Fica thematic panel: indigenous knowledge, epistemic injustice, and capabilities

Byskov, Morten Fibieger (2018). 'FICA thematic panel: Indigenous Knowledge, Epistemic Injustice, and Capabilities' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


Indigenous peoples possess in-depth experiential knowledge about the local environment and socioeconomic norms that are essential for the success of development initiatives and which is often lost to development experts (Atte 1992; Barkin 2010; Berkes, Colding, and Folke 2000; Green 1999; Swiderska et al. 2016). Although work on local knowledge and knowledge-partnerships have been around within development studies since the 1980s, the integration of indigenous knowledge into mainstream development policies still remains underdeveloped. The lack of integration of indigenous voices into development policies may constitute epistemic injustice. Epistemic injustice arises when we attribute more or less credibility to a statement based on prejudices about the speaker, such as gender, social background, ethnicity, race, sexuality, tone of voice, accent, and so on (Fricker 2007). Indigenous knowledge has long been subject to such prejudices. This is especially worrisome given that indigenous communities comprise some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups in the world, especially exposed to the effects of climate change and industrial development.

Recently, Fricker (2015) has further argued that epistemic contribution – the ability to contribute to a pool of shared knowledge – should be considered as a central human capability. Being able to contribute epistemically is an important part of relation equality as it ensures that one can make one’s voice heard and have influence on socioeconomic policy. As Fricker argues, “the frustration of Epistemic Contribution will tend to be indicative of wider structures of inequality [and] unequal epistemic participation is one of the key modes in which unequal relationships and statuses of other kinds tend to express themselves.” This raises the questions: how and to what extent do indigenous people suffer from epistemic injustice within development, how and to what extent can this injustice be ameliorated, and what role can the capability approach play in this regard as a descriptive, analytical, or normative tool? The presentations of this panel all deal with indigenous knowledge and the frustration of it as an epistemic injustice.

Morten Fibieger Byskov’s contribution focuses on the lack of indigenous voices within climate adaptation policies, the extent to which this may constitute an epistemic injustice, and, if so, in what way(s). adaptation policies and practices often lack indigenous voices. While the lack of indigenous voices is often caused by prejudiced attitudes towards indigenous peoples, and hence constitutes epistemic injustice in its own right, Byskov argues that the underrepresentation of indigenous knowledge underlines and reinforces this injustice in two additional ways. First, because indigenous peoples are unequally vulnerable to climate changes they ought to be granted the stakeholder rights to influence the climate adaptation policies and interventions that affect them (Byskov 2018, chapter 3). Second, the integration of indigenous knowledge about the environment would have significantly and invaluably contributed to the pool of knowledge on climate adaptation and the holders of this knowledge ought therefore to be granted expert authority on matters of climate adaptation (Byskov 2017). By denying indigenous communities these rights, the case that the lack of indigenous voices within climate adaptation policies constitutes epistemic injustice is only strengthened.

Thomas Hilde and Matthew Regan’s contribution focuses on the consequences of epistemic injustice, and how, even when these injustices are recognized, the damage caused by discounting indigenous knowledge is extremely difficult to reverse, as exemplified by the case of the subak irrigation system in Bali. When the Indonesian Government enacted Green Revolution agrarian reforms in the 1970s, new “scientific” approaches to rice cultivation were promoted at the expense of traditional ones. In an ironic example of what Fricker (2007) terms testimonial injustice, Balinese indigenous knowledge about rice cultivation was specifically discounted by Green Revolution reformers, only to later be “discovered” when the rice crop was plagued by catastrophic water shortages and pest blights—the two problems most intimately connected with the subak system.

This paper focuses on the questions of where indigenous knowledge resides, how it propagates through time, and most importantly, how the concept of epistemic justice relates to societies who have already experienced the violent clash of worldviews and traditional categories that seems an inescapable component of modernity. By arguing that indigenous knowledge is not a closed, insular corpus, but rather a constantly evolving collection of ideas that undergo constant creation, change, and destruction, this paper asks how epistemic justice can be achieved for previous generations of Balinese, whose lives and experiences directly shaped the contours of Balinese indigenous knowledge, but also for those of the currently living generation, and indeed future generations, who both share in the inheritance of their ancestors, but most also live and flourish in a world that is uniquely their own.

In her presentation, Line Alice Ytrehus investigates the status of indigenous knowledge in the (social) sciences. Exemplified by the case of the Bolivian Aymara, she argues that (social) scientists often ignore indigenous knowledge and that the reasons for this, although complex, is that indigenous knowledge tends to be orally transmitted, expressed as pertaining to the community and not to individuals, which is often at odds with Western (social) science practice. In response, Ytrehus explores the idea of Aymara ‘communitarian thought,’ how it is expressed in the Aymara/Andean conception of Sumaq camaña (well-being) and everyday life, and discusses whether their communitarian thought can be included as a kind of intercultural philosophy to contribute to more epistemic justice within the (social) sciences.

What Aymaras call communitarian thought makes part of a worldview focusing on local and spiritual relationships, reciprocity, correspondence and interdependence, emphasizing the local community and collectivity for the sake of the conviviality. Communitarian thought makes an important part of Aymara modes of imagining the possible, the potential and the actual (Casey 2000: 229) that after centuries of marginalization have been revitalized and now even feed into the Bolivian state policy for development. In order to understand what these communitarian values and activities signify it is necessary to identify and describe how they appear as part of everyday practices, knowledge and worldviews. This, Ytrehus argues, is still an under-researched field.

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