Science and technology and decolonization


Science and technology and decolonization: from obvious Eurocentrism to hidden Eurocentrism, emerging hybrid knowledge from cultural contact zones as steps towards contemporary globalization.




European imperialism in Asia and Africa during the 19th and 20th century contributed to impose the cultural, economical and political dominance of the Western modern world over the colonized “primitive” “indigenous” “traditional” societies. During this period, movements of people, goods and knowledge took place. Scholars from the Empires considered the transfer of their science, technology and knowledge as a gift to their colonies in the process of their “civilizing mission”, bringing western medicine methods, books, modern mechanization tools, building schools and farms. They strongly believed that western science is a positive and transformative power to modernize the “Third World” for its own good (Seth 2009). At the time, it was generally understood that modern science was almost completely a “Western creation”, with little regards to what the indigenous have brought to the scientific edifice. As the American sociologist Toby Huff points out, even if advances in modern science reached the colonized countries, the indigenous scholars did not necessarily thought of using this knowledge. For example, telescopes were available in India by 1615 and later in China and the middle east, but “no local scholars thought to use it to advance astronomy” (Huff 2011).

Today’s historians and scientists acknowledge the impact of both Western imperialism and local indigenous practices on modern science and technology, combining the analytical and reductionist method of the West with the more intuitive and holistic approach of the traditional knowledge (Mazzocchi 2006; Iaccarino 2003). Based on an illustrated flora and herbal by a French surgeon in the port of Changernagora, the “Jardin de Lorixa”, the historian of science Kapil Raj demonstrates “how Europeans needed to conduct additional research and thus reorganize otherwise incomplete native accounts in order to contribute to the on-going work outside India” (Huff 2011). Indeed this catalogue, if deeply inspired by European herbals with physical descriptions and list of properties and uses of plants, exhibits illustrations following non-European conventions. Here, Raj illustrates the inter-relations between the two models of the spread of knowledge during the European imperialism: the diffusionist model, Eurocentric, and the indigenist model where the role of native people is preponderant but unacknowledged. These two models are not antagonistic but entangled with interactions between the Western countries and the colonized countries playing a significant role in modelling modern science. “[Scientific] knowledge [is made] through co-constructive process of negotiation of skilled communication and individuals from both regions, resulting as much in the emergence of new knowledge forms as in a reconfiguration of existing knowledge and specialized practices on both sides of the encounter” (Daston 2009). If the relationship is not symmetric, it is nevertheless acknowledged that Western European sciences changed as much as the non-European sciences, over the course of the global encounters initiated by European travels and conquests (Schiebinger 2005). The interactions between those cultures and forms of knowledge are defined as “contact zones” localized mostly in prosperous large cities and resulted in the scientific revolution of the 19th and 20th century. Would the discoveries and theory of evolution of Charles Darwin have been possible without that closer contact with indigenous populations and culture?

However, with the decolonization and the fading of European imperialism, this positivist vision of science came into question. It can be argued that those indigenous communities did not need European disturbances and that, while aiming to help and develop those countries, Europeans also brought and imposed machine guns, steamships, capitalism (Schiebinger 2005)… Therefore, in our questioning about the impact of decolonization on science and technology, we will try to understand how and why the vision of science and technology shifted from the obvious positivist Eurocentred view to a position that wants to be centred on local communities but that is still deeply Western. We will also describe and connect the effect of the contact zones on the passing and mixing of scientific ideas and practices. Finally, we will see how these affected the way we do science and how this is a step towards contemporary globalization, ie the interconnection between economic, cultural and political processes of globalization (Eisenstadt 2010).


Imposed Eurocentrism to hidden Eurocentrism


With the retreat of imperial powers and the increase in nationalism in the colonies as a form of resistance, Eurocentrism in science shifted to local and nationalist centrism. However, despite the will to assert their national singularities, the Western dominance and influence are present under different forms. We will tackle the Westernization in the three following scenarios of decolonization: first, the Eurepean empire left the colonies in a devastatous state resulting in a frozen state of development and an unefficient effort in mimicking European systems; second, the imperialism dominance stays anchored in the colony under the pretext of helping the national reconstruction; third, the elites of new countries used the same superiority methods as used by the colonizers on minorities.

First, the new countries have to construct or reconstruct their own political, economical and cultural identity. As a counter reaction to imperialism, those new governments tried to rule as masters and convince their people that they are now acting for their good. As a result, most governments took forceful state measures and compulsory legislations that raised discontentment, friction between the members, and paralysis of the politics. As Europe is still the model for prosperity, the policies copying European schemes failed due to anti-colonial resistance. Nigeria witnessed the resignation of its agricultural staff in response to the new policy to impose mechanization (Bennett et al. 2011). In Tanganyika, the imposition of tractors lead to gigantic tractor graveyards. As the Senior Research Officer Donald Chambers, points out: “the introduction of unproven or untested “improvements” carries a great responsibility as most farmers have little or no margin for error”.

Westernization can also be found in the cases where European countries invested in their old colonies to maintain their supremacy. As an example of “hidden Eurocentrism”, the Peasant Farming Scheme in Northern Rhodesia aimed at accelerating the development the new countries while providing goods and materials to both. This type of projects started during the colonization and continued afterwards. This presence of the imperialism after the decolonization has been named the “Second Colonial Occupation”. There was therefore still the belief that the “problems of natural poverty and overpopulation [could] only be solved by a boost in local productivity and output”, said the economist Sydney Caine who emphasizes the need for biomimetic methods, the development of new crops, seeds, the use of mechanized tools and chemical fertilizers that would lead to higher yield in shorter time than the local peasant methods (Bennett et al. 2011). This position follows the positivist colonialist thought where science is Western and directed towards economical wellness. This encouraged European countries to research in the former colonies without regards to ethical issues or any issues outside the economical bubble. Most of these projects failed because the imposed models were not adapted to the specific context and the local culture.

The Western colonization affected to locals deeply on the materialistic level, but also on the way of thinking. As an unconscious reproduction of the Western model, new ruling elites appeared after the decolonization, using the same dominance methods as the colonizers. The French anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu studied how regional minority communities that were already stigmatized and marginalized by the French colonialism in Algeria are still ostracized by the Algerian during the construction of the Algerian national identity. He focuses on the Berber ethnic group, the Kabyles, who maintained their rural, tribal and traditional way of life in opposition to the new Algerian nation that is modern and Arab (Calhoun 2006).


Contact zones and hybrid science


We have seen that the Western model still dominates or try to maintain its supremacy after the decolonization. Nevertheless, the contacts between the Western and the Indigenous worlds reveal an increasing awareness of both richness. In the search for solutions that meet the need for more efficient agriculture, the Research Officer Donald Chambers encouraged European scientists to examine and reassess the efficacy of indigenous methods and practices. The importance of the traditional knowledge becomes slowly recognized internationally (Gadgil et al. 1993; Mazzocchi 2006). As the plant physiologist Homer Shantz says, “many methods practiced by indigenous communities […] were remarkably worthy of praise: they plant only on rich soils, practice the rotation of crops to avoid harmful fungi, [etc.] and allow for good maintenance of soil fertility and physical conditions and avoidance of plant disease” (Bennett et al. 2011).

From this recognition, new and innovative forms of research appeared. Leslie Brown, a Provincial Agricultural Officer, discovered the ecological zoning method traditionally used by Africans in Nigeria thanks to his interactions with a Hausa hunter. Similarly the Belgian agronomist Pierre De Schlippe noticed that the rotation of crops is well suited to agriculture in the equatorial belt and should be integrated in the western form of agriculture in these regions, to combine increasing yield with the maintain of soil richness (Bennett et al. 2011). Novel classification systems also benefited from interactions with the locals. One can cite the Milne’s soil map in Tanganyika that differentiates between “land type” soils and “soil-vegetation complex” and lists the soils, plants, minerals, but also wind, landscape, or the Trapnell map that also includes the local cultivation practices (Bennett et al. 2011). Similar advances in research practices can already be found during the colonization when the contact with foreign cultures raised the curiosity of scientists who developed new methods of study to acquire knowledge from those communities. The Danish anthropologist Steensby studied the Eskimos by combining the old methods of museum digging with immersion in the indigenous community and other field studies (Bravo 2002). At the difference with the research improvements during the decolonization, this example did not lead to the an hybrid science that would have combined Danish and Esquimo fishing techniques for example, but shows how deep is the impact of the interactions with “primitive” communities in moulding modern science practices. As Cohn states, “anthropology as a distinctive form of knowledge lay, in fact, in the internal and external colonies of the Europeans” (Cohn 1996). During the decolonization, the motives for studying the local cultures is not understanding of the indigenes to better reshape and dominate them anymore but the will to integrate their wisdom and practices, optimized over millennia, in western technologies. Hybrid forms of science emerged such as the combination of traditional rotation of crops with western mechanization and usage of fertilizers.

This is a transition from the positivist eurocentred vision of science to an adaptative and mutable form. Sujit Sivasundaram further underlines the importance of the contextualization of the knowledge (Sivasundaram 2010): looking from different angles, scientists and historians can understand facts differently and have novel creative attitude. In the example of the Quaterley review published by missionaries after their travel to the Pacific, two interpretations can be given. Read through the eyes of the Europeans, the text denotes the absence of science in the Pacific population, whereas from the eyes of the local community, it actually shows how the islanders responded to European tradition of knowledge and how they adapt to their encounters. “By attending to sources such as monuments, indications of long-distance voyaging and oral accounts, historians can radically revise their interpretation of European sources.” Therefore, science has been moulded by the European imperial age but the interactions with the world lead to cross-fertilization and culture of ideas that created new methods to do research and new technologies.


Towards contemporary globalization


The awareness of the potential and richness of local knowledge and practices lead to a re-interpenetration of scientific modern science and local knowledge. The Agricultural Officers Bienart, Brown and Gilfoyle set the Swynnerton plan, a campaign that planned to intensify the development of agriculture in Kenya, by combining the local methods of rotation of crops with mechanized agriculture (Bennett et al. 2011). This mix of local with western technique is an early form of globalization, defined as “a process that encompasses the cause, course, and consequences of transnational and transcultural integration of human and non-human activities” by the geostrategist Nayef Al-Rhodan (Al-Rodhan 2006).

The contact and interactions between scholars of different nations lead to the concept of multi-culture and multi-knowledge. In the 1930s, anthropologists were employed in planning the economic development programs in Indian reservations due to their accurate knowledge of the local cultures (Cohn 1996). As a response to the need for such scientists, a multi-disciplinary social science research was initiated at Yale with the Institute of human Relations, and contrasted with the ultra-specialized from of science usually in trend at the time. Research projects such as the Human Relation Area File emerged, which combined anthropology with biology, connecting cultures as biological entities with their “subvariety” and “local cultural variant”.

Finally if the decolonization resulted in nationalist movements and in the creation of national sciences, it is actually another example of the globalization of science as most actors in these nationalizations have studied or lived in another European country. The Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru, instigator of the nationalistic Nehruvian sciences aiming at positioning India in the modern scientific world, studied in Cambridge (Arnold 2013). Those nationalists borrowed ideas from the former colonial masters and adopted the same modern position towards science: a science that is interconnected with the economy and that aims to solve problems such as hunger, disease and poverty (Sivasundaram 2010). As Sivasundaram says, “the modern and the tradition coexisted, entangled to the extent that being modern was sometimes proved by recourse to rejecting traditions while at other times it was about updating traditions or recovering lost ones.” Again one can see the effect of interrelations and cross-correlations between the late Empires and the new countries on the passing of ideas and how all traditions are connected across borders to yield a melting pot of modernity.

One final crucial change that came with the decolonization is the understanding that science, technology and knowledge, are not only limited to a small elite of scholars but can be performed by everybody in the society and linked to everyday life instead of being restricted to museums, laboratories and libraries. These are the new concepts of “science as practice” by Pierre Bourdieu and of “networks of knowledge” of Bruno Latour (Sivasundaram 2010). Research in areas such as sustainable design or low resources materials inspired by local techniques and resources such as bamboo composites for housing in Asia and Africa are concrete examples of those new concepts (Hoogendoorn & Benton 2014). In the context of global warming it becomes necessary to learn from the local practices to improve not only the economy and sustainability of the developing countries but also and mostly that of the rich and western world (Gadgil et al. 1993).




We have discussed how the western supremacy was maintained during decolonization, how the contacts and interactions between the populations and cultures resulted in advances in science and technology and how these modifications are contributing to the contemporary globalization. It should nevertheless be kept in mind that the western model is still prevalent in the development of the emerging countries, even if mixed with traditional practices. To fight this, some activists try to promote the traditional methods and reject drastically western technologies. The same way that imposing pure western methods to cultivate African soils lead to failure, these drastic and extremist positions should be regarded as unrealistic. The Indian activist Vandana Shiva defends a retour to traditional methods of agriculture but does not acknowledge the benefits from the globalization of science and technology in improving the culture of crops, the economy and the health of the citizen (Specter 2014).

In the 21st century, globalization and new preoccupations are such that we forget the colonial times and its effects. After decolonizing science, there is an on-going effort to demasculinize science with female scientists acting to bring new aspects to science. For example the anthropologists Marianne de Laet and Anne-Marie Mol studied the Zimbabwean bush pump and define the “mutable mobile” or how a mundane object shifted shape and meaning while relations changed around it as it moved from one village to another, using unusual terms like “love”, “heroic” or “actor” (Anderson 2002; de Laet & Mol 2000). A leading researcher in postcolonial gender issues, Sandra Harding, says in 1992: “post colonial scholars will have to see gender as a useful category of analysis for all areas of study, not merely those concerned with women issues: feminist theorist, in turn, will need to acknowledge and work within frameworks in which modern Western science is synonymous neither all science nor with all forms of modernity” (Seth 2009).

Contemporary globalization therefore defines new contact points, not limited to Europe and Asia or Africa but now within Europe, within the rank and classes, within the professions, and within the genders.




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