Seeing, Hearing, and Feeling: Reflections on Ways of Knowing

The forest offers much to see, hear, and feel. What do you hear when
the plants communicate?
Photo by douglas reeser.
Views from the ANThill
by douglas reeser on February 15, 2013
One of the more widely read pieces that I have written for Recycled Minds is a short article I wrote just after the American Anthropological Association announced that it would remove the word "science" from its mission statement back in late 2010. I was one of the first to comment on the development, so my article received a good amount of attention as coverage of #AAAfail, as it became tagged, reached beyond the world of anthropologists, and even got covered by the New York Times. While recognizing the importance of a scientific approach in anthropological endeavors, I offered a voice of support to the move away from the prominent placement of the word science in the mission statement. And while I did receive some support from other anthropologists, my article was widely bashed, especially by bloggers outside of anthropology from the so called "hard" sciences.

Name calling accompanied some of the criticisms, and I was variously referred to as a hippy, a fluff-head, and a foolish postmodernist. I was simultaneously excited and disappointed at the attention, and I realized quickly that I must have hit a nerve with something I had written. If I am to go by what was most quoted from my article, that nerve appears to have been firmly attached to the concept of knowing:

"The "science-free" mission statement allows for the inclusion of a number of perspectives and approaches that have been and remain marginalized, not only in anthropology, but in much of their social and economic existence. In short, the old mission statement privileged "science" over and above the knowledge systems of the very people we have been studying and working with for generations. It is well past the time for this to change. Do anthropologists still use science? Of course, and science may well offer the most appropriate methodology for many. Still, we must also recognize that there are other means to knowing, exploring, and explaining." 
The theme of my detractors appeared to me to be that the only true way of knowing anything is through science. Other ways of knowing belonged in the past to the savages of prehistory (and the rainforest), or to the hallucinations of the hippy generation, and even to the latest generation of postmodern anthropologists.

I never did engage with other writers or commenters on other sites, although on Recycled Minds I promised to revisit the concept of different ways of knowing. That promise got sidelined, however, as the demands of my fieldwork and life in Belize was about to get started. Now, after nearly a year and a half in Belize, I am forced to think about this topic again as I attempt to understand some of my experiences with Maya and Garifuna healers. In my interviews and observations with these traditional healers, I was repeatedly told about ways of knowing that challenge a scientific understanding.

In his chapter in the book, Ways of Knowing, called Finding a Path in the Village of the Sick, anthropologist Paul Stoller explains how, among the Songhay of Niger and Mali in West Africa, experiences with illness are one of the primary means of obtaining knowledge. "It is through the portal of illness that apprentice sorcerers increase their knowledge and power," explains Stoller. He goes on to describe how his own experience with illness reconnected him to his apprenticeship with a Songhay sorcerer, and how the illness "reoriented my sense of how we come to know the world." Stoller had experienced how the Songhay "see", "hear", and "feel" the world, which gave him a new framework through which to deal with his illness. This framework is different from Western science, yet, while it takes various forms, it is a framework that exists widely among indigenous groups and others that hold traditional knowledge.

In Belize, traditional healers also have a different framework for knowing about illness, health, and healing. A number of Q'eqchi' Maya healers told me that they often know how to treat a patient before the patient even visits for a consultation, or before they visit the patient. They explain how the plants they use in healing will communicate with them - that the plants will make it known that a patient will need a certain treatment or a certain combination of plants. This ability to communicate with the plants has developed over a lifetime of training and practice, and is often a heavy burden for healers to carry. Such received knowledge is also an example of being able to see, hear, and feel the world in a different way.

Similarly, Garifuna healers also see, hear, and feel the world differently in their practice of traditional medicine. During a ritual gathering of community members and family, and with the aid of drumming, the traditional Garifuna healer, called the buyei, will go into trance. While in trance, the buyei will become possessed by, and can communicate with spirits who will share the appropriate course of treatment for the patient. And while the buyei maintains an impressive store of medicinal plant knowledge, it is often times these consultations with the spirits that are most effective for especially difficult illnesses.

Some argue that traditional plant knowledge, such as that held by Q'eqchi' Maya and Garifuna healers, is akin to science, in that the knowledge was developed over the course of generations of trial and error. In this scenario, the plant knowledge is scientific, and thus granted a certain status and recognition among western scientists. However, communication with plants and spirits falls outside of the understanding of science, and thus falls into the categories of superstitions and folk beliefs. This framing fails to recognize that such communications were also developed over many generations, and are only practiced by masters. It is a type of knowledge generated by a different way of seeing, hearing, and feeling the world around us. And it has so far been unexplained by science.
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  1. while reading the article when you first posted, felt really thankful that someone has verbalized that sick feeling stuck in me... couldn't even name the problem before reading that piece, so even that changed how i see things... know things... actually good to hear it was tickling some other nerves too, in good or bad way whatever... thanks for your post and research and sharing things that you have learned. a square mind is hard to deal with, but they will have to see its all a matter of which word to use, people just get stuck at the word science. though "a different way of knowing" seems appropriate to me... our minds grow so conditioned, and so not free...

  2. Anonymous10:59 AM

    Some bloggers live off of controversy and argument. I wouldn't worry about any of that, and impressed that you didn't engage them. Just keep doing what you're doing.

  3. Anonymous5:13 PM

    I agree with both commenters and the author. I remember when this sh*tstorm happened, and the supreme closed-mindedness with which people debated was astounding. Glad to hear the author is still practicing objective research.

  4. Aaron6:33 PM

    Science is simply a methodology. It's a way to test and prove or disprove an hypothesis. It's also not perfect, and is prone to error and the influence of human intention. At the same time, it has been successful, and just happens to be the tool of the world's dominating culture group, i.e., the west. Adherents are like true believers, and their faith in science is unshakable. The funny thing is, they don't even know what they're missing.

  5. Very nicely written, Doug.

  6. Orion9:52 PM

    An interesting article that compares Western science with Indigenous Knowledge:

    Education Indigenous to Place: Western Science Meets Native Reality


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