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Knowledge and Dispossession: Against Epistemicide


The geographer David Harvey has elaborated the concept accumulation through dispossession to explain how capital began to be accumulated in the late 20th and early 21st century.  He draws attention to the activities in 14th-17th Century England, which removed people from the land through a process of enclosureThe wealthy landowners who turned the traditional open fields and communal pastures into private property for their own use created enclosures.  The clans of Scotland were similarly affected by what became known as the clearances.  Each of these acts of dispossession left the majority of people without access to land and allowed for wealth to accumulate to those who were now known as private land owners.

Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to spend a few days in one of the Oxford Colleges, a college that was created at the same time as the enclosures.  I entered the college through a low doorway only accessible to students and fellows and their guests.  The college was walled in and only accessible through one or two guarded entryways.  While staying in the college, the linkage between the enclosing of previously common land for private purposes and the creation of walled places for learning became disturbingly apparent.  The act of creating Oxford and the other medieval universities was an act of enclosing knowledge, limiting access to knowledge, exerting a form of control over knowledge and providing a means for a small elite to acquire this knowledge for purposes of leadership of a spiritual nature, of a governance nature or a cultural nature.  Those within the walls became knowers; those outside the wall became non- knowers.  Knowledge was removed from the land and from the relationships of those sharing the land. The enclosing of the academy dispossessed the vast majority of knowledge keepers, forever relegating their knowledge to witchcraft, tradition, superstition, folkways, or at best some form of common sense.

These new academies came into being as well at the time of the rise of European science and through improvements in navigational aids and the wealth generated by the enclosures and the exploitation of silver and gold from Latin America, the hegemony of mostly white euro-centric knowledge spread around the world.  It is the Western canon that is found as the core curriculum in almost every institution in the world in 2014.  The process of dispossession of knowledge is a process that Boaventura de Sosa Santos has called epistemacide, or the killing of knowledge systems.  There are epistemologies of the global South, Indigenous epistemologies, epistemologies of the excluded and marginalised, epistemologies of the differently abled, epistemologies of women farmers, epistemologies of injection drug users and and an range of knowledge as  diverse as the earth itself.

Community Based Research and knowledge democracy seek to be part of a reawakening of excluded epistemologies.  Decolonisation of knowledge we can  be sure however is a task that will require deep reservoirs of courage, creativity, perseverance, struggle and play. 

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