Holism and the Big Cheese

Comparing lenses

Thinking about Native science means thinking about western science, and forces you to examine holism and reductionism. Once a student told me about a course she took on time management, and said the instructor recommended the Swiss cheese approach.

The Swiss cheese approach means poking holes in the problem and metaphorically breaking down tasks into smaller portions. Thus the instructor recommended a reductionist method; breaking down the issue into discrete bits.

This makes sense, and the approach undergirds how we are taught and how we teach. Because I teach research methods, I construct the course so that students learn how to break down their research questions into manageable slices. One compelling reason is that some students are truly frightened by the big picture approach: it can be paralyzing. They don’t know where to begin.

Conducting research is like sewing a shirt. You start with discrete parts and stitch them together to construct the whole. I think Native scientists and Western scientists would agree.

Where they disagree is how and when to invoke the big picture. After reading the texts of Native scientists I noticed that they rarely lose sight of the big picture and the linkages between the discrete bits. In fact, relationships are key to understanding Indian epistemologies and—to extend the fabric metaphor—of key importance is attending to how you stitch together the pieces. In Western approaches sometimes we’re sloppy with the stitching and just want to get the shirt sewn. In Native science one heeds the process, keeping the big picture in mind.

In the case of Kennewick Man, an anthropologist sent off a chunk of bone of the 9,000 year-old skeleton for carbon dating. Critics cited this action as reductionist thinking—breaking apart the skeleton into discrete bits. Another lens to view the action is to consider the linkages between the processes of studying the skeleton. Each action is part of the discovery, and each action (from a Native perspective) requires thoughtful and respectful methods. And that really ticked off the local tribes who thought the skeleton was treated like an object rather than a relative. The Big Picture forces you to consider Kennewick Man in the social and political contexts.


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in human origin, Indian, Native Science, repatriation, science. Bookmark the permalink.

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