Cosmopolitan science

A question of context?

Scholars have been ruminating over Native science, wondering how to position it with—or against—Western science. But as one colleague at the National Museum of the American Indian recently told me, “Once you label something as Indian science it becomes a little less.” So why can’t Native science just be called….science?

In his book on Zapotec science, Roberto Gonzales makes a case for keeping the two epistemologies distinct, while noting there’s much overlap. He refers to indigenous knowledge as “local science” and modern, western knowledge as “cosmopolitan science.” Local science is informed by observation, practice, application and tradition. Local science is intimate and rational. Cosmopolitan science is global in scope, also rational, and subject to universal axioms and laws. Gonzales is attempting to elevate indigenous science, but I have to admit that the label of “local” makes it sound like “Little Science” and “Big Science.”

The conversation reminds me of my first graduate class in research methods. We learned methods from Earl Babbie’s ubiquitous social science text, which I still use in classes today (a newer version, natch). My communication profs were keen on survey research and I cut my teeth on the fine art of doing field and mail interviews (this was before the internet caught fire as a survey channel). We massaged the data on a mainframe computer at Cornell, so I learned SPSS the old-fashioned way and I schlepped my two girls, a blanket and some crayons to keep them occupied while we “did runs.” (By the time I did my doctoral work at Madison, SPSS found its way to desktop computers and the girls could draw at home).

Our professor said that if we wanted to do quality research, we needed to avoid regionality and concentrate on national (and international) data. She said journals were biased in favor of publishing articles that had wider implications, and that local findings paled by comparison.

I didn’t question the assumptions: my role in graduate school translated to sponge and I absorbed what the cognoscenti shared with us. I am stuck to the assumption that a national survey has more currency than a regional one. This makes sense if you want to ask folks who they favor in the next presidential race, and thus, the faculty in our program were more interested in national politics.

But if you want to know how people feel about building a casino in your hometown, a regional analysis makes the most sense. Context, therefore, is paramount.  

Because Native Science emerges from place, it’s critical to locate indigenous epistemology at its fount. So Gonzales is correct that indigenous science is local science. And it’s not just science: place feeds the marrow of indigenous epistemology and ontology. Vine Deloria Jr. and Daniel Wildcat eloquently wrote that “Indigenous people represent a culture emergent from a place. And they actively draw on the power of that place physically and personally” (2001, p. 32).

So, if we are to elevate Native Science, or Local Science, alongside Cosmopolitan Science, then as social scientists we need to rethink regionality and embrace context.

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About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. She is enrolled with the Osage tribe.
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