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Knowledge ecologies

Concepts and Repertoires of Living Together (RePLITO)

Published onAug 26, 2021
Knowledge ecologies

The conceptual term of knowledge ecologies draws from Boaventura de Sousa Santos, who introduced “ecologies of knowledges” in his book Epistemologies of the South: Justice against Epistemicide (2014, chapter 7 in particular). Using the term in the sense of de Sousa Santos means to look at concepts with an awareness of their being articulated through different sets of epistemic basics. He not only criticizes the dominant Northern epistemologies, but presents his own epistemological proposal - i.e. epistemologies of the South. This leads, ultimately, to the issue f intercultural translation (ibid., chapter 8), which, in turn, has triggered the subsequent reflections on knowledge ecologies. Speaking about gender equality, for instance, can mean very different things to different people, depending on the epistemic background, language, socialization, experience, and/or narrative commensurability. What follows from this is that concepts need not always be expressed through a one-and-only definition. Also, translating concepts from one language (A) into another (B) can become an act of “morphing meaning” when the knowledge ecologies of A and B are different. I reflect on this briefly here with the example of the notion of “well-being”. A translation from one ecology of knowledge – let us say Western-originated and secular – to another – let us say Islamic and faith-based – shows different connotations when, in the latter case, well-being is defined by employing the principle of tauhîd (“one-ness”, e.g. in the meaning of “unity with God” and submission of one’s own will to God).1 In Western knowledge ecologies, tauhîd does certainly not belong to the defining repertoire for well-being. The understandings of well-being are hence articulated through different sets of epistemic basics – with and without “God”, so to speak. Well-being, then, can be explained by different definitions and translated with particular attention to the (epistemic) environment they pertain to.

The matter becomes of course more complex when different knowledge ecologies are expected to become recognised, because then they have to be negotiated. I raise an example from my own experience in diverse ecologies of knowledge. When I attended a training of adolescent Indonesian pesantren students that was designed to convey the compatibility of the notion of universal human rights and human rights in Islam in early 2016, two ecologies of knowledge met. It was absolutely agreed upon by students and trainers that the notion of human rights is traceable in the religious sources of Islamic tradition – even though not referred to as “human rights” but introduced by the notion of “objectives of sharî’a” (مقاصد ألشريعة maqâsid al-sharî’a). Doubts about the adoption of human rights as something a person is entitled to claim, however, remained. During the Q & A sessions, several students sought advice from the main trainer (a scholar of Religious Studies) on how to go about in negotiating rights versus obligations. When it is my obligation as a wife to obey my husband, for instance, how do I go about when he beats me and violates my rights as a human being? The trainer, feeling at home in both the discursive worlds of secular human rights and Islamic sharî’a, tried to guide the students in thinking of reconciliatory solutions, which worked out well. But in other cases, reconciliatory reasoning is often absent because actors are trained to follow one sole logic and can only see this one. Having been around for some time in the circles of international development cooperation, I experienced that human rights experts from the West had next to no knowledge about concepts such as tauhîd or maqâsid al-sharî’a, and were thus already rejected and met with suspicion in local contexts when they uttered the very term human rights (which has the smack of being a “secular Western” term in pious communities and is therefore hardly appreciated). That means, many of those working in development cooperation are not at home in both worlds and are unable to convey the idea of reconciliatory thinking in a credible manner.

It is this kind of imbalance which I suggest to address with the demand to open up towards other epistemic approaches and immerse oneself in learning about other rationalities and knowledge ecologies. Learning about and engaging with alternative ecologies of knowledge does not mean to subscribe to the normative orientations of “the other” or buy into the other’s respective ontological underpinnings. But it means to recognise that there are different knowledges out there, and that local knowledge is oftentimes much closer to communities’ experiential environment and lived reality than other sources of knowledge.

In practical terms, recognizing different knowledge ecologies requires indeed to de-centre knowledge production and abstain from “mono-civilizational accounts of standard definitions” (Bhambra, 2016: 2). It means to acknowledge, for instance, that the tide of Islamic resurgence has brought with it alternative approaches to knowledge – alternative ecologies of knowledge such as Islamised versions – and that the socio-cognitive spaces inhabited by communities and individuals who subscribe to them represent lived realities. In Santiago Castro-Gómez formulation, what is at stake is the acceptance of a “coexistence of diverse legitimate ways of producing knowledge” in “a world where epistemological plurality can be recognized and valued” (Castro-Gómez, 2007: 428).

From the perspective of Postcolonial Studies, an epistemic decolonisation would be one channel to engage in recognizing and negotiating ecologies of knowledge. From the perspective of studying “living together” on a global level, a channel would be to learn about what connects people with each other, what concerns them and what makes them feel at home in all sorts of places and spaces. This is, for sure, a behavioural dimension of living together. But it serves to understand local and alternative knowledge ecologies, epistemologies and rationalities by starting from people’s lived reality. If Area Studies were to open up to the plurality of knowledge ecologies around the world, living together might become a topos that can be assessed by more than one rationality. Living together is then maybe not primarily a matter of global political importance, but one that has global conditions for it to occur as something that resonates with the moral and ethical orientations of actors that are meant to be the empirical subject of reference – and, last but not least, resonates with their knowledges.


Bhambra, Gurminder K., ‘Undoing the Epistemic Disavowal of the Haitian Revolution: A Contribution to Global Social Thought’, Journal of Intercultural Studies 37(2016)1: 1-16.

Castro-Gómez, Santiago, ‘The Missing Chapter of Empire. Postmodern reorganization of coloniality and post-Fordist capitalism’, Cultural Studies 21(2007)2-3: 428-48.

De Sousa Santos, Boaventura, Epistemologies of the South: Justice against Epistemicide, London and New York: Routledge, 2016

Maitrayee Chaudhuri:

This is a very fruitful entry point. But I was wondering whether you plan to bring in examples of how this can get complicated with empirical examples.

And are you planning to bring in the matter of digital resources as sites for alternative knowledge ecologies and alternative solidarities/cohesion?