interesting. Kinda want to know about this. So I am again responding to this with very little knowledge of the area BUT I want to address the last part when you said the diffcult of ‘merging’ such different networks of knowledge. I must agree that when interdisiplinary or transdisiciplinary crossing happens, such critiques are not only important but necessary.

    However, if we are to find (and I believe we will or at least I hope we will) or acknowledge that TEK and other other strands did not develop insolation, then such merging of two discrete strands does not seem hard to imagine. I’m not suggesting to reduce these two rich traditions or robbing TEK of its autonomy but I think some disciniplinary cuts happened/determined… am I making any sense…

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    1. I agree! I think that is the point of attempting to merge the two disciplines. Unfortunately, the ‘legitimacy’ of TEK is determined by its acknowledgement by Western scientists which is a whole power relationship that is an issue in and of itself.

      That said, through the inclusion of TEK, in conjunction with Western science, I would say that it increases opportunities for solutions, rather than depending on only one strain of knowledge.

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