Blog: Is the lack of ontological diversity killing social research, or was it already dead from the beginning?

By Elena Burgos Martinez.

As an ethnographer working with island communities in Eastern Indonesia, Elena Burgos Martinez grapples with the ‘privilege ceiling’ within anthropological research paradigms and methodologies. Today’s universities within Europe claim to be more diverse, but this is a very political and staged sense of diversity, with a well-established epistemological and ontological hegemony operating on all teaching and learning levels.

Last month, I came across a poster for a Leiden University event at which scholars were to discuss the increasing need for including epistemological diversity in today’s academic debates and curricula. Considering the validity of non-hegemonic knowledge, such an enterprise seemed too good to be true. Any passer-by would probably stop, nod in agreement at this statement, and argue that universities are indeed places where one becomes an educated citizen with a deeper awareness of the world. Yet this rhetoric typically leaves out the problematic aspect of legitimizing knowledge, the manifold agencies involved in the co-production of research, and the disconnection between staff and students. University classes are increasingly becoming more diverse, but formalized education continues to focus heavily on works authored by people from a different time, whose background was very different to that of today’s students. Before universities can claim epistemological diversity, current ontologies in power have to be decolonized.

As it happens, contemporary paradigms of ‘the good scholar’ are still pale, male, senior and prosperous. Intersectionality and the relational aspects of knowledge and power are seldom allowed into the lecture theatre or the seminar room. Our formalized knowledge systems are built on inequalities, highly determined by ethnicity, race, age, gender, sexuality, class and so forth. Students who are welcomed from abroad, regardless of their background, immediately begin their academic life by digesting selected types of knowledge in selected ways, or else risk being expelled from the system. Universities are power hubs, social pinnacles, and sites for discussion and debate. But the contents of what is openly and officially discussed pass through a very problematic filter: the ceiling of validity and legitimization. This ceiling is predicated on urban, elitist and terrestrial centrality. As such, it is prone to miss, among many examples, indigenous environmental knowledge at sea.

Having studied maritime ecologies in Eastern Indonesia, this is where my uneasiness with ontological heterogeneity begins. A few waves to the east and a few tides to the south of my present location, I recall Bajo fishermen and fisherwomen teaching me how to understand fishing practices and traditions: “Fish are not stupid, you know. You have to show skills so that they allow you to catch them.” During my ethnographic research on the islands of North Sulawesi province, I learnt that fish, caves, tides and rocks have to know you, and your family and ancestors, before you can achieve knowledge of the so-called environment. These theories fit well within the Bajo senses of being and belonging and the fluidity of knowledge co-production. Direct interaction and daily contact are paramount when it comes to becoming a good fisherman or fisherwoman. These principles make cyanide and blast fishing incompatible with the traditions of Nain Island, where I spent most of my time studying maritime knowledge from a local perspective.

Bajo is an exonym of Portuguese origin, used by external actors to categorize the seafaring communities of Indonesia. This may suggest cultural homogeneity, yet based on my own research, the different Bajo/Bajau communities of Indonesia display very different forms of knowledge production and cultural practices, including environmental knowledge about the sea. Unaware of these complexities, UNESCO and WWF have funded solar panels and resorts for the most touristy island in the small Bunaken National Park, of which Nain Island forms a part, but have never patrolled or visited the rest of the islands. No consideration is given to specific traditional knowledge, and cultural homogeneity with Bajau communities elsewhere in Indonesia is assumed. The discourse is further characterized by a paternalistic tone, suggesting that maritime communities damage their own environment and at the same time struggle to manage it. No critical approach is ever considered regarding the power imbalances caused by the introduction of plastic on the islands (to mention just one example).

Communicating such local types of environmental knowledge becomes even more challenging in the academic domain, as it must be transliterated into anglicised paradigms and, hence, crashes into the ‘privilege ceiling’ and so-called development. As a result, exhaustive ethnographic research is often categorized as purely anecdotal whenever it doesn’t comply with or fit within previous and current validations of knowledge, even within Anthropology and other Social Sciences. Encouraging epistemological diversity and problematizing the hegemony that dictates what is relevant and what isn’t is the only way to decolonize today’s curriculum. Who wrote the classics we teach? How (un)problematically do we approach them? How much room do we make for the agency of knowledge co-production? These were dilemmas governing my personal positionality issues ever since I returned to Europe after two years of fieldwork on small Indonesian islands (mainly in North Sulawesi).

Three years after, I am still grappling with ways to include critical approaches to intersectionality in my teaching (both in the UK and in the Netherlands). In a commodified and bureaucratized world in which publishers decide what research is communicated and legitimized and how, one can only hope that ontological diversity becomes the new buzzword. Yet, at present, the prevalent paradigms in higher education and the associated co-production of power and knowledge constrain critical thinking and awareness of the world, not only at student level but also when it comes to theorizing environmental knowledge in general.

Photo: Acara tujuh malam: Feeding the dead and theorizing about knowledge.

(Elena Burgos Martinez is an environmental and linguistic anthropologist and currently a visiting fellow at KITLV. She is interested in the fields of political ecology, environmental theory and linguistic anthropology- particularly when aiming to meaningfully understand different paradigms and epistemes of indigeneity and knowledge that converge on small archipelagoes and how these conceptual systems operate.)

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