Local Knowledge Essay

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Local knowledge is generally defined as a community’s shared understanding of its sociocultural, political, linguistic, economic, and intellectual relations across space and time, and the implications for the everyday regulating and rearranging of society. It is also described variously as knowledge that is place based, situated, or regional. Local knowledge is what people use to construct meaning, so the ways of knowing generated and maintained within a given community or organization make up the members’ social reality. Researchers attempting to understand social and cultural phenomena focus their attention on the actions that take place on a local level within the sphere of specific traditions, languages, and competencies. Arguments existing within the field of cultural anthropology influence how educators regard the role and usefulness of local knowledge. This entry provides an insight into the current debate and then compares and contrasts three forms of local knowledge with the aim of clarifying its purpose for educators.

What Are The Limits Of “Local”?

Researchers who seek to understand the socially constructed reality revealed in their studies of the local knowledge of a community recognize the need to use qualitative, often participatory, methods of data collection. However, the method of interpretation of these data is a matter of debate. Those who claim that science can identify human laws or universals normally interpret their data through the application of global tenets.

Clifford Geertz, a cultural anthropologist who coined the term in 1984 with the title of his seminal text, Local Knowledge, brought researchers’ attention to the limitations inherent in applying universal principles when analyzing social phenomena. His interpretive methods, while acknowledging the constraints inherent in diversity and decentralization, are based on the purpose of the human sciences: to clarify and draw some conclusions about what is going on among various people at various times.

The current debate is influenced by postmodern views that have developed in the context of a movement to promote global thinking. Contemporary realities are globalized when scholars from different localities collaborate in the reframing of their own traditional knowledge and negotiate new meanings collectively. The challenge is to determine ways to demonstrate local authenticity. Power is exercised through the ways in which knowledge constructs the substance that serves as the basis for community members’ daily problems and practices. Knowledge is powerful because it provides people with the rules of reason.

What Counts As Knowledge?

The ancient Greek classification of knowledge is useful in revealing the limited modern conception of what it means to know. Greek knowledge included three forms: theoretical (episte-me-), technical (techne-), and moral (phrone-sis). Western epistemology has reduced moral knowledge and technical knowledge to one form, practical knowledge, because of its modernist emphasis on the distinction between theory and practice. Unexamined assumptions about the nature of knowledge not only interfere with a researcher’s ability to select appropriate methods of interpreting social phenomena, but also render imperceptible the forms of knowledge that enable moral decision making.

Controversies associated with prevailing views of local knowledge are rooted in differing beliefs about how knowledge is constructed, accessed, and used. Briefly presented here are three terms that represent a range of descriptions and explanations of how local knowledge is interpreted.

Intergenerational Knowledge

Knowledge shared across generations is the foundation for sustaining the shared resources (e.g., land, water, air) and relationships (e.g., language, traditions, daily practices) that support community life. Intergenerational knowledge produces and is produced by the mutual support systems that maintain what characterizes the community. Those who recognize the need for critical examination of the ideological influences on the interpretation of social phenomena prescribe continual evaluation of it. For example, within an ecojustice framework, C. A. Bowers proposes studies of concrete situations that take account of place, existing arrangements of cultural self-sufficiency, and impacts on natural systems.

Indigenous Knowledge

Similar to intergenerational knowledge, indigenous ways of knowing come about through forms of sharing such as family interactions, storytelling, and demonstrations. Traditional cultural practices, like modern educational practices, generate content knowledge as well as fundamental worldviews. Because this is another form of knowledge that is typically undervalued, even those who possess it often don’t recognize its potential power. Educators, managers, and policymakers can increase the status of this kind of knowledge by allowing it to inform decisions that affect the community members. Using local knowledge allows inclusion of the moral dimension, resulting in prescriptions of how an interpretation ought to take place.

Cultural Knowledge

Cultural knowledge takes broad forms. It may be mythic, or it may reinforce views. It may be associated with a particular line of work (e.g., food preparation, textbook selection) or particular locations in time and/or spaces (e.g., faculty lunchroom, a latch-key childhood). Socialization processes create the interpretations, which are embedded in the language of native speakers. An examination of meanings expressed in metaphors can reveal knowledge that is common to a particular culture. Participatory research methods provide a way of learning a second way of life, without forsaking reverence due to one’s primary group.

Uses Of Local Knowledge

Recognition of the valuable uses of local knowledge can raise its status. Accessing the knowledge of those affected by its use in policy formation legitimizes its value in the decision-making process. It also enhances personal understanding between individuals and cross-cultural understanding between groups. Accessing local knowledge can serve to inform policy makers of the impact of global forces; it also allows participants a view of the ecological impact of their cultural beliefs and practices.


  1. Bowers, C. A. (2005). Writings on education, ecojustice and revitalizing the commons. Retrieved September 9, 2006, from http://web.pdx.edu/~pdx01401/index.html
  2. Center for the Study of Local Knowledge. (2005). Constructions of local knowledge. Retrieved Sept. 5, 2006, from http://www.virginia.edu/cslk/fellows.html
  3. Gough, N. (2004). Editorial: A vision for transnational curriculum inquiry. Transnational Curriculum Inquiry, 1(1). Retrieved March 12, 2007, from http://nitinat.library.ubc.ca/ojs/index.php/tci
  4. Popkewitz, T. S. (Ed.). (2000). Educational knowledge. Albany: State University of New York Press.

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