Symposium On Academic Dependency & Indigenous Knowledge: The Role Of Social Sciences

Symposium On Academic Dependency & Indigenous Knowledge: The Role Of Social Sciences

By Siri Gamage –

A symposium on the above-mentioned theme was held between 12-14 December, 2019 at University of Peradeniya with local and international participation. It was organised by the Social affairs journal team led by the Chief Editor Shanti Wijesinghe in collaboration with the faculty of arts.  The aim was to critically examine dominant epistemological frameworks and methodologies in the Social Sciences and Humanities as they are practiced in higher education institutions together with their relevance to understand and explain contemporary political, economic, social, and cultural issues in the global south. Furthermore, it aimed to explore alternative epistemological frameworks, theories, and methods that are based on intellectual traditions in countries of the global South with a particular focus on Asia.

Inaugural session was held on 12 December 2019 with a welcome address by Prof. S.N. Wijesinghe, Convener of the Symposium, Prof.  Upul B. Dissanayake, Vice Chancellor, University of Peradeniya, and Prof. O.G. Dayaratne Banda, Dean, Faculty of Arts.  Keynote Address was delivered by Emeritus Prof. Asanga Tillakaratne, University of Colombo.

A major theme discussed in the academic sessions was the impact of colonialism in redefining and privileging what is considered as legitimate knowledge in social sciences and the continuing influence of the same in higher education marginalizing indigenous knowledge and its means of production.  Presentations included a critique of inherited disciplinary knowledge in social sciences, how this knowledge excludes indigenous knowledge traditions and embodiments, and inculcate the Western (i.e. Euro American) social science knowledge among students claiming it to be objective and scientific. Presenters like Raewyn Connell and Siri Gamage from Australia emphasized how there are equally valid knowledge systems in the global south including in South Asia that need to be incorporated in the social science knowledge discourses.  They highlighted the usefulness of post-colonial sociology, Southern Theory, and  subaltern theory for developing an anti- hegemonic knowledge discourse in social sciences suitable for de-colonial conditions. 

In the keynote address, Professor Asanga Thialakratne proposed that Buddhism is a system of thought providing important insights serving as both a tool for critique of the dominant knowledge system and a resource for constructing an alternative epistemological framework. He further stated that ‘Buddhism can be understood as a critical response to its contemporary theories of knowledge and world views. Being a Shramana tradition, it rejected the Brahmanic absolutist views, Atman and Brahman (individual soul and creator God), and the social structure marked by preferential treatment of social groups. He said that the positive implications of Buddhist epistemology for understanding contemporary social, political, economic, and cultural issues are not be hard to see. These remarks were followed up in later sessions which included topics such as the shifts and dynamics of Buddhist preaching tradition in Sri Lanka, and Locating the “Self” between Historical and Ahistorical Critical Traditions in Ananda Coomarswamy’s The Living Thoughts of Gotama the Buddha. 

In the papers that addressed issues when incorporating indigenous knowledge in social sciences, further important perspectives were presented. For example, Ashish Saxena stated that ‘indigenous knowledge serves to empower local communities by ascribing validity to long held beliefs and their logical underpinnings. Therefore, devising creative ways and means of constructing indigenous Social Sciences based on such knowledge is the need of the hour’. According to Saxena, ‘Indian Sociology was dialectical and deeply rooted in a nationalist consciousness shaped by the leadership of the Indian reform movement including gurus like Raja Rammohan Roy, Vivekananda, Dayan and Saraswati, Phule, Gandhi, Ambedkar. According to Karori Singh-another Indian sociologist – however, dominant pedagogy and epistemology still had a Western orientation which was not in consonance with the needs, aspirations, and life of the Indian people. The current Indian education system has a strong Western bias which precludes the re-introduction of indigenous epistemology into its framework, despite the many reform measures taken during the immediate post-colonial period… The new education policy of the Indian government must, therefore, decipher the epistemic challenge for reintroducing indigenous epistemology in consonance with the national aspirations.  

Imran Sabir from Pakistan suggested that although self-reflexivity of modern scientific academic practice has produced much critical literature on the way the global knowledge market asymmetrically impacts the global North and South, very few concentrated efforts have been made to theorize the way local realities are largely disregarded in comparison to global stakes in the process of knowledge production. Using examples from Pakistan, he questioned the taken- for-granted acceptance of such an internationalization of knowledge, while drawing attention to the many local populations who are barred from the whole process of knowledge production and consumption. He was critical of the outgrowth of so- called professionals and pseudo-intellectuals in various domains of Social Sciences producing knowledge with minimal relevance to the genuine issues of society, inconsistent pedagogical methods, and an alien medium of instruction employed by university teachers to train emerging local Social Scientists. In doing so, he stated that the ultimate goal is to produce knowledge for the international knowledge market, rather than utilize the insights to cater to the needs of local society. These views have important implications for other South Asian countries

Pradeep Peiris examined the dominance of western knowledge in political science and alternative knowledge configurations. He illustrated how research projects are not only  influenced by the Western episteme but also by Western political agendas. Local researchers often play a passive role in these research initiatives due to various reasons ranging from funds often being raised by Western research partners, placing their local counterparts on a considerably lower pedestal, to the lack of viable alternative methodological and/ or theoretical frames. Though these research projects focus on local society and politics, the intended audience is largely in the West, or due to the intellectual lethargy of local research teams the influence of Western approaches is hardly ever resisted. Therefore, he argued that the dialectical relationship between the influence of the Western episteme and the dynamics of current socio-political knowledge production continue to reproduce conditions within which alternative epistemologies are hardly appreciated.

Richard Chenhall Kate Senior and Daphne Daniels explored Changing Representations and Knowledge Production in a Remote Aboriginal Australian Community. They explored the role the news has had in documenting and preserving aspects of the community’s history and how engagement with some of this material has fostered an interest in a more active involvement with archival material relating to the community. In recent years, the newspaper has become a catalyst for the assertion of rights to knowledge production and has raised concerns about the construction of narratives of the community and their cultural assets. 

A paper by R M M Chandrarathne examined Practices of Indigenous Knowledge among the Vedda Community in Sri Lanka and how they contributed to the continued sustenance as a community by maintaining the balance of the ecological system in which they live. Sumitha Senanayake explored Ananda Coomarswamy’s The Living Thoughts of Gotama the Buddha that calls upon both a historical method for understanding the self and an a-historical Buddhist method for approaching the self. Shalini Abayasekara explored the effects of English language variations in academic practice and how they are perceived in terms of standard vs World English in the context of post-colonial theory. Emmanuel Kaghondi’s view was that the ideal approach to music curriculum must disrupt, repair, and transform churchly neurophysiological sonic perceptions in the community that due to colonialism and later globalization, have continued to be divorced from indigenous knowledge. The British model bears marks of European missionaries’ anti- indigenous music and knowledge dispositions. Its result is a situation of up-rootedness of students from their indigenous musical material and hence the community musical fabric. The Mbeyu njija musical project that he was involved is an attempt to re-member the Tanzanian audience with its inner-lost self by bringing it back in contact with its fading memories of indigenous sonic aesthetics and soundscapes. 

Some sessions were devoted to the examination of indigenous knowledge in medicine. Topics covered included Traditional Medical Practitioners’ Perception towards Absorbing Technology in the Field of Traditional Medicine, Traditional Islamic Medicine, Ethno-Medicine and Local Knowledge in Sri Lanka, and Indigenous Traditional Knowledge on Medicinal Plants Use among Indigenous Communities of Peninsular Malaysia.

Symposium ended with a Saraswathi Sangeetha Pooja, A South Asian Heritage for Harmony and Spirituality. It is a longstanding and integral part of Peradeniya’s aesthetic tradition. SSP was initiated in the late 1970s and continues to date, with a pooja held on the 1st Saturday night of every month. Delegates thoroughly enjoyed this event which lasted for 11 hours (19.00 to 6.00).  Symposium coordinator organised visits to Nelligala Buddhist temple, Peradeniya Botanical garden, Dalada Maligava and Kandy city.

Overall, this was a unique event in the University’s history in terms of critically examining social science related knowledge heritage from a regional perspective and looking at the various ways indigenous knowledge has been marginalised as well as diverse and effective applications of the same.  Selected papers will be published in the Social Affairs journal, special issue in 2020. 

Courtesy: Colombo Telegraph