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The Plurality of Knowledge and Standing Together

on Fri, 01/21/2011 - 01:58

The International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC) conference in Hyderabad, India that took place January 10-14, was a veritable goldmine of knowledge about the commons—case studies, new theoretical explorations, field research reports, policy debates, site visits, and endless networking among academics, practitioners, government officials, and activists.

At any given time there were 11 concurrent sessions, so it was impossible to take in the full breadth of experience.  On the other hand, each session is like the chip of a hologram that conveys at least a sense of the larger zeitgeist. 

One such session was “Knowledge Swaraj and Knowledge Commons” which included presentations by Shabu Prasad, M.V. Sastri, and Wiebe Bijker.  Prasad is an Indian academic and activist in Orissa, Sastri is a well-known, long-time activist in Andhra Pradesh, and Bijker is a respected academic in the Netherlands.  The idea of a “knowledge swaraj” is based on the Gandhian political philosophy of Hind Swaraj.  Written by Gandhi in 1909, Hind Swaraj literally means “Indian Home Rule”.  Central to the thesis are the principles of supporting local autonomy and the diversity of resources.  In applying Hind Swaraj to the emerging concept of the knowledge commons, the presenters made the case that the knowledge commons must exemplify three characteristics:

  • Honor the plurality of knowledge.  In addition to forms of expert knowledge, indigenous knowledge, folk wisdom, and diverse cultural expressions have great value for humankind.
  • Support justice.  Knowledge often translates into power.  And there is usually an asymmetrical power relationship between those who have access to knowledge and those who do not. 
  • Further sustainability.  Sustainability here is offered not only in terms of ecology or the environment, but includes the rights of those of who earn their livelihood through the commons.

The panelists also took a firm stand that it was necessary for commoners to stand together as a moral force.  And, as an Indian mind can easily conceive, it is possible for such commoners to represent not only themselves, but also those who have lived in the past, those who will live in the future, and other species and things—animate and inanimate. 

Are we up to the task?