Place-based Knowledge in a World of Globalization

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The photo above shows US Forest Service cultural officers on Agua Fria National Monument with decades of experience in the area meeting along with natural scientists and field officers from the BLM, Arizona Game and Fish and dozens of other stakeholders.  Many of the field officers and stakeholders have also worked in the area for many years.  The stakeholder field trip at which this photo was taken brought together a tremendous amount of local expertise and resulted in great collaboration.  As a scientist new to the region, this gathering was enlightening, exciting, and disheartening in that it showed the clear limits to my own local knowledge.

This type of engagement exemplifies literature on the importance of traditional or local knowledge from research on social-ecological systems and clearly draws on anthropological findings from the last several decades.  Kudos to the anthropologist for leading the charge for so long.  Finally, others are getting on the bandwagon.

However, the dilemma that emerges in the globalized world of much of today’s scholarship is that academics rarely have the luxury or time horizons to develop this place-based knowledge.  With notable exceptions, it seems that the majority of academics praise the idea of place-based knowledge while practicing the opposite.  As we fly around the world drawing comparisons between disparate cases (see link to this critical review of Jared Diamond’s latest comparative study “The World until Yesterday” at http://www.columbia.edu/~saw2156/HunterBlatherer.pdf) or creating larger and larger databases (see my own work with the SESMAD project), we improve our generalizability and strengthen external validity.  But I’m afraid that this is often at the expense of a more comprehensive understanding of local peculiarities and strong internal validation.

This reminds me of a story that my grandfather told me.  A lifelong farmer, with a deep knowledge of the fields, weather, and natural surroundings from decades of work, he tells of meeting a university agriculture officer.  The young, well-educated man spent a day with my grandfather deriding practice after practice that my grandfather used.  My grandfather silently continued to take the “expert” around the farm while listening to the harangue.  At the end of the day, the university man said, “This is so out-of-date.  I’ll bet that you don’t even get a bushel of apples off of that tree.”  My grandfather responded, “I reckon that you’re right.  That’s a pear tree.”

Amidst the excitement of new (dare I say, exotic) sites and the pursuit of widely ranging ideas, it’s easy to get drawn in new directions and field sites.  But I hope that, in spite of the incentives pushing us more widely afield, we can bear in mind the great ecological and anthropological research that emerged solely because of the development of local knowledge.  Even more, I hope that we can bear in mind the story from my grandfather.

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