Local Knowledge is Not a Pot of Gold

How do we know that the world is changing around us? What can place-based knowledge tell us about climates, past and future? Can we use that knowledge for good, not evil?

'Local' knowledge—an umbrella category for traditional, tacit, indigenous, and ‘uncertified’ expertise—is often viewed by science groups (like the IPCC) as vital for crafting effective and appropriate solutions to the world’s wicked problems—like climate change.

At the same time, local knowledge is slippery: it hinges differently across place and time. Local knowledge may be at odds with scientific and technological goals of universal knowledge and progress. In 'extracting' local knowledge from the context of its production, experts may break the ties that bind such knowledge to the materiality of its place—including local governance arrangements and sociotechnical practices. Extraction may do more violence than good.

In a recent article, authored by our Fulbright NEXUS team and published in WIREs Climate Change, we make the point that local knowledge is not a pot of gold, awaiting discovery at the end of the proverbial rainbow. In reviewing the field, we combed through literature in climate adaptation science and took stock of common trends, patterns, and ideas about local knowledge. Drawing on theory in science and technology studies (STS), we move away from the extractionist approach—still so common in science—and toward a compositionalist theory of local knowledge. This shift, we argue, calls for an end to ‘mining’ local knowledge to reinforce climate governance regimes.

Moved to read more? The article is now available on the WIREs Climate Change website; or email Katie Meehan for a copy.  

 This graph charts the explosion of publications citing 'local knowledge' in climate change adaptation research. Prior to 2010, only 10 articles were published about this topic--the same number of articles published in the first quarter (January-March) of 2015 alone.

This graph charts the explosion of publications citing 'local knowledge' in climate change adaptation research. Prior to 2010, only 10 articles were published about this topic--the same number of articles published in the first quarter (January-March) of 2015 alone.