Posts Tagged ‘anthropology’

Linking Complexity and Indigenous Knowledge

Let me begin by saying that I’m treading on ground that I’m only beginning to explore.  However, I find it fascinating to think about linking cutting edge science with traditional knowledge systems.  In a similar fashion to how ultra-conservative politicians often sounding like left-wingers and hyper-liberals sounding like John Birchers, it’s interesting to explore recent work in complex adaptive systems with very different ways of understanding the world.

Last week in my undergraduate course, Systems Thinking, my TA, Edward Dee, spoke about the Navajo knowledge system in which he was raised, and he began to clarify his own thinking about how many commonalities exist between complex adaptive systems and the Diné concept of hozho or the broader elements of Sa’ah Naagháí Bik’eh Hózh==n. (SNBH), which is often translated as “one’s journey of striving to live a long, harmonious life.”  Edward noted common features of these two world views – in taking a holistic perspective, linking the social and ecological as a single entity, seeing emergent behavior (as in the example of the Red Ant Way in Diné tradition or how individual interactions lead to a collective behavior unpredicted by the individual actions in complexity jargon), and drawing on multiple ways of understanding.

In following up on his class, I came across a blog posting on hozho that clearly explains what I was trying to comprehend in a straightforward layperson’s account.  The website is at, which surprised me as I consider myself a scholar of Resilience Thinking.  The website draws on the academic literature of resilience but does so in the pursuit of “resilient communities” as part of the Post Carbon Institute.  I know very little about this organization at this point, but I did find the post on hozho to be very nice.  Click here to see the article:

Enjoy.  I’ll post more as I learn more about the topic.

Place-based Knowledge in a World of Globalization


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 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.