Indonesianizing Knowledge, or: The Postcolonial Invention of ‘Colonial Science’?

“We are living in a new age,” President Sukarno proclaimed at the First National Science Congress in 1958, “the age of atomic revolution, of nuclear revolution, explorers and sputnik, of interplanetary communications with the moon and the stars, and the content of the sea.”1 And the new age, he reasoned, necessitated new roles. If it was up to him, scientists and other academically trained elites would guide Indonesia’s development into the future. Yet there seem to have been two problems. Although Indonesians had conducted scientific research during the colonial era, their number remained insignificant. As a result, Indonesian culture lacked a sense of scientific authorship and ownership.2 At the same time, “science” had overtly Western and imperialist connotations, against which the new Indonesian state postulated its postcolonial identity. Here I discuss three discursive strategies that Sukarno employed during the 1950s and early 1960s to resolve these tensions and Indonesianize the production of academic knowledge.

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Political Interpretations of Knowledge in Colonial Contexts

Attractive classroom scene

In the 1970s and 1980s, the concept of the “knowledge society” (Wissensgesellschaft ) rapidly gained in popularity among social scientists and politicians in Western countries.1 The concept referred to a socioeconomic system that was no longer organized around the manufacture of material—especially industrial—goods but instead around the production of knowledge, expertise, and highly specialized skills. The prominence of this perspective was strongly influenced by the experience of de-industrialization in Western Europe and North America in the last third of the twentieth century, with former sites of industrial production being dismantled and the so-called service sector rapidly gaining in importance. Closely linked to emphasis on the relevance of knowledge in the twenty-first century was concern with educational models that seemed to be outdated because they were rooted in the industrial paradigm of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It was in this context that school and university curricula were revised and “modernized” so that they would match the technological demands of postindustrial societies. These efforts were driven by the understanding that the international standing of formerly industrial countries and regions depended on their ability to supply and apply the skills and expertise needed to compete in an increasingly global economy.

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Placing Indigenous and European Knowledge on Equal Footing in the Delgamuukw Land Claim

The s that is now often added to turn the history of knowledge into the history of knowledges marks a huge challenge. While scholars working within European academic traditions increasingly recognize in principle that there are many kinds of knowledges and endeavor to respect them, any attempt to bring fundamentally different kinds of knowledge into sustained contact is extremely difficult.

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Towards a History of Missionary Knowledge? Impressions from the Conference ‘Mapping Entanglements’

On February 10 and 11, we held a conference entitled “Mapping Entanglements: Missionary Knowledge and ‘Materialities’ across Space and Time (16th–20th centuries).” Broadly speaking, the conference posited that what we know about missionaries is not the same as what we know from missionaries, and it aimed to examine the history of the latter under the rubric of “missionary knowledge.” Accordingly, conference participants explored how missionaries produced knowledge as well as how this knowledge traveled and transformed from generation to generation and location to location. By tracing a wide variety of missionaries’ cultural productions, including writings, maps, drawings, and collections of objects, participants mapped the terrains in which missionary knowledge transpired—within, but also beyond the purview of the distinct missions in which it originated.

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Notes on Colonial-Imperial Knowledge Formation

Historiographical notes blogged by a PhD student in New Zealand, S.D. Carpenter:

A number of scholars of British India have sought to understand the ways in which British power was exercised through constructing knowledge about Indian societies, including their histories and literatures, languages and geographies. At one end of the spectrum, intellectual followers of Edward Said argue that the British imposed their own knowledge and cultural forms on India. At the other end, some historians argue that the British had necessarily to work with what they found, relied on local informants, and had to tailor any ‘exotic’ ideas from Britain to different Indian contexts so as to make their rule acceptable.

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Featured image: “Mission station, Rangihoua, 1830,” The Encylopedia of New Zealand, s.v. “Cultural go-betweens” by Mark Derby.

Update, August 31, 2017: The image is no longer included in the entry at, although other images are.