Citizen Science and Traditional Ecological Knowledge: distant cousins or siblings?


I’m still wading through the terminology either associated with, or used as synonyms for citizen science by of trying to better understand the scope of public participation in science. One interesting area concerns the relationship between citizen science (CS), and what is variously called traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), indigenous knowledge (IK) and lay, local and traditional knowledge (LLT).

With the scope of CS becoming broader and broader and the use of the term becoming increasingly inconsistent as a result, the question of whether TEK forms yet another synonym for CS invariably crops up. Unsurprisingly, there is a bias in the peer-reviewed scientific literature toward large-scale, scientist-led CS projects – the iconic British and American bird counts that have occurred annually since the early 20th century are prime examples. Naturally, these studies are underpinned by conventional, western science. While some scholars consider TEK and conventional science to be opposites, others argue that more synergies rather than differences exist. After all, each carries out a form of monitoring and collects data in the process – possibly using similar indicators, and carries out analyses. Knowledge is co-produced as these activities occur. The settings and methods may differ but the general principles between these different knowledge systems are aligned.

TEK diagram

Ballard and Belsky (2010) highlighted the complementarity between western knowledge and local knowledge in their study of salal harvesters (an attractive leathery-leaved shrub used in the floral industry). They found that harvesters, by drawing on their knowledge of place, could help shape the research design by locating study sites and determining appropriate variables to measure. However, TEK may also be used to challenge conventional science, for example, where local people and authorities use different methods to manage a natural resource, with consequently different findings (Leach and Fairhead, 2002). Citizen science and TEK viewed together highlight that activities such as monitoring are not just objective exercises, but influenced by a wide range of social, political, cultural, economic and ecological realities. As such, each exists on a spectrum – some parts clearly overlapping, others not.

How this may look in New Zealand is open to question. With the relationship between matauranga maori (traditional maori knowledge) and conventional science already being investigated, there is an opportunity to create some unique forms of CS that are New Zealand specific.To foster discussion on the current state and future potential of CS in New Zealand, I’ve organised a symposium with 7 speakers both national and international as a part of the upcoming Ecological Society conference. Although TEK and CS won’t be covered as a specific topic, one aim is to identify areas of interest, and how to provide a stronger, more strategic direction for CS that addresses social, scientific, as well as cultural needs.

Ballard, HL & Belsky, JM 2010. Participatory action research and environmental learning: implications for resilient forests and communities. Environmental. Education Research, 16(5-6): 611-627

Leach M, Fairhead J 2002. Manners of contestation: “citizen science” and “indigenous knowledge” in West Africa and the Caribbean. International Social Science Journal 54(3): 299-311


One response to “Citizen Science and Traditional Ecological Knowledge: distant cousins or siblings?

  1. Hi Monica

    I’m wondering where the preparation of (botanical) species lists belongs in the “citizen science” discussion. Perhaps one of the speakers you’ve arranged for Ecol Soc is covering this. Botanical societies and individual members have compiled many lists of the plants observed in particular places – maps on NZPCN show some of these. They are but a snapshot of what has been seen on the day. There are different ways of recording the information, e.g. one alphabetical list of the scientific names, or lists by groups of plants with scientific, Maori and common names. The data is limited in many ways (e.g. just the species, not whether, if a tree, it was a juvenile, an adult or a mix of sizes, or whether there were lots or only a few). The practice of adding to earlier lists on subsequent visits without showing what additions were made on which trip may also diminish their value in tracking changes over time. A number of factors also impact on the completeness of the information, e.g. direction of travel, not scanning all levels of the forest when walking, levels of knowledge of observer, length of time spent searching, staying on tracks instead of climbing up stream beds). Perhaps it’s part of LLT (lay knowledge), but that may undervalue the amount of scientific knowledge required to make confident identifications of plants from a wide range of places. (Uncertainties can sometimes be resolved from flora, other books, or experts e.g. at herbaria, and more recently, photos to Nature Watch.

    Major question, how useful is this data to “science”, and how do scientists, landowners and planners (RM decision-makers) use it. It’s going to be interesting over time to see what analyses are done of all the “data” piling up in NatureWatch.

    If you want to probe any of this any further, then I have some thoughts, but others who know more.

    Kind regards



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