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Episode 36

Ways of Knowing

Exploration of similarities and differences among Eurocentric sciences, Indigenous, and Neo-indigenous ways of knowing, to hopefully offer insights to science educators. Better understanding of these ways of knowing could help build bridges between our knowledge systems and other ways of knowing.

Article Discussed

Aikenhead, G.S., Ogawa, M. (2007). Indigenous knowledge and science revisited. Cultural Studies of Science Education. 2, 539–620. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11422-007-9067-8

Euro-American ways of knowing or Eurocentric sciences

  • Uniformitarian

    • Refers to the generalizability of scientific knowledge. Knowledge is valuable if it can be generalized to similar settings or situations. There is only one truth.
  • Reductionist.

    • Complex problems or systems are approached by breaking it down into parts or variables.
  • Anthropocentric.

    • Nature is seen in terms of its relationship to people. How useful it is to people. People are also free to manipulate and use nature as they see fit.
  • Influenced by positivism

    • A system of thought which attempts to produce a science free from any worldview or ideology. Emphasis is on inductive and deductive logic applied impartially to theory-neutral observations. Making use of empirical and experimental methods. The thinking being that this produces objective, value-free, universal, secure knowledge of nature.

Indigenous ways of knowing

  • Tend not to make use of dichotomies.

“The languages of Aboriginal peoples allow for the transcendence of boundaries. For example, the categorizing process in many Aboriginal languages does not make use of dichotomies…. There is no animate/inanimate dichotomy. Everything is more or less animate.”

“Aboriginal languages are, for the most part, verb-rich languages that are process- or action-oriented. They are generally aimed at describing ‘‘happenings’’ rather than objects.”

-Leroy Little Bear

  • Holistic and relational

    • Tends not to make the distinctions made by Europeans between concepts like science, art, religion. Also tend to see everything as animate in some way, having knowledge and spirit. Don’t tend to have a hierarchy of status where plants are below animals, which are below people. Similarities between entities and people mean they are often also considered related to people.
  • Place-based

    • Knowledge and identity are profoundly linked with place or landscape.
  • Systematically empirical

    • Experience is collected over generations, incorporating or embracing changes. New information is “vetted collaboratively with wise knowledge keepers (often Elders), and all are tested out in the everyday world of personal experience.” (p.562)
  • Circular/Cyclical sense of time.

    • Embraces cycles and patterns. Time is dynamic but is not a linear progression.

Neo-indigenous ways of knowing

The authors identify neo-indigenous cultures as

“non-Eurocentric cultures with a long standing history often tied to a geographic region. This history does not include being colonized by Western nations to the degree so many Indigenous peoples were.”

“Indigenous cultures worldwide are heterogeneous, yet neo-indigenous cultures are far more heterogeneous. For instance, Islamic, Bhutanese, and Japanese ways of knowing nature differ so widely that no one culture can be reasonably indicative of the others, in spite of their being non- Eurocentric.”


The authors in this article focus on the Japanese worldview. Highlighting the difference between the action-oriented concept of ‘shiru’ which roughly translates as ‘to know’, and ‘chishiki’, roughly translated as ‘knowledge’.

“From a Japanese person’s view of reality, knowing nature arises from praxis and metaphysics, whereas knowledge is something extracted and abstracted from reality by a Eurocentric point of view.”

“There is no Japanese translation for ‘‘the content of what is known’’ that would capture a Japanese perspective. In other words, shiru and chishiki are not directly related in Japanese, but to know and knowledge are directly related in English.”


They also spend time on the concept of ‘shizen’ which is often translated as nature, but also incorporates the interrelationship between humans and the environment they inhabit.

“Another way to compare shizen (as a noun) and nature is in the context of education. An education in shizen implies loving natural things in a totality with human experiences (verb oriented), while an education in nature (i.e., in Eurocentric sciences) implies the acquisition of knowledge of nature conventionally isolated from human experiences (noun oriented)."


Discussion Notes

Have you seen or encountered examples of different ways of understanding the world?

A pond might be ‘clean’ in the sense of being free from pesticides, fertilizers, or other toxins, but still be unsanitary or unsafe for drinking. It may be that neither of these dimensions have any bearing on the spiritual purity/pollution of the water.

  • Authority / expertise
    • Lived experience vs Academic knowledge
    • Who is an expert? Adults, Scientists, people with experience etc.

What is sufficient might vary from person to person. Adults sometimes want more academic/scientific sources for an explanation, where first-hand experience of a phenomenon may be enough for a child.

Reliance on experts for information may undermine individual’s drive to learn on their own. However individual first-hand investigation has limitations, and solely relying on this may lead to developing misconceptions.

Adapting to different paradigms

What do you already do, or have done, which could be adapted to these different paradigms?

  • Incorporate more art into environmental communication

  • Change the way we talk about and look at the natural world. Learn to see from more holistic viewpoints.

  • Experiential learning

    • Gardening is a good example. It is very place-based, cyclical, and can be very empirical. Gardeners are constantly testing wisdom passed on from other gardeners.
  • Consider the relevance of what students learn.

    • Conceptualizing learning as ‘shiru’, which blends knowledge and how it shapes behaviour. The relevance of learning is built in. Learned ideas include how it changes the way you live or behave. All ‘shiru’ is practical.
  • Rethink dichotomies

    • Rethinking person/animal dichotomy might help with building respect
    • Similarly rethinking the animate/inanimate dichotomy might help people have greater respect for the environments they depend on
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