How do we know?: Appreciating the value of different types of knowledge

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By Julie Gardner, Dovetail Consulting, jgardner [at]

How does your garden grow? That’s what my neighbors have been asking each other during a glorious summer in Southwest British Columbia. Between weeding and harvesting I’ve been pondering questions like this from a “knowledge frame” perspective, because the issues remind me of resource challenges further north on our Pacific coast.

Think about how you know how your garden grows: You remember what you sowed in the spring. You learned from what worked last year and possibly from gardeners nearby or people who cultivated your plot before you. You’ve made connections between what you put in the soil and the health of your plants. This is local knowledge. Resource harvesters and managers in coastal communities with long histories have a lot of local knowledge.

How would you respond to “experts” coming along and making assertions about how your garden grows? Might you be a bit leery of their claims?

I was recently researching resource development needs on BC’s north coast, and ran into the disconnect between local and outside expert knowledge. Not for the first time I heard requests for capacity building that would help communities do their own research on the environmental impact of development – from salmon farms to gas pipelines – in their territories. The reason? They don’t trust information from the proponents of the developments. And why should they view that information as reliable, particularly if it diverges from their own experience? Confidence, for many people in these coastal communities, is based in witnessing and the wisdom of their forerunners rather than in scientific measurement and statistical analysis. At the same time, many are more than willing to learn the language and methods of science.

Both forms of knowledge – scientific and local – have much to offer. Observations by people engaged in everyday tasks and contact with the environment, often over generations, can bolster observations by researchers following scientific protocols and using specialized technologies. Or vice versa: scientific research can augment local knowledge.

Resource managers in coastal communities are already building proficiency with scientific tools, and “outside experts” are paying more attention to local and traditional knowledge. To benefit from the best of both worlds, all of us involved in resource planning and management should strive to appreciate different knowledge frames. Here’s a short list* of ways to strengthen that foundation for working together effectively:

  • Bring to light and respect different ways of knowing.
  • Give knowledge frames equal status – accumulated experience is at least as important as recently-collected numbers.
  • Shift from an expert-led to a bottom-up approach.
  • Encourage multidisciplinary perspectives and include social science.
  • Bring in the different knowledge sources as appropriate – not all of them need to be applied at every turn.
  • Take care when integrating traditional and local knowledge into science. Maintain rigor yet steer away from force-fitting local knowledge into the science mold. And avoid invalidating non-scientific knowledge claims.

So, I agree that research capacity in coastal communities should be strengthened where the need has been identified, but it’s important to proceed with care, fully appreciating the different ways people know what they know.

In the same spirit, you might at last find the time for that Master Gardener course, but you wouldn’t let it trump the accumulated experience of your unique, cherished plot of land.

* For details expanding on this list, with references, see

For a joke on urban gardeners, go to and click on Wednesday, August 07, 2013 under Previous Cartoons (link might be time-limited)