Selected Publications - Abstract

Cleveland, David A. and Daniela Soleri (2002) Indigenous and scientific knowledge of plant breeding: Similarities, differences, and implications for collaboration. In Participating in Development: Approaches to Indigenous Knowledge. ASA Monographs, Vol. 39. Paul Sillitoe, Alan Bicker, and Johan Pottier, editors, pp. 206-234. London: Routledge.


Indigenous or local knowledge and modern, scientific knowledge have become increasingly separated in the process of modernization, and have often been assumed to be fundamentally different. In a world with unprecedented human impact on the environment, characterized by biophysical and sociocultural globalization, both the necessity of this separation, and the assumption of fundamental differences need to be problematized. The question of how similar or different scientific knowledge and indigenous knowledge are, and how they might work together to help solve the problems of 'development', has immense practical and ethical implications. It also has immense theoretical importance-for better understanding the relationship between knowledge, action, and environment (the world of things and actions outside of the mind) has the potential for improving the efficiency of consciously directed (teleological) human adaptation, e.g. for 'sustainable' interventions. It can help us to discriminate the general from the particular, an essential prerequisite for policy at all levels. At the same time, an important test of theory is its practical efficacy-the results of its application to understanding and solving human-environment problems.

We illustrate the potential of theory-based investigation of indigenous and scientific knowledge by comparing the knowledge and practice of small-scale maize farmers in Oaxaca, Mexico, with scientific maize breeders, using a holistic theory of knowledge and basic plant breeding theory. We focus on knowledge of heritability of maize traits as determined by interaction of genotype and environment, a fundamental concept in biology (often discussed in anthropology as 'nature versus nurture'), and the relationship between this knowledge and the practice of plant breeding. We ask two main questions. First, 'To what extent are farmers' and plant breeders' knowledges and practices similar or different regarding maize genotypes (varieties, populations and plants) and growing environments (fields, selection and test plots)?' Second, 'How can answers to the first question contribute to the process of collaboration between farmers and plant breeders, with the goal of developing varieties that better fulfill farmers needs?'

While farmers' knowledge is local, it can also be based on the same generalizable theories about crops and environments as is plant breeders'. The contingencies of plant breeders' experiences with unique genotypes, environments, and social contexts, renders their knowledge local also. Understanding that farmer and scientist knowledges are both local and both generalizable may open up new possibilities for communication between farmers and scientists, and for understanding how these knowledges can complement each other to the benefit of both farmers and scientists.

While plant breeders may all believe that the fundamental biological model is universally valid, they increasingly disagree on its interpretation as the number of variables and their relationships increase. We have suggested that claims for generalizability, especially by breeders unfamiliar with the situations of farmers, may be invalid, in the same way that claims of farmers based on locality may be invalid because they do no have wider experience of genotypes and environments. The minority of plant breeders with wider experience, and the minority of farmers with wider experience, may have conceptions of genotypes and environments different to the majority. This can form the basis for furthering theoretical understanding that can be communicated to a larger number of farmers and plant breeders.

Our holistic theoretical approach to understanding knowledge is meant to problematize assumptions about fundamental or inherent differences between indigenous knowledge and scientific knowledge, and facilitate investigation of possible similarities as well as differences. We have assumed that greater understanding can provide farmers and local scientists with conceptual tools they can use to adapt or develop their own innovations to best meet their needs. This is also an assumption that needs to be carefully tested, however. Though we are well aware that our application of holistic knowledge theory has so far been biased toward the scientific model, a holistic approach helps us to be cognizant of the limits of that model, and is leading us in the direction of more detailed investigation of the sociocultural and epistemological basis of farmer and plant breeder knowledge, including work with farmers and plant breeders in different areas of the world, working with different crops.