Vision Mātauranga: Commodifying Māori knowledge

Science, Indigenous knowledge and the politics of academic research

On 23 July 2021, in a letter to the New Zealand Listener, a weekly magazine covering political, cultural and literary life in New Zealand, seven professors from Auckland University took issue with a number of changes to the Māori school curriculum proposed by a government working group. The changes were aimed at ensuring ‘parity for mātauranga Māori (traditional Māori knowledge) with the other bodies of knowledge (particularly Western/Pākehā epistemologies)’ and at introducing a new course to, in part, promote ‘discussion and analysis of the ways in which science has been used to support the dominance of Eurocentric views (among which its use as rationale for colonisation of Māori and the suppression of Māori knowledge)’, plus ‘the notion that science is a Western European invention and itself evidence of European domination over Māori and other indigenous peoples’. These changes, the letter’s authors warned, were likely to ‘encourage mistrust of science’, just at a time when science is needed to help us ‘battle worldwide crises such as Covid, global warming, carbon pollution, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation’, and they countered them with the assertions that ‘Science is universal, not especially Western European’, that while it has been used to aid colonisation, ‘Science itself does not colonise’, and that while ‘Indigenous knowledge may indeed help advance scientific knowledge in some ways … it is not science’.

The letter provoked an immediate response from academics and their institutions throughout New Zealand. In an ‘open response’ to the letter, two academics from Auckland University countered with the views that ‘Indigenous knowledges—in this case, Mātauranga—are not lesser to other knowledge systems’, and that ‘indigenous ways of knowing, including Mātauranga, have always included methodologies that overlap with “Western” understandings of the scientific method’ and ‘offer ways of viewing the world that are unique and complementary to other knowledge systems’. About science, they said that while the professors described it as ‘universal’, they ‘fail[ed] to acknowledge that it has long excluded indigenous people from participation, preferring them as subjects for study and exploitation’. They accused the professors of ignoring, through their claim that ‘science itself does not colonise’, ‘the fact that colonisation, racism, misogyny, and eugenics have each been championed by scientists’. On the role of science in helping battle global crises, they replied that science itself ‘has contributed to these challenges’. Finally, if there is mistrust of science, they said, then it ‘stems from science’s ongoing role in perpetuating “scientific” racism, justifying colonisation, and continuing support of systems that create injustice’. The ‘open response’ very quickly gathered more than 2000 signatures from academics all around the country.

Other responses came from The University of Auckland and the Royal Society of New Zealand, a major funder of research in New Zealand, both of which rejected the letter’s claims and disassociated themselves from it. The Vice-Chancellor of Auckland University wrote that the views of the letter-writers did not reflect those of the University of Auckland and had caused considerable hurt and dismay among its staff, students and alumni. She said the University has a deep respect for mātauranga Māori as a distinct and valuable knowledge system, and believed that mātauranga Māori and Western empirical science were complementary and have much to learn from each other. For their part, the Royal Society of New Zealand ‘utterly rejected’ the suggestion that mātauranga Māori is not a valid form of knowledge—not that anyone had suggested this—strongly upheld the value of mātauranga Māori, and regretted ‘the narrow and outmoded definition of science outlined in the Listener letter’.

It was pointed out by Graham Adams of the New Zealand Herald that while much of the outrage over the letter was directed at its claim that mātauranga Māori ‘was not science’, none of its prominent critics actually defended mātauranga Māori as being science. It was defended as ‘a distinct and valuable knowledge system’ and as ‘complementary with Western empirical science’—but nobody had said that it wasn’t. It could even have been said that, as much of the ‘open response’ was directed towards castigating science for its responsibility for a long list of social ills, one of the virtues of mātauranga Māori was its not being science. One could be excused, therefore, for wondering what exactly the controversy was about. In this essay I want to try and get to the bottom of this, beginning with a review of scholarly attempts to differentiate science and Indigenous knowledge.

Some philosophers of science have argued, as do the letter’s authors, for the special character of science based on its search for universal and objective truth and the specificity of its formal methods. Others, such as Roy Ellen in a 2004 article in the Journal of Cognition and Culture, have pointed out that such attempts at differentiation rely on an idealised model of science that fails to capture the complex reality of actual scientific practice. The latter group argue that science is not simply a set of abstract principles, but a set of grounded practices rooted within institutionalised cultural values, social hierarchies, and political and economic interests, and that empirical investigations of these practices have shown how these institutional entanglements generate a diversity of theoretical and methodological approaches. Indigenous knowledge, they say, is also embedded in diverse cultural and institutional frameworks, and its uses and practices also vary accordingly. Any attempt, therefore, to categorically differentiate Indigenous knowledge from science can only be made at the level of ideal models, and the danger here lies in mistaking these simplified ideal models for the complex reality of actual knowledge systems, especially when these ideal models are used to denigrate and marginalise other ways of knowing. Both the authors of the Listener letter and the members of the government working group were guilty of this error—the one group seeking to denigrate and marginalise mātauranga Māori in comparison to science, and the other seeking to denigrate and marginalise science for its uses as a means of colonial oppression. In place of this idealised, oppositional approach to the science–Indigenous knowledge relationship, other scientists have recommended a more dialogic approach.

In 1999, the World Conference on Science issued a declaration on the importance of traditional knowledge for science. This was followed in 2001 by the US National Committee for the International Union of the History and Philosophy of Science issuing a position paper urging scientists to learn from systems of Indigenous knowledge. Consequently, the International Council for Science (ICSU) set out to promote dialogue between science and Indigenous knowledge. At the time, there was concern among some scientists that such a dialogue would open the door to pseudoscientific and anti-scientific claims, and this led the ICSU to set up a study group to identify ways of separating Indigenous knowledge from pseudo- and anti-science. They duly reported that

Philosophers have failed to arrive at a satisfactory demarcation either by appeal to scientific method or other criteria. Moreover, some philosophers, such as Paul Feyerabend, have also contested the possibility and the desirability of making such a demarcation by appeal to a single method or set of criteria.

The study group then proposed a combination of sociological and epistemological criteria for the demarcation.

According to Bala and Gheverghese, who recounted these events in their 2007 article for Race and Class, the problem facing the ICSU was ‘a pervasive reservation within the discipline that dialogue with traditional knowledge would fling the gates open to multicultural barbarians who are out to destroy science and reason’—a reservation that several of the authors of the Listener letter have expressed elsewhere. The ICSU attributed this reservation to ‘a multicultural science movement inspired by post-modern theory that set out to obliterate the distinction between knowledge and fiction’. It was the ICSU Working Group’s conclusion, however, that Indigenous knowledge, unlike pseudoscience, has never been concerned with subverting widely held scientific beliefs, and should not therefore be seen as a threat to science. This conclusion would appear to put the authors of the Listener letter somewhat out on a limb in relation to global scientific opinion.

As a final resort in pressing their case for the superiority of science over Indigenous knowledge, the Auckland professors argued that science is more effective in ‘helping us battle worldwide crises such as Covid, global warming, carbon pollution, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation’. But here too they are on shaky ground. Science, due to its embeddedness in dominant Western capitalist institutions, is directly implicated in the trajectory of developments that have led to these crises that they say only science has the solution to. My own concern in this area has been with the global industrialisation of agriculture, with its relentless encroachment into wild nature, its excessive emission of greenhouse gasses, its reliance upon fossil fuels, its poisoning of microflora and fauna, and its deadening of soils, rivers and marine zones. All of these have been fuelled by science in the service of profit.

It is now almost universally accepted that the world’s environmental problems are of a dynamic, multidimensional and complex nature, for which technological solutions alone will not be sufficient; that a wide-ranging social-ecological transformation is necessary; and that to achieve this, the broadest possible range of ideas, knowledges and insights, including those of Indigenous peoples, is necessary. In this context, and given the extremity of the problems now facing the world, petty academic disputes about whether a particular body of knowledge constitutes science or not appear to be beside the point.

I come now to the issue of the vehemence of the academic reaction to the Listener letter. As has been noted, in addition to the responses of individual academics, strong reactions came also from the Royal Society of New Zealand and the University of Auckland, both of which have bought heavily into the New Zealand Government’s Ministry of Research, Science and Technology (MoRST) Vision Mātauranga policy, which calls for the integration of a mātauranga Māori perspective into science research and which now stands as a major source of funds for anyone interested in such an approach. It is the intellectual legitimacy of this policy that the authors of the letter were challenging, and by doing so they were putting at risk the institutional and career investments of those organisation and individuals who have rushed to comply with it. I suggest that this could account for the vehemence of some academics’ and institutions’ responses to the letter. But other forces may also have been at play. Since the 1970s there has been in New Zealand a general sociopolitical drift towards the idea of ‘biculturalism’—the incorporation of elements of Māori culture and representation into New Zealand’s administrative framework—and in the academic world this drift has been expressed lately in terms of growing interest in and respect for mātauranga Māori. For a significant number of people and organisations, then, both their material and their ideological commitments were being challenged, and any challenge to a convergence of interests of this nature is always likely to generate a heightened reaction. Whatever the case, there was one thing that was overlooked in all the public discussion that followed the publication of the Listener letter: that is. any analysis of the government policy, Vision Mātauranga, that lies at the root of all this tension.

The full title of the 2007 Vision Mātauranga policy document was Vision Mātauranga: Unlocking the Innovation Potential of Māori Knowledge, Resources and People. The key phrase here was ‘innovation potential’, which was defined in the document’s glossary as ‘the process by which marketable products are developed through R&D, commercialised and made available to the marketplace’. This makes very clear the policy’s intent to commodify Māori knowledge and resources. Another key word in the document was ‘distinctive’, which was used in combination with numerous phrases such as ‘research themes’, ‘activities and products’, ‘issues, challenges and opportunities’, ‘products, processes, systems and services’, and finally, ‘products that may be distinctive in the international marketplace’. The emphasis was on the distinctiveness of the contribution that Māori knowledge, resources and people ‘in partnership with Vote RS&T might make to the nation as a whole’. I stress the phrase to the nation as a whole because, quite explicitly, the policy states that Māori knowledge, resources and people should not be used solely to meet the needs of Māori people.

The policy goes on to define four research themes: economic growth; environmental sustainability; improving health and social wellbeing; and Indigenous knowledge as a contribution to RS&T. Of these four themes, only the first, ‘economic growth’, is developed in any detail. Here, we are told that ‘iwi and hapū pools of knowledge and experience … could be used to fashion distinctive products, processes, systems and services’ for the international marketplace, and that

Many iwi- and hapū-based entities own and manage a range of resources … [that] might also be utilised to create distinctive products … These include:

  • … mineral deposits, natural gas, geothermal fields
  • unique landscape features (for example, micro-climate, soil types)
  • lakes, rivers, coastlines and seabed
  • native flora and fauna
  • traditional knowledge, intellectual or cultural property
  • customary rights …

Again, the intent of the policy is quite clear: to facilitate the commodification of Māori knowledge and Māori-owned natural resources for the purpose of producing products for international markets.

This commodification effect and its risks have been recognised by other academics, but at the same time have encouraged researchers to take advantage of the opportunities the policy has opened up for research funding. I have demurred in this respect, and raised my objections at the 2019 conference of the Association of Social Anthropologists of Aotearoa/New Zealand in a paper titled ‘From Kaupapa Māori to Vision Mātauranga, and the government appropriation of Māori knowledge, resources and people’.

The title of this paper needs some explaining. Kaupapa Māori was a research approach adopted by the Māori Research Centre at Auckland University, advocating the ‘practice of research for, by and with Māori’. It has also been defined as a form of critical theory, challenging Pākehā hegemony and aimed at liberating Māori from all forms of colonial oppression. For years this paradigm ruled for research involving Māori communities. But in 2012, following a change of director at the Māori Research Centre, the Kaupapa Māoriresearch approach was repudiated in favour of a Mātauranga Māoriapproach. Curiously, the new director of the Māori Research Centre was the very same Māori scholar who had been commissioned by MoRST to write the Vision Mātauranga policy. According to this new director, there was a crucial difference between Kaupapa Māori and mātauranga Māori. In mātauranga Māori, he said, there is an absence of an explicit interest in ‘Māori’ as an ethnic group, and an absence of any ‘plan of action’ that may contribute to Māori liberation. In my 2019 conference paper, I argued that this shift within the Māori Research Centre from Kaupapa Māoritomātauranga Māori could be seen as bringing that institution’s research practice into line with government policy, a process made seamless by the appointment of the policy’s author as the Centre’s new director.

Vision Mātauranga has now been endorsed by all three of New Zealand’s main funders of social science research—the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (formerly MoRST), the Royal Society of New Zealand, and the Health Research Council—and it is now the expected mechanism for all engagement between university researchers and Māori communities. What this describes, I argued, is the state capture of all research touching upon Māori communities, and the channelling of that research towards the interests of government policy: namely ‘economic growth’. I warned that anyone proposing to conduct research involving Māori communities that is critical of government policy is highly unlikely to receive approval or funding. I also warned that there are risks in this policy for the integrity of Māori communities and their cultures. To this end I considered what possible motivations there might be for this change in research policy.

From the government’s point of view, it seems they wanted to invest in Māori research in order to extract value from what remains of the communally held assets of Māori communities—their knowledge, people and resources—but that they could not do this under the existing Kaupapa Māori research paradigm. That paradigm placed research on Māori under Māori control and oriented it towards the satisfaction of exclusively Māori needs, including their liberation from colonial domination. Clearly, the government could not sanction such an approach; it needed a new paradigm, one that placed Māori research under its control and oriented it towards its own policy goals, albeit disguised as being the ‘interests of the nation as a whole’. Kaupapa Māori, therefore, had to go, to be replaced by Vision Mātauranga, and they brought in a Māori scholar to provide the legitimising framework. His aim was to ‘change the story’ by redefining Māori, not as supplicants for government aid or as a potential challenge to government sovereignty, but rather as the holders of a valuable knowledge resource that could be instrumental in the achievement of government policy goals. For the government to access this resource, however, it needed to be reduced to a commodifiable form and dissociated from any necessary attachment to its holders. In a paper on Indigenous knowledge he discussed six concepts of traditional Māori knowledge, one of which—mātaurangahe described as ‘externalized, codified knowledge of the type that is exchanged between people as a finite product’. In a later paper on politics and knowledge, he argued, on the grounds that word ‘maori’ has not always been used historically to mean an ethnic category, that mātauranga Māori cannot always be assumed to mean ‘knowledge created and maintained by an ethnic people called Māori’.

In light of the above, I concluded my conference paper with a number of questions for those anthropologists who saw Vision Mātauranga as an opportunity to advance their careers.First, I asked, if Vision Mātauranga entails the reduction of Māori knowledge to its codified form, should anthropologists be involved in this sort of diminution of a people’s knowledge? Second, if Vision Mātauranga aims to capture research on Māori knowledge and channel it towards the goals of national economic growth, should anthropologists allow themselves to be captured and channelled in this way? And finally, if Vision Mātauranga is predicated on the separation of Māori knowledge from its cultural producers and its appropriation for market purposes, should anthropologists be involved in this severing of the organic relationship between a people and its knowledge? Clearly, the same questions could now also be asked of the wider academic community.

To conclude, I agree with many of the objections made by New Zealand academics to the views expressed in the Listener letter and have criticized them elsewhere in far greater depth and detail—particularly their contention that the incorporation of mātauranga Māori into New Zealand science policy will have a disempowering effect on the ability of science to solve the world’s problems. At the same time, I think that New Zealand academics can be criticised for their reluctance to consider the opposite effect of the government’s Vision Mātauranga policy: its disempowering effect, via the commodification of Maori knowledge, on the future reproductive capacity of Maori society and culture. I was awakened to this possibility a long time ago by a comment made by Jurgen Habermas in his 1976 book Legitimation Crisis, and it has guided me in my approach to these matters ever since:

Cultural traditions have their own, vulnerable conditions of reproduction. They remain ‘living’ as long as they take shape in an unplanned, nature-like manner, or are shaped with [reflective or critical] consciousness. In both cases appropriated cultural contents retain their imperative force, that is, they guarantee the continuity of a history through which individuals and groups can identify with themselves and with one another. A cultural tradition loses precisely this force as soon as it is objectivistically prepared and strategically employed. In both cases conditions for the reproduction of cultural traditions are damaged, and the tradition is undermined. This can be seen in the museum-effect of a hedonistic historicism, as well as in the wear and tear that results from the exploitation of cultural contents for administrative or market purposes.

About the author

Keith Barber

Keith Barber is an honorary research associate in the anthropology program at the University of Waikato. He is a voluntary worker with the Social Political Ecology Research Institute, a Vietnamese civil society organisation working with Indigenous ethnic minority communities in the Mekong region of Southeast Asia for the preservation of biological and cultural diversity.

More articles by Keith Barber

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