Meeting of minds: how do we share our appreciation of traditional environmental knowledge?


  • Eugene Hunn

    Corresponding author
    1. University of Washington Seattle
      Department of Anthropology, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, USA.
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Department of Anthropology, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, USA.


Ethnography is ‘writing culture’. This requires translating terms of understanding from the exotic to the familiar. If culture is, at least in substantial part, ‘what one needs to know … to act … in a given society’, then ethnography must convey a significant body of exotic knowledge, elaborated in a foreign language, enlightening readers while holding their attention to the intricate detail of the lives described. Ethnobiology's signal contribution is to show how traditional environmental knowledge or local natural history is central to cultural knowledge, at least for the mostly rural societies that have been our prime descriptive focus. Ethnobiologists tend to share with their subjects a fascination with natural history and thus an appreciation of their environmental knowledge. However, the audience for ethnography is predominantly urban and modern, profoundly ignorant of natural history. Our challenge is double, or triple: not only must we educate our audience about exotic ways of life, but also educate this audience about the wonders of natural history, translating into our vernacular a technical conversation between our subjects and modern biologists. I will offer a few suggestions based on my own ethnographic reading and writing on how we might best meet these challenges.