25 June, 2021

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

By Siri Gamage

Dr. 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. 

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Latest comments

  • 4
    1

    Thanks for this write up on the symposium, Siri.
    The fact is that Buddhism has a lot to teach contemporary ECONOMICS, particularly neoliberal consumerist and growth fetishizing economic orthodoxy that is produced in Euro-Amercian “centers” of knowledge production. An economic model that has led directly to climate disaster.

    Buddhist Economics, which is the title of a book by a feminist economist in California, should be a subject that is developed and taught in all universities as part of a critique of the current growth-fetishizing economic development model that has caused a global epidemic of inequality, conflict and enabled the US military industrial complex and deep state to turn Rogue State with 800 military bases all over the world – the elephant in the room of all climate change discussions, and Great Tuhnbergs histrionics..
    Sri Lankan universities and think tanks should invest to develop a field called BUDDHIST ECONOMICS with strong environmental consciousness of and for all sentient beings.

    • 1
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      Agree Dhamma. ‘An economic model that has led directly to climate disaster’.

      Not only in economics, but in sociology, political science, philosophy, education also the colonial disciplinary knowledge continues.

      After colonialism, even to get a doctorate in Buddhism (legitimised knowledge) one had to go to University London’s School of Oriental studies. The practice continues.

      Blackburn’s book in Rev. Welivitiye Soratha is a must read

      • 1
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        Right on! At the root of the current global environmental, inequality and war crisis is the Carbon Footprint of the US-NATO military business industrial complex.
        Meanwhile, Buddhist monks are distracted and education is disrupted by the American project of weaponizing religion as we saw in the US-Saudi funded and stated Easter carnage.
        The so called Islamic State (ISIL) is owned and operated by the CIA, Saudi and Israel. IS is the US alibi-excuse for the 800 US military and “lily pad” bases all over the world. The US-France and UK uses IS to occupy African countries, Afghanistan, Iraq etc.
        US staged the Easter attacks to enable NATO to occupy the Indian Ocean, rather than vacate Chagos islands.

  • 0
    1

    I think what I understood was Social science was studied or is investigating not according to the usual western thinking or western methodology. That is a good sign.
    I think I wrote this long ago too. Buddhists say that more than one Buddha lived. So that thinking should be the ground, even now many aboriginal societies have similar beliefs. They do not like to kill more than what they need. They believe living in harmony with the environment. They are stranger friendly etc.,

    • 0
      0

      Nowhere is the fact that development is a form of ‘colonialism by other means’ more apparent than in the power and knowledge hierarchies that structure the development discourse in countries like Sri Lanka, and the MCC’s and its Harvard “growth lab” engagement with both the Rajapaksa and Wickramasinghe (SLFP and UNP) regimes.
      MCC pretends that land and transport are “binding constraints to growth” in order to land and data grab, but the main reason for lack of Growth and FDI in Lanka is CORRUPTION, CORRUPTION and CORRUPTION, including foreign fake aid projects and the corruption induced debt trap.

    • 0
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      ‘Social science was studied or is investigating not according to the usual western thinking or western methodology’.

      Jd: social sciences are still use Western methodology and theories etc.e.g. positivist methodology which is supposed to be scientific? Lecturers in SL UNis and elsewhere in South Asia translate them and teach to students as if the gospal. The aim of this Symposium was to encourage them to critically evaluate these theories and methods and also to include indigenous knowledge in teaching etc.

  • 1
    0

    Agree Dhamma. ‘An economic model that has led directly to climate disaster’.

    Not only in economics, but in sociology, political science, philosophy, education also the colonial disciplinary knowledge continues.

    After colonialism, even to get a doctorate in Buddhism (legitimised knowledge) one had to go to University London’s School of Oriental studies. The practice continues.

    Blackburn’s book in Rev. Welivitiye Soratha is a must read

  • 3
    0

    Many thanks for the summary.
    *
    “[…]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 […] “
    I find it difficult to understand statements like this without concrete examples. When I think of social scientists, the likes of Gananath Obeysekera, Kumari Jayawardena and Stanley Thambiah come to mind — they were all trained in the West, but studied issues that are relevant to Sri Lanka. By definition, their methodology and communication is Western. Should we dismiss them as pseudo-intellectuals who are working in and advancing an alien medium of instruction?
    *
    To me, such dismissive attitude without giving concrete examples of what is being dismissed (and why) is just a way of preserving an environment of mediocrity. This is beautifully portrayed by Chaminda Puswedilla’s sekatry as “Western thinking”.

    • 0
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      Chandra,

      The era of Obeyesekeras and Kumari Jayawardena’s and Thambiah’s was represented by critical thinking and adoption of western theories and methods to generate new knowledge in anthropology, political science etc. by vigorous examination of local sources-whether they be written, oral or ethnographic. Even Ralph Pieris’s Sinhalese Social Organisation was based n thorough study of local sources. Their work should not be dismissed(though Susantha Goonatillake has a book critical of anthropologists including Obeyesekera). Even R.Connell in her Southern Theory makes a similar point. But in recent decades there has been a trend for imitation of Western(Euro American) theory,assumptions, perspectives and methods.Academics in social sciences seem to be stuck in translation rather than critical evaluation and selective adoption to suit the context. This is what I have described as academic dependency(see Sri Lanka J of Sociology, Social Affairs Journal, Sri Lanka J of Social Sciences for my articles)

  • 0
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    “An economic model that has led directly to climate disaster”.

    “Buddhist Economics, which is the title of a book by a feminist economist in California, should be a subject that is developed and taught in all universities as part of a critique of the current growth-fetishizing economic development model that has caused a global epidemic of inequality, conflict . . “

    These are two quotes from CT commentators among many similar statements. Of course it only too well known that a similar critique is leveled but with the villain going by the name “capitalism”. I believe that both theses cannot be equally valid; one has to have more current relevance than the other. The critique of capitalism as the root of climate disasters, inequality and social and international conflict is more widely accepted globally among critical and radical thinkers and activists, except perhaps in a few Buddhist countries.

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