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Indigenous Technical Knowledge: Analysis, Implications and Issues Michael Howes and Robert Chambers
Institute of Development Studies 1979
Indigenous Technical Knowledge: Analysis, Implications
Michael Howes and Robert Chambers*
This article is a selective review and summary of arguments put and points made at the workshop on
indigenous technical knowledge1 for which some of the other articles in this IDS Bulletin
originally written. As such, it draws together some of the points made elsewhere in this issue. In
attempting to report the gist of the workshop discussions we are not necessarily presenting our views.
What is indigenous technical knowledge (ITK)?
To define the field, it is useful to start by asking in what respects indigenous technical knowledge
(ITK) corresponds to and contrasts with institutionally organised science and technology.
Those who have looked at the world from the viewpoint of organised science or of the culture of
which it is a part, have conventionally regarded the knowledge of other cultures as ‘pre-logical’ or
‘irrational’, and in so doing have either dismissed or greatly played down its validity. In seeking to
redress the balance, many proponents of ITK have argued that it is eminently practical and utilitarian.
Whilst in some senses true, this statement could also imply that ITK differed from science in that it
encompassed areas of direct practical value.
Levi-Strauss (1966) argued forcefully against such a distinction on the grounds that human societies
could not, for example, possibly have acquired the skills to make water-tight pots without a genuinely
scientific attitude and a desire for knowledge for its own sake. ITK, like scientific knowledge should,
therefore, be regarded in the first instance as something which became possible as a result of a more
general intellectual process of creating order out of disorder, and not simply as a response to
‘practical’ human needs such as sustenance and health. Some of the knowledge arising in this way
would of course have direct practical applications, and equally new knowledge about the way in which
the world worked might arise as the result of a process of inquiry triggered initially by the wish to
solve a problem of a ‘practical’ kind. An appreciation of this underlying similarity between ITK and
science is important if the full potential of ITK is to be realised.
* This article was first published in the IDS Bulletin
Volume 10 No 2 ‘Rural Development: Whose Knowledge Counts?’ edited by Robert Chambers. Institute of Development Studies 1979.
An important difference between science and ITK lies in the way in which phenomena are observed
and ordered. The scientific mode of thought is characterised by a greater ability to break down data
presented to the senses and to reassemble it in different ways. The mode of ITK, on the other hand, is
‘concrete’ and relies almost exclusively on intuition and evidence directly available to the senses.
A second distinction derives from the way practitioners of the two modes of thought represent to
themselves the nature of the enterprise in which they are engaged. Science is an open system whose
adherents are always aware of the possibility of alternative perspectives to those adopted at any
particular point of time. ITK, on the other hand, as a closed system, is characterised by a lack of
awareness that there may be other ways of regarding the world. This is not to say that ITK does not
change, but rather that those changes which occur are in nearly all instances comparable to the
achievements of what Kihn (1962) termed ‘normal science’, or to the detailed working out of
relatively minor ‘puzzles’ within an established ‘paradigm’ of thought. Science, in contrast, constantly
carries with it the possibility of ‘revolutionary change’ in which one paradigm would be destroyed and
Put slightly differently, science and ITK can be contrasted and evaluated according to three criteria:
• as systems of classification; • as systems of explanation and prediction; • in terms of speed of accumulation.
While ITK and science are comparable on the first criterion, science is generally superior on the
second and markedly superior on the third.
ITK can itself be classified in various ways, including:
• in terms of the idioms and conceptual tools through which ITK becomes possible. This can be
separated into two clusters – the propensity to classify and the propensity to quantify;
• in terms of the objects towards which thought is directed. Possible subdivisions here include:
physical/inanimate (e.g. soils, water, climate); biological (e.g. crops, weeds, pests, domestic and
other animals, insects); medical; and energy related;
• in terms of knowledge about fabrication and use of artefacts; • in terms of knowledge of the operation of the social and economic structures within which
This final category is arguably only admissible under a broad definition of ITK. It includes readily
articulate knowledge about such things as markets and cooperatives. It may also include mechanisms
of ecological adaptation bound up in rituals such as the intermittent slaughtering of pigs in parts of
New Guinea. This raises the question whether people themselves conceive of production activities as
separable from social and economic relations.
Regarding the concept of ITK, there are reservations on two grounds. First, it can imply an old/new
distinction which is not helpful, since at any time the knowledge available to people is the outcome of
processes of transmission and generation which have occurred both within and beyond the local
environment. Assimilation of ‘outside’ knowledge, and synthesis and hybridisation with existing
knowledge, are continuing processes. Second, it may overemphasise the static notion of a stock of
knowledge available to be tapped to the neglect of knowledge-generation as a dynamic process.
Changes in ITK
The idea of knowledge as a process is useful in showing that ITK cannot be understood independently
of the ways in which it changes. Apart from assimilation and synthesis or hybridisation, the basic
process of accumulation is, as with scientific knowledge, through experiment. In addition to the
examples given in Howes’ paper, two further instances of indigenous experimentation can be cited. In
one case, in Nigeria, people experimented with cassava when it was first introduced. As cassava can
be poisonous, it was important to establish the conditions in which it could safely be eaten. The
procedure adopted was to feed it first to goats and dogs. In another case, also in Nigeria, a scientist
believed he had made a breakthrough when he found a way of breeding yams from seed, propagation
normally being vegetative. A farmer was casually encountered, however, who had not only himself
succeeded in doing this, but had also discovered that whereas the first generation of tubers were
abnormally small, the second and subsequent generations were of normal size. The scientist reportedly
exclaimed ‘Thank god these farmers don’t write scientific papers’. It was also noted, in support of the
prevalence of experimentation by farmers, that there is a Yoruba word for ‘experiment’.
The rate at which new knowledge can be acquired through such forms of experiment is, however, slow
compared with science. Stress can trigger innovation; and the development of the bamboo tubewell in
India is a recent example of this. But this process can work in reverse, as in the case of the Dogon who
abandoned their elaborate system of water use when moving from densely populated upland areas on
to the plains. It should also be noted that in general ITK lacks means for systematic and rapid R and D.
The most significant changes in ITK come with the assimilation of small-scale societies to national
and international systems. Some of these changes involve uncontroversial adoption of new knowledge.
In Botswana, for example, farmers are said to have abandoned traditional categories for classifying
cattle in favour of those used in marketing meat. Elsewhere, especially in medicine, there have been
cases of synthesis between ITK and science-based knowledge.
But generally, it seems that when ITK and scientific stocks of knowledge come together, synthesis
does not occur. One of two things tends to happen: either the two sets of knowledge are isolated from
each other (as with the head of an agricultural research station who tried to persuade farmers to adopt
monocropping while still intercropping on his own land); or ITK is ignored and squeezed out as
inferior. This squeezing out is more common and can lead to loss of confidence among the possessors
of ITK as well as to irreversible loss of knowledge.
At the root of the problem lies the fact that officials – agricultural extension staff, planners, research
workers, ‘experts’ and others – depend on scientific knowledge to legitimise their superior status.
They thus have a vested interest in devaluing ITK and in imposing a sense of dependence on the part
of their rural clients. This suggests that change may only be brought about through an assault at the
level of ideology, and through a reorientation of reward systems.
The problem, however, is not just one of stocks of ITK, but of undermining the foundations for
indigenous participation in the process of generating new technical knowledge. Thus Mali pastoralists
are said to have accepted the dependent status which has been thrust upon them, and now believe that
their major hope for salvation lies with the World Bank; and more generally, rural people tend to lack
the confidence or inclination to engage in self-help activities in spheres where they have past
experience of external assistance. In principle, there is no reason why this process should not be made
to operate in reverse – with people gaining confidence and acquiring knowledge as a result of being
drawn into the processes of generating technology – but in practice, there is little evidence that this
How to elicit ITK
Some conventional approaches to research have serious limitations for eliciting ITK and finding out
how it is organised. Questionnaires impose the compiler’s categories upon the respondent and do
violence to the latter’s meaning system. This may not always be immediately apparent since
respondents often adapt to the logical framework implied by their questioner. Difficulties arise where,
for example, an extension agent asks for information on yields per acre from a farmer who is more
concerned with yields per unit of labour. Problems are compounded when the questioner has a
different native tongue from the respondent. The boundaries delineating colours, for example, vary
between languages, but these variations may not be recognised; and culturally specific concepts are
often hard to translate. Full-scale anthropological methods of observer-participation can overcome
these difficulties but they are time-consuming and probably rarely cost-effective. Methods of
investigation are needed which are open-ended, quick, and reliable.
One such approach is to take part with informants in their work. While this may not enable the
observer fully to see the world through the informants’ eyes, a high degree of empathy can be
achieved by working together, and information and insights may be provided which informants would
not otherwise have thought to mention. Another approach is to observe and learn the games people
play since these are often how important skills are acquired and practised. It s also often particularly
useful to find out about indigenous systems of quantification and to calibrate these against formal
Other ways of eliciting ITK can simultaneously stimulate the creativity of informants. These
approaches include the use and adaptation of games as described by Barker and Richards.
Uses of the stock of ITK
Can the stock of ITK be used either to economise on the use of scarce trained scientific manpower or
to extend the range of observations upon which science can draw?
Instances where this has happened are few, but suggest a considerable potential. Pastoralists, for
example, have detailed genealogical knowledge of their animals which can quickly be translated to
give a picture of fertility and age-specific mortality. Similarly, work on the variegated grasshopper
) in Nigeria, which drew on indigenous perceptions, provides a useful basis for
determining the seriousness of the problems which they generated, and hence the priority to be
attached to remedial action (Barker et al.
Other ways can be suggested in which indigenous observers might – in theory at least – act as ‘the
eyes and ears of science’. Knowledge of micro-environmental conditions could be used in the
preparation of soil maps; local people could be consulted to determine the milk yields of animals
under ‘real’ conditions where scientific testing had not been carried out; indigenous observers might
be encouraged to report back on changes in the species composition of pasture as an early warning
system for environmental deterioration; farmers could be used in crop reporting systems instead of
Many such possibilities might be opened up with little technical difficulty: often all that is required is
standardisation of systems of measurement. However, one should not simply think in terms of how
ITK can be used in isolation, but rather consider ways in which it can be brought into creative
synthesis with science. In the environmental sphere, for example, the ideal form of monitoring might
well involve a combination of sophisticated satellite technology with observers operating at the local
In attempting to mount such an exercise it is also important to recognise that ITK is not distributed
evenly among the members of a society. It is likely to be controlled and manipulated by certain groups
and classes in the pursuit of their own interests. Sometimes particular types of knowledge are the
preserve of ‘caste-like’ groups such as Tuareg smiths; in other cases religious groups like the
Marabuts in West Africa are paid and respected as repositories of knowledge. Such interest groups
may provide a basis for collaboration, but equally they may stand in the way of change. Elsewhere,
variable access to knowledge can arise out of the differentiation of a society into economic classes. In
all societies systematic variations in knowledge are likely to be associated with sex and age. In
addition, individuals always differ in ability and aptitude.
There are further important practical questions about the way in which knowledge is transmitted
between individuals and generations. An understanding of established learning processes might
provide a useful starting point for seeing how people could ‘draw-down’ on scientific knowledge more
Implications for R and D
How can ITK contribute to the generation and exploitation of technology to benefit rural populations?
This can be seen as a question of finding an optimum mix and balance between indigenous
participation and scientific participation in R and D processes rather than a choice of either one or the
It can be argued that formal R and D systems are efficient for generating new knowledge quickly.
Whatever the merits of ITK and of R and D activities which involve rural people themselves, the
means and methods of scientific research can, in many fields, achieve far more far faster than would
ever be possible through reliance on indigenous experimentation. In this view, the urgency of rural
development is such that rapid advance to major breakthroughs is essential, and some at least of these
have to come primarily through the formal R and D system.
On the other hand, rural people already take the final and crucial decision whether to adopt a new
technique. In addition, they often adapt the standard packages with which they are presented to fit their
particular needs and conditions. However, it may be only certain people, notably the relatively
powerful and wealthy, who normally take part in such decisions.
Certain aspects of knowledge-generation will always have to be centralised and formally organised.
Opinions differ, however, about the extent to which this is desirable. Much formal R and D has three
phases: problems; a period of development and testing removed from that environment – on a
research station or in a laboratory; and a period of re-entry and testing, during which the innovation is
brought into the rural environment. For any technology, the question is what balance is optimal
between these three. For mechanical and engineering technology, the case appears strong for much
more work in the rural environment and with rural people. With seed-breeding programmes, in
contrast, a phase in the controlled conditions of a research station is desirable for efficiency. Similarly,
in developing a vaccine for cattle, some work in a well-equipped laboratory may be essential.
Although opinions differ, it may be generally more efficient, in terms of ultimate benefits to rural
people, for much more R and D to be conducted in rural environments and with rural people than is
Substantial efforts have been made in this direction. Before any radical proposals are put forward,
attention should be paid to the experience gained by the International Agricultural Research Centres
and by national research institutions. At the same time, there is scope for making these formal systems
more responsive to the views and needs of those whom they are supposed to serve. Formal R and D is
still struggling to get to grips with the variability of tropical environments, and with the accordant
need to decentralise research to involve local people more actively in it. A further general failing is the
tendency to see he end product of a research programme as a report or an article rather than a proper
evaluation of adoption, benefits and lessons. Also, research activities still tend to carve up reality in a
manner which hinders a holistic view of local-level conditions.
To overcome or reduce these problems, six proposals seem worth considering:
(1) Rural exposure for extension and research staff
Extension and research staff could be confronted more directly than is usual with the realities to which
their work relates. This could be done both during initial training and at intervals thereafter. The
repertory grid method (see Richards, this volume) might serve as a starting point for enabling
professional personnel to appreciate the difference between their way of looking at the world and that
of the people who were supposed to benefit from their work.
Checklists could be used to draw attention to factors which might otherwise not be considered in
determining research priorities or extension advice. Some examples of factors that may be overlooked
with an innovation are implications for women, profitability, effectiveness and efficiency, availability
and access to inputs and complementary items, whether a farmer can afford an innovation, risk, social
significance and acceptability, lightness for carrying and ‘mendability’, labour requirements, and
effects on diet and on the variety and timeliness of food supply. Checklists have their uses but can be
criticised for the implicit assumption that decisions will be made by a small group of people who will
(3) Local-level influence on research priorities
To improve the criteria chosen in research and then to see they are acted on, producers could sit on the
boards of agricultural research stations, following the model of the Kenyan commodity boards.
Further, priorities could be set by national research committees which consulted at the local level,
although there would be a danger that this would merely reinforce elite preconceptions.
Farmers could be offered different packages and left to decide for themselves which they would adopt.
In Sri Lanka, for example, farmers were provided with ‘mini-kits’ of different seed varieties, with
which they could experiment on their own farms.
(5) Starting with indigenous practice
A more radical proposal is that research should take existing indigenous practice as its starting point,
seeking to refine this in various ways and then to feed results back into the system. This would go
hand in hand with the actual and metaphorical removal of the ‘fences’ surrounding research
institutions so that no aspect of the process of knowledge-generation fell beyond the purview of those
whose livelihoods would ultimately be affected. An objection here, however, is that indigenous
practice, as with intercropping, growing two or more types of crop together, may be so complex as to
be laborious and difficult to test under controlled research conditions.
(6) Experimental work in rural conditions
The process might be taken a stage further, perhaps through full-blown experimental work on farmers’
fields and with farmers’ collaboration. In general, people are more likely to operate and exploit a new
technology successfully if they have themselves taken part in its creation.
The validity of this sixth proposal is supported by the extent to which important technical change has
taken place and can take place outside formal R and D systems. It turns part of the earlier discussion
on its head; instead of asking how experts and scientists can better understand the potential of ITK, the
question now is how rural people themselves can assess and utilise the potential of science. To pursue
this approach, more has to be known about the way in which knowledge is generated and hybridised
and about the potential for different modes of participation. A further need is to see whether ITK can
in some way help to stimulate demand which will make R and D respond to the needs of neglected
One objection to this sixth proposal is the earlier arguments in favour of formal science with its
implied centralisation. Another is that people can and often do use and benefit from techniques
without understanding the technology underlying them. Opinions differ on these points, suggesting a
need for research to identify optimal and feasible degrees of decentralisation and modes of
participation according to type of technology and social conditions.
Values and rewards
Proposals for using the stock of ITK and for local involvement in R and D can only be adopted easily
when lack of awareness is the only constraint. In practice this is rarely the case. In situations where
change seems desirable, deep-rooted structural impediments will frequently be encountered. Junior
field extension staff, for example, being low in the government service, have a vested interest in
exaggerating differences between themselves and local people; and the distinction between ‘superior’
scientific and ‘inferior’ indigenous knowledge protects and legitimates their status. In addition most of
the proposals presuppose flexibility and initiative at the lower levels in the bureaucracy, but this
conflicts with bureaucratic norms. There are also likely to be problems among more senior staff
engaged in R and D. Established professional values dictate that rewards should be given to those who
make original contributions to knowledge, achieve breakthroughs at the level of theory, and publish
their findings in internationally reputable journals; but offer relatively little incentive to individuals to
go out on a limb with approaches involving ITK. Changes in values and reward systems are necessary
Such changes can be sought directly and indirectly. Possible direct approaches include the award of
Nobel prizes and of other international and national medals and distinctions for outstanding work with
ITK and for exceptional local-level breakthroughs. For their part, academics can encourage research
related to ITK and publish the results in international and national journals. A system of rewards for
villages, perhaps along the lines of the former ‘village of the year’ competition in Uganda, might
promote self-confidence and creativity and be linked with ITK. Finally, R and D staff might be
rewarded according to the practical result of their work, possible through an assessment by local
people themselves; but in the case of agricultural research, at least, this would prove difficult in
Less direct approaches might involve an attack on prevailing ideology. Initiatives through education
can be suggested. Primary school teachers with extensive ITK could be accorded high status and
encouraged to communicate their knowledge through the formal educational process. Knowledgeable
local people could also teach in schools. Third world universities could be encouraged to extend
fieldwork for students, on the lines of the useful studies already carried out by Makerere University,
the University of Dar es Salaam, and the University of Nairobi. Such exercises need only small
Research workers in the richer countries also have an important role to play. By studying and
recording ITK and making it academically respectable, they can counteract the ideologies in the name
of which it is being destroyed. By encouraging students – particularly those from third world countries
– also to adopt this perspective, the effect can be multiplied.
Some outstanding questions
Questions which remain unresolved and questions which may deserve further research include the
1. Do rural people conceive production systems separately from the social and economic structures in
which they are embedded? In other words, to what extent, or in what senses, are they aware of their
technical knowledge as technical knowledge?
2. How is established knowledge transmitted between generations and individuals? What implications,
if any, do such processes have for the appraisal and acquisition of scientific and other knowledge?
3. What are the strengths and weaknesses of different categories of the stock of ITK and what are their
potential contributions to rural development?
4. Why does the meeting of ITK and science sometimes lead to constructive synthesis (as sometimes
in medicine) but more frequently to the subjugation of ITK by science? How are ITK and scientific
knowledge synthesised, and how might that synthesis be improved?
R and D and the generation of knowledge
2. In developing scientific R and D programmes how useful is it to start with ITK and with current
4. What degree of decentralisation and of work with rural people in rural environments is optimal, by
type of technology, by phase of R and D, and by social conditions? In particular, how important and
feasible is active participation in R and D by the ultimate users of the technology?
5. What demands are exerted or might be exerted by rural people upon formal knowledge-creation
systems, and through what modes of participation?
6. To what extent and how successfully have the International Agricultural Research Centres and
national research organisations adapted their programmes to take account of ITK, of local
environmental conditions, and of particular social groups, and what can be learnt from their
Professional training and values
In modifying professional values and behaviour, what is the potential of:
2. Games played with farmers and others as part of the training of staff?
3. Research on ITK required to be carried out by extension and research workers, and by their
1 Workshop on the Use of Indigenous Technical Knowledge held at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK, 13–14 April 1978. Acknowledgement is due to the members of the workshop for contributions to the discussion and conclusions. They were Mahmadul Alam, Enrique Bautista, Martin Bell, Deryke Belshaw, Ian Carruthers, Robert Chambers, Donald Curtis, Michael Howes, Richard Longhurst, Paul Richards, Sumit Roy, No. Somasekhara, Jeremy Swift and Tony Zahlan.
Barker, D., Oguntoyinbo, J. and Richards, P. (1977) The Utility of the Nigerian Peasant Farmer’s
Knowledge in the Monitoring of Agricultural Resources: A General Report,
Assessment Research Centre of the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment,
International Council of Scientific Unions, MARC Report 4
Kuhn, Thomas S. (1962) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,
Chicago and London: University of
Levi-Strauss, C. (1966) The Savage Mind,
London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson
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