Sunday, August 14, 2011

Lokavidya and Science

When speaking of lokavidya, and science too, it would be less confusing if we can distinguish between two levels on which we speak.

One is the empirical level of description. By lokavidya, we refer to knowledge that is spread out in societies, communities and individuals. It may be knowledge of food, farming, health, child rearing, artisanship, mobile phones, steel, art, music and so on. Science also refers empirically to the various sciences. At this level there is a great variety among different kinds of knowledge within lokavidya as well as within science. Seen in this manner, lokavidya as well as science can be seen constituted by a myriad of knowledge traditions. As knowledge, they are all knowledge, even if with different ontologies, values, methods, etc. What is distinctive of lokavidya is that it is carried upon the stream of ordinary life.

In describing the matter in this way, we are already employing a particular perspective on knowledge. Lokavidya is also this perspective (presented here as I see it). This is the second level of talk about lokavidya. ‘Science’ (as a perspective on knowledge) described the situation in completely different way. According to this scientific perspective, society is the hotbed of superstitions, imaginative narratives, and some knowledge acquired through trial and error. In this perspective, the emancipation of humankind lies in slowly replacing all this pseudo-knowledge in society with proper scientific knowledge. It is this perspective, which has shaped the institution that is science and the place of science in society. One important feature of this perspective is that it does not recognize itself as a perspective. The way knowledge is produced in science is considered simply to be the most natural (and rational) way of pursuing knowledge, once we are ‘enlightened’ and free of all superstitions.

Lokavidya perspective is a contemporary perspective on knowledge and politics. It sees in society an abundance of knowledge. All societies are knowledge societies in some way. When this knowledge is denied, all initiative is sucked out of society, as it perhaps happened in more developed societies where any autonomous knowledge activity is seen as disruptive. In lokavidya perspective, there are no impermeable boundaries in knowledge. Knowledge travels both ways. In the ‘knowledge society’ that is being shaped today in the information age, knowledge travels from fields, farms, homes and workshops to the global network as well as from the labs, networks, etc. to ordinary life. The latter is termed piracy. In the WEB 2.0, social networking that is happening is structured to function on the basis of the knowledge of the people who are contributing. It is building structures to tap knowledge from the people. Science is part of this structure and contemporary scientists are worried that the knowledge they produce is taken away from the domain of the society and put into the hands of the profit-seeking and violence-spawning behemoths.

Science is two-faced, just as the Internet. Noble and the ignoble mix here. Roots of this entrenched ambiguity in matters of knowledge lie at least in part in the scientific perspective which evolved in 19th and 20th centuries. Even utopian thinkers of the Internet, ‘free knowledge’ advocates, are unable to extricate themselves from this conundrum.

Lokavidya standpoint on knowledge proposes equality in the sphere of knowledge as the basis for the making of an egalitarian society. This equality is posed in terms of locations of knowledge. Prima facie, knowledge at various locations in society, like university, religion, ordinary life, ethnic groups, political and social formations are equal. There cannot be a fiat that knowledge gained in this way or organized in that way only is knowledge. This equality goes beyond the relativism/absolutism debate. To someone schooled in the 20th century philosophies of knowledge, the assertions of lokavidya may seem strangely positivist and plural at the same time.

An important set of questions need to be about how such a standpoint on knowledge (or some other) can translate into a political project by connecting to the struggles of those people who were excluded from the ‘developments’ of the 20th century and are now again on the verge of being sucked into the global economies of exploitation and violence at massively unequal terms. Can staking a claim for lokavidya provide energy and direction for such struggles?

Avinash Jha

Librarian, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi &

Research Scholar, Centre for Exact Humanities, IIIT, Hyderabad.

1 comment:

  1. Just as there is a fairly clear and precise understanding and critique of Modern Science that is seen in these columns,I think it would help to have a sharper understanding and definition of Lokvidya spelt out in these columns as well. What I have seen are some fairly clear statements on the standpoints, perspectives, qualities etc of lokvidya,such as that all knowledge should have equal validity irrespective of their locations in society, etc. This may therefore be the time to go a little further and try to actually define, characterise and illustrate the concept of Lokvidya more concretely with examples where ever possible,as well as illuminate the relationship between Lokvidya and organised knowledge, etc. I am aware that this may not be a simple thing to do at all,and that such an understanding and definition would have to be evolved through discussions and so on. But if such a thing can be initiated through these columns leading onto a concrete enunciation (and illustrations if possible) of Lokvidya, that should certainly help in achieving greater clarity on it, as well as mobilising greater support for it.