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Knowledge and Wild Rice Research

November 17, 2016

Philosophers have long grappled with the question: What is knowledge? But PhD candidate Melanie Bowman asks a different question: How does knowledge belong? Rather than attempting to pin down the “right” definition of knowledge, Bowman is more interested in looking at the role knowledge plays in different worldviews. “My research doesn’t take the ‘x knows that p’ approach to knowledge,” she says.

Taking epistemology out of the armchair, Bowman investigates how knowledge is related to social solidarity, exploring difficult questions such as “Who owns knowledge?” and “Can knowledge be unjustly taken from others?” Our answers to these questions are of concern not merely to philosophers but can have, as Bowman points out, material consequences.

It was a feminist epistemology course taught by Professor Emerita Naomi Scheman that stoked Bowman’s interest in this intersection of epistemology, solidarity, and social justice. While enrolled in the course, Bowman attended the Nibi (water) Manoomin (wild rice) Symposium in 2013, which convened to address disputes and misunderstanding between University scientists and many Anishinaabe people over wild rice research. Today, she serves on the Nibi Manoomin Bridging Worldviews Committee, continuing to think about the relationship between the Anishinaabe and the University.

The strife between University researchers and the Anishinaabe proved to be a central example of the importance of knowledge and how it belongs. Bowman’s investigation of this issue took the form of a paper entitled “Institutions and Solidarity: Wild Rice Research and the Commodification of Knowledge,” which is to appear in the forthcoming anthology Food Justice in US and Global Contexts: Bringing Theory and Practice Together.

In her paper, Bowman locates the misunderstanding between researchers and the Anishinaabe in their different attitudes toward knowledge. University structures, Bowman says, favor treating knowledge as a commodity. Many Anishinaabe people, on the other hand, view knowledge as relational; wild rice is not just a potential commodity to be torn apart under the microscope, but appreciated in itself, within what Bowman sees as “a relationship of stewardship and wonder.” Bowman quotes a Native participant of the 2015 symposium: “Knowledge can be compared to picking berries: not all are ripe for the picking.”

These differing epistemologies between researchers and the Anishinaabe people are nowhere more apparent than in the ontological issue of identity–What is wild rice? For researchers, the identity of wild rice is inextricably tied to its genetic identity: wild rice is a potential commodity to be improved, enhanced, and rendered more marketable through artificial selection and crop development research. By contrast, many Anishinaabe people, says Bowman, “conceive of identity in a more holistic and ecological sense.” To them, wild rice is not somehow reducible to its hereditary makeup, but is greater than the sum of its genetic parts, possessing spiritual, cultural, and medicinal value not explainable in terms of its genetics. Bowman quotes another Native participant of the symposium: “Even though Manoomin varies in size and color, it is always perfect.” The kind of commercial exploitation of wild rice, which crop development research facilitates and expands, is viewed by many Anishinaabe people as a form of desecration.

Highlighting the epistemological underpinnings of a longstanding dispute between the University and the Anishinaabe, Bowman shows how philosophers can engage with and understand the social world. In doing so, philosophers, too, have a role to play in alleviating misunderstanding and healing strained relationships. “As engaged research becomes more common,” says Bowman, “we may build healthier relationships between universities and the communities they influence and serve.”

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.