The knowledge of others

23 Jun 2022

Intercultural universities are cultivating an unusual crossover of knowledge traditions. Anna Meiser examines what can be learned from this.

At the end of the lecture period, there is a harvest festival. Teaching staff and students celebrate the knowledge acquired during the semester. At Pluriversidad Amawtay Wasi (“Pluriversidad” is Spanish for “pluriversity” and “Amawtay Wasi” means “House of Wisdom” in the Kichwa language) in Ecuador, learning, teaching, and the acquisition of scientific knowledge are seen as a process akin to agricultural production: You sow seeds on fertile and well-prepared ground, you nurture and care for the young shoots, you carefully apply the optimal methods to generate lush growth, and hopefully you collect a rich harvest. And finally, the crops – the knowledge and insights acquired – are celebrated and shared. They nourish people and make them stronger and produce promising new seeds.

This agricultural imagery has strong symbolic power, re-situating academic work in a context that has been central to the lives and experiences of the indigenous population of Ecuador for millennia. Founded in 2004, Pluriversidad Amawtay Wasi is an educational institution with a difference. As an intercultural university, it was created to bridge the gap between academic research as we know it in Europe, and the knowledge, the ways of thinking, and the language of the indigenous population in Ecuador. And precisely for this reason, it can – along with the other intercultural universities of Latin America – deliver fresh inspiration and impetus to traditional academia rooted in a European worldview.

A scientist from Pluriversidad Amawtay Wasi questions two inhabitants

Field research in Ecuador

A scientist from Pluriversidad Amawtay Wasi (kneeling) questions two inhabitants of the village neighboring his own. He is accompanied by his son, who documents the discussion with a camera and a recording device.

© Anna Meiser

As part of her research work, Anna Meiser has immersed herself in the world of Pluriversidad Amawtay Wasi and that of other intercultural universities, such as Universidad Veracruzana Intercultural (UVI) in Mexico. Since October 2021, Meiser has been Professor of Intercultural Communication at LMU. And as an ethnologist, she knows how vital the shift in perspective toward the ways of seeing and thinking of indigenous populations is for qualitative-interpretative research in her discipline. “When ethnologists travel to another country to research foreign cultures, we always do so against the background of our own culture,” she says. “So we tend to notice most of all the things we are familiar with and the things that are particularly foreign to us.”

Muster des Fortschritts

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Seen from the perspective of both cultures

Meiser, who minored in politics and Catholic theology as an undergraduate, gives an example: “When I walk into a church in a South American village, there are many things that are familiar, but then I might see a hollowed-out tree with a mallet. And I just have no idea what to make of it. Only when I do some research in the local area do I learn that it is a drum that is used in this culture to call the people to political and religious gatherings – effectively, a sort of bell.” These are the impressions that tend to shape how we see a culture. Others, which may in fact be much more important for the indigenous population, may not stand out initially – or we might not pick up on them at all. To be able to read a sign in its significance for a specific culture, you need an intercultural change in perspective: the ability to read a symbol with the eyes of the cultural Other.

For this reason, Meiser decided, having established contact with Pluriversidad Amawtay Wasi, not to travel to Ecuador in the first instance. Instead, she invited its rector, Luis Fernando Sarango Macas, for a research sojourn at the University of Freiburg, where she worked until the fall of 2021. Meiser wanted to know how academic life and practice in Freiburg would appear in the eyes of the Ecuadorian academic.

One of the most striking things for Macas was the strict hierarchical structure of the teaching. There are the teachers, who possess the knowledge; and the students, who learn from the teachers. There is not much of a sense that the learning process can be reciprocal. Pluriversidad Amawtay Wasi, by contrast, embraces a principle that chimes with the traditions of the indigenous population: knowledge and wisdom are created in a collective process, with teachers and students learning from each other.

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Furthermore, the orientation of science and research is fundamentally different at the two institutions, as Meiser can confirm after her visits to Ecuador, Bolivia, and Mexico. “In Europe, research often happens for research’s sake – to generate knowledge, without necessarily an obviously recognizable benefit,” she says. At the intercultural universities of Latin America, research is geared much more toward specific goals. The focus is on projects designed to strengthen the region and the indigenous population. This gives people the tools to act when, for example, a road construction project is planned that would disturb the infrastructure, farms, or traditionally important places of the indigenous population.

“Another primary objective of these universities is the ‘decolonization’ of research and science,” says Meiser. First of all, this involves thinking critically about the fact that academic research and teaching at universities worldwide are based upon European practice and ways of thinking. Traditional ways of generating and passing on knowledge by non-Western population groups are generally ignored. Accordingly, the forms of research and teaching in non-Western countries are ultimately a legacy of colonialism – political and economic centers are also centers of knowledge production. And this is one of the functions of the harvest festival at Pluriversidad Amawtay Wasi, to symbolize the embedding of the research and teaching process more firmly in the region’s own traditions.

How the indigenous population benefits more from research

But this is not all: When researchers travel to distant countries – to do ethnological research, for example, or scientific field research – they intrude in their capacity as observers of indigenous cultures and lands. And they take back knowledge with them which they interpret from their own perspective and which advances their own academic career. The indigenous population generally does not benefit, and neither does it participate in the interpretation nor partake of the scientific prestige of the work.

“This, too, can be seen as a form of colonization and exploitation,” says Meiser. A well-known professor of indigenous education in New Zealand, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, herself a Maori, described “research” in this context as the dirtiest word in the vocabulary of the indigenous population of New Zealand. For intercultural universities, it is therefore vitally important to be genuinely involved in research projects – and not just as passive participants and research objects, but actively as scientific partners.

In collaboration with her Latin American colleagues, Anna Meiser has therefore initiated projects in which students from both countries jointly investigate research questions – thus incorporating the perspectives and interpretations of both cultures into the research work. Ultimately this strengthens not only the position of the indigenous population groups in the research process, but the collectively harvested insights also promise new possibilities of interpretation, founded on authentic knowledge, opening up a new dimension in intercultural research.

Stefanie Reinberger

Prof. Dr. Anna Meiser is Professor of Intercultural Communication and head of the eponymous institute at LMU.

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