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Research article2023Peer reviewedOpen access

Toward productive complicity: Applying 'traditional ecological knowledge' in environmental science

Singleton, Benedict E.; Gillette, Maris Boyd; Burman, Anders; Green, Carina


Culture and tradition have long been the domains of social science, particularly social/cultural anthropology and various forms of heritage studies. However, many environmental scientists whose research addresses environmental management, conservation, and restoration are also interested in traditional ecological knowledge, indigenous and local knowledge, and local environmental knowledge (hereafter TEK), not least because policymakers and international institutions promote the incorporation of TEK in environmental work. In this article, we examine TEK usage in peer-reviewed articles by environmental scientists published in 2020. This snapshot of environmental science scholarship includes both critical discussions of how to incorporate TEK in research and management and efforts to do so for various scholarly and applied purposes. Drawing on anthropological discussions of culture, we identify two related patterns within this literature: a tendency toward essentialism and a tendency to minimize power relationships. We argue that scientists whose work reflects these trends might productively engage with knowledge from the scientific fields that study culture and tradition. We suggest productive complicity as a reflexive mode of partnering, and a set of questions that facilitate natural scientists adopting this approach: What and/or who is this TEK for? Who and what will benefit from this TEK deployment? How is compensation/credit shared? Does this work give back and/or forward to all those involved?


culture; environmental science; essentialism; indigenous and local knowledge; local environmental knowledge; productive complicity; TEK

Published in

Anthropocene Review, The
2023, Volume: 10, number: 2, article number: 20530196211057026

      SLU Authors

    • Associated SLU-program

      SLU Swedish Biodiversity Centre

      UKÄ Subject classification

      Environmental Sciences

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