Start Geo Dictionary | Overview | Topics | Groups | Categories | Bookmark this page.
geology dictionary - geography encyclopedia  
Full text search :        
   A   B   C   D   E   F   G   H   I   J   K   L   M   N   O   P   Q   R   S   T   U   V   W   X   Y   Z   #   



local knowledge

  A term first coined by the English philosopher Gordon Ryle, and popularized by the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1983). Local knowledge now refers to the two-part idea that first, all knowledge is located and geographically and historically bounded, and second, that the local conditions of its manufacture affect substantively the nature of the knowledge produced. Note that local knowledge does not mean knowledge of only a restricted geographical area. Local refers to the context in which knowledge is produced, not the geographical domain to which the knowledge applies. Stephen Hawking\'s theory of the universe, for example, is a piece of local knowledge even though the theory\'s explanatory province is infinitely large.

To take in turn the two parts of the definition, by \'located and geographically and historically bounded\' is meant that knowledge is historically constrained, and produced within particular material settings which include, for example, the geographical site, particular kinds of human bodies, and specific types of buildings, machines and equipment. A key word here is \'produced\'. As a process, producing knowledge contrasts with the conventional view that knowledge is acquired through discovery (meaning literally \'uncover\'). In the discovery view, knowledge is assumed free-floating and pre-existent, for example, as Platonic forms (see universalism), requiring only the right conditions to be revealed. To say that knowledge is produced, however, suggests something different; that there is an active process of creative construction \'on site\' according to specific local rules and conditions. Specifically, producing knowledge entails a confluence of the right conditions of production: people, places, ideas and material artefacts (see situated knowledge). Examples might be: Marx poring over the records of factory inspectors at the British Museum in the 1860s in order to write Das Kapital; or graduate students making vigorous use of large desk calculators in the statistics laboratory at the University of Iowa in the late 1950s, and in so doing producing geography\'s quantitative revolution.

By \'local conditions affect the knowledge produced\' is meant that the material and historical setting, and the various social interests associated with it, enter into the very lineaments of knowledge itself. The reason is that the production of knowledge is a social activity. Knowledge does not come from the sky, from heavenly inspiration, but from engaging in particular kinds of social practices that are historically and geographically variable. Knowledge is therefore irreducibly social, never innocent, and always coloured by the context of its production. Examples are legion: environmental determinism perfectly expressed (and legitimated) the racist and imperialist impulses of late-nineteenth-century Europe; regional science assiduously represented the instrumentalist, masculinist, and economistic sentiments of mid-twentieth-century America; and postmodernism reflects a late-twentieth-century restless consumer capitalism constituted by flickering images and fabricated identities. All knowledge, then, is local knowledge, born from specific contexts (cf. consumption, geography of). The important corollary is that universal claims to Truth are unsupportable. All knowledge claims are made inside the circle of local context, with no means of moving outside for \'a God\'s eye view\', as Haraway (1991, p. 193) puts it.

Local knowledge, then, is local in a double sense. First, it is produced in limited geographical and historical settings (and not everywhere), and second, its claims to truth are not inherently universal (see universalism).

There have been two main groups of scholars concerned with local knowledge. First, anthropologists, and especially ethnographers, have long struggled with the problem of understanding and representing difference; in their case, cultures that are typically vastly different from their own. Early ethnographers dealt with the difficulty by judging the Other according to their own invariably western standards taken as universal. More recently, though, ethnographers, such as Clifford Geertz (1988, p. 137), have argued for the impossibility of \'telling it like it is\' because ethnographic accounts are as much about the world of the representer as the world of the represented (and so transparently obvious in those early ethnographies; Geertz, 1988). Ethnographers, then, have come up against the problem of local knowledge. One recent complication, however, is the effect of an increasingly fluid, mobile, and hyperactive world on the very notion of local knowledge. James Clifford (1986, p. 22) writes, \'A conceptual shift, “tectonic” in its implications, has taken place. We ground things, now, on a moving earth. There is no longer any place of overview (mountaintop) from which to map the human ways of life. … [O]ne cannot occupy, unambiguously, a bounded cultural world from which to journey out and analyze other cultures.\' Knowledge is still produced at specific sites, but it also travels. Knowledge is now inter-local, though never universal.

A tectonic shift has also occurred in the philosophy and sociology of science since the early 1960s. Prior to Kuhn\'s (1962) work (see paradigm), the \'standard model\' of scientific practice was that of the dispassionate scientist systematically applying universal, rational methods to unlock the truths of an inert, material world. But since Kuhn, and the various offspring he in effect spawned (science, geography and), the standard model has been increasingly criticized (Barnes, 1996, pp. 106-21). The main objection is that science should be conceived as a social activity with all the implied biases, inconsistencies, rationalizations, and divided loyalties. Scientific knowledge, like any knowledge, is shot full of social interests, reflecting the time and place of its manufacture: it is local knowledge. Initially the Edinburgh school, and later feminists, such as Haraway (1989), provided detailed, often historical, studies laying bare those social interests (for example, Shapin and Schaffer\'s, 1985, study of Boyle\'s air pump experiments). Later work, such as Latour and Woolgar (1979), concentrated on very specific local sites, such as the laboratory, and concomitant micro practices of research and relations of power that produce knowledge. The point here, as Rouse (1987, p. 72) writes, is that scientists \'go from one local knowledge to another rather than from universal theories to their particular instantiations\'. Again, there is a sense of local knowledge travelling; in this case, proceeding hesitantly and provisionally from one particular site and type of practice to another (see also actor-network theory).

Ironically geography\'s recent past has been dominated by the quest for universal knowledge rather than the local kind. The discipline\'s postwar history is intimately bound up with the search for Grand Theory and attendant universality, essentialism and foundationalism. Things are beginning to change, however, with an increasingly post-structural sensibility. Although the term local knowledge is not always used, the sentiments it expresses are now found in recent works on the history of the discipline (Livingstone, 1992); identity politics (Pile and Thrift, 1995); the geography of development (Slater, 1992; see also Eurocentrism); and economic geography (Barnes, 1996). (See also contextual effect; neighbourhood effect.) (TJB)

References Barnes, T.J. 1996: Logics of dislocation: models, metaphors and meanings of economic space. New York: Guilford. Clifford, J. 1986: Introduction: partial truths. In J. Clifford, and G.E. Marcus, eds, Writing culture: the poetics and politics of enquiry. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1-26. Geertz. G. 1983: Local knowledge: further essays in interpretive anthropology. New York: Basic Books. Geertz, C. 1988: Works and lives: the anthropologist as author. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. Haraway, D.J. 1989: Primate visions: gender, race and nature in the world of modern science. New York: Routledge. Haraway, D.J. 1991: Simians, cyborgs and women: the reinvention of nature. New York: Routledge. Kuhn, T. 1962: The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Latour, B. and Woolgar, S. 1979: Laboratory life: the construction of scientific facts. London: Sage. Livingstone, D.N. 1992: The geographical tradition: episodes in a contested enterprise. Oxford: Blackwell. Pile, S. and Thrift, N.J., eds, 1995: Mapping the subject: geographies of cultural transformation. London: Routledge. Rouse, J. 1987: Knowledge and power: towards a political philosophy of science. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. Shapin, S. and Schaffer, S. 1985: Leviathan and the air pump: Hobbes, Boyle and the experimental life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Slater, D. 1992: On the borders of social theory: learning from other regions. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 10: 307-27.

Suggested Reading Barnes (1996), chs 4 and 8. Rouse (1987), ch. 4.



Bookmark this page:



<< former term
next term >>
local state


Other Terms : feudalism | disorganized capitalism | health and health care, geography of
Home |  Add new article  |  Your List |  Tools |  Become an Editor |  Tell a Friend |  Links |  Awards |  Testimonials |  Press |  News |  About
Copyright ©2009 GeoDZ. All rights reserved.  Terms of Use  |  Privacy Policy  |  Contact Us